Party in the Street and the Party in Their Heads
By Bryan Caplan
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…