A general media rush has been on to mute any celebrations of the president's victory on funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. Heaven forbid that President Bush should actually get the credit for having won a significant battle on principle against an overweening Congress, attempting to legislate his government's military strategy.
On Friday, the day after both houses of Congress voted to fund troop deployments through September, The Washington Post described the president as "savoring what may be a last victory in his battle with Congress over the course of the war in Iraq." Maybe it will be "a last victory"; maybe it won't. There is no doubt, though, what the writer hopes it would be.
Democrats, from the "Out of Iraq" Caucus, however, were in no doubt they had lost this round against the White House and had only scathing comments to make. "I hate this agreement," said Rep. David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "They got everything. I have nothing to say," commented Rep. Jim Moran bitterly.
In the end, the Democratic leadership in Congress did not have the nerve to go into Memorial Day weekend, when the United States remembers its fallen heroes, without a bill to fund the troops in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. It should be noted that of the Democratic frontrunners, only Sen. Joseph Biden voted for the funding, noting that "as long as we have troops in the front line, we're going to have to protect them."
For all these reasons, it should be duly recorded that the Bush administration scored an important political victory Thursday evening, when the Senate followed the House in voting to approve the long-overdue supplemental defense appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan. The legislation will provide $100 billion for the military campaigns in those two countries and $17 billion for domestic spending, part military (equipment, medical care and housing) and part Hurricane Katrina relief, included by Democrats.
At White House insistence, $4 billion in pork-barrel spending had been shaved off the bill, but the most important part of the victory for the White House was the fact that the bill does not include the Democratic Party's calls for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. In passing the war-funding bill with a convincing majority of 280-142 in the House and 86-14 in the Senate, Congress has finally carried out its obligation to fund American troops on the frontlines of the global war against terrorism.
The first defense supplemental bill, which the president vetoed on May 1, was larded with pork for domestic programs, including such items as subsidies for spinach growers, all of which had helped by Democratic support for the bill. That bill also disastrously required a pullout of most U.S. troops from Iraq by March 31, which would have led to a defeat in the war against al Qaeda, with a cascade of dangerous consequences for regional stability, the struggle to contain Iran, and efforts to stave off an all-out civil war and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq.
Moreover, the deadline for troop withdrawals infringed on the president's authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, a precedent that would have tied the hands of future presidents in possible future wars.
In the bill that just passed, the Bush administration was forced to accept benchmarks for the Iraqi government's progress tied to the level of U.S. reconstruction aid. The 18 benchmarks in the bill directed at the Iraqi government include progress toward national reconciliation, laws to disarm militias, equal legal protection for all sects and a sharing scheme for oil revenue between Iraqi ethic groups.
While benchmarks can be useful measures of progress, they can be lethal if applied too mechanically in a delicate situation like the one we face in Iraq. Failure by the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks could lead to problems in the future if U.S. aid for reconstruction is cut, undermining Iraq's national reconciliation process, reducing American leverage over Iraq's fractious government and reducing Iraqi incentives for meeting future benchmarks. The president does have the power to waive penalties if he deems it necessary. This feature led Sen. Russ Feingold to bitterly denounce the bill as "toothless."
Overall, the current defense supplemental is a major improvement. Hopefully the Republican congressional support, which enabled the administration to withstand the "rush to exit" strategy pushed by Democrats, will be enough to withstand the Democrats' attempts to regain momentum before the next vote in the fall.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation
First appeared in the Washington Times