November 1, 2006  

Midterm maneuvers

What Democratic gains will mean for the military

Election Day is around the corner, and partisans are looking forward to — or dreading — the prospect that Democrats will take control of one or both houses of Congress.

On the left, they’re fantasizing about a prompt pullout from Iraq. On the right, they’re worried about a possible impeachment of President Bush for invading Iraq in the first place.

But does a Democratic victory really mean out with stay-the-course and in with cut-and-run? Down with unrestrained defense spending, up with social welfare? Toss the rubber stamp and start serving the subpoenas?

All that might make great political theater, but most of it’s not likely to happen.

Whether they win one house or both, Democrats likely will find it difficult to make much more than marginal changes to the course Republicans have set over the past six years, said Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Let’s start with Iraq.

Even if the Democrats believe — or act as if they believe — that voter disenchantment with the war propelled them into the majority, they will have a tough time forcing radical change in Iraq policy, Franc predicted.

Consider the most provocative (or depending on your point of view, most appealing) goal for a lot of vocal Democrats — a prompt withdrawal from Iraq. While ordering a pullout “would be perfectly acceptable to most of the party — the base is overwrought on the issue,” Franc said, there are just enough Democrats from conservative districts where voters oppose a precipitous withdrawal to make passage of pullout legislation doubtful.

There are about 40 moderate or conservative Democrats who represent Republican-dominated districts, Franc said. Many of those Democrats may be personally disinclined to support a sudden withdrawal from Iraq. But regardless of their individual inclinations, they will be under great pressure from their constituents to vote against a pullout, he said.

To complicate matters for the Democrats, Congress’ only real power to force a pullout is to stop paying for the war. Cutting off funding for troops in a war zone is “the kind of vote that is unsustainable back home” for a substantial number of Democrats, Franc said.

But couldn’t a Democratic Congress set a timetable for drawing down, or even a date for withdrawal?

“The president is still commander in chief,” said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Democrats may win control of the House or all of Congress, but “you still have Bush in the White House, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld at DoD and [Secretary Condoleezza] Rice at State. Congress’ capacity to change policy is limited,” Preble said.

Or maybe not, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

With a modicum of party discipline, the Democrats can shut down Iraq, Thompson said.

“The Democrats will force a pullout, and they’ll do it much faster than most people really think is possible today. When you get into a seemingly endless quagmire like Iraq, people think there’s no way out, but the Democrats will find a way out quick.” They will use the power of the purse to cut off funding and force at least a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Thompson predicted.

They would probably have most of the public behind them in doing that. The polls certainly don’t suggest that there’s strong support for continuing with the current course of action,” he said.

And not only Iraq. Democratic control in one or both houses of Congress will make it much harder for the administration to undertake other overseas military operations, Thompson said.

“The Bush administration’s trustworthiness in deploying troops overseas is totally exhausted. The Democrats will block any move he makes to deploy forces anywhere unless” there is a genuine, unambiguous threat to U.S. national security, Thompson said. “I don’t even think their heart is in it for Darfur.”

The Bush administration has called for United Nations forces to intervene to stop mass killing in Sudan’s Darfur region, but so far has expressed no enthusiasm for sending U.S. troops.

The Bush administration’s credibility on military matters is indeed damaged, Franc agreed. Were intelligence agencies to suggest there is an imminent threat from Iran, a Democratic Congress is sure to be highly skeptical, he said.

On the other hand, an obvious threat to the U.S. United States would generate an outpouring of bipartisan support for a military response, Franc said. Whether the U.S. military could mount another major operation is a separate question.

With the Army and Marine Corps stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, any new military adventures more ambitious than “limited bombing raids” may be impossible, said John Issacs, director of the left-leaning Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

A Democratic Congress may be inclined to increase the size of U.S. ground forces. “The Democrats have been strong supporters of adding troops,” Isaacs said, including provisions to add 30,000 soldiers to the Army and 5,000 troops to the Marine Corps.

