By now, there is a gloomy ritual to anniversaries of the war in Iraq. Growing tallies of the dead and wounded are noted. Pollsters find new levels of concern about the campaign in Iraq, either in the United States, or in Iraq itself. And newspapers usually capture the pessimism with a human interest angle, like the recent Guardian profile of a man who helped topple the statue of Saddam in Baghdad four years ago but now considers the U.S. occupation worse than the former dictator’s rule.
But what’s markedly different as the war enters its fifth year is the degree to which Congress is challenging the White House. The Democrat-controlled House on Friday approved a bill that for the first time ties spending to ending the war (AP). The $124 billion emergency supplemental funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, which passed by a 218 to 212 margin, has a September 2008 timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The vote followed tough deliberations among Democrats (The Hill) over how soon to demand a pullout. In the end, they signaled they were propelled by what they view as a mandate for change delivered by U.S. voters in November, when Democrats regained control of Congress. For now, the vote is seen as a loud warning shot not likely to become law. It will face a tough time in the Senate, where the Democrat majority is much slimmer. After the vote, Bush repeated his vow to veto such a measure. He accused House Democrats of engaging in “political theater” and approving a measure containing “too much pork, too many conditions, and an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal.” Bush urged the Congress to send him a “clean bill” to expedite funding to the U.S. combat troops.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were expected to schedule debate early next week on their own legislation that set a goal of troop withdrawal by March 2008 (Congressional Quarterly).
The White House and Republican lawmakers have sought to discredit the Democrats’ moves, noting the inclusion in the House bill of projects unrelated to the war—such as building peanut storehouses in Georgia and levees in New Orleans—as a way of garnering support (WashPost). Jonah Goldberg writes in the Los Angeles Times that Democrats’ attempts to stop the war have become so convoluted that even chief proponents like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey have been unable to explain them. Columbia University’s Thomas B. Edsall writes in a New York Times op-ed that the Democrats may be playing with fire by setting themselves up for “a poisonous share of responsibility for the failure of U.S. foreign policy, while amplifying questions regarding Democratic competence on military matters.”
Democrats counter that the Bush administration’s flawed planning in Iraq—and failure to be straight with Americans—warrants a strong reaction, especially as he moves forward with his surge plan to secure Baghdad and troubled areas of Iraq. Policymakers from the Middle East have acknowledged that a surge, in itself, will not be enough to stabilize Iraq—officials from Iraq and its six neighboring states met in Istanbul March 21-23 and released a 36-point "Marmara Declaration" (PDF) outlining further steps that will be needed.
In a national address on March 19, Bush acknowledged the challenges in Iraq but reported “hopeful signs” since the surge strategy went into effect. Bush singled out the deployment of three new Iraqi Army brigades in Baghdad, “aggressive operations” against Shiite and Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda operatives, as well as efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunni tribal leaders. A group of researchers who provide a well-regarded quarterly look at developments in Iraq signal some glimmers of hope but “no proof of progress from the surge so far.”