Concern Grows over Democratic House Leader Pelosi’s Support for Iraq War

On January 4, Congressional Democrats re-elected California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in the House of Representatives. This comes despite that, since assuming her current leadership position two years ago, Pelosi has not only disappointed her liberal San Francisco constituency, but the majority of Democrats nationally as well, through her support for President George W. Bush’s policies toward Iraq.
Back in December of 2002, as independent strategic analysts were arguing that the evidence strongly suggested that Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons some years earlier, Pelosi categorically declared on NBC”s Meet the Press that “Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There”s no question about that.”

Had she simply said that the Iraqi dictator had, at that time, “may” or even “probably” possessed such weapons, it could be assumed that she was simply being na”ve or foolish for failing to recognize the transparently false and inflated intelligence then being put forward by the Bush administration regarding Iraq”s weapons capability. However, in expressing such certitude, she not only seriously compromised her integrity, but she seriously undercut the then-growing anti-war movement.

Furthermore, by giving bipartisan credence to the Bush administration”s unprincipled use of such scare tactics to gain support for the U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country, she negated a potential advantage the Democrats would have otherwise had in the 2004 campaign. After it became apparent that administration claims about Iraq’s alleged military threat were false, the Democrats were unable to attack the Republicans for misleading the American public since their Congressional leadership had also falsely claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

During the first twelve weeks of 2003, there were a series of large demonstrations here in her California district against the war, including one on February 16 which brought out an estimated half a million people. The day the war broke out in March, San Francisco”s downtown business district was shut down by thousands of anti-war protesters in a spontaneous act of massive civil disobedience. In response, Pelosi denounced the protesters and rushed to the defense of President George W. Bush, voting in favor of a resolution declaring the House of Representatives” “unequivocal support and appreciation to the president “for his firm leadership and decisive action.” She personally pressed a number of skeptical Democratic lawmakers to support the resolution as well.
In response to those who argued that Iraq was not a threat to the United States and that United Nations inspectors should have been allowed to complete their mission to confirm that Iraq had disarmed as required, Pelosi went on record claiming that “reliance by the United States on further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone” could not “adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

In the race for last year”s Democratic presidential nomination, Pelosi helped lead an effort to undermine the anti-war candidacy of former Vermont governor Howard Dean, claiming that his call for a more balanced approach by the U.S. government in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process somehow brought into question his commitment to Israel”s right to exist in peace and security. Instead, she endorsed the hawkish Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt, who cosponsored the House resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq at the time and circumstances of his choosing. When Gephardt dropped out of the race, Pelosi threw her support to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, another supporter of Bush”s war.

As a counter to those who argued that the war was a diversion of critical personnel, money, intelligence, and other resources from the important battle against Al-Qaeda terrorists, Pelosi also went on record declaring that the Iraq invasion was actually “part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.” As recently as this past September, despite a CIA report that Islamist terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zaqarwi — who allegedly has ties to Al-Qaeda — had not received sanctuary or any other support from the former Iraqi regime, Pelosi also went on record claiming that, under Saddam Hussein, “the al-Zarqawi terror network used Baghdad as a base of operations to coordinate the movement of people, money, and supplies.”

Such assertions proved costly to the Democrats in this past November”s election: exit polls showed that 80% of those who believed that the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism voted for President Bush.
In response to the consensus of disarmament experts that the invasion has hurt the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, Pelosi voted in favor of a Republican-sponsored amendment which claimed that the elimination of Libya”s nuclear program “would not have been possible if not for . . . the liberation of Iraq by United States and Coalition Forces.” This comes despite reports to the contrary by U.S. negotiators who took part in British-initiated talks.

Despite growing evidence that the resistance to the U.S. occupation is a popular nationalist reaction to a foreign occupation, Pelosi has gone on record insisting that it is simply the work of “former regime elements, foreign and Iraqi terrorists, and other criminals.”

Defenders of Pelosi point out that, as assistant minority leader in October 2002, she was the only member of the Democratic leadership in either house of Congress to vote against authorizing the invasion. Furthermore, they note how she has since raised some concerns regarding how the Bush administration has handled the occupation, such as not adequately preparing for the aftermath of the invasion, failing to utilize enough troops, not providing adequate training or armor for U.S. forces and for backing such dubious exile figures as Ahmad Chalabi.

