Public discussion of America’s role in Iraq, to the extent there is any, has hardly been edifying. In fact, it’s barely been tethered to reality. Hillary Clinton, during the recent prime-time NBC forum on foreign policy, pledged that “we’re not going to put ground troops in Iraq ever again”—a vow seemingly at odds with the presence of some 5,000 U.S. troops there now, albeit technically in non-combat roles, not to mention requests from military leaders for hundreds more. Donald Trump, the same evening, called for militarily seizing Iraq’s oil fields, in the face of international law and logistical reality.
As for the current president; well, to hear Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton tell it, the Barack Obama administration has been muddling along without a defined political strategy for Iraq’s future. That clear plan is needed, Moulton has argued, to provide the context for making decisions about our military involvement.
Moulton, a veteran who served in Iraq, and who now sits of the House Armed Services Committee, has visited Iraq three times since taking office less than two years ago.
Giving up, finally, on hearing a strategic plan from the administration, Moulton offered his own last week, in a speech at the United States Institute of Peace. The plan is posted on his web site.
“I’ve been banging on the doors of the administration, asking them to put forward a strategy,” Moulton told me in a telephone interview.
Moulton also expresses disappointment in the absence of a strategic plan for Iraq from Clinton, who he has endorsed, though he told me that he has confidence that Clinton herself, as well as those advising her, understand the approach needed going forward.
And if either Obama or Clinton were annoyed with the brash freshman congressman, for putting forward his own plan to highlight their lack of one, they haven’t shown it.
“I have not had one phone call with blowback” from the speech, he said. “I would tell you if I had.”
In fact, he says, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—a strong supporter and confidant of Clinton’s—called him with praise two days after he gave the speech.
“She said she loved it, and wants to show it to people,” he said.
Moulton’s four-part plan focuses on defining what a stable Iraq should look like, and outlining the steps toward that. It suggests that America commit to more military support, but condition that support on the Iraqi government’s progress on political reforms.
What’s striking is how many of the issues raised by Moulton are familiar from debates over the course of the 13-year U.S. entanglement in Iraq. Those include whether to keep Iraq whole or partition it; central versus local control of provinces; effects of de-Ba’athification of the government; rooting out corruption; revenue-sharing between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government; lack of a memorandum of understanding governing U.S. involvement; and countering Iran’s influence.
All have proved easier to identify than to solve—or to keep from recurring.
A growing isolationist strain of thinking, seemingly embraced by Trump, would have the U.S. leave all that to the Iraqis. Other critics argue that the complexities of the war against ISIS make it impractical, or foolhardy, to invest so much energy into a long-term strategic plan for Iraq.
“Some people will say you can’t have an Iraq plan without a Syria plan,” Moulton conceded. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Clark Education Bill Passes House, But Will Senate Follow?
When a party holds the majority in both the U.S. House and Senate, as Republicans do now, they dread being tagged with the label “do-nothing Congress” as the November elections approach. And indeed, Democrats this year are trying hard to pin that label on the GOP, frequently borrowing the New England Patriots mantra, “Do your job,” to highlight delays in confirming judicial appointments, fashioning a budget, and passing legislation on a variety of issues.
It’s not a difficult case to make: Congress is on pace to enact fewer than 300 laws for the third consecutive two-year session, according to data kept by GovTrack.us. That’s a snail’s pace compared with 385 laws in 2009-'10, when Democrats ran both chambers; and 460 during the final term under George W. Bush.
Republican leaders of both houses have sought to show activity by pushing bills to the floor for a vote—nearly 600 in total so far, compared with just 474 in all of 2013-’14, and 390 in 2011-’12—regardless of the prospects of passage in the other chamber. They can then assure voters that they have tried to act on the issues, and the “do-nothing” problem must lie elsewhere.
So, for example, the House might soon pass a revised version of the Dodd/Frank financial regulation law—named for two former New England lawmakers, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. But there is no indication that the Senate would follow suit, and virtually no chance that President Barack Obama would sign it.
A bill co-authored by Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, which easily passed in the House last week, may be heading to a similar fate.
The bipartisan bill would reauthorize and update the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, for the first time since 2006. Since then, changes in the economy and technology have led to significant rethinking about the role of career and technical education (CTE), including what is called “vocational education” in Massachusetts.
The re-authorization would allow states to spur changes in CTE programs to better fit those new realities. Massachusetts is already moving in that direction: In January, a high-powered group of public and private organizations formed the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education; and earlier this month, the state awarded grants to 12 schools to test innovative CTE expansions.
Clark’s bill, co-sponsored with Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, received unanimous House committee support, and on Tuesday breezed through a full floor vote with just five dissenters.
With time at a premium, the Senate acted unusually fast, adding it to Wednesday’s agenda for the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP).
The question is what version of the Perkins Act re-authorization that committee will select.
Clark was hoping, as of last week, that it will simply introduce a straightforward companion bill to what just passed in the House. Several educational and industry groups are lobbying the Senate to do that.
That optimism now appears to be dashed. The Senate now its own version in hand, with significant differences from the House bill. It was filed by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah on Thursday. Sen. Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, filed another version the same day.
“Will it get the same smooth ride … that the bipartisan House rewrite received this week?” an article on Education Week’s web site asked. The answer, it concluded, “appears to be no.”
Perhaps all the differences will get sorted out in time for passage before the end of the term. But, given this Congress’s track record, the smart money might be on “do nothing.”