Shadow Government

Bipartisanship in substance and in form on Iraq

By Peter Feaver My friend and co-blogger, Philip Zelikow, offers a thoughtful perspective on an earlier posting I did comparing Bush’s outreach to Democrats on Iraq with Obama’s outreach to Republicans on the stimulus package. Let me provide a few more comments of my own. I agree with Philip that "bipartisanship is about substance, not ...

By Peter Feaver

My friend and co-blogger, Philip Zelikow, offers a thoughtful perspective on an earlier posting I did comparing Bush’s outreach to Democrats on Iraq with Obama’s outreach to Republicans on the stimulus package. Let me provide a few more comments of my own.

I agree with Philip that "bipartisanship is about substance, not just form." My point is precisely that the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" (NSVI) released in fall of 2005 did reflect, in its substance, a then-existent bipartisan consensus on what needed to be done in Iraq. That bipartisan consensus may have been obscured by bitter partisan fights over Iraq, but when the discussion shifted away from "who made what mistakes when" and towards "what should be done now" there was, I am arguing, substantive bipartisanship. There was no bipartisanship in form, however. And, to pick just one of the names Philip mentions, when Sen. Jack Reed made his suggestions of what we should do in that time period he always framed it as a bold departure from our current strategy. I just don’t think it was a bold departure.

I would not agree with Philip that the NSVI was a "new strategy." There were new formulations in the document, but at a conceptual level it was basically the Gen. Casey-Amb. Khalilzad strategy that was already extant.

Philip and I agree that NSVI did not work. Part of the reason it did not work had to do with failures of implementation and failures of resourcing, and those failures reflected, in part, disagreements within the National Security team — serious and in some ways damning concerns, to be sure, but I do not understand why Philip lists them as failures of bipartisanship.

As for the Iraq Study Group, I think Philip has a different creation story than I have. Congressman Wolf proposed it in the fall of 2005 not as a vehicle for changing the strategy but a vehicle for explaining the strategy. He argued then that the Bush administration had no credibility post-Duelfer Report, post-Abu Ghraib, post-Cindy Sheehan, post-Katrina, so even though it was following the right strategy, it got no traction with the public on it. Send unimpeachable Americans over to see firsthand what Casey and Zal were doing, and they can report back what the White House cannot. Sure, they will have some changes at the margins, but they will largely validate what is being done.

And so they did. If you look at the core of the Baker-Hamilton Commission’s recommendations on Iraq (set aside their recommendations on Israel, Syria, and so on), they were essentially to speed up the next sequel of the NSVI strategy. By this point, of course, the Bush White House had met at least two of Philip’s standards for real bipartisanship: the White House admitted the NSVI wasn’t working and Rumsfeld was gone. Moreover, there was a serious engagement with critics in the form of serious consideration of a wide spectrum of alternative strategies, to include strategies like this one advocated by Fareed Zakaria and others inside. The president chose otherwise, and I think history so far has vindicated that choice.

But, and this was my deeper point, by this stage he did it without any cross-partisan support and with only very dodgy support within his own party. It was, I think, a near-run thing. What saved the surge was partly the president’s doggedness, partly the adroit maneuvering in July-August 2007, and partly the progress General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were able to point to by September 2007.

Which brings me back to the stimulus package. I am not expert enough to choose between the various stimulus proposals circulating. Philip’s seemed sensible to me and was especially praise-worthy because he was making concrete suggestions. Obama is in a much stronger position politically than Bush was by 2006-07, so he has more options. The go-it-with-one-party option may seem viable or even attractive to him. My bottom line point is that such a course is risky, and depends on showing demonstrable results within a politically relevant time-frame.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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