However, to this day, Pelosi has refused to acknowledge that the United States should have never invaded Iraq in the first place. Religious leaders from around the globe have observed it did not meet the criteria for a “just war.” It was also a direct violation of the United Nations Charter, which the United States — as a party to such binding international treaties — is legally required to uphold. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus among even mainstream strategic analysts that the invasion and occupation has actually made the Middle East and the United States less secure.

Historically, opposition leaders in Congress have helped expose the lies and counter-productive policies of the incumbent administration. Pelosi, however, to her party”s detriment, has decided instead to defend them.
On January 12, Bay Area Congressional Representatives Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee, Pete Stark, and Sam Farr joined Democratic colleagues from across the country in signing a letter to President Bush calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq; Congresswoman Pelosi was notably absent from the list of signatories.

Indeed, to this day, Pelosi continues to support the U.S. occupation of Iraq, rejecting calls — in the face of a growing death toll of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians — to end the fighting and bring American troops home. This comes despite the fact that even many prominent Republicans, such as James Baker and General Brent Scowcroft, are now calling for the withdrawal of American forces.

Less than fifteen years ago, Pelosi was an outspoken liberal critic of the senior Bush administration”s militaristic policy toward Iraq. Now, however, she finds herself to the right of former President George Bush’s Secretary of State and his National Security Advisor.

That Pelosi would continue to support the war in the face of this past November’s city-wide referendum — in which a resounding 63% of San Francisco voters approved a measure urging the United States government to withdraw all troops from Iraq — is demonstrative of how out of touch she is with her own constituents. Already there is talk that, should Pelosi continue her support for the Iraq war, anti-war Democrats could organize a serious electoral challenge against her in the 2006 Democratic primary. (Some are citing a precedent from 1970 where, in an adjacent Congressional district, Democratic Congressman Jeffrey Cohelan — a liberal incumbent who nevertheless supported the Vietnam War — was defeated in the Democratic primary by anti-war challenger Ron Dellums, who went on to represent the East Bay in Congress for the next eighteen years.)

Thanks to the failure of the San Francisco Congresswoman and other Democratic leaders to more forcefully challenge the Bush administration where it was most vulnerable politically, her party not only lost a presidential race they should have easily won, but lost seats in the House and Senate as well. As long as people like Nancy Pelosi remain in leadership, the Democrats are destined to remain in the minority.

Some Potentially Positive Developments from a Disastrous Election

No progressive should be happy with the results of the presidential election. However, it is hard to predict what the longer-term impact on American politics of a particular presidential election result might be. For example, it would have felt terrible at the time if ‘ despite Vietnam and Watergate ‘ Gerald Ford had managed to defeat Jimmy Carter in the close election of 1976. However, if Ford had stayed in office for another four years, the Republicans would have been blamed for the recession and the Iranian hostage crisis of subsequent years and the Democrats would have almost certainly won in 1980, thereby sparing the nation and the world the consequences of the eight years of the Reagan administration.

As a result, we should keep in mind that there are a number of ways that Bush’s re-election could conceivably prove more beneficial in the longer term than had Kerry been elected.

As Kerry made clear during his campaign, he did not support a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq any time soon. As a result, he would have been saddled with a bloody unwinnable counter-insurgency war that he had helped make possible through his October 2002 vote authorizing the invasion. Like President Lyndon Johnson, he would have found himself in the untenable position of being attacked from the left for not withdrawing and attacked from the right for not escalating. If Kerry was smart enough to pull out, any subsequent bad news from Iraq would have been blamed on the Democrats for having ‘lost’ that country. Any terrorist attack that might hit the United States subsequently would have been blamed on the Democrats for not showing sufficient resolve against the ‘terrorists’ in Iraq. Given that the situation in Iraq will almost certainly worsen over the next few years, it may be better that the Republicans get saddled with the tragedy that was largely of their making.

A related factor is that, given the reticence of members of Congress to criticize the president of their own party during wartime, Congressional Democrats will be far more likely to call for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq under a Bush administration than under a Kerry administration. (We must make sure that they actually do. Those representing the more liberal districts who continue to support Bush’s war will need to be challenged in the 2006 Democratic primaries and/or be challenged by a strong Green Party or other opponent in the general elections.)

Another potentially positive development is that the Europeans, Canadians, and others ‘ alienated by the Bush administration’s cowboy mentality ‘ will be far more likely to assert a more independent foreign policy under Bush than under Kerry, even though ‘ despite his calls for more multilateralism and alliance-building ‘ Kerry largely accepted the Bush Doctrine and American unilateralism.

