Maya Schenwar: Brief Iraq Withdrawal Hopes Fizzle

Published: Tue 4 Mar 2008 09:15 AM
Brief Iraq Withdrawal Hopes Fizzle
By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report
A bill to cut off funding for most combat operations in Iraq collapsed in the Senate Wednesday night when leadership pulled it from the floor, seeing it could not garner enough votes for passage. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged to reporters on Thursday afternoon the bill would not be brought to a vote. However, it did pass a cloture vote on Tuesday after a decision by Republican leadership to address the war controversy head-on, making this week's debate the longest Iraq-based discussion the Senate floor has seen since July.
Sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), the bill marked a shift away from antiwar Democrats' previous focus on setting a deadline for troop withdrawal, according to Feingold's spokesman. Instead, it would have restricted war spending substantially, confining it to targeted missions against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, in addition to training Iraqi forces and protecting American personnel and facilities in Iraq. Funding cuts would have begun within 120 days - a monumental change in course for Iraq policy.
Yet, most analysts agree the purpose of the latest bill was not to end the war since sponsors knew, based on precedent, it would fail overwhelmingly in the Senate - and, if it didn't, would be vetoed automatically by President Bush. The last time Feingold proposed similar legislation, about half of Senate Democrats voted against it.
"Leadership knew it wouldn't pass, as almost all of the Republicans could be counted on to oppose it," said Jack Swetland, manager of Congressional affairs at the Center for American Progress. He added that Feingold's three similar troop withdrawal proposals introduced over the past few months have failed.
The Feingold plan's proponents hoped to "create a vote which could be used against Republicans in the fall election," according to Voices for Creative Nonviolence co-coordinator Jeff Leys.
The debate set up a clear distinction between the Democratic presidential candidates, both of whom cosponsored the bill, and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who stated on Tuesday, "To pass such legislation would be to court disaster."
Since a majority of Americans - especially Democrats - oppose operations in Iraq, the Feingold bill debate also allowed Senate Democrats to rack up points with their constituents by expressing opposition to the war, even as they continue to vote to fund it, according to Leys.
In the last war spending vote, about half of Senate Democrats voted for funding, despite the fact that, according to Leys, enough money is currently in the defense pipeline to safely withdraw troops from Iraq.
However, Leys acknowledged that, beyond electoral politicking, the Feingold bill gave antiwar Congress members a chance to push Iraq into the public eye at a time when many Republicans would prefer to let it sit.
"I don't know why people are so afraid of good news," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) on the Senate floor. "If you're winning a war, why isn't that a good thing?"
Feingold stressed that, even if Congress ignores the war, its atrocities continue.
"I know some of my colleagues do not want to be talking about Iraq again," he said on the Senate floor, responding to Republican and conservative Democratic critics who argued that, with the surge - as they claimed - succeeding, a conversation on Iraq made for an unwelcome intrusion into legislative business. "I know some of them complain that we spent too much time debating Iraq last year and I know some of them have concerns about whether now is the right time to bring these bills up for a vote. But we cannot allow the focus on Iraq to fade because violence has declined in parts of Iraq. It is true violence levels are down to where they were in 2005, but Iraq is still extremely and unacceptably violent."
Reid pointed to two upcoming "milestones" that make now an apt time to consider withdrawal from Iraq. In March, the war will reach its five-year mark - and the count of US war dead will likely reach 4,000.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans now think it was a mistake to invade Iraq, and 59 percent want a timetable for withdrawal.
On the Iraqi side, no day is soon enough for a rollback in American troops, according to Ahmed Ali, Inter Press Service's correspondent in Diyala province, in an interview. A fall 2007 poll indicated 85 percent of Iraqis have little or no confidence in the American military.
"The Iraqi people and the Iraqi Parliament continue to oppose an open-ended U.S. military presence in their country - which is something they have in common with the American people," Ali said.
Despite its status as a basically symbolic bill, Feingold's legislation represents a shift in policy strategy. In some ways, it looks like a compromise: Feingold's spokesman noted that while the senator's previous withdrawal legislation has included a six- to nine-month timeline for leaving Iraq, this week's bill set no goal date. Nor would it have slashed all funds for the war; rather, it would've placed restrictions on how those funds are used. On the Senate floor, Feingold called the bill "quite a bit more flexible."
"By not including an end date, we are trying to provide additional flexibility in how the troops are redeployed," Feingold said. "And we are also making doubly clear that at no point will funding be denied to the troops - they will continue to be fully funded throughout their redeployment."
Without a withdrawal deadline or a specific limit on the number of troops remaining in Iraq, 40,000 to 60,000 could stay indefinitely, according to Leys.
Like previous legislation, the Feingold bill exempted counterterrorism efforts, training of Iraqi soldiers and protection of Americans based in Iraq from funding restrictions. In the past, antiwar critics of withdrawal bills have opposed such exceptions, holding that a remaining American presence, regardless of its stated purpose, will prolong violence in Iraq and continue to endanger US troops.
Moreover, Ali is wary of Americans "providing training to members of the Iraqi Security Forces," a provision included in all withdrawal legislation voted on in the Senate, including Feingold's.
"The Iraqi forces can be trained by local hands as the former Iraqi military used to do before the occupation," Ali said. "Training forces is a pretext for keeping Iraq occupied."
Under a bill like Feingold's, up to 20,000 troops would be needed in Iraq for training purposes alone, according to a June study by the Center for a New American Security.
Yet, according to Travis Sharp, military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the latest Feingold bill was in some ways the hardest-hitting Iraq legislation the Senate has seen this year. Its language leaves little room for loopholes, stating: "No funds appropriated or otherwise made available under any provision of law may be obligated or expended to continue the deployment in Iraq of members of the United States Armed Forces."
"Feingold's bill would prohibit any Iraq funding in any funding bill," Sharp said, pointing to the historical precedent of the 1970 Cooper-Church amendment, which cut off funding for sending troops to Cambodia, hastening an end to the Vietnam War. "If such a provision were to become law, the executive branch would have no choice but to comply. Ignoring such a provision would trigger a Constitutional crisis that would make President Bush's expansion of executive power up until this point look like child's play."
The bill also would have narrowed the extent of remaining missions more than previous bills, according to Leys, permitting only operations targeted at "al-Qaeda and affiliated international terrorist organizations" to continue. Previous bills have included "al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations," leaving the definition of a "terrorist organization" ambiguous.
Considering this refocusing of strategy, is the Feingold bill a harbinger of what Iraq plans would look like if a Democrat won the White House next January?
A proposal like Feingold's stands little chance of approval, even once the obstacle of a Bush veto is gone, according to Sharp. Funding restrictions are risky even among Democrats, and they draw immediate accusations of abandoning the troops from Republicans. Sharp doubts even an Obama or Clinton presidency would be friendly to a plan that reduces operations as quickly as Feingold's would.
"I would say that Feingold's approach of cutting off Iraq funds has no chance of being embraced early on in a Democratic administration," Sharp said. "Bringing Feingold's bill to the floor has more to do with politics than crafting an Iraq-policy-in-waiting for the next Democratic administration."
Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout

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