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Defying the antiwar majority

May 4, 2007 | Page 2

UNDER ANY rational system of government, in which elected representatives were accountable at some basic level to the "will of the people," the overwhelming opposition to George Bush's war on Iraq would have spelled the end of his presidency long ago--and led to a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

But not in the country that regularly claims to be the "world's greatest democracy."

In his latest act of defiance against the antiwar majority, Bush--with the backing of virtually every Republican in Congress--is vetoing a war spending bill because it sets a date for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Millions of people are fed up with Bush's arrogant determination to plunge deeper into disaster in Iraq, and the Democrats--all too quiet about the war even a year ago--are finally giving voice to the frustration. "American troops are dying for no good reason at this point," Sen. Russ Feingold said on a TV news show last weekend. "They are in a situation where they are being sacrificed because people want political comfort in Washington."

But a closer look at the Democrats' war proposal shows that it comes up well short of what most people want--U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. We can't rely on politicians of either party to end the occupation. To judge from history, they'll need to feel more pressure from outside Washington before they act.

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BUSH VOWED to veto the Democrats' war spending bill because, according to a White House press statement, it sets "a surrender date." But that rhetoric was tame compared to the vitriol of Republican senators defending an administration many seemed to have quietly tried to distance themselves from.

The Democrats, said Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, were "handing al-Qaeda a victory that they will be able to use to strengthen their forces, and then hurt and kill more Americans." Utah's Orrin Hatch declaimed, "This is the worst case of capitulation to appeasement since [pre-Second World War British Prime Minister] Neville Chamberlain spoke the words, 'Peace in our time.'"

Even as they denounced Democratic "appeasers," however, White House claims about Iraq were being steadily undermined and contradicted from within--by prominent figures in the U.S. military-political establishment.

Gen. David Petraeus, put in charge of carrying out the administration's "surge" strategy, admitted at a press briefing last week that casualties were mounting among both ordinary Iraqis and U.S. forces, and that the occupation would "get harder before it gets easier."

Ex-CIA Director George Tenet--who famously advised Bush that evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk"--has written a tell-all book ratting out his former bosses in the Bush administration for their obsession, before and after September 11, with waging war against Saddam Hussein. Tenet recounts numerous administration attempts to "mischaracterize" the data his agency gathered--and to insert "crap" into the public relations campaign for war.

The Pentagon was shaken last week by an article in Armed Forces Journal, written by a lower-ranking officer and Iraq veteran, that accuses the general staff of botching the war and misleading the U.S. population.

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling said he decided to write the article--which accuses the Pentagon brass of "intellectual and moral failures"--after attending Purple Heart ceremonies for Army soldiers. "I find it hard to look them in the eye," he told the Washington Post. "Our generals are not worthy of their soldiers."

Then there's the revelation that U.S. figures for casualties in Iraq have been systematically understated--because victims of car bombs and other explosive devices are left out of the count, which has allowed administration officials to claim that the "surge" is working.

Bush's bizarre explanation for this policy, during an interview with television journalist Charlie Rose, was that the U.S. would be giving "those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory" if the full death toll were used.

This illustrates perfectly why the president of the United States--the most powerful man in the world, as we're so often told--is viewed more and more as an ill-tempered buffoon who will say anything at all to justify himself and his administration's policies.

Bush's approval rating reached another all-time low of 28 percent in a Harris poll last week. Richard Nixon, as he was about to resign the White House in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal, had an approval rating of 24 percent.

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MANY PEOPLE hope that the Democrats in Congress can force the White House to finally back down. But the war spending bill approved by both the Senate and House last week is not nearly as radical as the Republicans would have you believe.

It would set a final date of April 1 of next year for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But that's only some troops. A significant number would remain behind to "train and equip" Iraqi security forces, and still more would stay as protection for the trainers--plus, "redeployed" troops could re-enter Iraq at any time to defend the remaining U.S. presence.

On top of that, the Bush administration could exempt forces from the timetable for "targeted special actions limited in duration and scope to killing or capturing members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations of global reach." Since the administration--not to mention conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Biden--attribute much of the armed resistance in Iraq to al-Qaeda, this could be a very big loophole.

All in all, as an Inter Press Service analysis concluded, the Democrats' bill "appears to approve the presence in Iraq of tens of thousands of U.S. occupation troops for many years to come."

And that's before the Democrats' certain concessions in the weeks to come after Bush vetoes the measure. Democratic leaders have been discussing for weeks what they're willing to give up in negotiations over a war spending bill that Bush will eventually sign. "We understand legislation is the art of compromise," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters.

In the end, the Democrats' talk about forcing the Bush administration to accept reality may shrivel into a few "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet, if that--without any binding provisions on the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

And according to the cold calculations of Washington politics, that would be fine with the Democratic Party leadership. They can claim to have taken action to oppose the war, while still using the Iraq catastrophe to challenge Republicans in the 2008 elections. "We don't want to own this war," an anonymous party strategist told New York Review of Books contributor Elizabeth Drew. "It's Bush's war, and we want him to keep owning it."

This cynical attitude is every bit an indictment of the Washington political system as Bush's contempt for the overwhelming sentiment to end the occupation.

The Democrats don't want to stop the war on Iraq--no matter how many people die and how many lives are ruined. Ultimately, they want to use it as a political issue--and, once in charge, manage it differently.

As enjoyable as it is to see the Bush White House taking heat--and to have a one-sided national debate on the war turned into a two-sided one--the truth is that the two mainstream parties agree on much more than they disagree on when it comes to Iraq.

Both are committed to projecting U.S. imperial power around the world and maintaining American dominance in the Middle East--the crucial source of the world's most valuable commodity, oil. Iraq is critical to these plans, so a continued U.S. presence is a priority for all involved. The differences are over tactics.

The occupation of Iraq won't end if it's left to the politicians to act. The real power to end the war lies outside Washington--with the Iraqi opponents of the occupation who want the U.S. to get out, with U.S. soldiers growing increasingly opposed to a war they have no interest in fighting, and with an antiwar movement that needs to step up the action.

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