Midterm Elections: A Vote of No Confidence

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

November 8, 2006

The following opinion was originally posted at the America Abroad weblog on TPM Café. All past posts may be found at America Abroad – A Blog on Current Affairs on this website, or at TPM Café.

The American midterm elections are a vote of no confidence in the Bush administration. In a parliamentary system, these results would lead to a change in government; in our presidential system it should lead to a change in policy. Whether this occurs will determine whether Bush remains relevant to the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy.

When all the votes are finally counted, it is likely that the Democrats will not only have swept the House but the Senate as well, giving them complete control of the congressional agenda. But it doesn’t give them control of foreign policy, which under our system largely remains within the purview of the executive. So if there is going to be the change in policy that the voters demanded, it will have to come from the President doing what he has for 6 years insisted he won’t do — to change course.

The first sign of whether such change is forthcoming will be whether Bush accepts the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld — or demands it if Rumsfeld fails to offer it. Of course, Bush pledged to keep his secretary of defense before the election. But that was then, this is now. Remember, Bush also said that FEMA Director Michael Brown was doing “a heckova job” in responding to Hurricane Katrina — and Brown was gone days later.

The next sign of change must come in Bush’s Iraq policy. No factor weighed heavier in the Republican defeat at the polls than the voters’ deep dissatisfaction with the course of events in that country. Instead of staying the course, going full speed ahead, or getting the job done, Bush must opt for a different strategy. There will be some voices calling for a bipartisan commitment to send more troops in order to win, but there are no more troops to send and in a civil war like Iraq’s the only way to win is by choosing sides. Today, America’s goal cannot be victory; it must be to minimize the damage of its defeat.

That requires a clear and unambiguous commitment to disengage from the conflict. American troops should immediately move from the streets of Baghdad and Iraq’s other cities and into the safety of their barracks and bases. And then they should begin the steady process of withdrawing.

In the six to twelve months it will take for American troops to leave Iraq, the task of those troops that remain should be two-fold. First, they must deter and, if necessary, prevent direct foreign intervention into Iraq’s civil war — a war whose violence may well intensify in the months ahead. Second, they must watch for signs of Iraqi reconciliation — and be prepared to assist those forces of Iraqi unity if they show a determination to achieve the upper hand. Indeed, in the event (however unlikely) that the shock of American disengagement produces positive moves towards reconciliation, America must be prepared to slow or even halt the withdrawal of its troops in order to assist in that process.

Decisively changing course on Iraq will be job one for a new Bush foreign policy. Beginning to restore the world’s trust in America must be next. That requires that America begins to behave in ways that are consistent with its professed ideals — ensuring due process for those accused of terrorism and other crimes, abandoning any thought of mistreating prisoners (however horrible their crimes), allowing an independent judiciary to review and decide all cases, and accepting the applicability of international agreements like the Geneva Accords to all detainees held in U.S. custody. The new Democratic Congress can take the first step by amending the Military Commissions Act passed just prior to the elections and removing its most odious and un-American aspects.

It also requires that Washington starts taking some of the world’s concerns more seriously. When a nation representing four percent of the world’s population consumes a quarter of its energy resources, then that nation has a responsibility to address the negative consequences of such consumption. America must act forcefully to curtail greenhouse gas admissions and to reduce its dependence on oil, not only because others would like it to, but because it is in the fundamental interest of all Americans to do so.

Other changes in policy are necessary — reengaging actively in Mideast diplomacy and being prepared to talk unconditionally to countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea are two that immediately come to mind. And these policy changes must be accompanied by a change in attitude — which requires a willingness to work with others to achieve desired ends. America is an important actor in the world, but it cannot achieve most of what it wants by itself. It needs the help of others, and should now commit itself to working together to address the many challenge that confront them all.

Posted at TPM Café on November 8, 2006 — 4:17 AM Eastern Time

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