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Iraq Looms over U.S. Elections

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
Updated: November 3, 2006


It was not the kind of October Republicans would have hoped for on the war front ahead of the U.S. midterm elections. U.S. monthly fatalities in Iraq broke the one-hundred mark (AP) for only the fourth time since the war began amid ongoing sectarian bloodshed in the country. A range of opinion polls continue to show high levels of disapproval of President Bush’s Iraq policy and for Republicans in general on the war in Iraq. To further emphasize the point, a new Pew Research Center survey of competitive districts in the U.S. House of Representatives found strong support for Democrats (PDF), especially on the issue of Iraq. The Atlantic Monthly’s Jack Beatty notes that in the five congressional elections held in wartime since 1860, the party of the president has suffered a major defeat, adding “if the Republicans lose on November 7, Iraq will be why.”

Iraq is the top issue in a midterm election unusually focused on foreign policy concerns. Republicans in Congress have tried to stress their national security chops by passing legislation on port security, establishing special tribunals for terrorists, and authorizing the construction of a border fence to try to stem illegal immigrants from Mexico. They have repeatedly raised alarm at the prospect of Democrats with more control over national security, an issue debated this week on by former Clinton administration national security official P.J. Crowley and the Hudson Institute’s Richard Miniter. Congressional Democrats, for their part, have signaled enhanced oversight of matters such as the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq, as this Backgrounder explains.

President Bush has not shied from addressing Iraq, saying in a recent press conference he was dissatisfied with the situation there and was keeping options open for other steps to bolster security reforms. His comments came at a time of increased grumbling from prominent Republicans and hints from a blue-ribbon panel cochaired by James A. Baker, III that “staying the course” was no longer an option in Iraq. Some, such as Laura Rozen of The American Prospect, saw Baker’s comments as a way for the Bush administration to indicate it would reveal a course change in Iraq after the elections (BosGlobe). CFR President Richard Haass writes that Bush-administration policy in Iraq is not politically sustainable and that the real choices “all involve withdrawals of one kind or another of U.S. military forces from Iraq” (YaleGlobal).

Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly eager to show their alternatives to the present policy in Iraq. Party chief Howard Dean told CBS’ Face the Nation that while Democrats generally support a pullout of forces from Iraq in short order, “We’re going to have to leave a special operations force in the Middle East in order to deal with the terrorist situation” (PDF)The Hill newspaper notes rising interest in, if not outright support of, a plan offered by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) and CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb for decentralizing Iraq into “three strong regions with a limited but effective central government.”

CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein tells’s Bernard Gwertzman he believes there might be some increased oversight of administration actions in the event of Democratic control of one or both houses of Congress but no sharp changes in administration policy.  A number of Washington insiders, interviewed by Foreign Policy, believe a majority Democratic Congress might overzealously pursue investigations into various aspects of the Iraq war campaign. Though some fear Democratic overreaching if they gain power, a new article in Foreign Affairs by political experts Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann says congressional oversight of the executive branch on foreign and national security policy has collapsed in recent years.

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