Who Will Take the Lead in Exiting Iraq: Congress or the President?

JURIST Guest Columnist Jide Nzelibe of Northwestern University School of Law says that if the new Iraqi government can stabilize the country's internal security situation, the time may be coming for President Bush to declare victory and order a US withdrawal if he doesn't want Congressional pressure for a pullout to mount...



As the euphoria surrounding the recent Iraqi elections dies down, the White House is going to face mounting pressure to develop a concrete exit strategy from Iraq. Thus far, the administration has simply issued a terse statement that American troops will leave when a stable and peaceful Iraq has been established. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the first clamors to bring the troops back home soon have started. So far it is mostly talk; no member of congress has actually introduced a formal congressional resolution calling for a withdrawal.

As the White House confronts the prospects of having the troops spend another year in Iraq, it should not take the growing din on Capitol Hill too lightly. Although Congress's bark is often more than its bite in war powers, it enjoys a successful track record in forcing the President's hand in the termination of unpopular wars. Reagan's Lebanon deployment that ended in 1984 was a victim of congressional intervention, and so was Clinton's 1993 Somalia deployment. In both instances, the President insisted that Congress's suggested withdrawal timetable would imperil the chances for peace and send a wrong signal to United States' enemies around the World, but Congress did not budge. Indeed, in an interesting parallel to the current Iraqi crisis, President Reagan vowed in early 1984 that American troops would remain in Lebanon until a democratic and stable government came into power. Less than three months later after he made that speech, however, American troops were on their way out of Lebanon after Congress threatened to cut off funding for the deployment.

President Bush, unlike Reagan and Clinton, enjoys the benefit of having members of his party as the majority in both houses of congress, but that might not be enough to stave off congressional opposition. In both Lebanon and Somalia, for instance, a significant number of legislators from the President's party jumped ranks to support resolutions calling for the immediate termination of hostilities. In both of those conflicts, public opinion polls, rather than partisan loyalty, seemed to drive congressional intervention. Thus far, public support for the war in Iraq seems to be more erratic, although the polls took a slight dip in the few months leading up to the 2004 presidential election. The historical evidence suggests, however, that Congress is likely to introduce a resolution imposing a timetable for the withdrawal of troops when public opinion polls take a sustained dip for a couple of months in a row.

Interestingly, with respect to the termination of wars, the President and Congress have two strikingly different approaches to public opinion. Congress tends to react to public opinion when it constrains the President's war initiatives. In Lebanon, for instance, members of Congress would repeatedly call for termination plans once public opinion of the conflict dipped below 45% for over two months, but then seemed to retreat once the polls went up again.

In contrast, the President tends to frame and shape public opinion in his role as the commander-in-chief. Rather than follow the course of public opinion when a war is going badly, the President is more likely to entrench himself into a war and gamble that the course of the war (and public opinion) will change in his favor. For instance, President Johnson repeatedly escalated the conflict in Vietnam whenever there was a sustained dip in the public opinion polls. President Reagan followed a similar strategy in Lebanon during the early months of 1984 when public support of the deployment was often below 40%. Indeed, as the public opinion polls on the Lebanese deployment started to decline dramatically in January 1984, President Reagan mounted an unsuccessful public relations campaign to try to mobilize public support for the deployment.

The presidential reluctance to follow the course of public opinion in unpopular wars makes sense. When presidents commit troops to war, they bear a disproportionate amount of the political benefits if there is victory, but then they also bear a disproportionate amount of the blame if there is failure. A president is aware that the withdrawal of troops in the face of negative public opinion is likely to be construed as an admission of failure or incompetence. But members of congress, who do not risk the same share of blame as the President does in losing wars, are usually more willing to respond to negative public opinion. Even those members of congress who voted for a war initially are often willing to support resolutions calling for an end to war once public opinion goes south. Unlike the President, members of congress can simply deflect blame for their decision by claiming that they were misinformed about the risks and objectives of the war when they initially voted for it.

So far President Bush has been able to convince Congress and the American public that it would be foolhardy to leave Iraq in its current stage. But he should be aware that the risk of civil war or anarchy is often not enough to assuage the American public to hold the course indefinitely, especially if American casualties continue to mount. President Reagan repeatedly warned the American public and Congress that Lebanon would descend into anarchy and possible occupation by Syria if American troops pulled out in early 1984, but Americans were simply fed up with the recurring scenes of American body-bags coming home from Beirut. President Reagan turned out to be right: the Lebanese civil war did get worse and the Syrians eventually started an occupation that lasts until the present day.

When is the right time, then, for President Bush to order the bulk of the American troops home from Iraq? If a newly elected Iraqi regime is able to secure a reasonable modicum of security on its own, President Bush may be tempted to call the Iraqi deployment a complete success and order the troops home. If he does so while American public opinion polls of the Iraqi deployment are over 50%, he would have accomplished what many of his predecessors could not: a politically successful withdrawal strategy. But if he stays on and public opinion polls of the Iraqi deployment dip below 40% for more than three months in a row, he should rest assured that he will be hearing from the rumbling set on Capitol Hill.


Jide Nzelibe is a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law. A graduate of Yale Law School, he also holds an MPA in international relations from Princeton University.
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