Hunkering Down in Baghdad

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:18 am
Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

Gen. David Petraeus (WDCpix)

During their recent congressional testimony, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker refused to be pinned own on the goals, mission or even the meaning of success for U.S. forces in Iraq. But when Crocker talked abut the proposed “Status-of-Forces Agreement” he was clear. He promised that Congress would be “fully informed,” but, he said, there would be no “treaty” submitted for the Senate’s advice and consent. Crocker went unchallenged.

The details of the proposed agreement are apparently still pending. But, last November, Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House “czar” for Iraq, discussed the administration’s intention to reach an agreement that would protect Iraq against internal and external threats, defend the Iraqi constitution, deter foreign aggression and support efforts to combat all terrorist groups. Lute stated that Iraqi national leaders wanted a long-term relationship with Washington as “a reliable, enduring partner.”

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Legal scholars have testified that no known (they might be classified) status of forces agreements, or SOFA, contain provisions for combat commitments unless approved by Congress. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has pointed “over 200 years of practice” demonstrating that Congress has implemented such agreements. But, so far, this has been to little avail; the Bush administration remains determined to prevent any congressional meddling.

Voltaire had it right: history is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play on the dead. For much of the 20th century, Republicans railed against executive agreements like “Status-of-Forces Agreements” — understandings between heads-of-state. But today’s Republicans support the president in his effort to conclude an agreement to commit untold numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq for untold numbers of years.

Executive power expanded enormously during World War II. After the war, old guard Republicans, still rooted in isolationism, proposed a constitutional amendment to give Congress authority to regulate all executive agreements with foreign powers. Introduced in the early 1950s by Sen. John W. Bricker (R-Ohio), it reflected Republican concerns that first President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta and then President Harry S. Truman at Potsdam had bargained away too much.

The GOP also objected to Truman’s sending troops to Korea in 1950 without congressional approval. It was probably opposition by the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his enormous influence within Congress and without, that tipped the balance against the measure. It failed by only one vote.

Yet most of today’s conservatives uncritically advocate the most luxuriant interpretation of executive power, with no regard for concurrent institutional powers. In fact, only some Democrats are demanding a congressional role for what they believe are treaty arrangements — as the Constitution dictates.

But President George W. Bush clearly wants no part of congressional participation. At the same time, our new “democratic” Republic of Iraq has the right to accept or reject such an agreement. Bush undoubtedly views his proposed “strategic agreement” with Iraq as table stakes in the effort to insure his legacy.

In November 2007, the president and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a Declaration of Principles for a “Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship.” Since then, the Bush administration has pursued a “strategic agreement,” including both a SOFA and agreements on other political, economic, and cultural arrangements.

The White House has tried to isolate its opponents. Press Secretary Dana Perino reiterated that the Iraqis and their neighbors want this agreement –- meaning they view it as essential for preserving order in the area. “[T]he only ones who are agitated about it,” she noted, “and in fact demagoguing about it, are a subset of Democrats.” Crude perhaps, but she may have a point.

Bush’s proposed agreement is essential for his vision of a Middle East that is “democratic” and “stable.” It insures U.S. protection for “democratic” allies like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar against Shiite Iran. The administration seems to have chosen sides in the larger Islamic civil war.

In doing so, the administration may have made a prophet of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who said last September that “the Iraq war is largely about oil” and essential for the global economy.

Bush is probably betting that the rest of the world, from Europe to Asia, will quietly accept U.S. troops to defend their economic interests. Why not — they are free. And domestic interests could be placated because the commitment can be regarded as one big earmark for expanded defense spending, insuring congressional support in many districts.

Whatever SOFA emerges, we can be certain that it will not provide for any significant withdrawal of U.S. troops. Petraeus and Crocker are not there to preside over such a happening.

Future presidents are not obligated to continue this commitment. But it could well fasten itself on Washington for some time to come.

Consider Eisenhower’s 1958 letter to South Vietnam, promising the Diem regime aid to sustain its “democracy.” That momentary statement hardened into a “commitment” that hobbled the next four U.S. presidents, and brought about more than 50,000 U.S. battle deaths and inestimable Vietnamese losses.

So when you think Petraeus and Crocker, should we overlay images of Gen. William Westmoreland and Amb. Graham Martin in the 1960s?

Congress, of course, has always had the power to enforce executive agreements -– the power of the purse. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as a co-sponsor, has introduced legislation to deny funds for any agreement unauthorized by Congress. Alas, this can only be a gesture, given the current political alignment. A lethal combination of legislative acquiescence and inertia, not legislative responsibility, is the nation’s sad lot.

Categories & Tags: Commentary| National Security|

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