The Unusable Power
The primary power of Congress — funding — has been put into an untouchable box by the rhetoricians of the right. They dare us to cut off funding for the troops if we hate the war so much. Our side's leaders then sputter that they "will never leave our troops in harm's way without everything they need." Their side's mouthpieces accuse our leaders of political cowardice by saying that they want to end the war but won't use their power to do so. But those who vote to close the purse are accused of undermining the troops.
So there is a "power of the purse," you see. Congress can cut off funds for a war that people don't like. In this connection, older readers might recall the Iran-contra affair, in which sources of money were found to keep the contra war going in Nicaragua without Congress's even knowing about it. This met with the enthusiastic approval of the Wall Street Journal, even though funds you do not know about are hard to cut off.
But what happens if you, as a member of Congress, do attempt to use the power of the purse? Sens. Clinton, Obama and Chris Dodd (also running for president) voted against the final Iraq funding bill because all meaningful deadlines and timetables had been stripped out so that President Bush would sign it. That Wall Street Journal editorial accuses these three Democratic senators of "vot[ing] to undermine U.S. troops in the middle of a difficult mission." If this is true of last week's vote, it will always be true of any attempt to cut off a war by cutting off funds. Unless the Journal is in favor of undermining U.S. troops, this makes the alleged "power of the purse" unusable.
Is that clear, Joe Sestak? Is that clear, Carl Levin? Is that clear, Joe Biden? Is that clear?
Advocates of the current war who enjoy the spectacle of war opponents caught in this trap of laws and logic had better hope that every military action a president chooses to engage in from here on out is as wonderful to them as is the war in Iraq. Because there is nothing war-specific about this line of argument. It would work just as well on an invasion of Canada or an aerial bombardment of Portugal. The president can do it if he wants to, and no one can legitimately stop him.
Congress's summer assignment: reframe the debate. Don't let the word "war" pass your lips again. Call this misadventure what it is: an occupation. Occupations aren't won or lost.