A poor time for strutting

April 05, 2007

This is not 1995. The White House and the Congress are not playing some sort of budgetary game of chicken in which the political points go to the side that doesn't blink. This is 2007, and the stakes are very real, because the coming showdown in Washington has to do with the war in Iraq. Forget comparisons with the stalemate between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton that caused the government to close up shop for a while 12 years ago; this is much different.

President Bush is adamant that he will veto the war-financing bill making its way through Congress if it contains a withdrawal timeline - which it surely will. He says Congress will then have to take the blame for failing to provide for the troops fighting in Iraq.

This is a transparently phony argument. No one is holding back any funds from the Iraq war effort. If Congress continues to advance money for the war, but with strings attached that the president doesn't like, he can either start bargaining or he can deliver the promised veto. Under the traditions of the American system, bargaining would be the normal course to follow. The president ought to give it a try. If he reaches for the veto instead, the one thing he can't justifiably do is then knock Congress for failing to act.

Mr. Bush says that if he agreed to a congressional timeline, it would be the Democrats' fault when Iraq erupts into even deadlier sectarian violence. Let's be straight about something: The odds are very high that Iraq will suffer a catastrophic upsurge in its civil war at whatever moment U.S. troops pull out, whether it's next year or five years from now. Some, in fact, argue that postponing the inevitable only guarantees that it will be worse when it finally happens.

And here's the point to remember: Iraq is the way it is today because of President Bush's orders to invade the country and because of his administration's systematic mishandling of the crisis there ever since. It's his legacy, and nothing Congress does now can change that.

The president said Tuesday that his most important job is to protect the American people. That's a fundamental misreading of his role. It is up to the government to defend the security of the nation; the president is not the government. In fact, by heaping scorn on the legislative branch of government and daring it to challenge him at a time when he should be prepared to enter into consultation over the extremely dangerous situation in Iraq, Mr. Bush is serving neither the national interest nor the interests of ordinary Americans - who pointedly chose to put the Democrats in charge on Capitol Hill nearly six months ago.

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