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Party in the Street and the Party in Their Heads

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Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas' new Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party After 9/11 (Cambridge University Press, 2015) is packed with wide-ranging insight.  The data collection alone inspires awe: The authors surveyed practically every major antiwar rally from 2004 to 2010, then collected further data on the Tea Party and Occupy movements to test the generality of their results.

My favorite part, though, is their dispassionate analysis of foreign policy under Bush versus Obama.  Like me, Heaney and Rojas conclude that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are largely rhetorical - in the heads of partisans rather than the actions of their parties:
In comparing the similarities and differences between the Bush and Obama administrations on war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, we find more continuity than change in policy. The large decline in forces in Iraq, as well as their ultimate withdrawal, were set in motion during the Bush administration. With respect to Iraq, the Obama administration largely carried out the Bush administration's policy without substantially changing direction. As we explain later, there may be some dispute about how differently the two administrations would have negotiated to extend the final Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq. It is possible to argue that the Obama administration was somewhat less prowar with respect to the SOFA than another Republican administration would have been, but it is also possible that the two administrations would have ultimately reached the same or similar agreements. It seems possible that a Republican  administration would have called for an increase of troops in Afghanistan, as did the Obama administration, but it would be reasonable to argue that Obama's increase was greater than would have been undertaken by a Republican administration. Regardless of which argument the reader finds most plausible, the differences between the administrations are subtle. At best, the Obama administration was slightly  more peaceful than another Republican administration likely would have been. At worst, the Obama administration was somewhat more bellicose.
Details on Iraq:
The declining violence in Iraq, as well as the surge that presumably brought about the decline, provided the backdrop for new negotiations between the United States and the Government of Iraq. On November 26, 2007, Bush and Prime Minister Maliki signed a Declaration of Principles that was the beginning of negotiations to disengage U.S. troops from Iraq (Mason 2009). They agreed that the objective of cooperation between the United States and the Government of Iraq was to train, equip, and arm the Iraqi government so that Iraq could take primary responsibility for its own security (White House 2007b). In a July 2008 interview, Maliki predicted that Iraq would shortly reach an agreement with the Bush administration on a timetable for withdrawal (Müller von Blumencron and Zand 2008).

In keeping with Maliki's prediction, and after months of negotiations, the United States and Iraq signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on November 17, 2008. A SOFA is a legal agreement between the United States and the government of another nation that allows the U.S. military to operate within that nation. The SOFA stipulated that U.S. forces would legally operate within Iraq only until December 31, 2011. Thus, the Bush administration had laid the foundation for the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Iraq.

Barack Obama campaigned for president advocating a sixteen-month timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (Bohan 2008). This timetable would have sent all U.S. troops home in April 2010, a full twenty months earlier than promised in the SOFA. However, once in office, the Obama administration largely followed the timetable set out in the SOFA signed by the Bush administration, although there were some delays in meeting the intermediate withdrawal targets (Whitlock 2010). Under the Obama administration, the United States accomplished a partial withdrawal by August 2010, and then a full withdrawal by the scheduled December 2011 departure date (Robinson 2011). Even though military forces left the country, the United States retained its embassy in Baghdad with approximately seventeen thousand personnel; its consulates in Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk with one thousand staff each; and thousands of military contractors (Denselow 2011).

One wrinkle in the story that Obama essentially followed the Bush timeline for withdrawal is that the Obama administration commenced negotiations with the Maliki government to extend the presence of U.S. troops beyond what Bush had agreed to in the SOFA. As the deadline for withdrawal approached, U.S. officials worried that Iraq had not achieved sufficient stability to maintain security without the U.S. military presence. To address this problem, U.S. negotiators sought an extension of the SOFA (Katzman 2012, p. 38). Prime Minister Maliki indicated that he would be willing to support the request for an extension if the proposal could gain the support of 70 percent or more of Iraq's Council of Representatives (Davis 2011). When it appeared likely that Iraq's government would grant the necessary approval, officials in the Obama administration began discussing the parameters of the U.S. presence, which would have likely consisted of approximately fifteen thousand troops (Katzman 2012, p. 38). However, Iraq issued a statement on October 5, 2011, that it would permit U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, but they would not have the legal protections granted by the SOFA, making them subject to the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts (Katzman 2012, p. 39). As a result, President Obama announced that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, in accordance with the existing SOFA. U.S. troops left Iraq because of Iraq's unwillingness to extend the legal protections of the SOFA, not because of the preferences of the Obama administration (Dreazen 2011). Nevertheless, during his 2012 campaign for reelection, Obama cited the full withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq as one of his administration's major accomplishments (Obama 2012).
Details on Afghanistan:
Obama's position on Afghanistan allowed him to claim during the election that he was simultaneously antiwar (regarding Iraq) and prowar (regarding Afghanistan), thus enabling him to appeal to a broad segment of the electorate. By splitting the difference between the wars, Obama may have hoped to appear flexible on foreign policy issues.

