Stanley I. Kutler: Hunkering Down in Baghdad

Roundup: Historians' Take

During their recent congressional testimony, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker refused to be pinned own on the goals, mission or even the meaning of success for U.S. forces in Iraq. But when Crocker talked abut the proposed “Status-of-Forces Agreement” he was clear. He promised that Congress would be “fully informed,” but, he said, there would be no “treaty” submitted for the Senate’s advice and consent. Crocker went unchallenged.

The details of the proposed agreement are apparently still pending. But, last November, Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House “czar” for Iraq, discussed the administration’s intention to reach an agreement that would protect Iraq against internal and external threats, defend the Iraqi constitution, deter foreign aggression and support efforts to combat all terrorist groups. Lute stated that Iraqi national leaders wanted a long-term relationship with Washington as “a reliable, enduring partner.”

Legal scholars have testified that no known (they might be classified) status of forces agreements, or SOFA, contain provisions for combat commitments unless approved by Congress. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has pointed “over 200 years of practice” demonstrating that Congress has implemented such agreements. But, so far, this has been to little avail; the Bush administration remains determined to prevent any congressional meddling.

Voltaire had it right: history is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play on the dead. For much of the 20th century, Republicans railed against executive agreements like “Status-of-Forces Agreements” -- understandings between heads-of-state. But today’s Republicans support the president in his effort to conclude an agreement to commit untold numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq for untold numbers of years.
Executive power expanded enormously during World War II. After the war, old guard Republicans, still rooted in isolationism, proposed a constitutional amendment to give Congress authority to regulate all executive agreements with foreign powers. Introduced in the early 1950s by Sen. John W. Bricker (R-Ohio), it reflected Republican concerns that first President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta and then President Harry S. Truman at Potsdam had bargained away too much.

The GOP also objected to Truman’s sending troops to Korea in 1950 without congressional approval. It was probably opposition by the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his enormous influence within Congress and without, that tipped the balance against the measure. It failed by only one vote.

Yet most of today’s conservatives uncritically advocate the most luxuriant interpretation of executive power, with no regard for concurrent institutional powers. In fact, only some Democrats are demanding a congressional role for what they believe are treaty arrangements -- as the Constitution dictates....

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