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November 15, 2005
Senate GOP Plays Smart Tactics, Not Surrender (Updated)

Several CQ readers point out this article in today's New York Times, angry at what appears to be yet another Republican surrender to the Democrats on the national stage. The GOP has introduced a measure that will require the White House to publicly lay out a victory in Iraq and some sort of plan for the phased withdrawal of troops afterwards:

In a sign of increasing unease among Congressional Republicans over the war in Iraq, the Senate is to consider on Tuesday a Republican proposal that calls for Iraqi forces to take the lead next year in securing the nation and for the Bush administration to lay out its strategy for ending the war. ...

The proposal on the Iraq war, from Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, and Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would require the administration to provide extensive new quarterly reports to Congress on subjects like progress in bringing in other countries to help stabilize Iraq. The other appeals related to Iraq are nonbinding and express the position of the Senate.

The plan stops short of a competing Democratic proposal that moves toward establishing dates for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But it is built upon the Democratic approach and makes it clear that senators of both parties are increasingly eager for Iraqis to take control of their country in coming months and open the door to removing American troops.

The Senate will debate two different bills. This measure comes in response to a Democratic proposal that would set a specific timetable for troop withdrawals, a bad idea that doesn't take into account Iraqi troop strength or on-the-ground status of the insurgency and native forces. Republicans want to stay ahead of the Democrats in war management, and this keeps the GOP in the lead.

It isn't unreasonable to have Congress call for some accounting from the White House on the status of Iraq, given the 150,000 troops currently deployed on a police mission there. It doesn't have to be a net negative for Bush to come to the Senate to present his side of the story; as the events this past week have shown, the President can use that kind of platform to correct many distortions of his record and the state of the effort in Iraq. Given the frustration many in the GOP feel with the White House in communicating all the good that our intervention has created, it sounds like a very good idea indeed, one that might be cast as a long-overdue bullhorn.

The second part of the GOP effort, however, does seem more like surrender:

The Senate is also scheduled to vote Tuesday on a compromise, announced Monday night, that would allow terror detainees some access to federal courts. The Senate had voted last week to prohibit those being held from challenging their detentions in federal court, despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is the author of the initial plan, said Monday that he had negotiated a compromise that would allow detainees at Guantnamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their designation as enemy combatants in federal courts and also allow automatic appeals of any convictions handed down by the military where detainees receive prison terms of 10 years or more or a death sentence.

It depends on the manner of the capture of these detainees as to whether they should have access to federal court and how much jurisdiction those courts should be given. Those captured in open battle against American troops, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, should have none. We do not want to treat battlefield captures as arrests, and have defense attorneys issuing subpoenas to American soldiers for courtroom testimony. Terrorists captured under these circumstances should either be shot on capture -- as provided by the Geneva accords -- or handled strictly within the military.

I can see a point in making a distinction for those caught by the CIA and FBI, however. Those do not qualify as enemy combatants in the manner of the detainees described above, and really fall into the category of espionage/sabotage agents, which traditionally have had their cases heard in civilian courts. If the Lindsay Graham measure allows for strict secrecy on agents and methods, and only allows access to the appellate system for its public review and not fact-finding, then it could be an acceptable compromise.

I would hesitate in reading either as a capitulation in any circumstance. The former looks like an excellent tactical play on behalf of the White House by the Republican caucus, while the latter -- in light of the Supreme Court ruling which it hopes to replace -- may be the best retrieval possible of a bad situation.

UPDATE: CQ readers strongly disagree with me, as does Hugh Hewitt and most of the conservative blogosphere on this point. Well, I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again, but bear with me for a moment on this.

I will grant everyone that in this hyperpartisan atmosphere, any attempt to find a middle ground looks like surrender, and very well might be surrender. However, I think when readers check out the entire NYT article, John Warner's assurance that the Republican version of this bill will set no timetables for withdrawal marks an important difference. It respects the executive's prerogrative to run the war, but also preserves the people's prerogative to have the executive report on its progress on a regular basis. In this case, with the Iraqi government talking about the withdrawal of American troops next year, it doesn't sound unreasonable for the White House to consult Congress in such a manner.

Many of us have felt a huge amount of dissatisfaction with the communication from the White House on the great work our men and women in Iraq do on a daily basis. This would give an excellent forum for the Bush administration to highlight all of that as well as to continually drive home the goals for the Iraq phase of the war on terror, which they have generally only done when they could no longer avoid doing so for political reasons.

I am no great fan of the Senate GOP leadership, but when faced with an increasingly skeptical public, a more or less silent White House, and the Democratic initiative to force a timetable from Bush, this might be the best of a bad situation. At least, as I wrote above, it doesn't have to be a net negative.

I urge people to read through the excellent comments disagreeing with me from the CQ community. If nothing else, it proves that Captain's Quarters is no echo chamber. Be sure to check out Hugh's post for contact information if you want to protest the Republican action in the Senate.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 15, 2005 6:31 AM

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