Technology with attitude

Will nobody blink?

7

I realize that escalating rhetoric often has little to do with what will finally happen, but the bellicosity displayed in the Bush/Congress set-to over Iraq funding is pretty remarkable.

Defying a fresh veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Congress will pass legislation within days requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq beginning Oct. 1, with a goal of completing the pullout six months later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday.

Reid said the legislation “immediately transitions the U.S. military away from policing a civil war.” He said that troops that remain in Iraq after next April 1 could only train Iraqi security units, protect U.S forces and conduct “targeted counter-terror operations.”

The Nevada Democrat outlined the elements of the legislation in a speech a few hours after Bush said he will reject any legislation along the lines of what Democrats intend to pass. “I will strongly reject an artificial timetable (for) withdrawal and/or Washington politicians trying to tell those who wear the uniform how to do their job,” the president said.

So what’s emerging from the conference committee is, remarkably, harder-line than either the House or Senate versions. The House version had hard deadlines but an 18-month timeframe; the Senate version had a shorter timeframe but no deadlines, only “goals.” This hybrid version appears to combine the Senate’s timetable with at least some of the House deadlines.

As such I think it’s a bad idea. I didn’t mind either individual version, because they were either very soft limits or the timeline was sufficiently long not to have an immediate effect. But the new version simply moves too fast.

If you truly believe that what’s going on in Iraq is an intractable civil war, the bill makes sense: we have no business being there in that case. But if you believe, as I do, that Bush deserves one last chance to show he can win this thing, then an Oct. 1 deadline is simply too soon at this point.

All this may simply be attempts at blame-placing for the veto everyone knows will be coming by the end of this week. What happens after that will depend, in part, on who is more successful in the framing effort. Most likely result, I think, will be a “clean” spending bill that only runs through, say, Sept. 30. That means Bush will have to make another funding request in late summer — right about when we should be starting to get a verdict on the surge.

But what if they’re both serious? What if neither backs down? If no bill is passed, no more money is appropriated, and the war ends unless Bush can find ways to fund it out of discretionary monies — which just isn’t going to happen.

One would think that Bush would rather sign a bill with timetables than accept that. But there are other factors at work here. Neither side really wants an immediate, precipitous pullout, so each is hoping the other will blink first. Beyond that, Bush might see such a pullout as politically advantageous, because the effects would be more calamitous than a gradual pullout over the next year. He could then blame Congress for all the attendant trouble, instead of accepting that blame himself.

But much as I dislike Bush, I’m not cynical enough to believe he would do that to the Iraqis. I think he truly believes we need to stay in Iraq and can win in Iraq. So he’s not going to abandon the war just to make political points at home.

So if it comes to pure stubborn, expect Congress to blink first. And then expect a short-term funding bill that will see this debate renewed — with firmer Congressional resolve if the surge is going badly — in the fall.