Rick Holmes: No vacation from war

Rick Holmes

It's August, and everyone's on vacation. George W. Bush is hanging with Mom and Dad in Kennebunkport before heading for Crawford. Members of the Iraqi parliament are hiding out in their second homes in England, Iran and Dubai. And members of Congress are back in their districts, facing a surly public.

There's not much bipartisanship in Washington, but back home, Republicans and Democrats appear to agree: Just 33 percent approve of the job Congress is doing in a recent Pew poll, which is almost as bad as Bush's 29 percent approval rating.

Congress left Washington on a sour note. While Democrats were trying to celebrate their accomplishments since taking control in January with some last minute victories, the House erupted in name-calling over what Republicans called Speaker Nancy Pelosi's heavy-handed tactics and Bush pushed through a bill that puts our civil liberties in the suspect hands of Alberto Gonzales.

"We trashed the Constitution," says Rep. Jim McGovern. "We have just lost a whole bunch of our liberties."

The new law, the Worcester Democrat explains, grants permission to the feds to tap the phone of any American who makes an overseas phone call - without ever going before a judge. Congress signed off on practices the Bush administration won't even disclose to Congress.

McGovern says other Democrats voted for the bill not because they believe in it, but out of fear. "If I vote against it, I can't explain it at home," they said.

Republicans are using a well-worn playbook to attack Congressional Democrats. They've done everything possible to stop the Democrats from accomplishing anything, then turn around and blast them for not accomplishing anything. Democrats did the same thing when Republicans were in charge.

The Democrats have some achievements to brag about. They raised the federal minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. They wrote the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission into law. They have put Congressional oversight, nonexistent for the last four years, back in the picture.

Besides, Congress sits for two years and writing laws takes time. Whoever said the Democrats were supposed to fix everything in seven months? Democrats are making progress on a conservation-based energy bill, on making higher education more affordable, on a host of other issues.

Back at home, Democrats aren't buying it. They say the new leadership in Congress hasn't delivered on the issue that matters most: the war in Iraq.

As the second-ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, McGovern knows the nuts-and-bolts of the legislative process as well as anyone. He's had experience obstructing Republican progress and he knows how hard it is to get the 217 votes it takes to get something passed. But he makes no excuses.

"People have lost patience," he says, "and they are right."

McGovern is one of those people Bush and his enablers would like to pretend doesn't exist: a Democrat who got it right about Iraq from the start. He never bought Bush's preemptive war doctrine or the hype about Saddam's WMD. He argued passionately against authorizing Bush to go to war.

Invading Iraq was a stupid idea from the start, and McGovern said so. All the things he said could go wrong did, along with a few more: Everyone underestimated the incompetence of the people running the U.S. occupation. The longer we stay, he says, the worse it gets.

He isn't buying the hype about the current surge, either. Now we have 190,000 weapons that disappeared on their way to the Iraqi security forces, he notes. Those guns are in the hands of people who'll use them against our troops or against each other.

And who was in charge of putting those guns into the hands of the Iraqi security forces? Gen. David Petraeus, the genius Bush has charged with saving the day in Iraq.

And even Petraeus says his troops can't stabilize Iraq. All they can do is buy time for the Iraqi government to get its act together, and that's not happening. Not only is the Iraqi parliament on vacation, all the members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet connected to Sunni factions have quit.

"I wouldn't trust the Maliki government to tell me the time," McGovern says. "It's corrupt and it's got secret militias out killing their enemies."

Last May, McGovern rounded up 171 House votes for his resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Come September, when Bush is expected to come to Congress for more money to support the surge, McGovern expects to have more votes on his side.

His advice to Pelosi, he says, will be to refuse to appropriate another dime until Bush comes up with an exit strategy.

That's next month, when the battle to stop the war resumes. Now it's August, when everyone's on vacation - including me, for the next two weeks. Everyone, that is, except for the thousands of Americans and Iraqis who are fighting, bleeding and dying in the blistering heat of the Mesopotamian summer.

Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.