Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Cindy Sheehan to Congress: It's Time to Do Your Job
Arianna Huffington
Cindy Sheehan to Congress: It's Time to Do Your Job

By any measure, Cindy Sheehan's Crawford vigil has been a triumph, capturing the attention of the nation and finally making Iraq the focus of a much-needed national debate. Not bad for a plain-spoken mom in a floppy hat.

Now she is taking her protest to the next level, helping to organize a bus tour of key congressional districts and sending letters to every member of Congress, asking them to meet with her and her fellow grieving parents -- and to hold the president accountable for his disastrous policies in Iraq.

As she puts it in her letter: "The President has not been willing to meet with me, but he must meet and listen to you."

It seems like an obvious reminder -- "Hey, guys... you've got the power!" -- but it's a message our elected representatives apparently need to be hit over the head with. They've abdicated their constitutional power -- and responsibility -- for far too long, and its time for them to flex those underused oversight muscles again.

Sheehan's timing couldn't be better. Lawmakers have gotten an earful from their constituents over the August recess -- increasing numbers of whom are deeply frustrated with the lack of progress in Iraq and fed up with the president's "stay the course" mantra. With a majority of Americans now against the war -- and 56 percent saying they favor the withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops from Iraq -- things could be nearing a tipping point.

Now, I'm not saying that members of Congress are going to return to D.C. next week and suddenly vote to end the war. But they might be ready to at least start doing their job.

Sen. John Warner has announced plans to grill Don Rumsfeld about the lack of progress in Iraq. Rep. Walter Jones and his 45 co-sponsors are still trying to get their "Homeward Bound" withdrawal from Iraq resolution out of committee. And Sen. Byron Dorgan is still pushing for a new Truman-style Commission to investigate wasteful spending in Iraq. He plans to attach a Truman Commission amendment to the defense authorization bill that Congress will take up upon its return, along with a defense appropriations bill that includes an additional $45.3 billion in funds for Iraq and Afghanistan.

This, of course, is the critical power that Congress possesses -- the power of the purse strings. That was ultimately what precipitated the end of the war in Vietnam -- a 1973 vote cutting off the funds for the bombing of Cambodia over the objections of Henry Kissinger, who warned that lack of congressional support would make it impossible to negotiate a lasting settlement. Sound familiar? The words of then Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield should be required reading for all current members of Congress: "The only way to face up to our responsibilities, the only way to do it effectively, is to cut the purse strings."

Republican leaders, increasingly concerned that Iraq could become the losing issue in 2006 (you know they're getting nervous when even Rick Santorum admits to "concerns" over the administration's handling of the war), would also be well advised to study the words and deeds of another Vietnam era figure, Sen. William Fulbright. As the powerful Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Fulbright took on LBJ, holding nationally televised hearings to debate war. The hearings, in the words of historian Barton Bernstein, "legitimized dissent" and galvanized public opposition to the Vietnam war.

Here's Fulbright on the purpose of the hearings: "Under our system Congress, and especially the Senate, shares responsibility with the President for making our nation's foreign policy. This war, however, started and continues as a Presidential war in which the Congress, since the fraudulent Gulf of Tonkin episode, has not played a significant role… The purpose of these hearings is to develop the best advice and greater public understanding of the policy alternatives available and positive congressional action to end American participation in the war." Substitute "WMD claims" for the Gulf of Tonkin episode and some courageous GOP senator has a ready-made opening for the modern equivalent of the Fulbright hearings.

So who will be the Fulbright of Iraq? Warner? Not likely, given that he's still dismissing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. John McCain? Sadly not, since he wants to send 15,000 to 20,000 more troops to Iraq.

The Boston Globe's Derrick Jackson makes a strong case that it could be Sen. Chuck Hagel, whom Jackson calls "the principled face of revulsion from within." It's a comparison that Hagel himself seems to be embracing, quoting Fulbright about the hearings in a speech earlier this year. And unlike Warner, Hagel, a Purple Heart Vietnam vet, sees the parallels between the two wars. ''I watched 58,000 Americans get chewed up," he said on Meet the Press last month, "during a time when in fact we had a policy that was losing. And the members of Congress were interestingly silent and absent in asking tough questions. As long as I'm a United States senator, I will do everything I can to ensure that we have a policy worthy of these brave young men and women who are sacrificing their lives and doing the things that they do for this country. I don't think that policy is there today."

Sounds like a man ready for his close-up -- and fed up with an administration that has treated Congress "like a nuisance." He's already said that President Bush should have met with Cindy Sheehan. Maybe he, like Cindy, will now take it to the next level.