In addition to voting to authorize the illegal, unnecessary and disastrous invasion of Iraq, Kerry supported increased military spending, denounced the International Court of Justice, supported the rightist Israeli government’s illegal colonization and creeping annexation of the occupied West Bank, and threatened Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. This is not to say that ‘Kerry would have been just as bad as Bush.’ However, the more erudite and diplomatic Kerry would have brought more respectability to such dangerous policies than the inarticulate and arrogant Bush and would have therefore made it more difficult for foreign leaders to openly challenge American policy.

Finally, it is important to recognize ‘ and to challenge those who suggest otherwise ‘ that Kerry lost because he was too far to the right, not because he was too far to the left. This gives the progressive wing of the Democratic Party the opportunity to take control.

It is pretty clear now that John Kerry lost the election slightly over two years ago, the day he voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Just prior to the early primaries and caucuses earlier this year, Kerry’s support for the war had resulted in him falling far behind in the polls. Thanks to his relentless attacks against Howard Dean and other Democratic war opponents, however, he was able to secure the nomination.

This created a fall election not unlike Humphrey-Nixon race of 1968, where ‘ despite a burgeoning anti-war movement ‘ both parties decided to nominate men who promised to continue prosecuting an illegal, immoral, and ultimately unwinnable war. Not surprisingly, the election had the identical result of a narrow Republican victory, made possible in part because many progressives who would have otherwise worked hard for a Democratic victory instead decided to not actively become involved in the campaign. The Kerry nomination also alienated many anti-war conservatives who would have voted Democratic if the party had nominated an anti-war candidate, but ‘ seeing little difference between the two regarding Iraq ‘ ended up sticking with the Republicans.

In Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack, which closely examines the inside of the Bush White House, he quotes political consultant Karl Rove saying last spring that ‘The good news for us is that Dean is not the nominee.’ He describes how Dean, who opposed the war from the beginning, could have resulted in a ‘potent face-off with Bush.’ However, Rove was quite pleased to note that not only had Kerry voted to authorize the invasion, the Democratic nominee ‘ like Bush ‘ had falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction that threatened American security.

Woodward describes Bush’s chief campaign strategist reading over a compilation of Kerry’s statements on Iraq:
Rove’s eyebrows were jumping up and down as he read. ‘My personal favorite,’ he said, quoting Kerry on March 19, 2003, the day the war started: ‘I think Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are a threat, and that why I voted to hold him accountable and to make certain that we disarm him.’

‘Oh yeah!’ Rove shouted. And that had been on National Public Radio! He had it all on tape. So here is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee saying that Saddam had the stuff. And the Bush campaign would be as follows: ‘You’re looking at the same intelligence the president is and arriving at the same conclusion, and if you accuse him of misleading the American people, what were you doing? Are you saying, I was duped?’
Woodward further described how Rove tested a series of potential ads showing clips of Kerry’s earlier pro-war statements alongside Kerry’s later anti-war statements and how the reaction of the focus groups was ‘What a hypocrite!’

As Woodward described it, ‘Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn’t like the aftermath or saw a political opportunity.’ Furthermore, Woodward observed, ‘Rove sounded as if he believed they could inoculate the president on the Iraq War in a campaign with Kerry.’

This, of course, is exactly what happened. If the Democrats had given Dean or some other anti-war candidate the nomination, the focus of the fall’s campaign would have been on the lies that got the United States into Iraq and the debacle it had become. Bush would have found himself on the defensive. Instead, the Democrats chose to nominate someone who had supported the war when it was popular and began criticizing it only when it became less so, so the focus of the campaign became ‘flip-flopping’ and related issues of ‘character’ and ‘leadership.’

The Democrats lost because they seemed to have the idea that they could somehow immunize themselves from being attacked for being weak on national security if they nominated an opportunistic centrist rather than a principled progressive. Yet, despite Kerry’s embrace of the Bush Doctrine and his militaristic world view, he lost anyway. Kerry’s defeat should finally teach the Democrats the lesson that the only hope for their party is to move in a more progressive direction.

The Republicans have come to dominate the presidency and both houses of Congress because they were able to demonstrate vision and leadership by unapologetically advocating positions they believed in, even though they were out of the political mainstream. Hopefully, the Democrats will finally recognize that they too will become the majority party once again only if they reverse their center-right policies and instead articulate a bold progressive vision that can excite the American voter.