Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Power and Limitations of Commissions: The Iraq Study Group, Bush, Obama, and Congress

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Power and Limitations of Commissions: The Iraq Study Group, Bush, Obama, and Congress

Article excerpt

On February 27, 2009--five weeks after his inauguration as president--Barack Obama delivered a speech at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina announcing his plan for winding down the Iraq War. Obama told the assembled Marines that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would end by August 31, 2010, and that a contingent of no more than 50,000 American troops would remain in Iraq after that date to train Iraqi forces, conduct counterterrorism missions, and protect American personnel. Obama also said that he would engage diplomatically with all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in order to make Iraq and the Middle East more secure. (1)

This announcement was not surprising considering that Obama had been saying he would take these steps if elected president since early in the 2008 presidential campaign. But few people realize that the Iraq plan that Obama developed during the campaign and adopted as president was shaped by the Iraq Study Group, a blue-ribbon commission chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN).

In December 2006, the Iraq Study Group proposed shifting the U.S. mission in Iraq to training and counterterrorism, launching a diplomatic offensive in the Middle East, and conditioning aid to Iraq on its progress toward milestones. When President George W. Bush decided a month later to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq to execute a new counterinsurgency strategy, commentators observed that he had rejected the commission's advice (Barnes 2007; Hedges 2007; Washington Post 2007). But at the same time that Bush decided to "surge" in Iraq, Obama decided to make the study group's proposals the basis for his own Iraq platform.

In this article, I provide the fullest account to date of the origins of Obama's Iraq policy and show how the Iraq Study Group heavily influenced it. I also demonstrate that the study group turned public opinion more sharply against the Iraq War, placed added pressure on Bush to change his war strategy, and served as the inspiration for important Iraq initiatives by centrist legislators. At the same time, I argue that the study group's impact could have been even greater if the stances of Bush and Democratic congressional leaders on Iraq policy had not been so far apart.

More broadly, this case study illuminates the policy-making importance and limitations of government-sponsored ad hoc advisory commissions. Such commissions, which can be established by the executive branch or through legislation, have three key characteristics: (1) by definition, at least one of the commissioners is not a government official, (2) the commissioners typically include Republicans and Democrats, (3) the commissioners typically possess significant stature. These attributes generally give commissions an aura of independence and bipartisanship, which can make them powerful vehicles for policy change. But commissions face significant limitations in that their lack of formal policy-making power usually prevents them from overcoming political divisions on highly salient issues marked by severe partisanship and polarization. The story of the Iraq Study Group illustrates these strengths and weaknesses of commissions.

This case study also underscores that the creation of a commission can be an effective way for Congress to challenge administration policy in an ongoing war. In general, Congress tends to be quite deferential to the president during wartime, as legislators often fear that they will be punished at the polls if they oppose the president on a national security issue (Fisher 2000; Hamilton with Tama 2002; Lindsay 1994; Weissman 1995). (2) The establishment of an independent commission can be a relatively low-cost way for members of Congress to challenge administration claims about the progress of a war and to introduce alternative proposals into the public debate. This was the goal of legislators in forming the Iraq Study Group, and it succeeded to a remarkable degree. …

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