Senate Iraq rebuke: loud and unclear

Times Staff Writer

Not a single American soldier will do anything differently this week if the Senate approves a resolution criticizing President Bush’s plans to increase troop levels in Iraq.

The nonbinding resolution would have no more force of law than the one approved Thursday commending the Miss America Organization for its commitment to “the character of women in the United States.”

Yet the immense symbolism of what may be the first formal rebuke of Bush’s war strategy has produced the most passionate war debate on Capitol Hill since the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago.


At its core is a furious argument over what the challenge really means -- not just to the president, but to the military, to the Iraqi government and to America’s enemies and allies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Several of the resolution’s sponsors bill the eight-page document as little more than a polite suggestion to the country’s chief executive, offering alternatives to Bush’s plan to deploy an additional 21,500 troops, mainly in Baghdad, to contain sectarian violence.

Other advocates, including Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, cast it as a first step in an escalating congressional campaign to end the war.

Some of the war’s most passionate opponents, complaining about the resolution’s nonbinding nature, dismiss it as a meaningless exercise.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration and its supporters in Congress warn of a dangerous message that approval of the resolution would send to U.S. troops and to Middle Eastern countries.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is leading the push for an alternative resolution expressing congressional support for the mission. Bush has said repeatedly that he will ignore any resolution challenging his plan.

The debate over the message is hardly unprecedented; Congress similarly wrestled with how to express itself when President Clinton was contemplating military involvement in the Balkans in the mid-1990s.

And when the House ultimately passed a nonbinding resolution expressing “serious concerns and opposition” to the commitment of troops to enforce the Bosnian peace treaty, lawmakers were careful to declare their confidence that U.S. troops “will perform their responsibilities with professional excellence.”

In the current debate, senators critical of the White House’s Iraq policy also have assiduously insisted that they do not intend to undermine U.S. forces.

“I think it is important that we thank them for their service and that we make it very clear that this resolution does not impair their ability to move forward in their command,” Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said last week. He is a co-sponsor of the resolution stating that the Senate “disagrees” with the troop increase.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the resolution’s main sponsor, has gone further, stressing that he does not intend to be “confrontational” with the White House or to even change the fundamental U.S. involvement in Iraq.

“The purpose of this resolution is not to cut our forces at the current level or to set any timetables for withdrawal,” he said when he announced the resolution two weeks ago.

Last week, he added language explicitly stating that “Congress should not take any action that will endanger United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops in the field.”

That addition sparked opposition from such antiwar lawmakers as Sens. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who have said Congress should not surrender its authority to limit funding as a means to force an end to the war.

Warner’s amendment also did not mollify McCain and other critics of the resolution, who continue to call it an attack on the military. Senate Republican leaders are threatening to block any debate of the resolution today when it faces its first procedural vote in the Senate.

“This is a vote of no-confidence in both the mission and the troops who are going over there,” McCain said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

The military audience watching the debate is hardly unified either.

Iraq war veterans have come to Capitol Hill several times in recent weeks to urge opposition to the president’s plans. And unscientific surveys by the Military Times newspapers have suggested growing opposition to the war among active-duty personnel.

But retired Army Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, who heads the department of military history at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., said Congress should be careful of how far it goes.

“I don’t necessarily subscribe to the ‘stab in the back’ theory,” he said, referring to the contention that congressional opposition to the Vietnam War doomed the U.S. effort.

But Willbanks, a Vietnam veteran who recently completed a book on the fall of South Vietnam, noted that congressional limitations made it increasingly difficult for U.S. forces to fight in Southeast Asia. “That’s the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Resolution critics have also warned that the debate may embolden America’s enemies and, as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said at a recent foreign relations committee hearing, “confirm to our friends and allies that we are divided and in disarray.”

There may be some truth to that, said Phebe Marr, a retired professor at the National Defense University and author of “The Modern History of Iraq.”

“The bad guys are certainly going to be happy about this,” said Marr, who was among several historians consulted by the Iraq Study Group last year.

But she said the resolution also might push the Iraqi government to take more aggressive steps to reach political settlements that would diminish sectarian violence. “It is going to play both ways in Iraq,” she said.

David L. Mack, deputy assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under President George H.W. Bush, said the resolution might help reassure some in the Middle East that the U.S. remained engaged.

“I think they will read that correctly, as they read the election, as a loss of support for Bush administration -- but not necessarily as a lack of interest in Iraq in the long term,” said Mack, who heads the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Indeed, if there is one audience that most observers agree will get an unambiguous message, it is the White House.

“A sense-of-Senate resolution that opposes the surge, no matter how delicately and respectfully worded, puts a bipartisan Senate on record that it has lost trust in presidential leadership,” said Louis Fisher, a constitutional law specialist at the Library of Congress who has written extensively about struggles between the White House and Congress over war powers.

“It’s not just a vote against a surge, it’s a vote against this administration,” he said.