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The 'Battle of the Surge' Continues

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: January 17, 2007

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Congressional Democrats regard President Bush’s moves to bolster forces in Iraq as an affront to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, the advice of some top generals, and their own electoral sweep last November. Hearings continue this week in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now under Democratic control. [Among those testifying today: CFR President Richard N. Haass and Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr].

With a number of Republicans also critical of the plan, Bush may be risking the biggest wartime clash (NYT) between two branches of government in a generation. But divisions within both parties and between the two legislative chambers make it clear Congress has not settled on its role from this point on. Despite controlling both houses of Congress, most talk among Democratic leaders revolves around a nonbinding measure, in effect, a symbolic bill opposing Bush’s decision to boost troop numbers by 21,500 and offering alternatives (WashPost). The White House objects to such a measure, arguing, as Vice President Dick Cheney has put it, such opposition would signal "the United States doesn't have the stomach to finish the job in Iraq."

Going a step further, Senator Edward Kennedy, (D-MA), introduced a bill calling for a vote to authorize spending for Bush’s new troop deployments, estimated to cost more than $5 billion. But many Democratic Party leaders have reacted cautiously, scorning the president’s plan but reiterating their support for the troops in the field. Congress is constitutionally vested with the authority to fund military action and has certainly exercised this power in the past, says the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. And, as Haass points out, many in both parties agree the enormous foreign policy investment made in Iraq measured in dollars, blood, and political capital shows little hope of paying dividends at this point (FT).

Slate’s Emily Bazelon says Congress could draw on an example from June 1973 when it passed a measure threatening to cut off combat spending if President Richard M. Nixon did not end the fighting in Cambodia and Vietnam by mid-August. “Nixon vetoed an early version of the bill,” she writes, “but in the end he got out on time.” The Center for American Progress provides more recent precedents for congressional involvement in military affairs, such as the Lebanon Emergency Assistance Act of 1983 requiring required President Ronald Reagan to seek authorization for any expansion of the U.S. force contributing to a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.

Congressional scholars Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, refer to rigorous oversight by Congress during World War Two and the Korean War that improved the efficiency of wartime departments.

But there are many skeptics who believe Congress will not exercise its powers, citing everything from fear to political maneuvering. Slate’s Jacob Weisberg says Democrats  are watching the latest Iraqi developments unfold like “onlookers at the scene of a disaster, mysteriously paralyzed and unable to act.” CFR President Richard N. Haass tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that Democrats are unlikely to constrain U.S. funding in Iraq because it “would be politically self-destructive for them, simply because it would put them in a position of assuming responsibility for the administration’s policy.” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel says the question of “who lost Iraq?” is the “800-pound issue that’s lying out there in American politics” as the 2008 presidential elections draw near. As those elections approach, divisions are likely to become sharper among Republican supporters and critics of escalation, says Foreign Affairs editor James Hoge. “And Democratic presidential candidates will feel heat from the party’s base to embrace a quick disengagement.” A larger question, writes Yale University law professor Jack M. Balkin on his blog, is whether there are sufficient checks and balances to offset what he calls “the increasing Caesarism of the executive and the increasing powers of the bureaucracy.”

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