Home / Robert Farley / Bush, Executive Power, and the Iraq War

Bush, Executive Power, and the Iraq War


To follow up on Scott, it’s fair to say that I find Jonathan Bernstein’s arguments regarding Bush’s lack of influence over Iraq war planning unconvincing:

In fact, in the case of Iraq it seems to be the case that the uniformed personnel disagreed with the civilian political appointees, and the latter won (at least for the critical years 2003-2006). Even then, though, it’s not necessarily the case that the political appointees are on the president’s side. In the case of Iraq, there’s also an important party faction involved, and they were the ones who really got their way.

1. I think that Jonathan is correct to identify this as a conflict within the national security bureaucracy, and that he appropriately characterizes the nature of the conflict; civilian political appointees (Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, although for different reasons) favored a small number of troops, while the uniformed military favored a larger contingent. I’m not sure, however, why Jonathan has embraced radical uncertainty regarding the President’s stance on this question. It would be extremely surprising to find that the President’s attitudes were closer to the military bureaucracy (over whom he had very limited influence) than to his own political appointees. Moreover, the fact that the military bureaucracy lost the fight doesn’t prove that Bush sided with his political appointees, but it sure is consistent with that explanation.

2. Bush had an extraordinary degree of freedom in choosing his foreign policy team, a degree of freedom that Presidents don’t usually enjoy. People forget that Rumsfeld and Cheney aren’t actually neocons, and in spite of having some policy similarities with neocons, possessed independent bases of power within the Republican party hierarchy. Rumsfeld wasn’t even particularly popular with the neocons, who believed that he had views which were too “realist”. There’s every reason to believe that Bush chose both Cheney and Rumsfeld not in order to satisfy any particular faction or constituency, but because he was genuinely enthused about their ability to do their respective jobs. The same goes for Condoleeza Rice. The only major foreign policy figure that can reasonably be argued to have been pressed on Bush was Colin Powell, and Colin Powell was, not surprisingly, sidelined from major Iraq decision-making.

Now, Jonathan can argue that the prominence of the views of Bush’s hand-picked subordinates in warplanning doesn’t actually indicate the President’s preferences, but this leads to a situation in which it’s very difficult to lay ANY responsibility at the President’s feet. If the behavior of the President’s most trusted and freely assigned subordinates isn’t evidence of Presidential power, then it’s hard to say what is.

3. While I generally reject the idea that wars can be divided between conflicts of choice and conflicts of necessity, the Iraq War would be an almost textbook case of the former. There were simply no domestic or international constraints which forced this war on the administration. A comparison with JFK and LBJ is informative. Both JFK and LBJ would have suffered substantial attacks from Republicans and right wing Democrats for an insufficiently hawkish approach to Vietnam. Moreover, while it would be wrong to say that the international situation required US intervention, commitment was at least intelligible in the context of commonly held beliefs in the 1950s and 1960s regarding the need to stop Soviet “expansion”. None of this is the case with Iraq; while it’s possible that Joe Lieberman might have tried to attack Bush from the right on Iraq in 2004, it’s not terribly likely that the Democrats would have built their campaign around the idea that Bush was insufficiently hawkish. Again, Iraq is an almost textbook case for Presidential prerogative.

Thus, it’s possible that Bush a) didn’t want the war but was pushed by neocons within the administration who could threaten him with…. something or other, or b) that he wanted a larger contingent but was unable to win a victory over his own political appointees. However, both of these explanations are far less likely than the null hypothesis; Bush’s views were substantially similar to the political appointees he selected, and he got the war he wanted in the way he wanted to fight it.

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