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Polarizing the war Bush's political counteroffensive would put troops at risk, too

Pay for my war, or I'll send this under-equipped, under-trained, shell-shocked, emotionally exhausted, not-seen-his-family-in-18-months National Guardsman back into the meat grinder of Iraq.

No, that's not the cover of National Lampoon. It's President Bush's demand that Congress provide a no-strings-attached $100 billion appropriation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wants the money, now and neat, no strings, timetables, ordered drawdowns or other disapproval, actual or implied, of his war policies.

And if the new Democratic Congress won't be as eager as the old Republican one was to pay up, Bush wants the world to know that the result will be more soldiers who have already pulled long tours in Iraq being ordered to remain beyond their scheduled rotation dates, shorter breaks for the service members who do come home, and less training and equipment for some -- particularly the National Guard units that have been shouldering a disproportionate share of this burden. As if, the president wants us to think, Congress was forcing that choice, and only that choice, upon him.

Of course, another option for responding to congressional pressure to bring American involvement in the war to an end is to, carefully and intelligently, bring the war to an end. That's what the Democrats in Congress reasonably believe they were elected to do, and what the polls increasingly show the American people want.

It would be eminently reasonable for the president and his generals to design the means, schedule and budget for such a withdrawal and, were he seen to be doing that, Congress -- aside from those in that body running for Bush's current job -- would happily cut the administration a few miles of slack. But as long as the president remains so firmly committed to an open-ended military commitment to the mean streets of Iraq, there is no reason why Congress, or the people it represents, should sit back and demand nothing.

The administration's repeated attacks on those who disagree with its policy -- that they are unpatriotic, that they want the terrorists to win, that they don't support the troops, that they are too worried about the troops who are related to them or that they are merely playing political games -- are more divorced from reality with every passing day.

The president's obtuseness is so infuriating members of Congress that they are starting to talk about going beyond hard or soft withdrawal dates to the more drastic step of officially cutting off the funds. It's clumsy and potentially dangerous, but it may be the only tool Congress has to force a change in policy.

The lesson for history is this: The next time a president wants to take the nation to war, Congress had better be exquisitely careful about approving it. Because once the word is given, taking it back will be militarily, politically and constitutionally among the most difficult things the nation will ever face.

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