The Democrats’ War

With power comes responsibility. Once they take over both houses of Congress on January 3, the Democrats will have the responsibility to get American troops out of Iraq as soon as practicable.

The United States has now been at war in Iraq longer than it fought the Axis powers in World War II. The American public has lost patience. Currently, public opinion polls show that only 31% of the population supports Bush administration policy toward the conflict. A majority of voters surveyed wants a withdrawal of American troops, and a majority of registered Democrats wants an immediate withdrawal. Despite efforts by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to provide extensive funds for pro-war Democratic candidates while denying them to anti-war Democratic candidates, anti-war candidates actually out-performed pro-war candidates in defeating Republican incumbents.

However, in defiance of their constituents and oblivious to the polls, very few Democrats in the House and none in the Senate have been willing to call for immediate withdrawal, at most calling for some kind of “phased withdrawal” or “strategic redeployment.” Although most Democrats who have spoken out against the war have criticized the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, they have fallen short of declaring the war itself illegal and immoral. Nor have many acknowledged that the conquest by a Western power of such a large Middle Eastern state was doomed from the beginning.

Where’s the Spine?

The November 7 election provided a mandate to change U.S. policy toward Iraq. Early signs, however, indicate that the Democrats are unwilling to fulfill their anti-war mandate. By more than a 2:1 margin, the pro-war Rep. Steny Hoyer beat the anti-war Rep. Jack Murtha in the race for majority leader. Perhaps more significantly, it appears that the Democrats will have two outspoken supporters of the Iraq war as their chief foreign policy spokesmen.

Tom Lantos is slated to become chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Lantos has repeatedly denounced the United Nations and the International Court of Justice for their defense of the Fourth Geneva Conventions. In acknowledging the disproportionate impact the war has had on poor and working class Americans, Lantos–rather than calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces–has instead issued a “call upon all of the people of this country to do more to carry their fair share of the load.” He has criticized the waste, fraud, and abuse in Iraq resulting from U.S. policies but he has not pressed the administration to do more than simply, in the words of last year’s “United States Policy in Iraq Act,” create “the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.”

Lantos was also one of the chief congressional backers of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In 2001, in order to frighten the American public into supporting President George W. Bush’s calls for a U.S. takeover of that oil-rich Middle Eastern country, Lantos and other key Democrats claimed that Iraq was developing long-range missiles “that will threaten the United States and our allies,” even though–as arms control experts correctly noted at the time–this was not actually the case. Similarly, though the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that Iraq no longer had a nuclear weapons program and strict international sanctions prevented that country from restarting it, Lantos claimed that such peaceful and diplomatic means to eliminate Iraq’s nuclear program had actually failed and that military means were necessary to prevent Iraq from developing its nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden is expected to take the helm of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rejecting the UN Charter and other basic principles of international law, Biden is an outspoken supporter of the extremist view that the United States had the right to invade Iraq–and, by extension, any other country–simply on the grounds that the government might pose a threat some time in the future. In response to those who argued that there was no clear threat to America’s national security from Iraq, Biden declared, “If we wait for the danger to become clear and present, it could be too late.” In response to the ethnic and sectarian conflict that engulfed Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion, Biden has emerged as a leading advocate of splitting Iraq into three, an action likely to lead to ethnic cleansing and other bloodshed.

Thanks to constituent pressure, however, Biden now advocates a withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2007. Like most Democratic senators, though, he continues to support unconditional funding for the war.

It is certainly a positive sign that more and more Democrats in Congress are finally distancing themselves from President Bush’s Iraq policies. However, Democratic calls for “strategic redeployment” may mean little more than concentrating U.S. forces in Kuwait or other nearby pro-U.S. dictatorships where they can escalate the air war, resulting in fewer American casualties but far greater Iraqi civilian casualties.

The year 2006 may be remembered in the same way as 1968, when elite opinion finally caught up with public opinion in recognizing that an increasingly costly counter-insurgency war was unwinnable and that the United States needed to develop some kind of exit strategy. Thanks to continued support for the Vietnam War by the Democratic-controlled Congress, however American troops were finally withdrawn only in 1973, with the strategic situation no better than it was five years earlier. Unless the Democrats are willing to show more spine this time around, U.S. forces could continue to fight a no-win war in Iraq War until at least 2011.

