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Feinstein: Democratic Party Gains in Congress Unlikely to Change Bush’s Policies on Iraq

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 31, 2006

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Lee Feinstein, an expert on American foreign policy and Congress, says that even if the Democratic Party wins control of either or both houses of Congress in the Nov. 7 midterm election, it would be wrong to anticipate any sharp changes in the administration’s policy toward Iraq. He says that although President Bush has indicated a willingness to make some tactical changes, he is unlikely to make any strategic ones. “On Iraq, we have a president who believes in what he is doing,” says Feinstein, a former Defense and State Department official during the Clinton administration. “He believes the United States will prevail in the long term. On the strength of this conviction he was prepared to go into Iraq without international support. He is prepared to stay there now without domestic support.”

We’re a week away from the congressional elections and this time there has been an unusual emphasis on foreign policy. For the purpose of this interview let’s imagine you’re a diplomat for a NATO country like Germany and you’re asked by your home office for a report on what’s likely to be the impact of the elections on American foreign policy.

I remember similar questions being asked in 2004 when it looked like Democrats might take the White House. In conversations with Europeans who had been very critical of the direction of Bush foreign policy, I used to say “don’t overstate the change in direction.” I would say the same thing now.

Let’s start with Iraq. It’s been pointed out in a lot of the political discussion that the Democratic Party doesn’t really have a united position nor could it necessarily change the White House’s position even if it did.

Democrats are not united on Iraq policy; and neither are Republicans. It is, in any event, the executive branch that makes foreign policy.

The way I would put this is: There is Iraq and there’s everything else. On Iraq, we have a president who believes in what he is doing. He believes the United States will prevail in the long term. On the strength of this conviction he was prepared to go into Iraq without international support. He is prepared to stay there now without domestic support. This White House believes there is already too much congressional oversight so it will push back against efforts to apply more scrutiny.

Let’s say the administration loses control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats. This would be seen by the media and the public as a kind of referendum vote on Iraq strongly against the President’s policies. But you’re saying that the President would stick to his policy even if that happened?

This is the third national security election in a row and there’s no question that this is a referendum on Iraq and the White House will have to adjust. But we’ve already seen the kinds of adjustments the President seems prepared to make and those are what the president has said are tactical adjustments, not strategic ones. Now if the Democrats win the Senate, it would give them a much bigger platform nationally to discuss foreign policy issues. I’m thinking of the Senate Armed Services committee and the Senate Foreign Relations committee in particular. Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), who would become chairman of the Foreign Relations committee for the second time, would be in a position to present his views to the public in a way that a ranking member can’t, although he’s been effective in that capacity.

What would Senator Biden do?

Senator Biden has said he would hold hearings that look comprehensively at what the administration has described as the “global war on terrorism” in an effort to disaggregate the problem. This would entail hearings on Iraq, Afghanistan, and on counterterrorism strategy more broadly. Remember that the Biden legislation on the Iraq war called for a slower path to invasion and much more intensive consultations between the executive and legislative branches and that didn’t happen. This would be his opportunity to force that debate now.

After the United States had pulled out of Vietnam, Congress passed a law barring any use of American forces in defense of South Vietnam and Cambodia. When the North Vietnamese troops invaded South Vietnam in 1975 and the Khmer Rouge followed suit in Cambodia, the United States had to really stand by and watch. Could that happen here?

Congress has the power of the purse, but Democrats have already said that they do not plan to withhold funds as a way of changing Iraq policy. Also, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) [who could become Speaker of the House if the Democrats win] has said that while she expects and anticipates that there will be hearings to improve oversight and accountability, any investigations of administration actions would require the approval of the House leadership. The issue for Democrats is that the public will support more oversight of what the administration is doing, but it will balk if oversight becomes overzealous. And it will be tough to resist the temptation to become overzealous after tasting success. If oversight becomes “gotcha,” that is a dangerous place for the Democrats to be.

I suppose the Democrats are really looking ahead to 2008 when there will be a new president chosen with fresh candidates from both parties. I would also hazard the guess that the Republicans would be quick to attack the Democrats if they are seen as rushing to pull out of Iraq.

Right. When President Bush said that the Tet Offensive was an apt metaphor for this war, I think what he was referring to is the perception that United States lost in Vietnam because anti-war opponents tied America’s hands, preventing full prosecution of the war. I think that’s a revisionist interpretation, an incorrect interpretation, but it’s the prevailing one in this White House. If there is failure in Iraq, the Republican temptation will be to blame the Democrats for preventing the President from doing what he needed to do to get the job done.

Of course, Tet did have the effect of inspiring the anti-Vietnam opposition to the extent that, for better or for worse, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for reelection.

It definitely had a big effect on public opinion and it had an effect on how the White House chose to fight the war in Vietnam. The question is whether it had the decisive impact on whether the United States could win in Vietnam. That’s my point. I don’t think the American defeat was fundamentally a function of public opinion in this country. It had a lot more to do with how the war was fought and what was happening inside Vietnam.

I see. Of course you’re right; people are still fighting that war. There are an awful lot of people who feel that if the United States had persevered it could have won, but it’s hard to prove that now. If the Democrats win the House but not the Senate, does that lead to a sort of paralysis?

I think the difference is if the Democrats also win the Senate they have more of a national platform to put forward their views and to call up administration officials to testify. If there’s a split I think the Democrats have less of a national platform, but legislatively it will still be impossible to get any major foreign policy initiative through the Congress whether you have one house of Congress controlled by the Democrats or two.

I suppose if the Democrats win the Senate, [UN Ambassador] John Boltonshould look for another job.

Well, I think the Bolton renomination is up in the air in any event. More broadly, I think Republicans and Democrats have a shared interest to approach Iraq on a cross partisan basis so as to hopefully clear the decks for their presidential candidates and more fundamentally because the stakes in Iraq are very high and it’s important that politics be used to get a good outcome rather than simply to score points. I think that congressional Republicans and the White House will be tempted to put forward legislation intended to make Democrats uncomfortable in order to make them look weak on a variety of national security issues.

I see, so you think the leadership of the Democrats would try to push for bipartisan approach.

I think there is a shared interest in approaching this in a cross partisan way, but I think that the politics on the Republican side will tempt them to try to put forward legislative trial balloons which have no chance of passing in an effort to make the Democrats look weak, and I think that the Democrats for their part will be tempted to pursue investigations in order to make the Republicans look out of touch.

Apart from Iraq, the effect of the elections will be different. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has pursued a policy of undoing the Bush policies of the first term, for example, proposing talks with Iran and North Korea. Democratic control of the Senate in particular would tend to reinforce the more moderate direction in foreign policy undertaken by Secretary Rice.

So you think there will be a lot more consultation with allies. Would there be a change in policy, say, on direct negotiations with Iran?

The way I would put it is if the administration decides it wants to pursue direct negotiations with Iran it will not find a lot of opposition from Democrats.

Right, and of course today’s news is North Korea seems to be coming back to the Six-Party Talks and I suppose part of that would be sort of U.S.-North Korean dialogue on the side of the talks.

Right, and if you had what you had under most of President Clinton’s term, which was a Democratic president and Republican controlled House, talk with North Korea would be at the peril of the administration. In the [event] of either of Democratic control of both houses or some Democratic control with a Republican president, the president can enter those talks if he wants without great concern of being criticized from the right.

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