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Why the antiwar Democrats folded

By Lance Selfa | March 30, 2007 | Page 4

THE MARCH 23 vote in the Democratic-controlled House to pass the supplemental appropriations bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is an object lesson of liberalism in power.

By now, it's a commonplace to characterize the Democrats' sweep last November as an expression of the public desire to end the war in Iraq. So it's understandable that many looked--and continue to look--to the Congress for a way out of the mess in Iraq.

But liberalism is not just the mainstream politics that provides a framework for people concerned with peace, equality and justice. It is also, along with conservatism, one of the two main governing ideologies of the U.S. ruling class. And as such, it aims to manage, rather than to change, the U.S. empire and war machine.

Given the opportunity to exercise real power to end the war by cutting off its congressionally mandated funding, the Democrats instead opted to do the "responsible" thing: vote to continue funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a tune of $124 billion over the next year.

The vote in the House is a recognition that the war(s) are a bipartisan endeavor. Under this Congress, any attempt to wind down the Iraq war won't be taken on behalf of antiwar principle, but on the grounds of positioning the U.S. to be better able to fight the "war on terror," the war in Afghanistan or a coming war with Iran.

What else to read

Read Cindy Sheenan's sharply worded statement about the Congressional vote.


In the end, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needed every vote she could muster to get the leadership bill passed, only about a half a dozen formerly outspoken critics of the war voted against it. Key liberal members of the "Out of Iraq Caucus" voted for and urged their colleagues to vote for the bill.

A smaller number of antiwar liberals voted against the bill, but refused to put up a fight that would have defeated it. What was going on here?

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FIRST, SINCE the main vehicle of and arena for liberal politics is the Democratic Party, party leaders had a big institutional stick in their hands as they rounded up votes.

However principled liberal politicians think they are, they also respond to the trappings of congressional power and party loyalty. In fact, many liberals will say that it hurts their constituents and the causes they support to be perpetually outside the halls of power.

Reportedly, Pelosi or one of her minions threatened Rep. Barbara Lee with the loss of a key committee chairmanship if Lee refused to end her opposition to the leadership bill.

Although she voted against the bill, Lee's announcement--along with other well-known critics of the Iraq war, like Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters--that she would not "stand in the way" of the leadership bill was crucial to convincing liberals to fold the their opposition.

Another war critic, Rep. Sam Farr, sold his vote on the war for aid to the spinach industry in his district.

Second, liberalism rests on the politics of the "lesser evil." In the two-party system that the U.S. has, almost every decision is boiled down to a liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican choice. And the lesser evil is always easy to find.

Consider this statement by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus and member of the board of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA): "I have opposed funding this war from the beginning, and I have no interest in funding it today. But this Iraq Accountability Act, though flawed, and at odds with many of my beliefs, represents a chance for hope.

"It represents a first, albeit tentative, step in the difficult process of finally bringing this devastating war to an ultimate end. In good conscience, I could not sit on the sidelines, with the vote as close as it was, and witness a result that would reinforce this administration's unrestrained control of a war without end.

"Absent the need for my vote, I would have opposed this bill. I have conferred with constituents on all sides of this debate, and have looked at all the alternatives. I remained committed to opposing this bill until it became apparent that my vote was the only way to ensure some accountability against this runaway administration.

"Despite my skepticism in the efficacy of the benchmarks and certification elements in this bill, I remain confident that this will not be the last word by this Congress on Iraq, and I will continue to fight for the cause of ending this terrible debacle in Iraq."

So through these mental somersaults, Grijalva arrives at the reason for supporting the bill: at least it provides "some accountability." The radical 20th century sociologist C. Wright Mills used to call this kind of reasoning "crackpot realism."

It's not as if these capitulations and attempts to spin defeats into victories are unprecedented. In fact, one can look back to November-December 2005, when the then-House leadership, under the Republicans, forced a vote on a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

The vote occurred only a few weeks after hawkish Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) rocked the Washington establishment with his announcement that the Iraq war was a failure and U.S. troops should be "redeployed."

In a maneuver aimed at embarrassing the Democrats, the Republicans rushed through an alternative resolution to Murtha's proposal, calling for the immediate withdrawal of all forces from Iraq. The Republican resolution went down to defeat by a vote of 403-3.

Virtually all of the liberal Democratic members of Congress who claim to be allies of the antiwar movement voted against a resolution that--whatever the Republicans' intentions--proposed the movement's common point of agreement, at least on paper: get U.S. troops out of Iraq now.

Many liberal voices outside Congress defended the Democratic lawmakers. For example, the PDA issued a statement supporting Democrats who voted against the replacement resolution--which it called "an attempt to trick Democrats into supporting a 'cut-and-run' position on withdrawing U.S. troops."

Bur another disastrous year and a half in the Iraq war since that vote has made other activists more wary and impatient of these sellouts by politicians, who want to be seen as "antiwar" without having to do anything to stop the war.

The title of Cindy Sheehan's statement on the vote said it all: "Betrayed! How the Democratic Congress betrayed American voters, the troops in Iraq and extended the occupation for at least another 18 months."

It will be the continued commitment to grassroots antiwar struggle by activists like Sheehan--and not maneuvers in Congress--that will bring us closer to the end of the war.

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