The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Beating around the Bush

June 17, 2005

Cross-posted on my blog.

The noted political scientist Aaron Wildavsky (now deceased) wrote in 1966 that the U.S. “has one President but two presidencies: one for domestic affairs and the other is concerned with defense and foreign policy.” He continued, “Since World War II, presidents have had much greater success in controlling the nation’s defense and foreign policies than in dominating its domestic policies.”

While some challenge Wildavsky’s argument, there is a lot of truth in it. This is because Presidents have tremendous power to dominate the national agenda, relatively immune from interest group and congressional politics. The President is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the top diplomat, and the head of a vast security and intelligence bureaucracy. Presidents simply have huge informational advantages over political opponents.

Vietnam (and Watergate) generated some important challenges to presidential power. Congress used its power of the purse to generate more than a few meaningful checks on the chief executive’s authority. However, as events since 9/11 have demonstrated, it is quite difficult for a President’s political opponents to achieve many successes when they are the minority party in Congress.

However, domestic opposition to the administration’s policies is starting to grow. As I’ve blogged before, an “Iraq syndrome” may well limit presidential freedom of action. The so-called “Bush Doctrine” seems to be effectively limited by the failings of its first test in the Middle East. Over 1700 Americans have died; well over $200 billion has been spent; and stability seems to be out of reach. Oh, and the lack of WMD does not help supporters of preventive war.

So, what opposition should you notice?

Well, to begin, 122 House Democrats have signed a letter to President Bush authored by Representative John Conyers concerning the Downing Street Memo, which I blogged about last week in this space:

If the disclosure is accurate, it raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of your own Administration.

The letter includes 5 questions directed at the current occupant of the Oval office. Bush may ignore them, but his opponents are using them.

Indeed, over half a million citizens signed petitions asking the President to respond to these questions. Conyers took them to the White House today. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this week that the general public has turned against Iraq:

The steady drip of negative news from Iraq is significantly undermining support for the U.S. military operation there. With the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq exceeding 1,700, there is widespread awareness of the rising American death toll. As a consequence, baseline public attitudes toward the war are gradually turning more negative. Support for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq continues to inch up ­ from 36% last October, to 42% in February, and 46% currently.

The web, of course. has played a key role in generating this opposition to Iraq policy. MoveOn collected signatures, others asked questions. From the Knight Ridder story:

“All we’re asking is to know the truth,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder of “Some of his supporters want to say it’s a question of failed intelligence. If that’s all it was, so be it.”

But if not, said Bonifaz, “then the American people and the U.S. Congress deserve to know.”

Good luck trying to read their website; I couldn’t connect. Apparently, the site is generating a million hits per day!

BTW, please don’t think that I’m trying to discourage you, à la Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

In any case, this growing public doubt about Iraq feeds the congressional opposition. Today, according to a Reuters press report, North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones and Hawaii Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie submitted a resolution calling “for the Bush administration to develop a plan by the end of this year to pull out all American troops from Iraq and to begin the withdrawal by Oct. 1, 2006.”

The White House already rejected this suggestion and the measure isn’t expected to go very far in the Republican-dominated Congress. This is hardly surprising, given Dick Cheney’s recent declaration that the Iraqi insurgency is “in the last throes.”

However, we should expect Democrats to pound this issue for the foreseeable future. Rep. Maxine Waters has just announced the formation of an “Out of Iraq” caucus. With about 20 other House Democrats, the likely recruits of that caucus, Conyers also held a “forum” today (the Republicans wouldn’t call a formal hearing) investigating the implications of the Downing Street Memo. At the forum, Conyers said: “If these disclosures are true … they establish a prima facie case of going to war under false pretenses.”

Don’t read too much into Conyers’ legal/Latin phrasing. While Ralph Nader and Kevin Neese wrote an op-ed in the May 31 Boston Globe urging a public debate about impeachment of Bush and Cheney, I do not expect Democrats to waste time and resources on such an endeavor.

After all, in 1974 and 1999, one party controlled the Congress while the other party held the White House. Bush isn’t going to be impeached, but he is facing more serious and vocal opposition in Congress, backed by public opinion.

Bottom line: Iraq just might be a winning campaign issue in 2006 — and 2008.

Filed as:US Foreign Policy; Downing Street Memo; and Iraq.

+ posts

Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.