Sen. Levin's False History & Logic
If you’re wondering why the Iraq War is likely to continue indefinitely despite mounting public outrage and a failed military strategy, part of the answer can be found in two words: Carl Levin.
Levin, a low-key Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has wedded himself to a line of thinking that is both historically wrong and logically unsound. Yet, his faulty reasoning, if maintained, virtually guarantees that George W. Bush will keep winning every war-funding round with Congress through the end of his presidency.
On June 21, Levin spelled out his thinking in a Washington Post op-ed entitled “Lincoln’s Example for Iraq.” Levin asserted that he is modeling his Iraq War position on Abraham Lincoln’s stance on the Mexican War, launched by President James Polk in 1846 after a declaration of war by Congress.
“In his only term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln was an ardent opponent of the Mexican War,” including voting for an amendment that called the conflict “unnecessary and unconstitutionally begun by the President,” Levin wrote.
Yet, Levin noted, “when the question of funding for the troops fighting that war came, Lincoln voted their supplies without hesitation.” Levin likens Lincoln’s anti-war position to his own, since the Michigan senator opposed President Bush’s war resolution in 2002 but has vowed to continue voting money for the troops as long as they remain in the field.
But what Levin doesn’t tell you is that the Lincoln example is by no means an historical parallel to Levin’s position on the Iraq War. For one, Lincoln wasn’t even in Congress when the war with Mexico was declared on May 13, 1846. Lincoln took his seat in the House of Representatives on Dec. 6, 1847.
By then, the war with Mexico was already won. The decisive battle of Chapultepec was fought almost three months earlier, on Sept. 12, 1847, and American forces entered Mexico City on Sept. 14.
Though there was a delay in negotiating a final peace treaty due to the political chaos in the Mexican leadership, the war was effectively over. So, Lincoln’s readiness to supply the troops was not a vote for continuing an indefinite war with Mexico; it was simply to send supplies while a final peace treaty was negotiated.
The peace treaty was signed in the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo, near Mexico City, on Feb. 2, 1848, formally ending a conflict that had lasted less than two years. By contrast, the Iraq War has dragged on for more than four years with no end in sight.
In other words, Levin is historically wrong when he uses Lincoln’s stand on the Mexican War to justify his own on the Iraq War. While Levin says he will give President Bush a blank check as long as the Iraq War continues, there is no reason to believe that Congressman Lincoln would have done the same for President Polk if that Commander in Chier were set on a bloody, indefinite occupation of the entire Mexican countryside.
Besides Levin’s bogus history lesson, the five-term senator also seems to misunderstand how Congress works.
Having ruled out a termination of war funding, Levin suggests that the only viable course for ending the Iraq War is to convince enough Republicans to join Democrats in setting a date for withdrawing and repositioning U.S. forces.
“By setting a policy that begins with putting into law a timetable for starting a troop reduction, rather than trying to stop funding, we offer the best chance for stabilizing a country that we invaded while also sending the message to our troops that, even though we oppose the President’s policy, we are united behind them,” Levin wrote.
Levin also noted that support for a withdrawal timetable “has grown steadily,” attracting 51 votes – including two Republicans – in April 2007, rising from 39 votes in June 2006 and 48 in March 2007.
By contrast, he observed, that in May, only 29 senators – all Democrats – voted against giving Bush the $100 billion that he demanded with virtually no strings attached. Levin joined the majority in voting the blank check, which many anti-war Democrats viewed as a betrayal and a capitulation.
Referring to the 29 no votes, Levin added, “that’s a long way from the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster or the 67 needed to override a veto.”
But Levin’s logic is wrong again. While his proposal – to impose a troop withdrawal deadline – would require 60 votes to stop a Republican filibuster and then would need 67 votes to overcome Bush’s certain veto, the same is not true for a war-funding cut-off.
To secure the money to continue fighting the war, Bush is the one who needs majorities in both the House and the Senate. Indeed, arguably, he would need 60 votes in the Senate to end a filibuster if anti-war senators mounted one.
More likely, however, if faced with a determined Democratic majority, Bush would have no choice but to seek a compromise in order to get at least some of what he wants.
In other words, if the Democrats were to hold firm against giving Bush another blank check – as their leaders vowed to do in early 2007 – Bush would have to decide between accepting some strings, such as a withdrawal timetable, or getting no money at all, thus forcing an end to the war.
By contrast, Levin’s “strategy” amounts to running up the white flag at the beginning of the battle, telling Bush that the Democrats will cave in if he sticks to his guns. That approach proved disastrous in May when Democrats retreated tails between their legs and Bush celebrated their humiliation.
After that debacle, not only was the Democratic “base” furious but public opinion polls showed a drastic drop-off in support of the Democratic-controlled Congress. A similar round of feckless posturing this fall will only harden the voters’ contempt, thus playing into Republican hands for Election 2008.
Yet a reprise of the May catastrophe is exactly what Levin is promising with his false analogy to Lincoln and the Mexican War.
Indeed, Levin appears to have unfurled what looks like a perpetual white flag of surrender. In his Post op-ed, he declared that the only option he sees is to wait until enough Republicans abandon Bush and join in overriding the President’s veto of another timetable bill.
“Until that day, we will continue to fund the troops, following the example so wisely set by Abraham Lincoln 160 years ago,” Levin wrote.
But chances of a mass Republican defection from Bush appear highly unlikely. Indeed, the Republicans have maintained a much stricter discipline over their members, even those in strongly anti-war states, than the Democrats have.
So, Levin – holding a key position as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and trusting in his misguided historical analogy – appears ready to let the killing go on.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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