War Over Wars Looms Large

Posted February 6, 2009 at 6:10pm

Once President Barack Obama gets the stimulus package battle behind him, he will have to navigate what could be an even thornier issue for his party: how to push through a major bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without splitting Democrats into squabbling flocks of doves and hawks.

Liberals are already worried by talk of delays to Obama’s 16-month timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and some Democrats who had trumpeted Afghanistan as the main front in the war on terror are starting to have second thoughts.

But after fighting and failing for two years to impose hard deadlines on President George W. Bush to end the Iraq War, some Congressional Democrats are ready to give Obama discretion on when to bring the troops home.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and an early supporter of pulling out of Iraq, said last week that he does not envision attaching hard timetables to the war spending bill expected from the Obama White House in a few months.

The calculus for Democrats is simple: Obama has vowed to end the war in Iraq, so a friendly Congress can give him the leeway to do it on his own terms rather than abide by the restrictions they sought to put on Bush.

“I think Obama’s got it right,” Murtha said. “He wants us out of there, Congress wants us out of there, we’ll get out of there,” Murtha said. But putting a date into law isn’t necessary, he said.

“They can negotiate that without us,” he said.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters recently that there is “wiggle room” in Obama’s 16-month timetable, suggesting that most but not all troops may be out of the country in that time frame, according to an Army Times report.

And House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) recently downplayed Obama’s commitment to end the presence of combat troops in Iraq in that period, suggesting the date could slip a bit.

“There is no need to hold fast to a 16-month timetable when you can take your time and do it in 18 months,” Clyburn said on MSNBC on Jan. 31.

A House Democratic leadership aide said that Congress should still incorporate timetables, however. “Leadership will be seeking the best way to achieve that in consultation with the president.”

Several newswires have reported that Obama is already getting resistance from the military on his plans for a 16-month pullout. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, has continued to caution that the improving situation in Iraq could face setbacks, and that the U.S. will likely be involved in the country for years to come.

Still, liberal Democrats are plotting their strategy to keep the pressure on Obama to end the war.

The day after Obama’s inauguration, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a leader in both the Progressive Caucus and the Out of Iraq Caucus, went to the House floor to demand that he stay true to his promised timeline.

“He must not hesitate for a moment to make good on that pledge,” she said on Jan. 21. “He must make sure that the withdrawal is complete, that it is safe, and it is meaningful. There must be no residual forces, no military contractors left behind. And if his advisers urge him to change his mind about withdrawal, he must not waver or go wobbly.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus and an appropriator, isn’t keen on delays either. “I plan to work with my colleagues and the Obama administration to ensure that we remain steadfast in our goals to end this occupation as soon as possible,” she said in a statement last week.

Out of Iraq Caucus members have pledged to vote to fund only a withdrawal, not an open-ended conflict, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been among the most passionate supporters of a timetable. Pelosi led most House Democrats in voting against the last war funding bill because it lacked a timeline for withdrawal, although many other Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and now-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, voted for the funding.

A senior Democratic aide said last week that while the party’s most ardent anti-war liberals will grouse at the possibility of a delay in pulling out of Iraq, Democrats will give Obama some flexibility as long as he is seen as moving toward ending the war.

“He clearly is preserving his options,” the aide said of Obama. “I think as long as there is movement in the right direction, that wing of the party might complain and loudly but it won’t force him to alter his course too much.”

Actual passage of a war-spending bill isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the intraparty squabble that’s likely to ensue if the bill fails to end a war entering its seventh year.

The senior aide said the Afghanistan buildup will likely be much more problematic for Democrats, particularly for those who have been saying for years that Afghanistan is the real fight and that Bush took his eye off the ball.

“We need to see a clear strategy and understand how troop levels play into that before we could ever consider supporting any increase,” said an aide to a liberal House Democrat.

Others, such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), won’t vote for any more funding for Iraq — or any other war. “Another day in Iraq is another day too long,” Lewis said, adding that he does not favor expanding the war in Afghanistan, either.

“War is obsolete,” Lewis said.