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Mission Accomplished: What’s Next for the Democrats?

On Friday, May 2, 2003, President Bush stood behind a banner that proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.” In his remarks, the president told the nation that major combat operations in Iraq have ended. Who will ever forget the president thanking the troops for their “courage and willingness to face danger for your country and for each other”? Bush went on to say that the troops “made this day possible.” Indeed, they have made this moment possible for us to start to bring them home. [IMGCAP(1)]

Four years later, with thousands of Americans dead or wounded, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, and millions afraid to venture to the market or evening prayers, the president has a chance to join Congress in planning for our troops’ return home as recommended in the 2007 emergency supplemental funding bill now before him. Honestly, I just don’t see the picture the president wants us to see — of a free, stable, democratic Iraq without the leadership of the Iraqi government and support of the people. They, too, must want it as badly as the president. If not, why are we still there?

The president has vowed to pull the long-threatened veto pen out of storage and send the 2007 emergency supplemental back to Capitol Hill. Now, the Democrats must regroup and decide what to do next.

I would advise them not to back down, but to use their power to help bring this war and occupation in Iraq to an end.

Although the bill provides everything the president requested, including $91.5 billion for continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House will return it to Congress and demand a “clean” bill. Congressional leaders, who worked hard to pull together the necessary coalition for the bill’s passage, must not agree to White House demands for a watered-down bill without benchmarks and other measures that could in the long term garner bipartisan support.

Republicans on Capitol Hill know we’re not succeeding as planned in Iraq, but once again they have decided to hold their tongues and buy more time. Perhaps they will gain the courage later this year, when Gen. David Petraeus is slated to return to give a report on progress to date. But all you have to do is read the papers and listen to the Iraqis themselves to understand that the will is not there to make the necessary political compromise to secure the peace.

I wonder who really is calling the shots or giving the orders. Is it the commanders on the ground or Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who, according to news reports, is firing people responsible for tamping down on the militias? Is it the generals who have called for longer periods of deployment of our troops while the Iraqi government takes a two-month recess? Go figure?

But can the Democratic leadership — with its shared responsibility under the Constitution to write checks and shape policy— craft a new bill that at a minimum contains the performance benchmarks endorsed by Bush and Iraqi leaders? Will they preserve necessary provisions to ensure that our troops and veterans get the health care and treatment they deserve? As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) observed last week, “After four years of rubber-stamping this administration’s failing policy, this Congress must insist on accountability and a new direction in Iraq. More blank checks from this Congress would constitute an abdication of our responsibility and our duty.”

This Congress must not abdicate its responsibility. With a majority in both chambers now on record supporting a modest timetable for troop withdrawal, there is no reason to mimic the old GOP-controlled Congress by giving the president everything he wants. Despite howls that the troops are running out of ammo and need resources to protect themselves, the Pentagon has enough money to keep operations going until Congress and the president can sit down and come up with a reasonable exit strategy.

The president is expected to veto the bill and then try to wipe the dried ink across the faces of those Members who worked diligently to forge the compromise. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accept the president’s invitation to return to the White House this week, they should apply pressure, reminding him that Congress sent him the money he requested, and that if he vetoes the bill, he may not get another.

If the troops don’t get the money in a timely fashion, Democratic leaders should place the blame on the president who declared mission accomplished four years ago. Today, Americans agree with the Democrats on the war and troop withdrawal. If the president unreasonably vetoes the bill, public pressure might convince some Republicans to vote to override the veto. Even if there ultimately are not enough votes for an override, the fact that a majority continued to call for a responsible date of withdrawal should serve as a rebuke to those seeking to stay the course.

To those Democrats who want the war to end, the time to speak up is now. It’s time to send a message to the leadership and demand another up-or-down vote on a bill that stands for what is right. Go public and defend your position and let the public dictate responsible action. If necessary, send a two-month funding bill and prepare to make the case to bring this war to an end. The war is not just lost, it’s over unless and until the Iraqi government begins to negotiate a political reconciliation.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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