Dems Iraq Debate Decoded

This morning, Senate Republicans blocked the Democrats’ move to invoke cloture and force a vote on the Levin-Reed amendment to bring the troops home by August 2008. On a nearly party-line vote of 52-43, with just four senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) crossing the aisle, the measure failed to reach the required super-majority of 60 votes. -ed

The Iraq debate and the media coverage are being conducted substantially in code and shorthand. If you’re not alert, you can easily be misled. For example:

Remember on July 9, when Democratic presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama found themselves giving anti-war speeches just a few feet apart in Iowa.

Clinton said: “Our message to the president is clear. It is time to begin ending this war not next year, not next month but today.”

Obama said: “I think it is time for all of us to acknowledge that we have to find a responsible but certain way to start bringing our combat troops home and stop having them in the midst of a civil war.”

Clinton and Obama (as well as Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, all of the Democratic senators running for president) are co-sponsors of the Levin-Reed amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill, which was to provide the culmination of the all-night Senate action last night.

(As this post is written, the all-nighter is just getting going. The outcome of the vote on Levin-Reed is considered nearly certain. More than 50 senators will vote for it, but not the 60 votes needed to end the Republican filibuster.)

The vote, scheduled for this morning, has become the symbol of a greatly oversimplified story line, in which Democrats were trying to, as many media accounts put it, set a firm deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But would it?
Well, sort of, if you don’t insist on too literal of the meaning of “set” “firm” “deadline” “withdrawal” or “from Iraq.” Here’s what the amendment (number 2087 to H.R. 1585) would actually, specifically, do (similar provisions have already passed the House):

If adopted, the amendment (chief sponsors are Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I.)  would require that the president start, within 120 days of the bill’s passage implementing a change in the size of the U.S. military force in Iraq, and their activities. (Technically, the mandate is placed on the secretary of defense.)

The amendment clearly envisions that many thousands of U.S. troops, almost certainly tens of thousands, would remain in Iraq. It spells out three missions — protecting U.S. personnel and infrastructure, training and supporting Iraqi forces, and engaging in operations against Al Qaeda and affiliated groups – that the remaining U.S. troops would continue to perform for the indefinite – or at least not specified – future.

Many leading Democrats, including Clinton, have said that U.S. troops will need to remain in Iraq for years.

The key intent behind the language is clearly to get U.S. troops off of the front lines of sectarian fighting in Baghdad and to force Iraqi troops to bear the burden of pacifying Baghdad and other trouble spots.

The language of Levin-Reed does not describe how many troops must be withdrawn or redeployed to satisfy the start-the-transition requirement. Presumably, if Bush wanted to push it, he could make a token redeployment and declare that he had satisfied the law. Or, if he wanted to push it even further, he could do nothing.

The language does not have any enforcement mechanism such as, for example, a provision that after some date, the military funds appropriated by the law could not be used to maintain troops in Baghdad.

The Levin-Reed amendment also requires that this transition be completed by April 30 of 2008. (The House bill sets it at April 1.) This is further step toward mandatory language compared to the version in the supplemental appropriation bill that Bush vetoed in May. The earlier bill set a “goal” of completing the redeployment by a fixed date. The current language says the secretary “shall complete the transition” by April 30.

But it does not describe the situation — for example, how many troops might remain in Iraq when the transition is complete – that would satisfy the mandate. Nor does it impose any consequences if the administration fails to comply.

Maybe you already knew most of this. But when you focus on the concrete details of the amendment, you might agree that the statements by the presidential candidates are often designed, perhaps rather carefully, to sound perhaps a bit more anti-war than their actual positions, without committing a technical inaccuracy.

When Clinton said: “It is time to begin ending this war not next year, not next month but today,” the key word, which you might miss if you aren’t looking for it, is “begin.”

Obama’s statement: I think it is time for all of us to acknowledge that we have to find a responsible but certain way to start bringing our combat troops home and stop having them in the midst of a civil war,” is filled with references to the caution, and the specifics, of Levin-Reed. “Start” bringing “combat” troops home and stop having them “in the midst of a civil war.” 

And now that we’ve mastered both the details of the legislative language and the code words that are used to refer to it, you can see that former Sen. John Edwards’ recent statements on Iraq are designed to communicate that he doesn’t believe Levin-Reed (and Clinton, Obama, Biden and Dodd) isn’t tough enough. Here’s a recent Edwards quote: 

“The one way to support our troops and bring them home is for Congress to exercise its constitutionally mandated funding power, [that means you have to cut off the funds if the troops stay past the deadline] force an immediate drawdown of 40,000 to 50,000 troops [that means you have to put troops numbers in the bill] and require withdrawal of all troops within about a year.”

Eric Black, a 30-year reporting veteran at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, recently took a buyout — offers that seem endemic in print newsrooms across the nation. He now writes for the Center for Independent Media and offers perspective columns to Colorado Confidential through a syndication arrangement.

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Eric Black

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