U.S. Congress’ Iraq struggle evokes Vietnam years

 A large portrait of Mike Mansfield, dogged Democratic foe of the Vietnam war, hangs near the U.S. Senate chamber where a new generation of Democrats is trying to stop another unpopular conflict — in Iraq.But Democrats who look back at Mansfield’s experience may not be encouraged. As Senate majority leader from 1961-1977, he tried many times publicly and privately to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Congress spent years debating a slew of resolutions and funding limits on the Indochina war but failed to stop it or cut off funding for all combat operations until after the United States pulled its ground troops out of Vietnam in 1973.

“I think Mansfield’s experience shows that political persuasion can only go so far if a president refuses to be persuaded,” said Don Oberdorfer, who wrote a biography of the Montana lawmaker who died in 2001.

“Mansfield considered the war in Vietnam to be the greatest tragedy of his times and his inability to head it off, his greatest failure,” said Oberdorfer, a journalist and professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

Decades later, Congress again is skirmishing over how to bring Americans home from a war the public largely opposes but that the president insists is a noble mission and many lawmakers say cannot be abandoned.

The four-year-old war in Iraq has revived constitutional arguments about the limits of congressional and presidential powers. Congress declares war and controls funding, but President George W. Bush is commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces.

The Democratic-controlled House voted last month to denounce Bush’s Iraq troop buildup. The Senate, despite having a 51-49 Democratic majority, bogged down on procedural rules and failed to follow suit.

Some House Democrats now want to attach conditions to the nearly $100 billion spending bill for military operations in Iraq, to be debated later this month. But others do not want to do anything that could be construed as undermining support for U.S. troops abroad.


“There were 31 kicks of the cat with Vietnam. We’re on kick number three here,” Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that oversees spending, said on Wednesday as he and his colleagues sought consensus on their next move on Iraq.

During the Indochina conflict, Congress considered 21 proposals to restrict funding for military operations between 1970 and 1973, but only five were enacted, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

A 1971 provision, for example, prohibited using any appropriated funds to reintroduce U.S. ground troops into Cambodia.

There were also proposals that urged the president to withdraw forces, terminate military operations, seek congressional authorization for military operations and set a date for U.S. troop withdrawals.

President Richard Nixon was drawing down U.S. troops from 1969 onwards but set no goal for total withdrawal. Only after U.S. ground forces withdrew following 1973 peace accords did Congress cut off combat funds, to keep Nixon from reintroducing U.S. troops and to stop the bombing of Cambodia, the CRS said.

In 1975, after Congress refused to send more aid to South Vietnam, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

“In a sense, the Vietnam experience just reiterates the obvious. Foreign and national security policy are nearly impossible to make from Capitol Hill,” said Bradford Berenson, who was a White House associate counsel in Bush’s first term.

Some see it differently.

“Vietnam did come to an end because of an act of Congress,” when it refused to send more aid to South Vietnam, said Walter Dellinger, who was acting solicitor general, the government’s chief advocate before the Supreme Court, under then-President Bill Clinton. “It could have ended a lot earlier.”

One senator said current congressional pressure may have produced some results by helping goad the Bush administration into agreeing to attend a regional conference on Iraq to which Iran and Syria are also invited.

Bush has resisted dialogue with the two countries, which the administration accuses of fueling violence in Iraq.

“There’s something going on here,” said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who opposes the Iraq war. “Maybe we’re not the catalyst but we’re certainly part of it.”

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