Shadow Government

The stimulus fight reminds me of Iraq

By Peter Feaver President Obama has been earnestly talking the talk of bipartisanship and walked the walk all the way to an extended closed-door session with Congressional Republicans. He even invited the Republicans to a White House cocktail party, and it is not the traditional DC party season (change we can all drink to?). Of ...

By Peter Feaver

President Obama has been earnestly talking the talk of bipartisanship and walked the walk all the way to an extended closed-door session with Congressional Republicans. He even invited the Republicans to a White House cocktail party, and it is not the traditional DC party season (change we can all drink to?). Of course, Republicans needed a drink or two to drown their sorrows since the ultra-partisan Democratic leadership on the Hill rammed the stimulus package through without due consideration of Republican concerns and so got zero (that’s right, zero) Republican votes as a result. (Can you think of the last time one political party by itself spent $900 billion?)

The apparent disconnect between cross-party outreach and one-party outcome is an all-too-familiar story in Washington and it reminded me of our abortive efforts to rebuild bipartisan support for seeing the Iraq war through to a successful conclusion.

Throughout 2005, we saw political support for the Iraq war erode, and with the erosion of support in DC came a drop in general public support (the causal arrow went in both directions, I know, but for the purposes of this post I think it is useful to look at how political leaders can drive down public support for a venture). This was happening even though we were largely pursuing the Iraq strategy that most Democrats and other critics wanted us to pursue.  They masked this fact by falsely claiming that we had no strategy, but when you looked at the substance of what they recommended, it bore an eerie similarity to our actual Iraq policy.

The Bush White House response was to release the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq which explained the strategy, and to accompany it with a series of major speeches explaining the logic to the American people.  We also did extensive outreach to Democrats on the Hill, along with private meetings with Democratic national security experts.  We even invited back to the White House every living Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.

We moved public opinion slightly, but the results did not last. Over 2006, we pursued our bipartisan "strategy for vicoty," but without the benefit of any bipartisanship or bipartisan support. On the contrary, the Democrats relentlessly campaigned against our Iraq effort in vivid partisan terms and won back control of Congress partly as a result. And over the course of course of 2006, it became increasingly clear that this Iraq strategy was failing.

The Bush response was to change the strategy dramatically — what became known as the surge strategy. This time, the strategy was not what most Democrats wanted us to pursue, so perhaps it is not surprising that we received no bipartisan support. On the contrary, we spent 2007 defending the strategy against a vigorous effort by Congressional Democrats to hobble the surge with their "slow bleed" strategy. This time, however, the Iraq strategy turned out to be the right one, and it was dramatically vindicated by events on the ground.

So, to recap: from 2005-06, we pursued a bipartisan Iraq strategy and tried to build bipartisan support for it, and both the strategy and our bipartisan outreach failed. From 2007-08, we pursued a one-party Iraq strategy and, despite strenuous efforts, built no bipartisan support — and yet that strategy worked in the end.

I shrink from embracing the obvious parallelism: that because the Democrats played Iraq for partisan advantage, that must be what Republicans are doing now on the stimulus package. I find Republican concerns about the stimulus plan reasonable and I see no evidence that the House bill took those concerns seriously (certainly not as seriously as we took critiques of our Iraq strategy).

And I also shrink from embracing the obvious conclusion: that results always trump bipartisanship. My colleagues used to tease me that my fruitless pursuit of bipartisan support for the Iraq project reminded them of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick. I still in my heart believe that it was the right thing to do to try to build cross-party support.

I guess the only bottom line I will draw is this: if Obama-Reid-Pelosi continue on the path they are going, they will find themselves out on a limb. They better hope that the stimulus package has the success of the surge, and not the desultory results of the "strategy for victory." Otherwise, they may find that partisan outcomes in DC lead to fragile public support for fraught policies.

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