Heritage Foundation: Troops in the Middle

Monday , August 06, 2007

By Baker Spring


Critics of the war in Iraq are usually quick to voice support for the troops -- and lawmakers in Washington are no exception. So why are war opponents in the Senate threatening to shelve this year’s defense authorization bill? As anti-troop actions go, pulling the plug on necessary legislation for our soldiers is hard to top.

Not completing work on the defense authorization bill this year would set a dangerous precedent. Congress has passed an annual defense authorization bill every year since 1961. This legislation is crucial because it sets troop levels, provides pay, promotion, retirement and other benefits for service members and their families. If the latest bill stalls, forget about providing pay raises to the troops, for example, or growing America’s ground forces this year to relieve the strain on soldiers serving multiple tours.

To understand why anti-war senators would engage in such a risky strategy, consider again the infamous all-night debate over the withdrawal amendment to the defense authorization bill, offered by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.). It wasn’t what it seemed. The all-night session was rooted in a tactical disagreement between war opponents in the Senate and their hardcore anti-war constituents. Understanding this internal spat is important, because the implications for our military could be devastating.

Yes, Senate war opponents and their anti-war constituents share a political goal. A defeat in Iraq, they believe, would improve their electoral ambitions. Their differences have been over tactics.

Hardcore war opponents outside the Senate believe that President Bush can be tagged with losing the war by any means necessary. Legislatively, they prefer that Congress simply do nothing. They wanted Congress to withhold the supplemental defense appropriations bill earlier this year -- which was enacted over their objections -- and they want the Senate to abandon the current defense authorization bill.

The fact that doing nothing means inflicting irreparable damage on the military apparently doesn’t matter to this group. The senators, understandably, have been more wary of this do-nothing approach, which carries the risk that most American voters would fault them, and not President Bush, for a failed war in Iraq. Further, the senators didn’t want to be seen as undermining the military.

The more cautious approach of Senate leaders prevailed in both the House and Senate earlier this year during consideration of the defense supplemental appropriations bill, which was enacted following a veto by President Bush. Anti-war constituents, however, were furious. So the anti-war senators have been attempting, in the latest funding battle, to soothe their anti-war constituents -- through deception.

This is what the all-night Senate session was about. It was a hollow attempt by anti-war senators to demonstrate to their anti-war constituents how committed they are to withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. Needless to say, the anti-war constituents didn’t buy it. Not coincidentally, pollsters have lately been reporting very low approval ratings for Congress -- the lowest, in fact, ever recorded by Zogby.

It now seems that the anti-war senators are buckling to the demands of their anti-war constituents. They’re willing to take the do-nothing route and leave the defense authorization bill high and dry. In all likelihood, therefore, they also will seek to shelve the equally essential fiscal year 2008 defense appropriations bill later this year.

So much for the lip service we’ve heard about opposing the war but “supporting the troops.”

Clearly, it’s time for more level-headed lawmakers to go into action. Senators who support the military, such as Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), should continue to demand, at every opportunity, that the Senate returns to considering the defense authorization bill. A similar effort likely will be necessary to assure consideration of the upcoming defense appropriations bill.

Anti-war senators should realize that their effort to have it both ways has failed. They need to have the courage to stand up to their anti-war constituents -- and stop engaging in efforts that could spell defeat in Iraq.

Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.