As has been noted pretty much everywhere (here’s one good summary), the mid-term elections focus unusually on foreign policy, particularly Iraq. The shortfall of this debate is that – no matter who wins control of the Congress – George Bush and his Administration will run American foreign policy. A Speaker Pelosi or Majority Leader Reid (and their Committee Chairmen) will have far greater influence, but they will not set the agenda.
So what is at stake for foreign policy if the Democrats win the House and/or Senate? Well, a whole lot of things (with a sampling of opinion on it here), three of which I’ll focus on.
First, a message will be sent. It’s one thing to have polls that say a majority of Americans don’t approve of current policy in Iraq. It’s another to turn over control of the Congress. The whole post-9/11 political dynamic will be turned on its head. Republicans will know they can no longer simply fall back on tough talk on Iraq. Democrats will have their thirst for accountability satiated. In the spirit of this blog, that will – hopefully – enable a meeting in the middle and the building of a new consensus, at least on Iraq. Or it will prompt a digging in, which will sharpen the choices heading into 2008 (more on that in a bit).
Second, oversight will be back in Washington. And that can only be a good thing. Because while the Congres rarely sets American foreign policy, it can ensure that it is more effectively implemented: by asking hard questions, holding ideas up to careful public scrutiny, and ferreting out waste and poor execution. As more and more Republicans acknowledge mistakes made in Iraq, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who would say that the war has benefited from this kind of robust congressional oversight.
Third, it will frame the inevitable foreign policy debate that will drive the 2008 presidential election. Beyond the short-term effects, a repudiation of the Bush foreign policy and a more prominent platform for Democrats will enable the parties to flesh out their post-9/11, post-Iraq War foreign policies. Because if you think the 2006 election is an important foreign policy moment, 2008 will be transformative.
One thing that I’ve found very exciting about the lead up to the midterm elections is that candidates appear for the first time in years to be talking about more than the one issue of terrorism. Candidates are debating the economy–whether we want one that grows quickly and unevenly or more gradually and more humanely. They’re talking about ethics–and not just the Foley scandal but more broadly corporate corruption of Washington. And they’re talking about an actual exit strategy for Iraq rather than the tired politics of “better news is around the corner.” Maybe I am too optimistic but it strikes me that this may actually be an election where representatives are sent to Washington to represent the many issues of our everyday lives and not just to win on fear tactics and gay marriage debates and then make a set of other policy decisions that do not reflect the will of the people. It appears the public has become so fed up with this ideologically-driven governance that they are refusing this time to let these other issues they care about fall by the waste side. This could be exciting news for citizens and our democracy.
And if terrorism can become one of numerous issues on the agenda it may bode well for a bipartisan opportunity to get needed reforms accomplished. One of the current challenges is that because terror has been THE voting issue for such a long time, the parties have a reason to try to create differences between themselves. In a country where this is one of many issues, perhaps the parties will have more reason to work together to get things like port security done rather than continuing to use these issues for parisan grandstanding.
… then what are we going to do in Iraq? For a long time, President Bush repeated the phrase, “stay the course,” over and over to show his strategic commitment to Iraq. He meant that U.S. military forces are going to remain in Iraq at about their current numbers for the foreseeable future, trying to protect the Iraqi government that the U.S. created. As the sectarian violence has escalated and American casualties have increased recently, though, “stay the course” started to sound out of touch. So President Bush quietly stopped using the phrase, and then the Bush Administration started yesterday to loudly proclaim the rhetorical shift.
But the administration’s policy has not changed at all. At the strategic level, President Bush still expects American troops to stay engaged in Iraq for the foreseeable future. And at the tactical and operational levels, what the American military does on a day-to-day basis has changed repeatedly, as has the location in Iraq where the main weight of American combat power has been applied. Those adaptations have not always necessarily been in the right direction, and perhaps they have come too slowly at times. But Bush’s rhetorical change doesn’t reflect a new military reality; instead it reflects a fear that his “Stay the Course” line was painting the administration as a bunch of automatons. That would be both an undesirable message, politically, and an untrue one, at least on the details of the fight in Iraq. The policy has always been to make steady tactical and operational adjustments while maintaining the overall strategy, and that’s what it still is.
