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Iraq Plan More Nuanced Than Debate Portrays

The public debate over the Iraq supplemental funding bill fills much of the news media as just about every opinion maker and public official offers their view for or against it — views, which in their starkness, would seem to present little opportunity for common ground.

President Bush said in a recent speech, “If the House bill becomes law, our enemies in Iraq would simply have to mark their calendars. They’d spend the months ahead picking how to use their new — plotting how to use their new safe havens once we were to leave.” Some proponents of the House bill favor legislative language containing a specific date for troop withdrawal as a way of getting U.S. troops home and America’s role in the war ended. And so the debate continues, the rhetorical temperature rises, and hope flimsily rests on the illusion that whichever side speaks loudest from the most prominent bully pulpit will somehow prevail.

But here is the problem with this debate, and also the opportunity for its resolution: The House bill language does not contain a date for all U.S. troops to come home. When in doubt, read the bill. Admittedly, the language in this bill is cumbersome and could have been written more clearly. While two alternative timelines for redeployment of our troops are contained in the bill, depending on whether the president makes certain certifications, very broad tasks for American troops in Iraq are specifically authorized at a troop strength level without limitation in number or time. And this language specifically notes the secretary of Defense’s authority for future deployments.

Under the House bill, there is no restriction in number or time on U.S. troops that may be involved in training. Currently, approximately 5,000 U.S. troops are engaged in training Iraqi Security Forces, and the number is expected to increase. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that these fine Americans are somehow without risk as trainers. Accompanying Iraqi combat troops into combat can be deadly.

Under the House bill, there is no restriction on the number of U.S. troops that may be deployed and maintained to protect U.S. troops, including these trainers. Depending on how our trainers are distributed throughout Baghdad and Iraq, there will be a need for tens of thousands of U.S. troops to be available with combat support to protect our trainers involved in the multiple simultaneous military missions with Iraqi troops.

Under the House bill there is no restriction on the number of U.S. troops that may be deployed and maintained to protect non-military American citizens. I have had difficulty obtaining reliable information on the number of contract employees, non-governmental organization employees, business people and U.S. government civilian employees such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq trying to move things along toward a democratic, and safe, market-economy nation. But the number is substantial. Unless these people are successful, the likelihood of success in Iraq is small. And their likelihood of success is zero if they are not protected as they venture outside the Green Zone. The House bill contains no limit on the number of American civilians that may be in Iraq now or in the future and no limit on the number of troops the secretary of Defense may decide must be available to protect them.

Under the House bill there is no restriction on the number of U.S. troops that may be deployed and maintained to go after “al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations with global reach.” I will leave it to military minds to estimate the number of troops that might be helpful along the borders and in central Iraq going after those foreign fighters with a terrorist agenda. And remember, under the House bill there is no limit on the number of U.S. troops that may be deployed to protect the U.S. troops assigned this mission.

There is no date certain set by the bill’s language for complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. What the bill does say is that sometime toward mid-fall 2008, over a year from today, U.S. troops must no longer be involved in U.S.-led combat operations against Iraqi insurgents. The bill gives the secretary of Defense authority and discretion to have large numbers of troops in Iraq in the capacities outlined above — as long as they are not doing combat operations against Iraqi insurgents, unless as part of a training responsibility with Iraqi security forces.

The language of the House bill is more nuanced than the current public debate portrays, and that is a problem because it makes the debate not a tool helpful to resolving the divide. But it also presents an opportunity. Seasoned negotiators and defense experts in the Congressional leadership and the administration ought to get together soon and look for common ground. Such a resolution will be much easier to find if the starting point for defining differences is what is contained in the bill, not what advocates on both sides inaccurately tell us is in the bill.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, is chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel and also serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

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