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War and impotence

Having ceded control over Iraq policy to Bush, Congress must find a way to influence him.

September 24, 2007

As the Democrats rediscovered to their chagrin last week, Congress has little real power either to declare a war or to end one. Having authorized the president to use force in Iraq, Congress has found itself stymied. The weak Democratic majority lacks the political power to compel President Bush to start bringing substantial numbers of troops home, yet it is afraid to use the constitutional clout it does have: the authority to cut off war funding. Most Americans say they want the U.S. engagement in Iraq to be dramatically downsized or ended soon. But unless the antiwar forces in the Senate can attract the so-far elusive, filibuster-proof 60 votes -- and as of Friday, they were at least 12 votes short -- the Iraq war may drag on well beyond the Bush presidency.

The Democrats' current predicament is a testament to the enormous strength of the executive branch and the erosion of the powers of Congress, which hasn't declared a war since 1941 and hasn't gone to the mat with the president over any war since Vietnam. Since World War II, U.S. presidents have generally ignored what they considered to be congressional meddling, such as the War Powers Act of 1973 and the law cutting off U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. And, generally, Americans have liked it this way. In the Atomic Age, they reckoned a commander in chief would never have time to consult Congress before deciding whether to launch nuclear weapons. And most preferred to have a strong president in charge of national security and trusted the military, not the politicians, to manage military operations.

Now, however, a Democratic Congress and a Republican president are themselves at war over a host of issues, including Iraq. Their conflict accurately reflects the bitter and sometimes frightening schism in our nation.

So it is no surprise that the antiwar forces in Congress too are stalemated. Last week, Senate Democrats mounted an ill-conceived, backdoor effort to force the president to withdraw troops from Iraq faster than he wants by requiring troops to spend more time at home between deployments. Whether such a measure would be constitutional -- and we have doubts -- it's the worst kind of congressional micromanagement of military affairs. For reasons of principle and precedent, we're lucky it failed.

But that doesn't mean Congress should stop trying to chart the least damaging exit from Iraq. It should provide advice, welcome or not, and it must act if necessary to constrain a president's unwise choices. For without a clear show of congressional strength, this president has no need or inclination to negotiate or compromise.

Thus the Senate was right on Friday to bring to a vote a measure that would have ordered most troops home from Iraq in nine months. That the measure fell short on a 47-47 vote is unimportant. What matters is that the Senate Democratic leadership, even knowing that it would lose, was willing to hold an up-or-down, gimmick-free vote on the toughest issue facing Congress today.

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