Now that Congress has done the unexpected and voted to try to rein in the president’s open-ended war in Iraq, the president is blustering about how the troops must be “fully funded.” That’s a non-issue, as the Democrats who engineered the bills in both houses made sure that, even if there’s no tax revenue to pay for it, the military and the president get all the money they want over the next year or so to keep the blood flowing into the sand. That’s fine. Congress’s power to limit the president’s warmaking by cutting off the money sounds great in theory, but it’s such a political snare that no one wants to get close to it until they see everyone else headed in the same direction. We haven’t gotten to that point; and if we haven’t yet, you wonder what it would take.
The president and the Republicans who want to prolong the war indefinitely also decry a bunch of politicians trying to manage the war by imposing conditions and timetables on troop deployments. It is a little strange to see a branch of government that appeared content to let the president have his way in Iraq for four years suddenly sit up and take notice. But the bills that have passed and the deadlines they include are trivial limitations on military commanders when compared to the conditions the president and his crew have thrust upon the generals and their troops.
To begin with, the war had to be a streamlined, lightning-fast operation. The number of troops committed was to be kept to a minimum. Planning for postwar Iraq proceeded on the rosiest assumptions about Iraqi society, politics and physical infrastructure. Those who dissented from the plan, who questioned the basic assumptions, were openly chastised or shunted aside. When it turned out that not a single element of the president’s blueprint matched the reality on the ground, there was no Plan B; certainly, there was no option to seek wider involvement from allies since we had charged into battle in nearly complete isolation from those who might have played a part. So, a year after the invasion, when the lid really came off, the commanders were left to figure out how to proceed in a situation whose own architects swore didn’t even exist: those resisting us were just dead-enders, or the insurgency was in its last throes, or it would go away once one or two or three key bad guys were eliminated.
Meantime, the reality of what has happened in Iraq is too awful to honestly contemplate in terms of the destruction of life and the unraveling of a society. We’re privy to pallid secondhand accounts of the ongoing mass killings and car-bomb attacks and the exodus of everyone who has a chance of getting out of the country; but at the president’s urging, we go on with our lives except for offering knee-jerk praise to the members of the armed services. The president’s answer to the disaster he unleashed is essentially the same as it has always been: more of the same, but smarter this time. If the current escalation fails–and it will, if the definition of success is really pacifying Iraq–the president will go looking for another general with a bright idea about how to prevail. And he’ll keep the military handcuffed to a war he never had good reason to start and which long ago ceased making sense. It’s about time someone tried to tell him that this can’t go on forever.