Towards an Exit

Congress should establish oversight of the Iraq war to pave the way for eventual withdrawal

Last Tuesday Congress took the first, difficult step towards evaluating the need for U.S. troops in Iraq. In a 79-19 bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a broad defense policy bill which included language saying that 2006 “should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty.” The bill also calls for the Bush administration to furnish Congress with progress reports on the need for U.S. troops every three months. Though likely to be reshaped for passage in the House, the Senate version of the bill is the first sign that Congress may be waking up to its role as an overseer of U.S. military policy, a role it has largely abdicated for the greater part of the last three years. While we believe calls for the public release of a timetable for withdrawal are imprudent, we are encouraged by the renewed sense of vigor with which Congress is scrutinizing U.S. military strategy in Iraq.

For Republican leadership, taking on this new role means questioning the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war, something that seemed inconceivable as early as a month ago. As recently as his Veteran’s Day address, Bush called critics of the war “deeply irresponsible,” adding that they send the wrong message to the enemy and to U.S. troops. But critics are now firing back. In reference to Bush’s rhetorical offensive, Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said last Tuesday, “Suggesting that to challenge and criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democratic, nor [is it] what this country has stood for over 200 years.” Though Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, has criticized the war for a long time, the fact that he is willing to so publicly defy the Bush administration highlights the growing power of Iraq critics within Congress.

In essence, these critics are finally calling the Bush administration on its implicit contention that Congress’ Oct. 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq also hindered Congress’ right to evaluate the administration’s handling of the war itself. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have used the pro-authorization votes of individual senators and House representatives to cast doubt on the appropriateness of any subsequent criticism, changes in circumstances notwithstanding. But with Bush’s approval rating at 37 percent as of last week’s Gallup poll, even this goad will likely not be enough to silence his critics. Congress should seek to establish hearings to examine the war and the evolving role of U.S. troops in Iraq. Most important, though, as this process proceeds, the growing chorus of critics must keep oversight, not political gain, in sharp focus.

Congress is not asking for a timetable for a withdrawal, nor should it. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rightly contended that such a timetable would only set a concrete date for insurgents to outlast U.S. troop presence. Instead, this bill is really about redefining the rhetorical playing field. It is about taking the difficult first step sooner than in the past.

Previous criticism of U.S. military actions abroad have come only after major gaffes or losses of lives. It took the leak of the bombing of Cambodia combined with over 33,000 U.S. dead to spur then-President Richard Nixon to announce the withdrawal of the first 25,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam in June of 1969. In Lebanon and Somalia, President Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton, respectively, did not begin withdrawals until casualties took them by surprise. We should not wait for a catalyst on such a scale this time around, and Congress is taking an important first step in ensuring we don’t.

If the Bush administration persists in sticking to its hard line that all critics of the war are helping the terrorists, it will soon find itself outmaneuvered and more American troops dead for an poorly defined set of objectives.