As Congress reconvened after the election on a wet and dreary fall day, the beaten Republican majority had unfinished foreign policy business. On the agenda was the mundane, such as ratifying a nuclear deal with India and a free-trade agreement with Vietnam. The big questions, on what to do about a chaotic Iraq and Middle East, will mainly fall to Democrats as they prepare to lead in January.
Incoming Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wasted no time outlining his preference. He said U.S. troops should withdraw in phases within four to six months. "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves," he said. "They, and they alone, are going to decide whether they're going to have a nation or whether they're going to have an all-out civil war."
For now, Levin and other Democrats aim to pass a resolution on troop withdrawals, to pile pressure on the Bush administration to shift direction. But because the Constitution grants the executive branch the primary power to make foreign policy, little is likely to change.
The intractable security problems that have dogged President Bush-a violently sectarian Iraq and a nuclear Iran and North Korea-are hard to solve no matter which party is in charge. On Iraq, however, both the White House and Congress "would love to be saved" by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, said Nancy E. Roman, vice-president of the Council on Foreign Relations. As Congress returned to work Nov. 13, Bush met with the group again before they issue their report, which is due next month. But its members will not offer any quick fixes, Roman said: "I think that's asking an awful lot of them."
Among the study group's expected recommendations is compelling the Iraqi government to disarm militias and force different sects to compromise. More controversial, though, is a possible proposal to enlist Syria and Iran's help in quelling the chaos. The idea is "appallingly stupid," said analyst Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute, given that the two nations usually flout U.S. efforts.
"The president of Iran says that his goal is a world without America," Muravchik told WORLD. "His goal is to destroy us. The administration has been talking to Syria from Day 1. . . . There's really nothing to be had there." U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has also tried engaging Iranian officials, with little progress.
But Roman expects other aspects of foreign policy to change quickly, such as free trade under a Democrat-controlled Congress. Already the lame-duck session has stumbled over an agreement with Vietnam, which was expected to win easy passage. But when a vote came up Nov. 13 to create normal trading relations with Hanoi, the bill surprisingly failed, likely pointing to future protectionism in the new year.
"Many of those Democrats who were elected [campaigned] on fair trade, protectionist, populist platforms," Roman said. "We're not going to be doing trade deals without more attention to labor and environmental concerns." The loss came four days before President Bush was due at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, leaving the United States with little to offer at a forum losing its influence to China in the region.
While passing the Vietnam trade deal has become harder, other things are non-starters. One is the reconfirmation of John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whom Democrats bullied and blocked during his first nomination. "Now they're in a position to win," Roman said, so they are unlikely to concede.
Bush would like his no-nonsense diplomat to stay, but the only option may be to appoint Bolton to a different position at the State Department and give him the UN role. "I don't really know how much appetite there is to jump through those hoops," Roman said. The president may still hold the foreign policy reins, but he now has to guide a more obstinate Congress.