It is extraordinary that George Bush has managed to position the U.S. military phrase "support the troops" in a role that is symbolic of the war-fighting policy in Iraq. It has effectively put the Democrats in a quandary, because the American people have been socialized by the administration to "support the troops" in a way that also serves their purpose to pursue the war.
All of the other rationales for pursuing the war have soured with the American people, but the remaining emotional root of their willingness to follow the administration's formulation of the war appears to be "support the troops."
It works first, because there was much made about their introduction into Iraq with less than effective war material such as bulletproof vests, armored Humvees, etc. Then, there seems to be a desire to prove the opposite of the Vietnam War, that the troops, although serving a dishonorable war, are themselves honorable people worth supporting. In this, Democrats appear reticent to aggressively carry out the mandate the American people gave them in the 2006 election to begin to bring the war to a close. To do this, they have to disentangle the honor due to the troops from the dishonor accorded the war.
Here, there is an eerie similarity to the Vietnam War. Between 1970 and 1975 the Congress entertained 21 separate attempts by members to limit spending by the administration for the war, and thus, to bring it to a close.
Democrats have begun to go down this road with their first proposal to fund the troops with benchmarks of progress by the Iraqi government and a date to begin to reposition the troops that has recently been vetoed by Bush. At this writing, a second attempt is being formulated that would fund the troops until late July with benchmarks, which will probably be opposed by the Senate, where Democrats are even more loath to appear to not support the troops.
If Democrats are to stop the war, they have to climb out of the box created by the Bush administration and re-conceptualize it for the American people. First, so that they will not appear to be vulnerable on whether or not they did or did not support the troops, they have to effectively explain that the troops are not the policy, they are the instrument of the policy and that the funds provided — or not provided — are directed to the war effort in general. If Congress does not provide the funds for the war effort, then Bush has to decide whether to put the troops further into harm's way.
Second, on the heels of a majority vote by the Iraq parliament to establish benchmarks of progress related to a date for the departure of American troops, Cheney made a frantic trip to Iraq. There he repeated the mantra that "if we don't fight them there, we'd have to fight them here." But how does he justify Iraq as the center of a "global" war if the opposition to American policy in the Middle East is truly global — finding terrorist cells even in New Jersey!
The Democrats cannot just hope to legislate their way out of the war in Iraq; they also have to market it, so that the Republican logic has no remaining credibility.
Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.