The limits of Congressional power

The Congress could stop the surge. But how great an accomplishment is that? What Congress can’t do is to force the President to do anything useful.

If you’re worried about a genocidal bloodbath in Iraq, potentially leading to a regional sectarian war, as one possible outcome after U.S. troops come home, then you ought to be strongly motivated to figure out another plausible outcome and how to get there.

I was willing to listen to Wesley Clark’s plea to give Zalmay Khalilzad time to try to get Iraq’s Shi’a politicians to see that wiping out the Sunnis wouldn’t be good for business, instead of pulling out right away. I was willing to toy with supporting a surge of some kind until it became obvious that there was no actual strategic concept, with a plausible implementation plan, about how to use the extra forces. If I thought getting rid of Nouri al-Maliki could be done and would matter, I’d be for that, too, whether by democratic or undemocratic means. (I’m a liberal way before I’m a democrat; if the majority of Iraq’s Shi’a want to kill all the Sunni Arabs, I’d rather have the will of that majority frustrated than served.)

But aside from waiting around and hoping like Mr. Micawber that “something will turn up,” I don’t see any live options right now. Unless someone can come up with a plan that passes the smell test morally and the straight-face test in terms of plausibility (remembering that it will be carried out by the President we have and not the President we wish we had), then I have to conclude that it’s time to get out, or at least pull back to Kurdistan.

However, that’s not the argument that’s happening right now. Right now, the question on the table is the “surge.”

If the Congress stands firm, it can prevent more than a transient escalation. And how great an accomplishment would that really be? Adding more troops to help the Shi’a ethnically cleanse Baghdad doesn’t appeal to me, but while 20,000 troops almost certainly aren’t enough to turn the situation around, the difference in cost, casualties, and side-effects between 130,000 troops pursuing futility and 150,000 troops pursuing futility isn’t actually so huge as to be worth going to the mat over. (Was that in fact Bush’s plan? To make maintaining current force levels look like a compromise, thus deflecting pressure for a complete pull-out?)

What Congress can’t do is force the President to do anything useful. It can’t make him engage the other regional powers, even if there were any prospect that Syria and Iran in particular would be willing to engage with us. It can’t make him confront al-Maliki and his allies over state-sponsored terrorism against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. That’s the reality behind the rhetoric over the Constitutional extent of Presidential power.

Congress holds the strings. But you can’t push on a string.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: