Pass new use-of-force resolution on Iraq

As Congress gears up for another round of intense debate over the way forward in Iraq, this September provides perhaps the last, best opportunity for a bipartisan compromise before the return of campaign season. Congress should consider, and pass, a new use-of-force resolution.

Saddam Hussein is dead, there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and while there was no real al Qaeda presence in Iraq in 2003, there clearly is today. Iraq will likely remain a military operation for several more years, yet our soldiers and Marines continue to bravely fight and die under a congressional authorization that is irrelevant to the war they are fighting. A new resolution is vital in order to begin to close the gap between rhetoric and reality.

What is needed today is a new authorization that clearly defines America’s core interests in Iraq: preventing the establishment of al Qaeda safe havens, preventing regional war and preventing genocide.

While unfortunately there appears to be little room in the House for compromise, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated a willingness to deal with Republicans increasingly eager to find a middle way.

After three roll call votes to establish a firm withdrawal timetable that in each case fell short of the necessary 67 votes to pass, it seems to finally be sinking in that the way forward and out of Iraq lies in moving toward the vital center.

Two recent pieces of legislation offer guideposts on a way forward. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have already offered an amendment that would deauthorize the war by Oct. 11 this year — the five-year anniversary of the passage of the original authorization. In July, Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Richard Lugar (R-Va.) offered an amendment that asked the president to offer a new strategy for the use of force by Oct. 16. Whatever approach is taken, it is vital that a new authorization replace the old one. To simply deauthorize the existing use-of-force resolution without replacing it with a more realistic version would send a terrible message to our troops.

We recognize a new authorization will be opposed by some Democrats because they do not want to take ownership over an unpopular war. Understanding the challenges our troops face in Iraq, many Democrats want simply to end the war as quickly as possible. These same Democrats often point — rightly, we believe — to the loss of public support for the Iraq war as the main reason the Republicans lost their majority in 2006. Yet the persistent failure to act as a governing party as opposed to an opposition party is politically dangerous for 2008 Democratic presidential and congressional candidates. Continued resistance by anti-war congressional Democrats to centrist efforts to establish a bipartisan consensus over the way forward in Iraq will result in nothing more than a further erosion of public support for Congress, and perhaps even jeopardize the long-term standing of the Democratic Party.

While it is clear that Congress will renew the debate on a firm timetable to bring troops home, it is hard to deny the falseness of yet another debate over timelines and troop numbers. After all, it is common knowledge that the current levels of U.S. forces cannot continue past the spring of next year without either calling up additional National Guard and Reserve units or extending deployments past 15 months. Both options have been loudly rejected by Army officials, including Army Secretary Pete Geren and more subtly by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey.

Thus while the administration will likely paint the inevitable spring 2008 drawdown as evidence of progress in Iraq, it will simply be an “unsurge” — a reduction of forces to a level the military can better sustain. There will likely be somewhere around 125,000 troops in Iraq by this time next year. However, the “unsurge” is not a strategy. The Senate’s return to the National Defense Authorization Act should be viewed as an opportunity for bipartisan leadership to help define for the American people a more realistic vision of America’s interests in Iraq, and help drive the development of a strategy in Iraq that is achievable.

Congress needs to elevate the debate over Iraq from timelines and troop numbers to America’s enduring interests and core strategic issues. A new authorization would provide both parties an opportunity to find common ground and show the American people their willingness to work together for the good of the country.

Brimley is the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Pierce is a fellow at CNAS and a former defense and foreign policy adviser to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).