Turning Off the Spigot

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president has enormous power over the disposition of the U.S. military in Iraq ever since Congress–with the support of Democratic leaders–authorized the invasion in October of 2002. However, Congress holds the power of the purse. The House and Senate could force the withdrawal of American troops by withholding funding for U.S. military operations in Iraq after a certain date.

Congress has precedent for so using its influence. In May 1970, the Cooper-Church amendment eliminated funding for U.S. ground forces in Cambodia just weeks after President Richard Nixon launched a U.S. invasion of that Southeast Asian country. In January of 1976, the Clark amendment banned funding for U.S. military operations in Angola’s civil war (though this was later repealed during the Reagan administration after the Republicans captured the Senate.) The Boland amendment of 1982 restricted U.S. support for the Contras, forcing the Reagan administration to use illegal means to fund the war against Nicaragua. In late 1989, after the Salvadoran Defense Minister ordered the murder of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, Congress finally cut aid to El Salvador, leading to a peace settlement in that country’s decade-long U.S.-funded civil war.

However, Democratic Senator Harry Reid, slated to become Senate Majority Leader, explicitly stated on November 15 that the Democrats would not cut funding for the war, a position reiterated by other Democratic leaders. Indeed, rather than call for a reduction in spending for the Iraq war and other military boondoggles, Reid has promised to increase military spending by an additional $75 billion. Currently, U.S. military spending tops $500 billion annually, more than the military budgets of all other governments combined.

Democrats in the 1980s followed a similar strategy when they undermined the campaign for a mutual and verifiable U.S.-Soviet freeze in the research, development, and deployment of new nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons systems. The majority of Democrats–who controlled the House during this period and the Senate after 1986–were willing to vote for non-binding resolutions in support of a nuclear freeze. Yet they continued to expend tens of billions of taxpayers’ dollars to fuel the arms race through the development of new, dangerous, and destabilizing nuclear weapons programs. This way, they could tell their constituents they supported the freeze while funding efforts to undermine it.

It appears, then, that congressional Democrats are likely to pass non-binding resolutions calling for the redeployment of American forces while continuing to unconditionally fund the ongoing prosecution of the Iraq War. So, the victory by anti-war voters on November 7 should be seen as only the first step in changing congressional policy on Iraq.

Movement Power

With only a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic politicians have rarely led on foreign policy. They have generally come around to taking progressive positions only as a result of constituent pressure through lobbying, legal protests, civil disobedience, and public education campaigns. For example, in 1980 Vice President Walter Mondale and others in the Carter Administration strongly opposed the call for a nuclear freeze. By the time he ran for president in 1984, however, Mondale was an outspoken freeze supporter. In the intervening four years, the Nuclear Freeze Campaign and disarmament activists had mobilized grass roots initiatives across the country, including the massive 1982 protest in New York City.

In 1977, Andrew Young–the African-American clergyman and former aide to Martin Luther King who then served as President Carter’s ambassador to the UN–vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions against South Africa. By 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate joined the Democratic-led House in overriding a presidential veto to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime. This dramatic shift came as a result of the divestment campaign and other actions of the anti-apartheid movement that sprung up on college campuses and elsewhere throughout the United States. The imposition of sanctions proved to be instrumental in the downfall of white minority rule.

Grassroots movements also proved essential in shifting U.S. foreign policy on El Salvador, East Timor, Burma, and many other issues. Both Democrats and Republicans have had to respond to organized pressure from an outraged citizenry. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

The Democratic victory in the midterm elections does not automatically translate into meaningful legislative action to end the war. But the anti-war movement now has the potential to pressure Congress to take such meaningful action. The most critical phase of the anti-war struggle, then, did not end with the Republican defeat on November 7. It will only just begin when the Democrats formally assume power on Capitol Hill on January 3.