by Jonathan Singer, Thu Dec 28, 2006 at 10:05:06 AM EST
In The New York Times today, James Risen offers a paean to Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith, who earlier this month offered a rhetorical attack on American policy in Iraq. To briefly excerpt, Risen calls Smith's "one of the most passionate and surprising speeches about the war in Iraq yet delivered in Congress" and an "incendiary and marked a stunning break with the president". He also writes that "his somber cadence resonated in a way that made political Washington take notice" and that "Mr. Smith may have signaled that some moderate Republicans in the Senate are poised to break openly with the White House on the war, just as President Bush is seeking a new strategy to deal with the bloody stalemate in Iraq."
There is little question that Sen. Smith's speech -- along with the spate of books on Iraq that came out in the late summer and early fall (most notably Bob Woodward's Denial), the growing bloodshed in Iraq, the release of the Iraq Study Group's report, and the election results from November 7 -- helped change the debate over American involvement in the country. No longer does the President use the phrase, "Stay the Course." No longer does the White House insist we are "winning."
Yet while the debate over Iraq has shifted, the reality of the situation -- both on the ground and in Washington -- has not. President Bush is no more willing to begin the redeployment of American troops than he was six months ago; in fact, he is attempting to mount an escalation by sending even more American troops into Iraq. U.S. forces continue to bear an increasingly large burden, with more American soldiers dying every day in Iraq than at any point since April 2004. Significant violent attacks in the country are being systematically underreported, with the ISG finding that on one day in July 93 attacks were reported to have occurred while in reality "a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light more than 1,100 acts of violence."
Changing the tenor of the debate in Washington is neither alleviating the problems in Iraq nor actually forcing the President to take steps towards decreasing American involvement in the country. Even the fact that a majority of Americans support withdrawing troops and that Americans voted Democratic last month, at least in part in the hopes of sending a clear message to Washington that the current Iraq policies cannot be continued, has not been sufficient to cajole policymakers into truly changing course.
Given this situation, it is simply not sufficient to change the debate over Iraq. It's just not good enough. Real policy shifts must occur -- and soon -- so mere declarations and even sense of the House or Senate resolutions will not suffice. This goes both for the Republican "Up for Reelection in 2008/Change of Heart on Iraq" caucus as well as Democrats who genuinely believe in drawing down American forces but have thusfar been unwilling to take the steps necessary to ensure that happens. Congress must hold a vote on a firm timeline for the beginning of withdrawal of American forces. Even if Senate Republicans filibuster such a move, which I assume they would do, then at least there will be a clear record of their support for indefinite American involvement in Iraq.
It's no longer time for talk. It's time for action. Democrats in Congress can and should hold hearings on Iraq, because good policy rests on thorough investigations. But these hearings must culminate with legislation and votes -- not more discussion. Unless the Democrats begin to force the President's hand in one way or another, there will be no change before January 20, 2009.