Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Seeking a Better Debate

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 20 June 2006

The Republican majority in Congress labored mightily last week to derail and distract any discussion of an exit strategy from Iraq. In the House of Representatives, a debate aimed at whether or not to establish a timetable for withdrawal collapsed under a rhetorical onslaught from the Right. In order to adequately describe the experience of watching the so-called House "debate" on June 15th, it is necessary to crib a line from Harper Lee: enduring that utterly empty proceeding left one with the sensation of sinking slowly to the bottom of the ocean.

On the same day, the Senate saw Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) abscond with a measure soon to be proposed by John Kerry (D-Mass.) which would have virtually all American troops removed from Iraq by year's end. McConnell's theft ensured that the measure died a swift death.

The debates in both chambers were redirected by strategy memos, prepared specifically for Republicans by Republicans, that outlined stay-the-course talking points. In the House, Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) distributed a memo that required GOP members to bring 9/11 into the discussion as often as possible while attacking Democrats as weak and vacillating. The debate was redirected in this fashion with dreary regularity. In the end, a measure to establish a timetable for withdrawal was defeated by a vote of 256-153.

In the Senate, a similar strategy memo was distributed by the Pentagon in preparation for debate over the McConnell measure. The initiation of the Senate debate was unexpected, a tactical move similar to the one brought against John Murtha (D-Pa.) when he proposed a withdrawal plan this past winter. McConnell's measure was a deliberately paler shadow of the plan soon to be proposed by Kerry, which guaranteed its ultimate defeat by a vote of 93-6.

The presentation of Iraq talking points delivered by the Pentagon brought a scathing denunciation from Senator Kerry. "This is disgusting proof that Republicans are thinking about the politics of Iraq instead of a real debate about the security of our troops," said Kerry in a statement released on Friday. "This is how we got into the Iraq mess in the first place. American soldiers are being killed every day in Iraq but somehow Donald Rumsfeld's crew at the Pentagon has time to write ridiculous talking points that won't do a thing for young Americans caught in the crossfire. Add this to Karl Rove's partisan cheerleading and it's pretty clear where their priorities are. Pathetic. Rumsfeld needs to get focused on our troops, not pages of hollow words and talking points."

The empty debate in the House brought down a similar denunciation from Congressman Murtha. Murtha was inspired to respond after presidential adviser Karl Rove delivered a weekend speech in New Hampshire, during which he painted Democrats as cowards. "They may be with you at the first shots," said Rove, "but they are not going to be there for the last tough battles."

Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran, would have none of it. "He's making a political speech," Murtha said of Rove's comments during Sunday's edition of "Meet the Press." "He's sitting in his air-conditioned office with his big, fat backside, saying, 'Stay the course.' That's not a plan. We've got to change direction, that's what we have to do. You can't, you can't sit there in the air-conditioned office and tell these troops they're carrying 70 pounds on their back inside these armored vessels and hit with IEDs every day, seeing their friends blown up, their buddies blown up, and he says, 'Stay the course.' Yeah, it's easy to say that from Washington, DC."

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake, and further believe that a withdrawal of our forces is absolutely necessary. Anyone observing what took place in Congress last week cannot deny that the Republican majority has no intention of seeing those desires brought to fruition. The so-called "debate" was little more than an endorsement for more of the same in Iraq. So long as these people are in the majority, the dying and the waste and the immeasurable danger to our national security generated by this occupation will continue with no end in sight.

Congressional Republicans felt confident in their ability to deflect any serious talk of an exit strategy last week because of division within Democratic ranks on the issue. Last week, this Republican confidence was rewarded. The division has paralyzed the Democrats on Iraq to date, and is reflected in the recent release of the Democratic platform for the upcoming midterm elections.

Titled "A New Direction for America," the platform outlines plans to increase the minimum wage, fund stem-cell research, cut student-loan interest rates by half, defend a woman's right to choose, along with a variety of other line-items that will be brought to the fore should the Democrats re-take the House. "This," said minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) upon the release of the platform, "is a unified Democratic message."

Indeed. Every item listed on this platform conforms to the basic, fundamental ideals championed by the Democrats. The word "Iraq," however, appears nowhere in the document. The closest they got to addressing the principal issue of our day was one sentence: "Focus national security strategy to nation's borders, increase port security."

That was it.

This week, however, is another matter entirely. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have extended the debate with legislation calling for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a shifting of forces to other nations, with a small contingent remaining in Iraq to train Iraqi troops. The resolution requires Bush to establish a redeployment plan for troops remaining in Iraq after 2006. Senator Kerry is also pressing ahead with his resolution to have virtually all American troops withdrawn from Iraq by December 31st.

The Republican-controlled Congressional debate last week was a farce, a cruel insult delivered on the very day the number of American troops killed in Iraq reached 2,500 souls. The continuing debate this week offers far more substance, thanks entirely to those Democrats who have established a strong legislative agenda on the issue. The Democratic Party is working out how and when a withdrawal from Iraq should take place, but they are united behind the fundamental premise that an exit strategy is absolutely required. The Democratic measures being offered in Congress serve to push this all-important debate in the proper direction.

William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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