The Iraq War and the Powerlessness of the American Voter


Over the last generation, there has been an increasing level of dissatisfaction with the American political process. According to the latest polls, only 22% of the public trusts the government while Congress has an abysmal 12% approval rating.

One popular explanation for this dissatisfaction is the increasing level of polarization, with moderates being squeezed by the increasing number of ideologues from both sides of the aisle. But while the level of partisan vitriol seems to increase every year, the shouting on cable news is often a distraction from how similar the positions of both parties are on many of the most important issues. 

A prime example of this phenomenon is the handling of the Iraq war, which is now in its eighth year. Since 2006, consistent majorities of the American people have opposed the war. Yet, because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have taken the adequate steps to bring our troops home, anti-war voters have had no real options at the ballot box. It is this powerlessness that has increased Americans’ level of cynicism about the political process.

In the 2006 mid-term elections, Democrats swept into power primarily because of growing anti-war sentiment. In a democracy, elections are supposed to have consequences, but rather than helping to wind down the war, Democrats allowed President George W. Bush to send 40,000 more troops into Iraq on their watch.

Similarly, the war was one of the key issues in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, and President Barack Obama’s early opposition to the war was one of the main reasons he managed to defeat Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Despite holding the presidency, House, and a 60-vote super majority in the Senate, however, Democrats have done little to draw down the war started by a Republican House and a Republican president in 2003. Obama proposed a withdrawal date of December 31, but there are still nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq today.

More importantly, according to Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, “the American footprint [in Iraq] will remain quite large no matter what.” One study indicated that even a complete military withdrawal would still leave 17,000 State Department employees and contractors in the country.

Soon after he announced the troop surge, Bush began speculating about “the Korean model” in Iraq, implying that American troops would stay in the country for most of the 21st century. Bush left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history, yet his successor has maintained the course on his signature foreign policy initiative.

In effect, the American people have had no say in whether our nation goes to war. It’s not just Iraq either. On a whole host of issues, from free trade policies to the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, and the War on Drugs, there is very little separation between Democrats and the Republicans, with liberal and conservative voters alike unable to change the entrenched interests in both parties.

This reality, more than the amount of name-calling between the two parties, is why so many Americans have grown weary of the political process.

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