Symbolic measure spurs war debate

Resolution sends messages to Bush, U.S. military, Iraq, enemies and allies

February 05, 2007|By Noam N. Levey | Noam N. Levey,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- 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 might be the first formal rebuke of Bush's strategy on Iraq has produced the most passionate war debate on Capitol Hill since the U.S.-led invasion 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 U.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 plans to deploy 21,500 more troops, mainly in Baghdad, to quell sectarian violence.

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

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 supporters in Congress warn of the dangerous message that approval would send to U.S. troops and to other Middle East countries.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is leading the push for an alternate resolution expressing congressional support for the mission, and Bush has said repeatedly that he would ignore any resolution challenging his plans.

The debate over the message is not unprecedented; Congress similarly wrestled with how to express itself when President Bill Clinton was contemplating military involvement in the Balkans in the mid-1990s.

And when the House of Representatives 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 Bush policy have 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," Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, said last week. He is a co-sponsor of the resolution stating that the Senate "disagrees" with the troop increase.

Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and 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 his 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 anti-war lawmakers as Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who have said Congress should not surrender its authority to limit funding as a way to force an end to the war.

Warner's amendment did not mollify McCain and other critics, who continue to call the resolution 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," McCain said yesterday on ABC's This Week.

The military audience watching the debate is hardly unified. Iraq war veterans have gone to Capitol Hill in recent weeks to urge opposition to the president's plans. And surveys by the Military Times newspapers, though unscientific, have suggested growing opposition to the war among active-duty personnel.

But retired Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, who heads the department of military history at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said Congress should be careful 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.

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