Feinstein: Pressure Mounts on Bush over Iraq

Lee Feinstein, a CFR expert on U.S. foreign policy, says House Republicans have made it clear to President Bush their support for his Iraq policy “cannot continue indefinitely.”

May 11, 2007 11:09 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Lee Feinstein, a CFR expert on U.S. foreign policy, says House Republicans have made it clear to President Bush their support for his Iraq policy “cannot continue indefinitely.” Feinstein says Republican lawmakers have sought to convey the darkening public mood outside Washington on Iraq. He adds: “The longer that the president seems to resist or not understand the public’s mood and frustration about this, the more pressure will grow for the United States to get out.”

Moderate House Republicans who are generally supportive of President Bush met with him at the White House the other day and told the president unless he could show some progress by the fall he couldn’t count on their support indefinitely. What does this tell us? 

It shows the Republicans are uneasy about the kind of votes they’ve had to cast on Iraq. They recognize last November’s midterm election was a referendum on Iraq, and they believe that the Democrats have the momentum on Iraq. These moderate Republicans took advantage of the vice president being out of the country to meet with the president in order to—paraphrasing one of them—puncture the bubble. They are concerned the president has been working in a bubble and doesn’t fully understand the depth of public concern about the war. 

What can the president do? The administration is leaning on the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the vice president’s just been there, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been there. They all seem to want him to reconcile with Sunnis and Kurds.

Principally they’re trying to give the president fair warning about what they will and won’t be able to do come September. They said they’re prepared to stand by the president now in opposing legislation that would only fund the war into the summer. Actually many Democrats who oppose the war now and have been critical of the president also oppose this idea. But at least this group of Republicans is saying they can’t promise that they’re going to be able to stick with the President into the fall.

What they’re saying is that their enthusiasm is limited, and that the report of General David Petraeus due in September will be critical. They are not certain the president understands this, and they want to make sure the president recognizes the serious situation members of Congress from his own party find themselves in. When they hear reports that the vice president has privately been telling the Saudis and others that U.S. troops will be in Iraq in large numbers as long as George Bush is president, they worry the president does not understand the breadth of opposition to his policies in Iraq. 

Are Americans too impatient about Iraq?

The public’s patience for a costly occupation is especially limited in a war of choice. There is more pressure for results than there would be in a different kind of a war, in a war of aggression, for example. That explains, by the way, why the administration tried to make the link between al-Qaeda and Saddam, and continues to link the occupation to the U.S. war against terrorism. Public impatience has been intensified by the way the administration prepared for the war, conducted it, and by the fact that the stated basis for the occupation has been discredited. So there is even less patience for a prolonged occupation.

Stabilization and reconstruction missions are inherently difficult and require a long-term commitment. That only makes it more important that a president have the confidence of the public. The erosion of public support for the president due to the war is why the Republicans made this pilgrimage to the White House.

I was just wondering what the next president would do. Democrat or Republican, how would he or she handle it? Would the next president just announce a withdrawal? The candidates have been pretty vague on what they would actually do.

First of all, you have to look at the context of this occupation. Iraq fought a brutal war against Iran, was led by a dictator who eroded civil society over a period of a generation. This was followed by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent U.S.-led intervention, followed by UN sanctions, followed by the occupation, and now insurgency and civil war. So repairing, rebuilding, and creating institutions in this setting is one of the most difficult political-military operations to imagine.

Reconstruction under any circumstances in a complicated society is difficult, and Kosovo is exhibit A. But Kosovo is in a neighborhood that the European Union and U.S. friends more or less control, and still it’s taken almost a decade.

Yes, and there’s no insurgency there. It’s not like soldiers are getting killed every day.

The order of magnitude is completely different, so inherently this problem is much more complex and much more difficult. If you look at the proposals that are out there, the legislation that the president vetoed actually did not require a complete or precipitous withdrawal of American troops. It allowed for an indefinite presence of American troops, but with much more limited missions. The longer the president seems to resist or not understand the public’s mood and frustration about this, the more pressure will grow for the United States to get out.

I sense, though, that most of the criticism now is building up toward the Iraqi government, wanting it to resolve these longstanding issues over controlling natural resources and apportioning political power. Do you agree?

Yes. The Iraqis have not gotten their act together. There is tremendous frustration and impatience about that. The public mood is that it is time for the Iraqis to address this problem themselves, that the United States has provided an opportunity with the “surge,” and Iraqis are wasting that opportunity. There’s also a question of what the United States could have done years ago in order to have made a political resolution more likely. But Iraq was always composed of ethnic and sectarian groups which have inherently irreconcilable demands. The glue that held the country together was authoritarianism. Once that glue was gone, the animosity resurfaced. The administration thought Iraqis would look at the invasion and removal of Saddam as a chance to build a new society, but they reverted to old animosities instead.

I suspect back in Washington in 2002 and 2003, as they were preparing for the war, the expectations were that the war would end fairly quickly, that the Shiite population would rise up in support of the United States, and the Iraqi army would fall in place and surrender and be used, but none of that really happened.

That was certainly the administration’s narrative in the run-up to the war, and in the early days of the occupation.  There were many in Congress and outside who did not agree. Of course, this turned out not to be the case for a variety of reasons, including, as I said earlier, the degradation of Iraqi civil society; the lack of working institutions inside Iraq, and the fact that some of the institutions that might have been relied on were dismantled by order of the Americans. Also, the Shiites distrusted U.S. motives, having been abandoned by Washington in 1991 after they were encouraged to rise up against Saddam.

What we also didn’t count on was that the Shiites would split themselves and the great number of them became very anti-American and wanted the Americans out right away, which made it very difficult to get a harmonious government together.

That’s the case, but it was also the case that tensions within the Shiite community existed long before the occupation. There was very little understanding about the divisions within the Shiite community, and there was very little understanding of the need to preserve institutions that would allow the minority Sunnis a place at the table.

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