The Reagan example
As Congress weighs what actions it is prepared to force on President Bush to halt U.S. military involvement in Iraq, anti-war lawmakers find themselves in a quandary: Although Congress has authority to make it impossible for a president to conduct foreign policy as he sees fit, it is incapable of conducting its own foreign policy. To be sure, through its power of the purse, Congress has the ability to cut off funding for the war, but even the congressional Democratic leadership has thus far been reluctant to take such a step, for good reason: Doing so would render American forces unable to carry out operations in wartime and would leave them vulnerable to attack, and their resulting inability to function would trigger far greater levels of Sunni-Shi’ite violence than we are currently seeing.
As the presidency of George W. Bush enters its seventh year, Democratic congressional leaders have difficult decisions to make about how aggressive (and destructive) they want to be in opposing his conduct of the war, and Mr. Bush has to carefully consider how he can be an effective wartime president when both houses of Congress are controlled by the opposition party. Recent decades offer two possible models of what the next two years could look like: 1) the disgraceful conclusion of the Vietnam War in 19741975, when a Democratic Congress cut off funding for the war, rendering President Ford unable to stop the bloodbath that followed in Indochina; or 2) President Reagan’s extraordinary political comeback in 1987-88, after public revelations of U.S. arms sales to Iran in an effort to secure freedom for American hostages.
Although historical analogies are never precise, in some ways our current predicament is analogous to the situation President Roosevelt faced in 1942 — a year which began with a secession of Allied losses, as one Pacific garrison after another fell to the Japanese. While setbacks took place on the battlefield, military leaders in Washington worked feverishly to create fighting forces capable of taking on the Axis powers. There was a sense of common national purpose, and there were no prolonged public hearings staged by critics of the war, no mass movements aimed at ensuring that the U.S. military didn’t get “bogged down” in the Pacific theater or trying to “bail out” Great Britain.
The World War II model collapsed in 1966-67, as President Lyndon Baines Johnson poured hundreds of thousands of troops into Indochina in an effort to prevent South Vietnam from falling to the Communists. Arkansas Democratic Sen. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began holding a series of public hearings with the goal of ending the war. He didn’t succeed in that goal, at least right away, but he helped persuade LBJ not to seek re-election. Richard Nixon, elected president in 1968, fought North Vietnam to a stalemate, and in January 1973 reached a ceasefire with Hanoi, ending largescale U.S. participation in Vietnam. By the end of 1973, however, Mr. Nixon was mired in Watergate, and North Vietnam began large-scale infiltration of its forces into South Vietnam. Mr. Nixon resigned in August 1974, and following gains for liberal anti-war Democrats in the 1974 elections, his successor, Mr. Ford, faced a hostile Congress which cut off funds to resupply South Vietnam.
What followed Congress’s evisceration of Mr. Ford’s authority as commander in chief was an appalling humanitarian cat- astrophe in Indochina and a diplomatic black eye for the United States, as Communists captured South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were sent to squalid reeducation camps or fled by sea in a desperate effort to escape, where they often were attacked by sharks or pirates. Several million perished in the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, which had the backing of Communist China.
In stark contrast was Mr. Reagan’s second term. After news of the Iran-Contra affair broke after the 1986 election, Mr. Reagan’s poll ratings plummeted to the mid-40s, but he staged an extraordinary political recovery. Some of Mr. Reagan’s most remarkable political achievements took place in his final two years in office, including Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s dropping of his demands that the United States abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. By the time he left office, Mr. Reagan’s popularity ratings had jumped to 64 percent. The challenge for Mr. Bush is to have a final two years like Mr. Reagan’s.