Once in office, Obama was in a position to put his vision into practice. While it would have been possible for him to walk away from his campaign pledge regarding Afghanistan, the president and his leading advisers (with the notable exception of Vice President Joe Biden) instead agreed to conduct a surge in Afghanistan analogous to the one that Bush authorized in Iraq. As presidential historian Andrew Polsky (2012, p. 332) recounts, they "envisioned a kind of Baghdad II, a troop surge of indefinite duration in which American forces and their NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies would practice 'seize, hold, and build' tactics to bring population security and economic development to rural Afghanistan." This strategy led to an increase of troops in Afghanistan from roughly 35,000 when Obama took office to a peak of 100,000 between August 2010 and April 2011 (Livingston and O'Hanlon 2012, p. 4). This increase of 65,000 troops far exceeded the two to three brigades (a maximum of about 15,000 troops) proposed by Obama during the election campaign.

More than just increasing the number of troops present, Obama's surge brought about a change in policy. Rather than focusing only on counterterrorism, the surge aimed to degrade the capacity of the Taliban so that the Afghan central government might exert greater control of its territory (Polsky 2012, p. 336). Despite these efforts, insurgent-initiated violence spiked in Afghanistan during the surge. American troops were subject to more attacks by insurgents in 2010 than in any other year of the occupation, making 2010 the deadliest year on record for American troops in Afghanistan (Livingston and O'Hanlon 2012, pp. 10-11). In September 2014, the United States and Afghanistan signed a new Bilateral Security Agreement to maintain the presence of U.S. troops for another six years (Walsh and Ahmed 2014).

When looking at the record of the Obama administration, it is obvious that it cannot be characterized as "antiwar" with respect to its policy in Afghanistan. In the first four years of the administration, 1,530 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan, almost three times the number (630) who died in Afghanistan during all eight years of the Bush administration (Livingston and O'Hanlon2012, p. 11). It is possible that a hypothetical President McCain would have reached exactly the same policy decision as did Obama. After all, McCain did promise to increase troops in Afghanistan. However, given that Obama increased troop levels far above what was discussed in the election, and the fact Obama used the Afghanistan issue as a way of distinguishing himself as a candidate, it also seems plausible that Obama's surge was uniquely his doing.
This historical analysis lays the groundwork for the rest of book.  The puzzle: If foreign policy remained quite stable between Bush and Obama, why did the antiwar movement almost completely dissolve as soon as Obama took the reigns?  Tune in tomorrow for Heaney and Rojas' answer...

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (19 to date)
Richard writes:

My theory on foreign policy has always been something like this:

Most liberals and conservatives care mostly about domestic issues. Foreign policy therefore is determined by the entrenched bureaucracy. Military leaders, CIA officials, think tank "experts", etc., who believe in using American power to spread democracy or gay rights or whatever. The majority of politically active Americans, however, care about cutting government or expanding the welfare state or stopping abortion or whatever.

Thus, most presidents basically take the path of least resistance on foreign policy, and let the most powerful interests do what they want. We therefore see a good deal of continuity.

Michael writes:

Overlooking the elephant...

Invading Iraq in the first place was not the kind of normal action likely to have been undertaken under the leadership of either party. Afghanistan was, given 9/11. But does anyone think we would be in Iraq had Gore been President? That is a big, non-rhetorical differnce.

I will grant, there are many Republicans who would not have seized that moment so irresponsibly. But no Democratic leader would have.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I am always amazed that people are so amazed by this as if Bush's decision and method for drawing down was the problematic part of the whole Iraq fiasco. I am also always amazed how these arguments treat Iraq and Afghanistan as obviously interchangable issues.

Michael's comment is right on.

I participated in an antiwar march in 2003 or 2004 - forgot exactly, and I've participated in no antiwar activities since then (though I've certainly expressed disagreement on various things since then).

The reason is Bush was wrong for *starting* the war, not for winding it down!

Daniel Kuehn writes:

There are surely some people who care a lot more about the specifics of the draw-down, wanted us out cold turkey, etc.

I just cared that it happened and I was more than happy to defer to the experts if they said that in an active war zone you want a planned and perhaps measured exit. I think that characterizes much of the people who were protesting the war.

David R. Henderson writes:

I agree with Michael above. The relatively unlikely event was the invasion of Iraq. I doubt that Gore would have done it. Given the financial cost of the war, the deaths caused in the war, the incredible uprooting of possibly millions of Iraqis, and the formation of ISIS, that’s a pretty big difference between Bush and Gore.

NZ writes:


I think you're basically right, though there is a part of the public that cares more about foreign policy than domestic policy: the Neocons.

