Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: New U.S. Congress Seeks To Shape A New Policy

Iraqis in Baghdad watching U.S. President George Bush addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2003 (epa) WASHINGTON, November 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) --Even before they officially take control of Congress, Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives have already proposed legislation that would increase oversight of U.S. President George W. Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully spoke with Allan Lichtman, a professor of American political history at American University in Washington, about what the new Democrat majority can -- and can't -- do on Iraq.

RFE/RL: Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) -- who is set to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- is proposing what he calls a "phased withdrawal" of U.S. troops from Iraq. He said this could pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their ethnic differences and release the United States from a difficult war. Do you see this as a fixed course, or just the first step in negotiations with the White House to determine a new Iraq strategy?

You cannot govern from Congress, it's very, very difficult, particularly with fragile majorities. Never underestimate the power of the presidency.

Allan Lichtman: I think Levin is absolutely beginning a negotiating process. Look, you cannot make foreign policy from the Congress unless you're willing to do one thing, and that is use the power of the purse. That's the one power that Congress has. The Democrats don't seem to be able to do that. As a result, they are in the position of having to bargain with the president, and they don't seem to be willing, at this point, to play hardball, to push Bush to change course. Instead they seem only willing to offer nonbinding resolutions.

RFE/RL: Do you think Bush will reciprocate? Will he be open to negotiations with the Democrats on a new Iraq strategy?

Lichtman: I think he kind of has to, given the way the public has spoken. He can look back at [U.S. President] Richard Nixon in 1972 who, among other things, guaranteed his reelection by drawing down the troops from Vietnam, turning the war into an air war, and vastly reducing American casualties down to less than 1,000 in the election year as compared to 10,000 to 11,000 [per year] at the peak of the war.

RFE/RL: On November 12, Democrats -- who until January are still the minority party in Congress -- introduced bills to extend the term of the Office of the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Is this a preview of what we can expect after the Democrats assume their majority role in Congress next year?

Lichtman: This kind of peanut politics I don't think works. It's kind of like what the Republicans did during World War II [when they opposed President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat]. They in no way dealt with any of the big issues of the war, fundamental questions, but chipped away at the edges in kind of a guerrilla warfare. I think there's only two ways the war ends: One, Bush decides it's in his political interest to do so, just as Nixon made that decision in the early 1970s. Or, two -- which I think is the less likely possibility -- the Democrats really go to the heart of the matter [cut off funding for the Iraq war]. Even if the [Democratic] leadership had the courage [to cut off funding], they don't have the votes to do it. You cannot govern from Congress, it's very, very difficult, particularly with fragile majorities. Never underestimate the power of the presidency.

RFE/RL: Senator Levin noted that only a few of Bush's fellow Republicans in Congress have so far supported the idea of a phased withdrawal from Iraq. But the senator says he expects more will publicly endorse the policy in the coming weeks and months. Do you envision such a trend, especially now that Bush is entering the final two years of his eight years in office? Or will Bush find ways to keep them loyal to his policy in order to ensure his legacy as president?

Lichtman: I don't see a wholesale desertion of Republicans immediately. You can't run away from the president of your own party. That doesn't work. I think everything hinges on George Bush's political calculation [for] preserving the Republican majority, and then the jockeying for the presidential nomination on the Republican side. If he truly believes in his policies, obviously he's going to want a Republican administration to carry them on.

RFE/RL: What is the risk that a new policy in Iraq will prove as unsuccessful for Bush as his current plan?

Lichtman: There's always that risk that the whole [changed] policy becomes unraveled, or that the public thinks that you’re [changing course] for political reasons. But that's got to be weighed against the risk of continuing to bull ahead with a failed and deeply unpopular policy. There does come a point where sometimes the risks of bailing out are less than the risks of pushing ahead. You also buy time when you [change course]. Nixon's strategy ultimately failed, but by the time it failed, he was long gone. It's not like there's some good option for the president. It's [a choice between] bad and worse. He's gotten us into this situation, and it's not easily resolvable, just as Vietnam wasn't. Vietnam was a tragedy from start to finish, and in my view, [Iraq] is a tragedy from start to finish as well.

The International Coalition In Iraq

The International Coalition In Iraq
Georgian soldiers marking Georgian Independence Day in Baghdad on June 6 (epa)

COALITION MEMBERS: In addition to the United States, 28 countries are Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) contributors as of May 31, 2006: Albania, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. Fiji is participating as part of the UN mission in Iraq. Hungary, Iceland, Slovenia, and Turkey are NATO countries supporting Iraqi stability operations but are not part of MNF-I.

NON-U.S. MILITARY PERSONNEL IN IRAQ: United Kingdom, 8,000 as of May 26, 2006; South Korea, 3,237 as of May 9, 2006; Italy, 2,900 as of April 27, 2006; Poland, 900 as of May 30, 2006; Australia, 900 as of March 28, 2006; Georgia, 900 as of March 24, 2006; Romania, 860 as of April 27, 2006; Japan, 600 as of May 30, 2006; Denmark, 530 as of May 23, 2006; All others, 1,140.

(Source: The Washington-based Brooking Institution’s Iraq Index of June 15, 2006)

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

RADIO FREE IRAQ: To visit the Arab-language website of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, click here.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.