Meanwhile, a number of Republicans in Congress have also started to run from the “Stay the Course” line. Most of them, too, have no intention of changing the overall U.S. strategy: they think that the U.S. needs to stay in Iraq until we “win,” they still want the U.S. military to focus its day-to-day efforts on training the Iraqi military, and they have not changed their evaluation of U.S. goals or interests in Iraq.
No one is asking deep questions: How much is it worth to us for Iraq to be democratic rather than authoritarian? How much does stability in Iraq matter to the United States? How much leverage does the United States have in influencing the end-state in Iraq, and how much will be determined by forces beyond our control? A real rhetorical shift — or shift in the American political landscape — would start to raise these questions.
Instead, the phrase “partition” has started coming up more and more often in discussions of Iraq’s future — along with phrases like “looser confederation” and “regional autonomy.” I took those quotes from an NPR interview this morning with Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, but Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and others have made similar comments recently, too. Stallwart military supporters like Virginia Senator John Warner have also started to question whether “there is a change of course we should take” without specifically saying “partition.” (For coverage, see this article in The Guardian; hat-tip to Steve Clemmons’ The Washington Note blog for the reference, although I’m sure there’s other coverage out there.) These are Republican Senators at least sort-of joining Democrats who have questioned the Administration’s “Stay the Course” line for some time.
On this blog, Jordan Tama wondered yesterday if bipartisanship could provide political cover for politicians advocating a new, improved Iraq strategy. He specifically mentioned the possibility that a bipartisan advisory commission — the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker — might be the solution to allow the U.S. to change its Iraq policy. And certain Democrats are not-so-quietly lobbying for that outcome. Senator Joe Biden and Les Gelb, the chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, published an op-ed column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal making the same point. (Available by subscription only) Everyone seems to hope that the ISG Report, which will be released after the election, will restore bipartisanship to Iraq policy and get us out of our mess.
It may be dangerous to say this on a blog site hosted by an organization created in part by people involved in another great independent bipartisan commission — the 9/11 Commission — but independent advisory commissions are not the answer to America’s foreign policy problems. The Iraq Study Groups can’t fix what’s wrong. And I would still believe that, even if I thought partition would “fix” Iraq. (more…)
I’ll be filling in for Brian Vogt as a guest blogger while he’s in Congo for the next few weeks.
In her most recent post, Victoria Holt poses an important question: “Do people reading this blog have friends who are politically different?” I agree with her assessment that too few of us do and more of us should. (I am guilty myself: in a quick count of twenty-five friends, I identified just two of them as conservatives.)
I worry especially that Web culture is fueling the proliferation of isolated ideological enclaves of people who share the same political perspectives and disdain those who disagree with them. This blog is unusual because it features Democrats and Republicans and seeks to foster bipartisanship. The ideological and partisan bent of most political blogs suggests that people want their sources of information, like their friends, to share their own biases.
Of course, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon—for decades people have chosen which newspapers and magazines to read in part based on their political orientation. But good periodicals have featured relatively objective reporting and have presented a wide range of views. If fewer and fewer people access solid reporting and diverse opinions, the prospects for developing a more bipartisan foreign policy will dim.
I’m not too pessimistic, though. I take heart that something resembling national public opinion still exists. For instance, over time most Americans have developed the same basic understanding of the war in Iraq—that it isn’t worth the financial cost and enormous loss of American lives, but that we shouldn’t withdraw our troops precipitously. Democrats are not the only Americans who hold this view; millions of independents and Republicans do also. While partisan attacks among politicians about the war remain fierce, this growing consensus and the concomitant drop in public support for the Bush administration suggest that facts and commonsense can still carry the day over ideology.
We hosted Ambassador Peter Galbraith at Cato last week discussing his book The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War without End. Although I’m not prepared to endorse everything that Galbraith advocates in the book, I am increasingly convinced that the central error in this war, an error that doomed the invasion and occupation to almost certain failure from the moment that it was conceived, was the complete ignorance about the sectarian divide within Iraq. This divide virtually ensured that Kurds would push for autonomy (at least) in the north, and that the Shia Arabs, reasonably secure in the south to establish a Shia theocracy, would then settle old scores and fight with the Sunni Arabs over the spoils in the rest of the country.
The theme that emerges from Galbraith’s book, and that is at the center of his proposal for dividing the country, is that Iraq is already divided. The Bush administration’s policy objective, of creating a democratic, unified Iraq, at peace with its neighbors and capable of defending itself, seeks to unite an already divided country, encouraging — nay, forcing — together disparate communities that want to be separate from one another.
