President George W. Bush may be in for an unpleasant surprise - when Congress resumes its epic battle with the White House over troop withdrawal from Iraq after the Easter break, he may face a situation where his veto will not prevent the Democrats from ending the war.
President Bush thinks that the bills that have been just endorsed by Congress will have disastrous consequences for the US Army in Iraq. Terrorists and commandos of all hues will receive a signal that the US has acknowledged its defeat. He promised to veto what he sees as connivance with the enemy.
The Democratic majority in both chambers has a different view. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joseph Biden insists that the bills are a message to the US president rather than Washington's enemies in Iraq - Bush must pull US out of the flames of a foreign civil war.
Congress has passed two bills that differ from each other only in details. Both link further funding of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan (about $90 billion) with a gradual reduction in the US military presence in Iraq. The Senate has voted, for the start of the troop withdrawal in the next 120 days, and its completion by March 31, 2008 - as a final but non-binding date. The House version of the bill is more radical - the US troops must leave Iraq no later than by Sep 1, 2008.
After the Easter recess, the Senators will reconvene April 10 and members of the House April 16. Both chambers will have to turn the two bills into one and present it for the president's approval or veto. (In the three months of coexistence with the Democrat-controlled Congress, the president has threatened to veto bills 16 times but has done it only once). Thus the outcome of the White House - Congress grand confrontation over the US-deployed troops in Iraq will be known in early or middle May.
This timeframe is important for a simple reason - the Pentagon is running out of money. Anyone - from local guerrillas to Al Qaeda - can fight in Iraq in pursuit of the idea and without money, but not a regular US army even though it also seems to have an idea to fight for: democracy and better life in the Middle East.
At any rate, Defence Secretary Robert Gates has warned that if the bill on funding falls through, the Pentagon will have to revise the scale and timetable for deployment of new reservists and repairs of military hardware in Iraq.
Congress's focus on Iraq has made it the central issue of the presidential race. For obvious reasons, the Democrats have shown the most enthusiasm for the idea - the three leading candidates have been calling for an end to US participation in the Iraqi war. There are some interesting nuances, though.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards have been trying to atone for their sin. In 2002 they both voted for Bush's mandate for the war in Iraq. Now Edwards is sincerely repenting his mistake in public. Many find Hillary Clinton's position stronger -- she would have voted against the mandate if she had known that Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. However, she does not regret her decision, and would vote the same way today if she was given the same information.
Senator from Illinois Barack Obama has nothing to do with this sin of his party colleagues. He never tires of repeating that in 2002 he was strongly against the invasion of Iraq although at that time he was working in the Illinois Senate rather than Congress. But Obama has walked into a minefield that surrounds the subject of Iraq in today's US. Speaking in New Hampshire the other day, he expressed regret that the lives of more than 3,000 US soldiers were "wasted" in Iraq.
This was a faux pas. Vietnam changed the US perception of foreign military campaigns forever. The war itself may be dubious, and unleashed by immoral politicians in the name of distorted national interests, but the lives of US soldiers who perished in a mission are sacred. Saying that the lives of soldiers were wasted means lack of loyalty to US itself, not merely the president's policy in Iraq.
The Democratic majority may face the same danger when they reconvene after recess. The president's inevitable veto will not stop the Democrats from trying to compel the administration to start reducing troops in Iraq. The battle for Iraq without the US Army will become increasingly fierce. But Congress cannot leave the troops without funding. This is tantamount to saying that their mates had lost their lives for nothing.
The Democrats have only one option - to escalate the anti-war attitudes in US society to the point when Congress has a majority of two thirds that can overrule the president's veto.