Troops are expensive, so don’t expect the Democrats to cut defense spending, the analysts — left, right and center — agreed.

“I expect the size of the Army will be increased. I expect, therefore, the size of the defense budget will grow slightly,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

“If you’re looking for changes in the military top line or cancellation of major weapons, it’s not gonna happen,” said Christopher Hellman, director of the Project on Military Spending Oversight. “The reason is simple. The Democrats are deathly afraid of being seen as soft on defense. Further, if you look at the people in positions of authority on the committees [Armed Services and Appropriations subcommittee on defense], the Democrats are not much different than the Republicans.”

“Nothing will change,” said a glum Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project and a former Senate committee staffer and Government Accountability Office analyst. “The best indicator of what the Democrats would do is their document ‘Real Security.’”

In “Real Security: The Democratic Plan to Protect America and Restore our Leadership in the World,” Democrats last spring spelled out a five-point plan to improve the U.S. military, mend foreign alliances and bolster homeland security.

Wheeler said, “They endorsed every single acquisition program in the Rumsfeld defense budget — every single one.”

The Democrats promised to “rebuild a state-of-the-art military” by adding equipment and manpower “so that we can project power to protect America wherever and whenever necessary.” There goes any hope for defense spending cuts, Wheeler said.

But Democratic spending priorities may be different, Franc said. Democrats tend to favor personnel over weapons, so there may be a shift of spending “toward benefits, housing and that sort of stuff and away from long-term weapons.” If so, Franc warned, watch for “a return of the hollow military.”

Hellman foresees only “marginal changes. The nuclear bunker buster might not go forward. Should Democrats capture the Senate, there might be a slowdown on national missile defense, he said. But by and large, the same hometown interests in preserving jobs at shipyards and aircraft plants that exert a powerful influence on defense spending decisions today won’t change, Hellman said.

Thompson agrees.

“It’s very unlikely that the Democrats would cut any major weapons. In the current situation, the budget is not buying all that many weapons,” and the plants that produce them are heavily populated with Democratic workers. Even such a liberal as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is loath to oppose military procurements that sustain jobs for his constituents, Thompson said.

“I think there’s not a whole lot of difference” between Democrats and Republicans on defense spending, said Cato’s Preble. “I think the Democrats are more willing to look critically at certain weapons systems, like the F-22 or the Virginia-class submarine or the Future Combat Systems.

“But, the Democrats are also concerned about the industrial base, so they are inclined to keep certain weapons systems going” even if their military necessity is debatable.

If Democrats are unlikely to pull out of Iraq quickly, probably won’t cancel weapons programs and won’t cut defense spending, what difference does it make who controls Congress? Oversight.

“If the House goes Democratic, there will be hearings on every issue you can imagine,” Hellman said. Some obvious subjects: Intelligence and faulty information that led to the Iraq war. Contracting fraud in Iraq. Rising weapons costs and substandard performance. The treatment of enemy combatants.

Having Democrats in control of one or both houses of Congress will be like passing “the Full Employment for Auditors Act of 2007,” Thompson said. All documents of the Coalition Provisional Authority and Central Command will be gone over with a fine-tooth comb.” What will the auditors find? “Massive waste and incompetence — but what’s new?” Thompson said.

Wheeler said he doubts the Democrats will be so diligent. “They don’t know how to do oversight, and they’re scared to death of being labeled anti-defense,” he said.

Franc sees another possible outcome from the coming election: stalemate. In the Senate, Democrats don’t have to take control to be able to block Republican objectives. If the Republicans control the Senate by one or two seats instead of the five they have now, “the Senate as a body becomes practically dysfunctional,” Franc said.

With a Republican ally or two, Democrats can kill bills before they emerge from committees or defeat them on the floor.

Vice President Dick Cheney “would literally live in the Senate” to be available to cast tie-breaking votes, Franc said. “Partisanship is so intense now that a narrow majority means gridlock.”