There are troubling parallels to another ethnic conflict, one that Galbraith observed up close as ambassador to Croatia during the Clinton administration, as Galbraith notes in his book:
American policymakers are reflexively committed to the unity of Iraq, as they were to the unity of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The conventional response to discussions of Iraq’s breakup is to say it would be destabilizing. This is a misreading of Iraq’s modern history. It is the holding of Iraq together by force that has been destabilizing.
In Yugoslavia in the spring of 1991, the United States and Europe put all their diplomatic energy into a doomed effort to keep the country together when they should have focused on preventing the war that followed.
We should have recognized these dynamics long ago. Many did. My colleague Ted Carpenter predicted in February 1999, that a bid to overthrow Saddam Hussein by force would ultimately have to come to grips with Iraq’s sectarianism. And that the breakup of Iraq, which was likely, was also likely to redound to Iran’s benefit.
But other outside commentators, as well as those experts within the government, were systematically written out of Iraq’s post-war planning. And with good reasons: if their warnings were taken seriously, it would have seriously challenged the central logic of the war – namely, that the benefits of action greatly outweighed the costs of action, that success was possible, even likely.
Given this blog’s effort to bring together voices and experts with different points of view, I thought that the Washington Post article by Shankar Vedantam, “Why Everyone You Know Thinks the Same as You,” (Monday, October 15) offers a challenge to us by saying how we are drawn to groups that think more like us than we may want to admit – even in non-political environments.
Do people reading this blog have friends who are politically different?
As a new election day looms, this question is important. The power structure in Congress could well shift. It may already be changing from red to blue in Kansas.
The idea of this blog is that we don’t all think alike. And big issues require working together – North Korea and Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan – for example. But we’re fighting the odds. The article points out:
“Studies show that most people interested in politics associate nearly exclusively with others who have similar political beliefs. In fact, research by sociologist David Knoke at the University of Minnesota shows that if you know whether a person’s friends are Republicans, Democrats or independents, you can predict with near certainty that person’s political views.”
Seems the researchers think this gap is dangerous, and not just because it dims bipartisanship: “In politics, for example, the fact that people rarely have friends with different views makes it difficult to seek common ground or to examine one’s positions closely.”
When I worked in the House, I learned early that nothing moved (more…)
Talk about a numbers game! On October 11 the British medical journal Lancet published a study by a team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists that estimated that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred.
The study’s researchers interviewed a random sample of households throughout Iraq. They concluded that there were 655,000 “excess deaths” as a result of the war, equivalent to 2.5 per cent of the population; 601,000 died through violence, usually gunfire. The same researchers had in 2004 already published an estimate of almost 100,000 excess deaths in the first 18 months after the invasion, using a similar technique.
As numbers go that is shockingly high. It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December. It is more than 10 times the estimate of roughly 50,000 civilian deaths made by the British-based Iraq Body Count research group.
But even more shocking was the reaction of the Bush administration. President Bush said the study’s methodology had been “pretty well discredited.” “I don’t consider this a credible report. Neither does General Casey [the US commander in Iraq] and neither do Iraqi officials,” he said.
The problem is that the White House offered almost no specifics on methodological errors. And neither President Bush nor his press secretary Tony Snow, who has been dutifully spinning the same line are known for their biostatistician or public health credentials. (more…)
I hope that everyone has had a chance to see PSA’s recent statement on the Darfur crisis. Although this week much attention has understandably been focused on North Korea, I strongly believe that it is important that at the same time we don’t push other issues of enormous humanitarian concern to the sidelines.
I’d like to highlight a report on Darfur that the International Crisis Group released on Thursday that lays out the different options in dealing with this conflict. I think that they do an excellent job of evaluating the pros and cons of different choices. What is clear is that there is much more that we could be doing. The Darfur Peace and Accountability has finally been passed by the House and the Senate. The President will be signing this in the next several days. However, this is only a starting point. There are many more things that we could be doing to put pressure on the Sudanese government to allow in UN peacekeepers. Many of these have already been supported by the UN Security Council. So, I ask, what are we waiting for?
