For several days last week the U.S. Senate seemed ready to exercise its constitutional role by voting to advise the president on his conduct of the Iraq war. Most senators think it's time to reduce American forces in Iraq, not send 21,000 more to quell ethnic violence..
But no debate occurred. Republican and Democratic leaders wrangled over procedural questions, and by mid-week it appeared that "the world's greatest deliberative body" had decided to remain silent. It was a sad commentary on the Senate.
Virginia's Senator John Warner tried to avoid a partisan split on the surge in U.S. troops by offering a non-binding resolution that expressed disapproval of the president's troop increase, but set no timetable for withdrawing the forces. His proposal failed to get the sixty votes needed to permit debate by the full Senate. Republican leaders insisted that another resolution, to ensure funding for the troops, be debated; but Democrats refused.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is poised for its own debate. The new majority leader, Steny Hoyer, stated his intention to schedule a debate not only on the president's troop surge in Baghdad, but on the larger question of U.S. interests in Iraq. Unlike the Senate, the House can move to discussion on a simple majority vote.
With Democrats now controlling Congress, we are witnessing the launch of a year-long campaign to persuade President Bush to withdraw American forces in Iraq and use diplomacy to resolve that country's political turmoil. Some Democrats are ready to reduce the defense department's budget in order to force his capitulation.
A precedent for this was Congress's decision in 1975 to cut off funding for South Vietnam's army. That action led to the government's collapse and the humiliating withdrawal of all Americans from Saigon.
What is on display in Washington is a classic case of the party out of power (Democrats) launching a campaign to oust the party in power (Republicans) from the White House in 2008. With George Bush's standing in the polls at low ebb, a dozen Democrats have said they will run in 2008. For Democrats, public displeasure with the Iraq war seems like the key to success.
Almost lost in the Senate's wrangling last week about how to proceed are these fundamental questions: Why is the United States so deeply involved in the Persian Gulf region? How important is Iraq to U.S. interests in the Middle East generally? One way to focus the issue is: does the United States have any vital national interest in the Persian Gulf requiring it to use military force if necessary?
That debate should take place not only in Congress, but also in the media and among the presidential candidates. Regrettably, discussion of the strategic interests that undergird U.S. policy in the Middle East is almost totally absent.
The vital near-term interest of the United States is the protection of Persian Gulf oil supplies. Without easy access to oil from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq, the U.S. economy would falter as the price of gasoline jumps to $3-4 a gallon. Gas rationing and a new tax would probably be imposed..
The major threat to our oil interests in the Gulf comes from Iran, whose revolutionary Islamic government broke relations with Washington twenty-eight years ago and now plans to make Iran a nuclear power. Tehran clearly hopes to displace U.S. and British influence in the Gulf and establish itself as the hegemonic power.
The longer term U.S. interest is to prevent an Al Qaeda takeover in Arab countries and the installation of Islamic regimes. Its extremist view of Islam threatens U.S. interests in the entire Middle East, not just Iraq.
Congress owes it to American voters to debate these two issues: 1) whether the United States should be involved, politically and militarily, in countering Iran's threat to its interests in the Gulf region, and 2) whether U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for an indefinite period to prevent a larger Middle East conflict.
In the 1950s, Republican and Democratic leaders concluded that an American military presence in South Korea was essential to prevent a larger war in East Asia.
The stakes in the Persian Gulf today are no less vital to the United States, and Congress must decide whether to accept this reality and the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal.
Iraq may partition itself into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish quasi-states, with Baghdad remaining a mixed area. Partition may not prove feasible, but U.S. troops should at least be able to help Iraqis to pacify their capital. If the civil war spreads, Americans should then re-deploy to border areas and interdict the supply of arms coming in from Iran and Syria.
To do less will be to turn our backs on a potential humanitarian catastrophe, one that would make ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1995 seem like a minor conflict.
File last modified on Sunday, 11-FEB-2007 08:25 PM EST