Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


November 2006

Virginia in 2006, like Florida in 2000, is the state that decided the balance of power in Washington's federal government. The hotly contested Senate race between incumbent George Allen and challenger James Webb was finally decided in Webb's favor.

With the House of Representatives solidly in Democratic hands and a Senate narrowly controlled by the opposition, how much change will President Bush be obliged to accept in his current strategy in Iraq?

Here are three scenarios that could be played out in coming months, depending on how much bipartisan foreign policy is practiced by our newly divided government.

Optimists are convinced that the president will adopt a bipartisan plan to phase out U.S. combat operations in Iraq and use U.S. troops mainly to train Iraq's army and border patrol. The optimists point to the effective way that Bush dealt with a majority Democratic legislature in Texas when he was governor, and they are encouraged by his extending, during his post-election news conference, an olive branch to Democratic leaders, many of whom share his internationalist views on foreign policy, except for Iraq.

Pessimists are convinced that Democrats in both the House and Senate will demand radical changes in Iraq policy and complete troop withdrawal in 2007. They are convinced that committee chairmen in the House will launch sweeping investigations of "administration lies" to Congress about its reasons for going to war. They assume that Senator Biden will hold televised hearings into a flawed administration policy after Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Confirmation hearings for Robert Gates will provide Democrats another opportunity to chastise the president.

However, two realities should be kept in mind as we digest the full meaning of the November 7 elections and the impact on Bush's foreign policy during his final two years in office.

First, foreign policy is a presidential responsibility under the American system of government. Congress exerts much influence, through its confirmation process, on the White House in the selection of cabinet members, ambassadors, and top military officers.. Both Senate and House have a large influence on policy through their control over budgets for State Department foreign aid programs and Defense Department operations.

Yet, short of cutting off funds for Iraq and foreign aid elsewhere, there is little that Congress can do to prevent a determined president from pursuing his foreign policy goals. The reelection of Senator Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut, who ran as an independent because the local Democratic party rejected his views on Iraq, could encourage the president to steer a middle course on Iraq and gain some Democratic support for gradual troops reductions over several years, instead of the quick withdrawal demanded by many radical Democrats. .

A second reality is that the 2008 presidential race is now in full swing. Democrats are convinced they can capture the White House and hold their gains from the November 7 elections. But two years is a long time in American politics. And predictions about what the mood of voters will be in two years are risky for any politician.

Ask George Allen.

File last modified on Saturday, 15-NOV-2006 10:58 PM EST

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