The next and perhaps last big debate on Iraq War policy has come into focus in recent weeks, as the Bush administration has made several moves to secure a long-term military presence in the war-torn country.
A new White House effort to negotiate a long-term military-to-military relationship with the Iraqi government - to replace the current U.N. Mandate - has congressional Democrats and war opponents up in arms. Constitutionally, they say, it is Congress' right to weigh in on such agreements. Moreover, they add, anything that codifies America's continuing presence in the region would be unfairly tying the hands of Bush's successor.
"This is an opportunity to really draw the distinctions between those of us who want to bring this to a responsible but expeditious conclusion, and extricate ourselves from the quagmire that is Iraq," Rep. Bill Delahunt, who held hearings this week on the issue of U.S. military permanency in Iraq, told the Huffington Post. "On the other hand you have this Bush-Cheney gang that is, even at the end, moving forward with its pension for secrecy in a ways that leaves Congress, the institution of Congress, not knowing what might be the most important foreign policy issue facing the country."
Despite long-held fears that U.S. policy in Iraq was geared towards permanency (legislation has been drawn up prohibiting it), the battle lines over the issue have been drawn surprisingly recently. In November, the White House and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki released a joint statement that declared the principles of "friendship and cooperation." The document did not reference any specific military agreement. But the writing was on the wall. Around that time, General Douglas Lute, the Bush administration's "war czar", said that any "security" agreement the U.S. struck with Iraq did not require Congressional input.
Democrats in Congress were outraged. Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, penned a letter to President Bush asking for information about any long-term agreement and demanding that he consult with Congress. On the campaign trail, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, asked her challenger, Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL, to co-sponsor her bill that would prevent the president from entering into such a pact without Congress' approval. The primary opponents found an area of agreement.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, introduced similar legislation that would restrict federal money for any such agreement unless it came in the form of a congressionally approved treaty.
"The idea that one individual should be able to determine the United States policy towards Iraq for the next 10, 15, 20 years raises serious concerns," DeLauro told the Huffington Post. "This legislation ensures that Congress has a role in determining our policy, by requiring that the Bush administration consults with Congress before moving forward with any agreement that could lead to long term security arrangements and other major economic and political commitments, and makes clear that any such agreement must come in the form of a treaty."
As opposed to earlier battles over Iraq war funding and timelines for troop withdrawals, war opponents see the fight over long-term bases as a battle with promise. Indeed, an incentive exists among Republicans in Congress to push back against the Bush administration - if not out of opposition to the war, then out of a sense of balance-of-powers pride.
As Delahunt phrased it: "There is just no trust between the presidency and Congress at this point."
The arguments are already being honed. Long-term military investments in Iraq would cost the United States billions of dollars. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that having 55,000 troops in the country through 2018 would push war cost of the war to over $1 trillion. And as former Rep. Tom Andrews, who currently heads the group Win Without War, points out: "In very short order we will have 4,000 deaths, and the fact is, you have to ask the question, what for?"
Finally, there is the concern that clamping down in the Middle East would be a strategic error that violates our principles, in line with France's military presence in Indochina.
"Our troops will have to be garrisoned outside the cities behind high walls," former Senator Gary Hart told the Huffington Post. "We will be sitting ducks -- targets if we go outside the walls of our fortresses, targets for mortar and rocket attack if we stay inside... [Democrats] need to make the issue one of empire, which instinctively the American people understand and resist. We cannot simultaneously salute the flag of a Republic and behave as an empire."
Of course, in any battle over foreign policy, the concern exists that the president will operate off a narrow interpretation of executive privilege, ignoring congressional objections. On Friday, The New York Times reported that "the Bush administration will insist that the government in Baghdad give the United States broad authority to conduct combat operations and guarantee civilian contractors specific legal protections from Iraqi law," despite howls from the legislative branch.
And while DeLauro and others are attempting to restrict the funds with which the president can operate, the possibility certainly exists that he will convince enough Republicans to fall in line. After all, having been elected in 2006 to change the course of the Iraq War, the Democratic Congress has, for a large part, come up empty handed thanks to GOP opposition.
"There is some sense of fatalism," Andrews said of the feeling on Capitol Hill. "That we've tried this and we've tried it again and again. And there is only so much that one can do under these circumstances. But, we argue that, the Congress can create political circumstances to make effective change."