I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The White House fears an AUMF vote on Iran

It has been obvious for some time now that the Bush administration is signaling to its most extremist supporters that it is committed to waging war against Iran. The President has been giving speeches this week which are almost verbatim copies of the "war-is-inevitable-against-Iraq" speeches he gave at exactly this time four years ago. An ecstatic John Podhoretz finally got the message today:

Bush Will Strike Iran [John Podhoretz]

The president made it unambiguous yesterday that he will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from going nuclear. In my column today, I call his speech the most important of his presidency since he went to the U.N. on September 12, 2002 to call for regime change in Iraq.

In his New York Post column, Podhoretz says this (emphasis added): "barring a miraculous change of heart on the part of the Iranian regime, a military strike is all but inevitable. Bush himself will view his own presidency as a failure if he doesn't act. So act he will." For reasons I set forth the other day, I agree entirely with Podhoretz. I believe the President is now committed to military conflict with Iran and, for that reason, has now boxed himself in by all but publicly vowing to initiate it.

Revealingly, though, the White House is unwilling to really press the issue before the election. The New York Sun today reports, in an article headlined "White House Wary of New War Act For Force in Iran," that the Bush administration is clearly running away from the demand this week by Bill Kristol that Congress vote on a resolution authorizing military force against Iran:

As Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns prepares for a meeting with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in Berlin tomorrow to discuss imposing tough sanctions on Iran, neither the Bush administration nor some of the most hawkish Republicans in Congress are yet willing to consider military force if those sanctions fail to halt Iran's nuclear program. . .

The idea of putting a war resolution against the Islamic Republic to Congress was floated Monday on Fox News by the editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol. . . . "And that would be something, if you did it in the next week or two, that could shake up the election," he added.

Yesterday, however, the proposal received a lukewarm reaction at the White House and from two pro-Bush administration senators.

"As the president has emphasized throughout, we are seeking a diplomatic solution to the problem with the Iranian regime. The president could not have stated it more emphatically on numerous occasions," a spokesman for the National Security Council, Frederick Jones, said.

Another administration official who requested anonymity called the idea "ludicrous" and added, "That's not even a consideration."

The article also reports that Sens. Santorum and Brownback -- two of the most vocal "hawks" on Iran -- are taking great pains to emphasize that they are thinking only about triggering regime change from within, not military action. Sen. Santorum apparently doesn't want Pennsylvania voters voting based on whether they want a new war, this time with Iran.

There is only one reason why the administration and its Congressional loyalists would refuse to have Congress vote on an AUMF for Iran -- because they know Americans don't want a new war. If they thought they could make that case, they would follow the 2002 script which worked so well for them and engineer a vote before the midterm elections, thereby forcing Democrats to vote to authorize the war or be accused of being weak on national security (or, as with Iraq in 2002, both).

But the opposite would happen here. Most Democrats would have no difficulty refusing to authorize a new war, and it is Republicans who would be put in the untenable position of either (a) being perceived as authorizing a whole new war which Americans plainly don't want or (b) opposing the President on national security. As the Sun reports:

Another risk in pressing Congress for a war resolution now is that it could fail to gain enough support.

"Right now the public is vacillating. Something like this, even if it becomes necessary, could well backfire," a conservative foreign policy analyst who requested anonymity said yesterday. "What if the administration can't make the case that Iran is really a menace and the resolution goes down because the CIA sabotages them again?"

So that's all clear enough. The administration has to assure its base that war with Iran is inevitable, but doesn't want that to really be a decisive issue for the election, because they fear (accurately) that they would be on the wrong side with a war-weary American electorate that is extremely angry about the current war in Iraq, let alone averse to a new one. So they are walking this very fine line of feeding their extremist base rhetorically and planning on a war with Iran, while ensuring that the question of whether we want a new war will not be a referendum issue for the midterm election.

Republican strategists obviously recognize the dangerous opening which Democrats have but which, as always, they are thus far either too obtuse or too fearful to exploit. The President has clearly committed to a war with Iran. His most fervent supporters are saying that. He is using exactly the same language and reasoning to justify that war as he used when leading this country into Iraq. If Republicans control both houses of Congress in 2007, a war with Iran is inevitable, all while we continue, as the President vowed, to stay mired in Iraq. But that -- Iran -- is a war which Americans don't want.

It would be truly disgraceful to allow this election to be held without having that issue be front and center. But Democrats are sitting back defensively and passively allowing George Bush and Bill Frist to shape the debate (do we want to appease our Nazi terrorist enemies? do we want aggressive defenses against terrorism?), while Democrats do little other than react defensively ("how dare you accuse us of appeasement" and "we're against terrorism, too, even though we want the President to comply with the law") or use meaningless gimmicks to avoid substantive positions ("we want a no-confidence vote on Don Rumsfeld," as though it's Rumsfeld's "management" that is the problem, or "let's ban al-Maliki from Congress because he condemns Israel").

Democrats need to take a position on these issues of war -- a clear, real position -- and then make that the issue to be voted on. Iraq obviously ought to be front and center, the administration's attempts to pretend that that war doesn't exist notwithstanding. But the President's warmongering agenda is now beyond dispute -- read John Podhoretz, or the President's speeches. Democrats can't let the White House get away with riling up its base with war promises while not paying a price with an electorate that doesn't want more wars.

Democrats need very unambiguously and aggressively to tell Americans that continuing to allow the President's party full and absolute control of our government will -- as the President has essentially vowed -- ensure that we start new wars in our short-term future. Make Americans aware of what is really at stake, offer them that clear contrast, and then make the case as to why allowing the administration to start new wars is both imprudent and dangerous. The White House doesn't want a referendum on a war against Iran for exactly the reason Democrats ought to make it one.

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