More Work Ahead

Well, the election results Tuesday were almost universally interpreted as a referendum on the Iraq war, and Bush and the neocons got their heads handed to them. And as dramatic as the Democrats winning control of both houses of Congress was, the magnitude of the rejection of the administration and the Republicans was greater than the number of seats that changed hands would indicate. But there’s still a lot of work to do before the desires of the people (admittedly perhaps a bit unfocused) as expressed in those results are translated into substantive changes in war policy.

The Democrats’ victory was important because it led to changing which party holds the majority in Congress (about which more later). But it was not large by historic standards, in terms of the number of seats changing hands, especially in the sixth year of a two-term presidency, when the “out” party often (though not always) makes substantial gains. But this is due largely to more sophisticated gerrymandering and demographic changes, which have reduced the number of genuinely competitive districts to a bare minimum.

In the aggregate House vote Democrats outpolled Republicans by about 10 percentage points, indicating that they might well have picked up more seats under the circumstances that prevailed a few decades ago. There’s also the fact that Republicans do better in senate races in low-population states. As the New Republic pointed out, “If you assume each senator represents half his state’s population, the 51 senators caucusing with the Democrats will represent some 58 percent of the United States.

That’s pretty close to the number of Americans, in recent polls, who now see the Iraq war as a mistake.

But getting from an election victory based largely on disillusionment with the war to U.S. troops coming home could be a long slog. There’s the institutional problem for starters. The U.S. Constitution makes the president the commander in chief and the executive branch still has the initiative, and something close to a free hand. Congress does control the purse strings and it can hold hearings about and conduct investigations into executive branch activities. But a determined president – and this president is nothing if not stubborn – can continue even an unpopular foreign military adventure until he leaves office or is impeached. And impeachment, remember, puts the vice president into the Oval Office.

Even though they won as a result of an antiwar popular surge, the Democrats are likely to be cautious in their approach to the war, at least until it starts to cost them. Politicians that they are, they may well calculate that if they start participating actively in Iraq policy-making, or demand to be at the table, they will begin to carry some responsibility for the results – and it’s difficult to see a result that resembles “peace with honor.” It’s worth remembering that Congress didn’t cut off funding for the Vietnam war until after a peace agreement had been signed.

But with a majority, the Democrats will control not only the agenda – what legislation gets to the floor and what stays bottled up – but the committee system. Committee chairmen (and women) have virtually complete control over what kinds of hearings their committees and hold and what legislation they consider. Nancy Pelosi, the new Speaker, does have some influence here, and it remains to be seen just how long a leash she will give to committee chairs. She is under a great deal of pressure to appear calm, reasonable and “responsible,” to prove that Democrats are ready to govern.

Various committees will undoubtedly hold hearings into aspects of both the war and the larger conflict with international terrorists. Why weren’t the dots connected before 9/11? What intelligence about Iraqi WMDs was ignored or suppressed? Was advice from the generals really taken seriously? Why was planning for the occupation so haphazard? How did people who were itching to invade Iraq since 1991 get so much influence? How much money are contractors skimming off the top of “reconstruction” contracts, and how bad a job are they doing? How many Arabic speakers or people eager to learn Arabic has the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy kept out of military services? How badly have the Reserves and National Guard been damaged? How low is military morale? Has the war harmed recruitment?

We can expect these and other questions to be addressed in committee hearings and investigations, although such hearings are unlikely to start before the Democrats actually assume office and start to get their bearings – perhaps April of next year. Such hearings (and others on domestic issues) will allow congressional Democrats to have more influence over news cycles, and more influence in determining what issues become important priorities. Under Republican leadership Congress has been largely an outpost (or wholly-owned subsidiary) of the White House, although even Republicans have been getting more restive lately.

All this will help to give more validity and publicity to concerns about the war. But Democrats might have to be nudged to go further in their opposition. Plenty of disaffected former Bushies and retired generals will be available to offer critiques, and some will warrant extensive television time. The case for declaring victory and coming home will grow in influence.

Of course it pays to be cautious when hoping for a turn toward common sense by this president, but there is at least some evidence that the Bushlet might be considering changes in policy – so long as they can be spun as successful adjustments rather then serious rethinking – that could lead to a more timely withdrawal. Or perhaps it is Daddy Bush working feverishly to pull his son out of the quicksand into which he seems to have stumbled.

The replacement of Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld with former CIA director Robert Gates bears all the earmarks of an operation engineered by Bush Senior and his longtime consigliere, former Secretary of State under Bush 41 James Baker. Gates, as many news stories noted, is a longtime friend of the Bush family; it is not unlikely that Bush and Baker helped him get his current job as president of Texas A&M University, which is the home, after all, of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, which Gates headed before becoming president in 2002.

The appointment of Gates, who comes with the baggage of having been suspected of knowing much more than he ever admitted about the Iran-Contra affair and other dubious activities during the 1980s, does not necessarily mean a change in policy. His most salient characteristic seems to be an ability and desire to get along with people, to play nice. This might please Pentagon generals who had chafed at Rumsfeld’s abrasive management style and resisted his pet project of transforming the military into a leaner, more flexible, more high-tech-oriented fighting force. But it does not suggest that Gates is a prime candidate to buck his new boss, at least not openly.

That is, unless his appointment is part of a salvage operation by the senior Bush and Jim Baker, perhaps acceded to, however reluctantly, by the president himself. Baker is co-chair, with former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, of the Iraq Study Group, which is expected to issue a set of recommendations in December. Washington is all abuzz at the prospect. Among the speculations are the possibility that the group will recommend a partition, similar to Bosnia, with Kurds semiautonomous in the north (they already are), Shia in local control in the south, and the Sunnis in charge of much of central Iraq – with oil revenues divided roughly equitably.

That would be a federalist solution, which in fact is more characteristically and traditionally American – and much more workable – than one-man-one-vote-one-time democracy. The idea has been bruited about since before the war was started, and has gained additional publicity in recent months as Sen. Joe Biden and others have endorsed variants of the idea. And whether it’s workable over the longer run or not, it could provide an acceptable cover for at least a significant drawdown of U.S. troops, especially if U.S. authorities tacitly accept the idea that local or tribal militias are more likely than a mythical “national” army or police force to provide a semblance of order, though it could be done rather brutally.

You can be sure the administration will be under pressure to have at least a cosmetic solution in place reasonably soon. Republicans desperately want this issue off the table by 2008.

The upshot is that a great deal more work will be required of war skeptics before the misadventure in Iraq is concluded satisfactorily. We will have to lobby, write, make speeches, organize and talk to neighbors, friends and coworkers. The fact that all this will take time does give us the opportunity to argue not just for ending the war in Iraq, but for asking more fundamental questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

People who opposed this war from the outset were made to look like people on the tattered fringes of American society. But the war in Iraq is looking unwinnable not because the politicians haven’t unleashed the military sufficiently to get the job done, but because the job simply couldn’t be done through military means or by an occupying force that didn’t understand or care to understand the cultures of the peoples whose land it was occupying. Those who understood this in advance should have the opportunity to be heard with a little more respect than before, and to press the argument that it isn’t just bad tactics that made Iraq so difficult, but bad policy growing from a mistaken conviction that it is America’s job to micromanage the world.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).