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Congress' Iraq move may yet constrain Bush
San Francisco Chronicle


February 15, 2007
Thursday PM

WASHINGTON -- By all appearances, Congress' first challenge to President Bush on Iraq since Democrats assumed control last month looks feeble.

More than a month after Bush ordered 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, the House is expected to pass a resolution opposing the action but doing nothing to stop it. The Senate heads into a recess in a partisan stalemate over its own nonbinding resolution.




Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers are fighting in Baghdad's neighborhoods and the president has made clear he intends to ignore Congress.

Still, Bush may be feeling the heat, historians say, much as four decades ago President Lyndon Johnson desperately sought peace talks in Vietnam after abandoning his re-election bid, and President Richard Nixon assumed office promising a secret plan to end the war.

"Obviously the president still has a lot of muscle and is still doing what he wants, but the evidence is that this administration is starting to feel a bit checked," said Julian Zelizer, a Boston University historian who outlines congressional resistance during the Vietnam War in the March issue of the American Prospect.

Bush has two years left in office and enormous - though not unlimited - power to continue the war. He does not face re-election. Republicans in Congress do, however, and could brake Bush if they abandon him in large numbers.

"What really constrains the president is not the resolutions, but the degree of political isolation he comes to feel," said Stephen Sestanovich, a Reagan administration national security official now on the Council on Foreign Relations.

History reveals that Congress is loath to challenge a president no matter how unpopular a war. Major U.S. military involvement in Vietnam lasted 11 years - including four years under Nixon.

Throughout that time, Congress debated a parade of resolutions and funding threats that either failed or were watered down. Congress's famous funding cutoff occurred six months after the United States ended its involvement. Nixon had already signed the Paris Peace Accords and U.S. troops were gone.

As unpopular as the Vietnam War was, Congress never cut funding while U.S. troops were there, although it blocked Nixon from sending ground troops to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Decades of congressional challenges to presidential foreign policies have been broadly ineffective, Sestanovich said. "A Democratic Congress challenged Reagan over support for the Contras and passed restrictions on what he could do, and the Republican Congress was not happy with Clinton sending peacekeepers to Bosnia, but didn't want to vote against it. In the end, most presidents have felt able to stare down the Congress and do what they wanted, and to do so even when they have to lie about what they're doing."

Congress has historically been terrified of being blamed if things go wrong, Sestanovich said. "There's no reason from decades of our history to think that this Congress would actually try to impose a legally binding restriction on the president."

As Johnson pondered escalation in Vietnam, prominent Democrats issued strong and prescient private warnings, Zelizer said. Johnson plowed ahead, and Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing military force. But as the conflict escalated, Democrats began holding hearings challenging White House assertions. Faced with a primary challenge from anti-war Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Johnson abandoned his run for re-election in 1968.

Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, assumed office in January 1969 knowing they had to begin troop withdrawals, said Robert Dallek, a Johnson biographer soon to publish a dual biography of Nixon and Kissinger.

"What they spoke about and understood clearly was that if Nixon hadn't reduced the number of troops dramatically by the time he was running for re-election in 1972, he was going to lose the presidency," Dallek said. "Bush has the advantage that he's not running, but he's going to feel the heat from the Republican Party the way Johnson did from the Democrats."

Nixon began a slow troop withdrawal but sought to avoid the perception of U.S. defeat, promising "peace with honor."

"Any politician that says, 'Well, I lost, we are defeated,' is tantamount to burying their political careers," Dallek said. "So what politicians have got to do is find some fig leaf to cover up defeat."

For Nixon, "there was no peace and there was no honor to it, and from the minute they signed on to this peace until the North Vietnamese took over in 1975, the war never ended," Dallek said.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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