In other news, I’m actually heading out to the Congo (DRC) on Monday and will be there for a month. I’ll be serving an international election observer with the Carter Center. It promises to be quite an interesting experience. While I’m gone, Jordan Tama will be guest blogging for me. I look forward to updating you on the situation on the ground in the Congo upon my return.
I am completely swamped by media requests on the North Korean nuclear test. I just wrapped up an hour-long program on KQED in San Francisco. All told, I’ve done over a dozen interviews in the past three days. Cato has published quite a few of studies on Korea over the years, and I have edited a number of these, so I am reasonably comfortable with the subject. And while I haven’t published much on the subject, that will soon change.
Rather than write a long post of my own, I wanted to point to some of the excellent articles that I have seen over the past few days, on the two most urgent foreign policy challenges facing the United States — North Korea and Iraq.
On North Korea:
Although most news stories and opinion articles have focused on what the United States must do, or has failed to do, with respect to the North Korean nuclear program, I have always argued that the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons program is far greater for its neighbors – especially China, South Korea, and Japan — than it is for the United States. Accordingly, these countries must take the lead in resolving the crisis, and this might mean putting aside long-standing suspicions and even hostility.
The United States obviously has an interest, not least because tens of thousands of American military personnel are stationed on the Korean peninsula and in Japan, well within range of conventional North Korean arms, let alone nukes, but it makes little sense for the United States to attempt to play a leading role in resolving the crisis. Much as leaders in both political parties would like to pin the blame on “the other guys”, there is in fact much blame to go around, and ultimately, this might be one of those truly vexing international problems that defy easy (or even palatable) solutions. In such a situation, one is frequently forced to choose from a list of unattractive options. That is where we are now. (Hint: That is where we are with Iran and Iraq, too.)
Two op eds which adopt the “less is more” approach (with respect to the U.S. role in the crisis) are:
Ted Galen Carpenter, “Chinese Must Pluck Kim From Nuke Perch,” New York Daily News, 10/10/06; and
Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, “North Korea Isn’t Our Problem,” Los Angeles Times, 10/11/06.
(Lieven and Hulsman discussed their book Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World at Cato yesterday. The book includes a discussion about what to do about North Korea, as well as Iran and other aspiring nuclear weapons states.)
News organizations have picked up on the recent study of civilian casualties in Iraq, which estimates that 600,000 have died as a result of the war. A similar study, released in October 2004, received relatively little coverage by the major media outlets, but was the subject of an hour-long radio program on the series “This American Life.”
This most recent study has narrowed the margin of error from the earlier study by polling more Iraqis, but both studies were based on accepted statistical sampling methods. It will be interesting to see if this most recent study gets more attention. (Indeed, it already has. See, for example, the stories in today’s New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post, among others).
On the subject of the dire situation in Iraq, Cato will be hosting Peter Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq, at a book forum at Noon on Thursday, October 19th. I will comment, as well as Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Endowment. For more details visit the Cato web site.
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It seems like only yesterday that the front pages of every newspaper in the country were dripping with headlines about Washington sex scandals. Oh wait…that was yesterday. Let me be more specific. I’m referring to the Oval Office circa 1998 when then-president Clinton found himself the subject of a year-long investigation surrounding accusations of sexual misconduct and perjury.
There were many unfortunate consequences of the scandal, individually and politically. Among the latter, and perhaps overshadowed by other surrounding issues, was that the story diverted Washington’s attention (not the least of which was the White House’s) from pressing Foreign Policy concerns. This distraction occurred in two different ways. First, it took up an incredible amount of time and resources. Instead of meeting with foreign policy officials, the President was meeting with lawyers. Instead of taking a delegation to Eastern Europe, he was taking the witness stand. You get the point. Second is that the events drove the wedge been Democrats and Republicans even deeper into the aisle. The word “Liberal” was to “Immorality” as “Conservative” was to “Witch Hunt.” And of course, we all member speculation about whether the White House was “wagging the dog.”
Almost a decade later, the circle of life on Capitol Hill has come…well, full-circle, landing this time in the office of Congressman Foley. In all fairness, it isn’t his fault that Washington is still waking up to the sound of a Republican alarm clock with an Abramoff-DeLay hangover. But while recent Republican scandals have all but demanded skepticism and mistrust from fellow Republicans and Democrats alike, Foley’s behavior has no excuses and the public deserves to know. (more…)
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.