The world has just changed. While control of the Congress does not always have a huge bearing on foreign policy, it could matter greatly for our effort in Iraq. Congress was central in forcing the United States out of Vietnam in the early 1970s, and more recently it obliged President Clinton to leave Somalia quickly in 1994. Its power of the purse, and in particular its central role in fashioning the defense budget, mean presidents cannot sustain losing war efforts indefinitely absent congressional support.
What does this mean for American policy in Iraq? Based on the last months and years of sparring between the parties on the issue, it is hard to be optimistic about the ability of President Bush and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to cooperate for the greater national good. After a fall election campaign, in which the president often spoke of his opponents as Defeatocrats and the party of cut and run, and Democrats mocked the president for his claim "we're winning" and his recent statement he was "pleased" with how things are going in Iraq, one shudders to think of how the two parties will interact on this matter of grave national significance when the 110th Congress takes office next year.
An extreme possibility is that the speaker will try to marshal her House forces to mandate steep American troop reductions from Iraq in 2007, by denying the president a substantial fraction of the money he requests in the next supplemental appropriation bill. But this extreme is very risky -- not only for our prospects in Iraq, but for the Democrats politically. Now that they are to share power, Democrats also will share responsibility for the war's outcome, admittedly as junior partners to the effort but partners all the same. A mandated rapid withdrawal could, if done badly, jeopardize whatever chances we still have in Iraq and backfire on Democrats politically. As unpromising as a policy of "stay the course" has become, something like it is still preferable to an excessively rapid automatic troop reduction -- and American voters are likely to agree on that point.
A more likely possibility is that Speaker Pelosi will give President Bush the money he asks for troops and other activities in Iraq while berating his approach and using the investigative powers of the majority party to scrutinize and criticize everything the president has done in Iraq since 2003. By this strategy, Democrats would begrudgingly give the president what he requests while making it clear they are not strong supporters of the war or Mr. Bush's basic approach.
In one sense, such a Democratic strategy would only be fair. It cannot be seriously contested that the Iraq operation is Mr. Bush's war. Although many Democrats supported his decision to confront Saddam, it was nonetheless his decision. More importantly, it was his administration that decided how to wage war -- with minimal effort to work with allies, with trivial preparation for the post-Saddam period in Iraq, with huge mistakes particularly in 2003 about going into the country with too few forces and no real plan for stabilizing the place and for disbanding the Iraqi army and firing Ba'athists and keeping the international community out.
But this approach would probably not serve the country very well. The most likely outcome would be defeat in Iraq, since our current strategy is failing and, four years into the war, it is doubtful the Bush administration now has the creativity or flexibility to find a more successful approach. Defeat would not only likely condemn the Iraqi people to a civil war somewhere between that of Bosnia and Rwanda in severity (and on a much larger scale, given Iraq's size). By emboldening al Qaeda and destabilizing the Persian Gulf, it could have greater strategic consequences for the United States than did defeat in Vietnam. While such a defeat might help elect a Democratic Senate and president in 2008, one can fairly ask if that would be worth the price.
Instead, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Bush could consider working together -- or at least putting off the hard-core fight on Iraq until 2008. They could try to make a virtue of necessity. They could agree to issue an ultimatum of sorts to the Iraqi government, backed up by the political reality of the recent Democratic triumph in the House. The point would not be to impose our will on another sovereign nation. Rather, the message to Baghdad would be that America will not indefinitely spend its treasure and sacrifice the lives of its sons and daughters for a war that is being lost.
The Iraqi government is failing to make tough decisions to unify the country. The Shia-dominated coalition has refused to promise to share oil revenue equally with Sunni Arabs. It has resisted rehabilitating former low-level Ba'athists so they can regain lost jobs and re-enter public life. It has let the militias operate with increasing impunity. It is not trying to build a new Iraq so much as protect its own sectarian interests. As we have seen throughout 2006, this is a prescription not for peace but for civil war. And it is entirely inappropriate that American GIs should keep dying while Iraqi politicians do such a poor job of running their own country.
President Bush should tell Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that, however much he might want to, he cannot sustain the American public's commitment to this war unless the situation improves fast. Portraying himself as the good cop, he can tell our Iraqi friends that the "bad cop" of the Democratic Congress will increasingly tie his hands, and that an antiwar Democrat (or even an antiwar Republican) may succeed him in the White House in 2009 unless things improve quickly.
Absent greater cooperation from Baghdad, America's commitment to the Iraq project will soon wane. As tough as this message would be to deliver, it could be sweetened somewhat with a new inducement, such as a pledge of American support to help fund an overdue job-creation program for Iraq's large unemployed population.
Mr. Bush will not want to do this, given that he has staked his presidency on the outcome in Iraq. But American political reality will soon give him little choice. That makes any ultimatum from him much more credible than it would have been before Tuesday's election. Similarly, Mrs. Pelosi, as speaker, may not want to support Mr. Bush's plan for Iraq and sustain large numbers of American troops there much longer, regardless of what Iraq's government chooses to do. But in the interest of trying to win the war, and trying to avoid a further tarnishing of the Democratic Party as the party of defeatism (however undeserved that label may be), she may be willing to cooperate.
The hour is late in Iraq. But we still have one more chance, if we are wise enough to rise above our differences and divisions at home and seize the opportunity.
Michael O'Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and coauthor with Kurt Campbell of "Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security."