Politics

Leaving an Occupied Country Is Hard To Do

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What--a thoughtful plan for Iraq? Written by aspiring Democratic House members? Campaigning in highly competitive districts? Believe it.

Led by Darcy Burner, who’s gunning to represent Washington’s eighth district, ten Congressional challengers recently released a 36-page proposal called, simply, “A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.” More than 40 candidates have now signed on to the document, which is a cross between a think tank report and a political platform.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. For the past two years, Democrats have been offering plan after plan to end the war in Iraq. But this one is different. As opposed to the usual broad language, combined with a laundry list of policy proposals that make up traditional party platforms, the plan has a sharp focus, with a clear strategic logic focused around two fundamental principles. First, the United States must find a way to sensibly end its military mission in Iraq--and use the political, diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic tools at its disposal to mitigate the negative consequences of the war. Second, the Iraq War has done irreparable damage not just to Iraq but to our country, and the time has come to reform our institutions and put the checks and balances in place to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.

Compare these explicit goals to the “Real Security” plan, which Democrats unveiled for the 2006 election cycle. The three-page document was summarized like so: “We believe America is best protected and freedom best advanced by national security policies--including homeland, energy, and diplomatic strategies that are both tough and smart.” If that sounds anodyne to you, that’s because it is; “Real Security” was written to signal a change in Iraq policy, but at the time there was little agreement about how to actually create one.

“A Responsible Plan” represents a welcome shift for the party not just in vision, but in substance. Admittedly, the immediate strategy that it outlines for Iraq is standard Democratic fare. It calls for a drawdown of American forces and a focus on a diplomatic and political solution. But while too many Democratic plans zero in on the troop drawdown, the “Responsible Plan”’s emphasis is on what Congress can reasonably achieve: namely, economic, political, and humanitarian steps necessary to manage the situation in Iraq as American forces leave.

For example, it endorses House Resolution 3797 for a New Diplomatic Offensive for Iraq, which among other things, would direct the president to appoint a high-ranking Special Envoy responsible for dealing with Iraq’s neighbors. This is an absolutely critical step, which would for the first time ensure that there is one individual accountable directly to the president, who would have the authority to bring the neighbors together in a constructive dialogue to try to stabilize Iraq.

It also promotes two congressional bills that would dramatically increase funding to address the humanitarian crisis that has left almost five million Iraqis displaced both inside and outside of the country. This is important, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because the massive refugee flow has put a tremendous strain on Syria and Jordan, which have seen their populations rise almost ten percent since the war began.

Beyond just being good policy, though, the plan exhibits a unique understanding of the legislative branch’s role in foreign policy. Too often, candidates running for Congress make very specific proposals about foreign policy that are far outside of their purview. The “Real Security” plan of 2006 was ultimately about the executive branch; it was backed by a 120-page smattering of documents and reports that criticized the Bush Administration and catalogued hundreds of pieces of legislation that would reshape American foreign policy, but were, on the whole, too unwieldy to act as an agenda vehicle.

“A Responsible Plan” would instead serve as the congressional corollary to a Democratic presidency. It doesn’t include elements over which Congress has little control, but it does push for 15 pieces of existing legislation, which focus on issues such as improving healthcare for a new generation of veterans and phasing out our reliance on military contractors such as Blackwater. Only the president can end the war in Iraq, but Congress can do its share by focusing on institutional repair and funding the right programs.

This approach is apparent in the most creative part of the document, titled “Preventing Future Iraqs.” These policies focus on checking presidential authority and ensuring that Congress can’t easily give the president a free hand to go to war. It calls for incorporating war funding into the regular defense budget instead of using “emergency supplementals”; eliminating the president’s use of signing statements to alter the substantive meaning of a law passed by Congress; repealing parts of the Military Commissions Act that suspended habeas corpus; and ending the use of wiretapping without a FISA warrant. These are good policies for both Republican and Democratic presidents to abide by.

There’s much else to recommend the plan--its support of new energy technologies to reduce our dependence on oil, its call for a new GI bill for the 21st century--but perhaps the most newsworthy element of the initiative is who supports it. Its signatories, all unelected House and Senate challengers, represent a new breed of Democrat--one that is following in the footsteps of Jim Webb, Joe Sestak, and Patrick Murphy; one that feels more comfortable dealing with foreign policy. Eric Massa (NY-29) served 24 years on active duty in the Navy. Tom Perriello (VA-5) spent time in Liberia and Sierra Leone working with civil society and pro-democracy groups. Jeff Merkley (OR-Senate) worked at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and then in the Congressional Budget Office on nuclear weapons. Moreover, this is not a bunch of long shots with nothing to lose. The list of supporters includes a large number of candidates who are running in the most competitive districts in the country.

In the end, the “Responsible Plan” is just a plan. It isn’t going to solve the slew of problems the United States will face over the next few years, as it begins to dig itself out of Iraq. But it is a good first step. And the fact that 48 Democratic challengers are willing to sign on to something this detailed, without the DCCC jumping up and down and telling them to stop, is a good sign that a consensus seems to be building in the Democratic party around a set of specific national security ideas. Remember that just two years ago, the only thing that Democrats could agree to on Iraq was to “ensure 2006 is a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty.” The "Responsible Plan" is something far more comprehensive and coherent than that. It's progress--welcome progress.

Ilan Goldenberg is the Policy Director at the National Security Network.

By Ilan Goldenberg

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