After Four Years of War, Congress Should Cut the Funds

This weekend, in hundreds of cities throughout the country, Americans commemorated the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq by participating in marches, rallies and vigils. And it wasn’t long ago, in November 2006, that Americans expressed their anti-war sentiment at the ballot box. So what have our elected officials done to comply with the cry of the American people to end this war?

President Bush so totally disregarded the voters’ mandate that instead of withdrawing troops, he called for sending more. Most Republicans in Congress are backing the President’s troop surge, despite the public’s opposition. But perhaps even more disturbing is the lack of leadership on the part of the Democrats, who seem more interested in party unity and criticizing the president than truly putting a quick end to this war.

The convoluted, inside-the-beltway approach of the Democrats is evident in the supplement defense funding bill that will be voted on this week. A simple, straightforward approach to this new request for $95 billion more for war would have been to posit, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee proposed but her party rejected, that funds can only be used for a full withdrawal under a set timetable, no later than December 2007. This would have used the only real power that the Constitution grants Congress to stop war: the “power of the purse.” It’s a power it has used in the case of Cambodia (1970), Vietnam (1973), Somalia (1993) and Bosnia (1998).

This approach would have also been in line with the public sentiment that consistently shows that a majority of Americans want a swift timetable for the troops to come home. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released March 6 showed 60% of Americans want a timetable for withdrawal by the end of the year. This sentiment is even more pronounced among Democratic voters. And let’s not forget that back in February 2006, a Zogby poll found that 72% of the troops themselves thought they should be out of Iraq by the end of 2006.

Instead, the Democrats submitted a bill so convoluted that even they start stammering when they try to explain it.. It mandates that the President only send troops that have been properly trained, equipped and given adequate rest periods between deployments, but then allows him, on national security grounds, to waive all those requirements. In a fit of twisted logic, it sets a series of benchmarks for the Iraqi government, and says that if they don’t meet the benchmarks we will punish them by leaving early; if they do meet the benchmarks we’ll reward them by staying longer. Given that the majority of Iraqis want our troops out of their country, it’s a perverse kind of reward! Whether or not the benchmarks are met, the war would drag on into 2008, instead of a year-end cut-off preferred by most Americans. And even then, U.S. military could stay on by the tens of thousands to fight terrorism, train Iraqis and provide security to American diplomats and citizens.

To make matters worse, the Democrats are well aware that prospects of this bill becoming law are dim. Even is it passes with the opposition of the Republicans and some of the strong anti-war Democrats, the legislation is unlikely to survive in the Senate, where Democrats have been even more reluctant to adopt a firm timetable to end the war. And the President has already threatened to veto it. So the entire exercise is symbolic, designed more to show a unified Democratic opposition than a real withdrawal plan. Some pundits say that Democrat leaders are content to let the war rage on until 2008 so Bush’s popularity will continue to plummet and they will win the White House. But life and death issues must trump party politics.

It’s true that Congress does not yet have enough votes to block the war funding this time around. But the only way to build momentum to stop the next funding request and bring the troops home by year’s end is stake out, right now, the courageous position of funding the withdrawal, not the war. .

How can they build that momentum? They have to reframe the debate. Right now, the common refrain is that cutting funds for the war is abandoning the troops. The Democrats must proclaim, loudly and clearly, that the best way to support the troops is get them out of harm’s way and back into the arms of their loved ones. As a group of military families and veterans wrote in an open letter to Congress, “Voting more funds for this war would be abandoning our troops. It would leave them with the possibility of joining the over 3,160 who have died, or the tens of thousands who have been wounded, physically, psychologically, or both.” And with the present scandal about the dreadful treatment of returning soldiers at our nation’s Veterans Hospitals, Congress would do well to argue that the money for war would be better spent on taking care of the soldiers we have abandoned here at home.

Four years of this senseless, unwinnable war is four years too many. We need Congress to boldly challenge the President and boldly stand with the millions of Americans whose voices were represented in the peace marches all over the country. Congress must cut the funding for this dreadful war and bring our troops home.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace (www.codepinkalert.org) and Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org).

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