Elections Offer Hope for a Change in Course in Iraq

Back on February 15, 2003 millions of people across the globe made headlines as they protested against the impending Iraq War. While that mass mobilization failed to stave off that unpopular and tragic war, it’s hard to believe that President George W. Bush will miss the message voters delivered on Election Day–it’s time to change course in Iraq.

For the first time in decades, a foreign policy issue, the Iraq War, dominated the electoral landscape. Both in polls before the elections and in exit polling, voters were clear that their votes were cast for a change in Iraq. The Washington Post reported that, “Fifty-six percent of voters support withdrawing some or all U.S. troops from Iraq, which will embolden Democrats pushing for a pullout.”

Iraq headed the agenda in states such as Wisconsin, Illinois and Massachusetts where “Bring Our Troops Home” ballot initiatives succeeded in every community in which they appeared. In Cook County, IL, 80 percent voted yes for Countywide Public Policy Referenda #3 which posed the question: “Shall the United States Government immediately begin an orderly and rapid withdrawal of all its military personnel from Iraq, beginning with the National Guard and Reserves?”

During the course of the elections, politicians on both sides of the aisle felt the winds of change in the air and began to speak out against the war. Anti-war Democrats led the charge but it was the Republicans making headlines as they began to turn against Bush. Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) shocked party loyalists in Washington when he called for firm timelines for Iraqi security forces to replace U.S. troops who are doing police work. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) acknowledged that, “We’re on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working.” Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) said, “It absolutely has to change. And that message should have been conveyed by the administration much sooner.”

With Democrats now in charge of at least the House, and quite possibly the Senate, the $379 billion question is can they change the course and what would a new direction look like?

Over the last week, likely new House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) message shop was circulating talking points outlining a comprehensive four point plan:

  1. Begin a responsible, phased redeployment of U.S. forces by the end of the year;
  2. Pressure Iraqi leaders to disarm the militias and ensure an inclusive society;
  3. Convene a regional conference with Iraq’s neighbors to forge a settlement to divisive political issues and guarantee Iraq’s sovereignty;
  4. Convene an international conference to facilitate reconstruction.

Pelosi’s plan draws from many of the best thinkers and strategists on Iraq and meets the demands from those at polls on Election Day to bring the troops home. With Iraq the top issue for voters, this plan should headline Pelosi’s first “100 hour” agenda for the new Congress.

The House and Senate should convene hearings and carry out investigations that would be valuable in making the case for withdrawing troops and provide the oversight that has been sorely lacking. At least two hearings should focus on the probability of success for Bush’s current course of “democratization” and building Iraqi Security forces. They should ask how many Iraqi troops are really trained and why the recent military operations in Baghdad failed, resulting in one of the highest death tolls to date.

Another hearing should focus on the effects on the U.S. military of staying the course until Bush’s term ends, as he vowed will be the case in August 2006, and what the overall fiscal costs would be. And of course, hearings on the content of the Iraq Study Group (also known as the Baker-Hamilton commission because it’s headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton) report should focus on their recommendation along with the other alternatives being suggested.

In addition to holding these hearings, Congress should form a war oversight committee as a new stand-alone committee. This panel would have oversight over contracts, war profiteering, military contractors, and be able to assess the management and conduct of the war. While hearings are a useful tool in monitoring the war, accountability mechanisms should also be adopted as a built-in enforcement tool that has been lacking throughout the entire course of the Iraq War.

Even if Democrats take control of both houses of Congress, a timetable for withdrawal would seem to be a tall task. Bush, after all, has vowed, “We’re not leaving [Iraq] so long as I’m the president.” But a perfect storm is brewing with the voters delivering a mandate for change, Republicans breaking ranks and the forthcoming Iraq Study Group report will likely outline a change in course. In addition, a new emergency spending request from the White House is rumored to be double that of any previous request at $160 billion shows no efforts by Bush to seek a new direction. As these events come to a head they provide the opportunity to change course and enact a bold plan to bring our troops home.

Erik Leaver is the Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus Project (www.fpif.org).