It's true of course that the Venn diagram of Neocons and entrenched bureaucracy has a large area of overlap. If you expand both circles to include groups under the immediate influence of each, there's even more overlap.

adam writes:

Seems to me there would have been a good chance that Gore would have invaded. Gore himself was tepid on the war, but most of his criticism was the way in which Bush was initially proceeding to war (i.e. without congress, a new UN resolution, and a broad coalition) and not so much with the war itself or its aims. This school of thought actually won out somewhat when Bush decided to send inspectors back and get congressional approval. In addition, Gore would have been surrounded by pro-war officials. Lieberman was his VP, and Lieberman was one of the main pushers in the Senate behind the invasion. The rumor was that Gore would have selected Richard Holbrooke as Secretary of State, and he was a Iraq war supporter too. Leon Furth (Gore's national security advisor) also would have been in a Gore administration, likely as national security advisor and he was another prominent war supporter. Other potential advisors/ cabinet members would have been Kerry, Edwards, Biden, and Bayh, all of whom voted for the war.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

adam -
Once it becomes an agenda item people react differently. I think the the point is that with Gore it wouldn't have even been on the agenda.

When the Bush administration broaches the issue and that's a different calculus for the Republicans than if nobody brings it up. When the Republicans come along that's a different calculus for the Democrats. Unfortunately we're in a system where a lot of people think these sorts of things have to be taken seriously once they're on the agenda. But would it have even gotten on the agenda under Gore? It's difficult to see how.

adam writes:

Seriously? Iraq and WMDs would have been on the agenda regardless of who was president. It was a major foreign policy issue through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. It most certainly didn't originate with Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Yes adam, seriously.

WMD inspections would have been on the agenda but the claim was that war would not have been. Nobody is saying that Bush was just throwing darts at a dartboard to pick the country. Clearly there were pre-existing policy issues around Iraq. But that hardly puts war on the agenda which is our point.

Even with Iraq now as precedent it would be absurd to suggest that there's a "good chance" (your words from above) "any" president would invade Iran, Syria, Libya, or North Korea over similar sorts of ongoing policy issues. Even now with Iraq as precedent only the most extreme neocon Republicans offer any real probability of that. Do you seriously think that before Iraq became precedent people were more broadly likely to act that way?

Matthew writes:

FWIW here's Al Gore at the CFR on 2/12/2002:

"Even if we give first priority to the destruction of terrorist networks, and even if we succeed, there are still governments that could bring us great harm. And there is a clear case that one of these governments in particular represents a virulent threat in a class by itself: Iraq.

"As far as I am concerned, a final reckoning with that government should be on the table. To my way of thinking, the real question is not the principle of the thing, but of making sure that this time we will finish the matter on our terms. But finishing it on our terms means more than a change of regime in Iraq. It means thinking through the consequences of action there on our other vital interests, including the survival in office of Pakistan's leader; avoiding a huge escalation of violence in the Middle East; provision for the security and interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States; having a workable plan for preventing the disintegration of Iraq into chaos; and sustaining critically important support within the present coalition.

"In 1991, I crossed party lines and supported the use of force against Saddam Hussein, but he was allowed to survive his defeat as the result of a calculation we all had reason to deeply regret for the ensuing decade. And we still do. So this time, if we resort to force, we must absolutely get it right. It must be an action set up carefully and on the basis of the most realistic concepts. Failure cannot be an option, which means that we must be prepared to go the limit. And wishful thinking based on best-case scenarios or excessively literal transfers of recent experience to different conditions would be a recipe for disaster."

adam writes:

So you're saying that Lieberman, Holbrooke, Furth Kerry, Edwards, Biden, and Bayh just never thought of going to war? It was only once Bush et al suggested it to them that they realized it was a great idea? Or are you saying that they didn't really want to go to war, but somehow felt pressured into supporting it because of politics?

As for Libya, might I remind you that WE DID GO TO WAR!! (excuse me: "kinetic action"). And Obama nearly pulled the trigger in 2013 on Syria after the chemical weapons attacks. I think that troops on the ground were off the table in those situations precisely because Iraq had gone so badly.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

You always think about war when there is a very bad state actor. Right now a lot of people are thinking about war with Russia of all places! That does not mean a Russian war is on anyone's agenda.

I specifically said "invade" when I listed the countries. I think one of the things those of us who did not like Bush that prefer Obama like about him is that he's used more targeted means. On Syria, sure we came closer but attacks were going on and millions of people have been displaced! If there was a civil war in Iraq with WMDs in play we would be having a very different conversation about the Bush administration!!! Even with a civil war and WMDs in play, Obama is not going in. You're citing this as evidence that he WOULD HAVE gone into Iraq in 2003? How does that make any sense?

I agree in the case of Syria the probability of boots on the ground might be higher without Iraq, although that's tough to say. Even if it ended up that way that would have been a much, much more defensible use of military force than the invasion of Iraq.

RPLong writes:

I like to say that Democrats tax openly and wage war in secret, while Republicans tax secretly and wage war in the open.

Andrew_FL writes:

No no, wait, don't tell me. Is the answer...


TMC writes:

Daniel, who am I going to believe about Gore? You, or Al Gore?

David R. Henderson writes:

@adam and Matthew,
That is pretty persuasive evidence. Thank you.

David R. Henderson writes:

Also, I just recalled this.

The Original CC writes:

Scott Sumner also claimed (on his blog) a while back that he believes that Gore also would have gone into Iraq.

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