For more than five years, the Bush administration’s aggressive and unilateral national security policies have been triumphant in the United States. But the increasing realization that the United States is enmeshed in a quagmire in Iraq, a faltering struggle in Afghanistan, unresolved crises over Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, and the latest crisis in the Middle East has brought these policies into serious question.
Indeed, the results of the November 2006 midterm elections may put a final stake in the heart of George W. Bush’s muscular foreign policies. If so, the desire of neoconservatives to spread “democracy” to Iran and Syria the same way they have in Iraq might die, too.
A year after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush laid out a new security framework that broke from decades of deterrence and containment and instead shifted toward a new policy of attacking our enemies before they attack the United States. That doctrine of preemption-also called preventive war-was then carried out in Iraq.
The Bush policies were largely accepted during policy debates in the 2002 midterm elections and the 2004 presidential campaign. Democrats who tried to argue for more diplomacy and less reliance on military force were marginalized and criticized as “unpatriotic.” Yet in the past year, Bush policies have come under severe attack from across the political spectrum. Although the president reaffirmed preemption in his March 2006 national security policy pronouncement, the public and many Republicans have had second thoughts due to Bush’s failed war policies. The disastrous Iraq War has become the fulcrum of the debate.
The November 2006 elections could have an essential impact on the debate over the use of military force abroad in several ways. If Democrats gain control of either the Senate or the House, they will have the ability to set the agenda in Congress, organize hearings, and run aggressive oversight over the administration’s failed security policies. For more than five years, the GOP-controlled Congress has acted more like a Greek chorus cheering on Bush rather than critiquing or even conducting traditional oversight over his failed policies, misjudgments, flawed decision making, and corruption.
By contrast, Congress was much more aggressive in assessing critically the Vietnam War four decades ago, even when Democrats were in control of both the White House and Congress. The redoubtable Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright of Arkansas had no compunction about airing dissent over the Lyndon B. Johnson (and Richard Nixon) Vietnam policies. Johnson used to complain about Democrats who were not sufficiently loyal.
Should Democrats win one or both houses of Congress, there would be new people in charge of key committees, including Rep. Henry Waxman of California (House Committee on Government Reform); Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania (House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee); Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware (Senate Foreign Relations Committee); and Carl Levin of Michigan (Senate Armed Services Committee), to name four.
It is unclear at this point, however, whether Democrats will be able to muster the strength to retake either the Senate or the House, much less both. Political analysts agree that there is a much better chance of new leadership in the House, where Democrats need to win a net of 15 seats to take charge.
Democrats have a longer shot at winning the Senate, where they need to win a net of six Senate seats. Such an outcome is possible but would require an anti-GOP tidal wave that carries with it a surprising number of Democrats to victory in key contests.
Short of such dramatic gains, there are sure to be further brakes over new military adventures abroad. The army is already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Significant and sustained military action in other countries-aside from limited bombing raids-is unlikely without a significant beefing up of the size of the U.S. military, or even the remote possibility of a return to a draft.
The military’s misadventures in Iraq, and its unwillingness or inability to override Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz‘s military policies, is already having an affect on the top brass’s willingness to oppose a military strike in Iran. Some evidence of a newly emboldened military leadership can be seen in the calls of retired generals-whose views clearly represent a significant segment of active duty military members-for Rumsfeld’s resignation.
More of the new dissent can be seen in Seymour Hersh’s expositions in the pages of the New Yorker regarding the current debate over military action against Iran. Hersh anonymously quotes numerous generals who are pushing back against plans for military intervention as dangerous and counterproductive.
Significant Democratic gains short of taking control would also make a difference in the conduct of national security policies. Two-term presidents tend to become lame ducks as they enter the last two years of their terms in office. Already, many politicians of both parties are maneuvering toward securing party nominations to succeed Bush.
After the 2004 elections, when politicians grasped that George W. Bush would no longer be on the ballot, Congress began to revolt against the administration. While a newly emboldened Bush anticipated spending his newly reinforced political capital on major policy shifts, his formerly loyal supporters began to rebel in significant ways.
Last year, the GOP-dominated Congress discarded the foremost Bush policy initiative to privatize Social Security, forced the withdrawal of Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination, and limited Bush administration torture policies. This year, congressional protests scuttled the Dubai ports deal, rejected the Bush-supported immigration reforms, and supported federal funds for stem cell research despite the president’s opposition.
In terms of Iraq, the Senate’s adoption of an amendment calling for 2006 to be a “year of transition in Iraq” by an overwhelming vote of 79-19 last year was widely interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Bush’s Iraq policy. Especially significant, that amendment was put forward by two of the most loyal Bush foot soldiers, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner (R-VA).
Although most Republicans are still wary of outright rebellion against the Iraq War, Republicans are sending strong signals that they are losing patience with the war and are worried about their own political futures. Adoption of amendments barring permanent military bases in Iraq in both the Senate and the House is a warning sign to Bush that many Republicans do not have infinite patience for achieving “stability and democracy” in Iraq and are wary of overseas military follies.
This wariness is most likely to be reflected if Bush comes to Congress next year with a request for an authorization to use force against either Iran or Syria. Republicans who were virtually unanimous in their backing of a similar authorization in 2002 are likely to provide a more chilly reception in 2007. Democrats who feared voting against the president four years ago will be emboldened to rise up in opposition-particularly if the chief Democratic cheerleader for Bush war policies-Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman-loses his bid for reelection.
An indication of the waning support for unrestrained hawkishness came in the form of a widely reported July 18 column by George Will in the Washington Post responding to neoconservative guru William Kristol, who argued in his Weekly Standard that the latest outbreak of war in the Middle East is sufficient pretext for military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Will thundered that such a policy is “so untethered from reality as to defy caricature.” Will, undoubtedly reflecting the view of many Republican conservatives, argued that the U.S. military “has enough on its plate in the deteriorating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” and suggested that the repercussions of an attack on Iran would be decidedly unfavorable for the United States.
It is useful to remember that most Republicans are decidedly uncomfortable with military intervention abroad in all but the most extreme circumstances. That distaste for nation-building led to strong GOP opposition to American intervention in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo during the Clinton years.
The current crisis in Lebanon most certainly has reinforced support in this country for Israel and mistrust for Iran’s intentions. When the House debated a resolution supporting Israel on July 19, there were passionate denunciations of Hezbollah and Iran. However, the carefully worded resolution finally adopted called for “political, diplomatic, and economic sanctions” against Iran and Syria, while avoiding a call for sending U.S. troops to intervene. Members of Congress appeared content to have Israel battle what many see as Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon rather than send in the American cavalry.
In short, the political climate is changing. The 2006 elections, the imbroglio in Iraq, and difficulties faced by the American military are likely to reinforce American skepticism for new military adventures in Iran and elsewhere.
John Isaacs is president of Council for a Livable World and a longtime observer of politics and Congress.