How To De-Fund The Escalation
January 16, 2007
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam was published in June 2005. During the Vietnam War, Porter was a Ph.D. candidate specializing in Vietnamese history and politics who debunked the Nixon administration's "bloodbath" argument in a series of articles and monographs.
Democratic congressional leaders have thus far been unable to decide what to do about a president and vice-president who have openly announced their intention to defy the electorate. While the last election rejected our current foreign military adventure, Congress has stopped far short of acting on that sentiment, allowing the Bush administration to continue indefinitely and to even escalate the war. Comments from some Democratic leaders reveal a misunderstanding of the power Congress has in the present situation.
The Democrats have gravitated toward a nonbinding resolution that would do nothing to force George W. Bush to bring the troops home. The Democratic haziness about the options available to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq is exemplified by presidential candidate Joe Biden’s comment last week that Congress can do nothing to stop the war, because, “It's unconstitutional to say, you can go, but we're going to micromanage.”
The Democrats’ real problem appears to be political rather than constitutional: They have convinced themselves that they cannot cut off funds without being accused of failing to keep faith with U.S. troops in Iraq.
But this is a false dilemma. Congress can force Bush’s hand without being vulnerable to the charge of stranding U.S. troops simplyby setting a date beyond which no funds can be used for U.S. military presence in Iraq. As long as the date provides a reasonable time for those troops to be “redeployed” from Iraq, the burden falls on the executive branch to adjust its policy to the congressional requirement by taking them out of the war zone.
Democrats have either forgotten the precedent for such legislation during the Vietnam War or have learned the wrong lesson from that precedent. An amendment offered by Democratic Senator George McGovern and Republican Mark Hatfield on September 1, 1970 would have cut off all funding for any U.S. combat activities in Vietnam after December 31, 1971—15 months after the date of the vote in the Senate. The amendment was defeated 55 to 39, and a House companion bill was defeated 254 to 158.
The Republican attack on the McGovern-Hatfield amendment and its sponsors was even more vicious than the Bush-Rove accusation of “cut and run” against the 2006 Democratic proposals for a timetable for withdrawal. But no one suggested during the debates that the amendment was unconstitutional, despite the fact that Congress had given blanket approval in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to “all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to assist South Vietnam.
The fact that Congressional opponents of the war could not muster sufficient votes to pass those amendments has led some observers to conclude that such a legislative timetable for withdrawal should not be tried today. That view ignores the enormous differences between the situation faced by Congressional doves in 1970-72 and their present-day counterparts. Consider the following contrasts:
The Trend in Military Involvement. By the time McGovern-Hatfield was brought to a vote in September 1970, Nixon had already convinced most Americans that he was getting out of Vietnam, even if it was only to replace U.S. troops with Vietnamese. The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam had already fallen from 550,000 when Nixon took office to 225,000, and the withdrawal would have been completed in two more years at the monthly rate then being implemented.
Bush, on the other hand, has not only resisted the broad bipartisan recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton report to begin a military disengagement, but has proceeded to announce a plan for increasing U.S. troop strength. And he has done that in the face of advice against doing so by the U.S. military commanders who had been in Iraq since 2005.
Perceptions of winning or losing. Even more difficult for the sponsors of the McGovern-Hatfield amendment was the fact that Americans were generally under the impression that the United States was succeeding. By 1969, as many as 40,000 troops—five whole divisions—of a total of 90,000 North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam at the time of the Tet offensive had been withdrawn into North Vietnam or Laos, and those who remained in the South had adopted more defensive tactics than previously. By the end of 1971, there was not a single North Vietnamese division in South Vietnam. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were able to take advantage of the lull on the battlefield to gain control over much more of South Vietnamese territory.
As a result, Nixon and Kissinger were able to sell their strategy of Vietnamization to the American public. And even after the North Vietnamese launched their Spring 1972 offensive across the DMZ, Nixon was able to maintain public support by mining the port of Haiphong in North Vietnam and by maneuvering diplomatically with the Soviet Union and China.
Bush, by way of contrast, has lost the ability to convince the American people that his strategy in Iraq is succeeding for more than a year. Today nearly 60 percent of the public believe the United States is losing in Iraq and that it cannot succeed. And unlike Nixon in 1972, Bush has no military or diplomatic options that he can use to reassure the public about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Any move toward war with Iran would be far more likely to pose a serious political crisis at home than to shore up his support.
Public support for a timetable. Given the circumstances of that period, it is not surprising that there was no clear majority in 1970 advocating setting a timetable for complete withdrawal. In a Gallup poll from mid-March 1970 to June 1970, 46 percent of the respondents supported either immediate withdrawal or a timetable for withdrawal within a year and a half, while 38 percent supported the president’s policy. Three months later Gallup showed 44 percent of those surveyed favoring either immediate withdrawal or a deadline of the end of 1971, with 35 percent opposing it.
The Iraq debacle, however, has produced a much clearer national choice in favor of a timetable for withdrawal. From September 2005 to October 2006, Pew Research Center survey data shows that a clear and consistent majority, ranging from 53 to 58 percent of those surveyed, supported either setting a timetable for complete withdrawal from Iraq or getting out immediately, whereas a minority ranging from 37 percent to 42 percent opposed the timetable.
That survey data is consistent with the results of exit polling in the mid-term election. Exit polls showed that 57 percent of voters disapproved of the war in Iraq—41 percent disapproving “strongly”—and 58 percent disapproved of Bush's job performance. The voters’ rejection of the war and its continuation could hardly have been clearer.
The McGovern-Hatfield legislative approach to ending the U.S. war in Iraq—setting date for complete withdrawal after which no more funds can be used to carry on the war—is the weapon on the wall for American democracy. The American people are waiting for Congress to use it. And as George McGovern himself observed before the Progressive Caucus last week, if George Bush refused to carry out its provisions, that would clearly constitute an impeachable offense.