Our Leaders Must Find A Balance on Iraq

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007
As Congress asserts itself on the war in Iraq, the White House has responded with irritation. The stalemate between these two branches of government is good neither for the Congress nor the White House, and it is certainly no good for the country. 

The Bush Administration's verdict on the recently passed House and Senate Iraq supplemental spending bills was swift and stern. One White House spokesman said, "You've got to ask yourself, why go through this long, drawn-out exercise of going and wheeling and cajoling and trying to buy votes within your own party when, in fact, you know it's not going to go anywhere?" Another said, "I think the founders of our nation had great foresight in realizing that it would be better to have one commander in chief managing a war, rather than 535 generals on Capitol Hill trying to do the same." 

Yet the founders of our nation never envisioned an unfettered president making unilateral decisions about American lives and military power. They did indeed make the president the commander in chief, but they gave to Congress the responsibility for declaring war, for making rules governing our land and naval forces, for overseeing policy, and — of course — the ability to fund war or to cease funding it. In other words, they set up a constitutional balance of powers that requires cooperation between both branches of government. 

It is hard to find any recognition of this constitutionally mandated cooperation in the White House's recent comments. The President and the leaders of Congress seem unwilling to seek the genuine consultation and pragmatic accommodation necessary to avoid stalemate and produce a more sustainable policy. Instead, each branch views the other as an obstacle to be overcome. 

This is a shame. If treated with the respect required by the Constitution, Congress could play a constructive role in forging a responsible way forward in Iraq. Those 535 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, are the politicians in Washington who have to reckon in an immediate way with the toll this war is taking on our nation. They listen to their constituents' anger and heartfelt doubts; they go to the funerals of men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; they field calls from anguished parents with sons and daughters in harm's way; they visit the veterans' facilities where wounded troops confront the fact that their lives will never be the same. 

Congress shouldn't call all the shots just because it has its ear to the ground. The President is, and should be, the chief actor in the conduct of American foreign policy. But Congress can and should serve as an essential resource and participant in policymaking. 

Congress represents beliefs found in every American community. And the American people have the war in Iraq figured out — they want Iraqis to take responsibility for their future; they want U.S. forces to leave Iraq, but they want them to leave responsibly; they want to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East. In many ways, ordinary Americans have been ahead of their political leadership in coming to grips with the situation in Iraq. 

The war is an American dilemma, not a partisan one or solely a presidential one. We are not going to succeed in charting a responsible transition out of Iraq if the President and Congress are constantly at odds. The President must respect the constitutional role of Congress and its understanding of public opinion. Congress needs to find a balance between responsible criticism and responsible cooperation, supporting the President when it can and opposing him when it feels it must. 

The differences between the President and the Congress are real. But consultation, not confrontation, is the best way to work them out. In the absence of consultation, relations between the President and the Congress become poisonous. Charges and counter-charges dominate the political discourse. Both sides divert their energies toward political battles, rather than policymaking. Americans lose confidence in their government. Meanwhile, Americans continue to serve and die in Iraq. 

The plain fact is that for nearly two years President Bush will have to deal with a Democratic-controlled Congress, while Congress will have to deal with President Bush. Our political leaders have failed the American people on Iraq. If they cannot build bridges between their positions and respect one another's constitutional roles, neither side will succeed, our policy will suffer, and another sorrowful chapter will be added to the history of the Iraq War. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)