It's been a long winter for the peace movement. Waiting for Obama has proved fruitless. The Great Recession has strengthened Wall Street and diverted attention from the wars. The debate over healthcare still won't go away and has demoralized progressive advocates. Given a chance to exit from Afghanistan when the Karzai election proved to be stolen, President Obama escalated anyway, but also promised to "begin" exiting almost before an opposition could mobilize at home.
Representative Dennis Kucinich will step into the crosswinds this week and force the House of Representatives to wake up, pay attention, and vote up or down on the Afghanistan war. The Kucinich initiative at least will reveal where Congress stands. Whether it will energize the peace movement for upcoming March protests or beyond is unpredictable.
Kucinich, interviewed along with other members of Congress by The Nation last week, is introducing a so-called privileged resolution requiring the House to hold a three-hour debate this coming Wednesday, followed by a vote on the Afghanistan war. The vote is expected to authorize the war, but passage of Kucinich's initiative would require a withdrawal in thirty days. If the president rejected such a decision, the withdrawal would be delayed until the end of 2010, nine months from now.
"It's time to force a debate," Kucinich says. "It's not enough to slow-walk the end of the war." On Friday Kucinich had seventeen co-sponsors for his measure.
The Kucinich bill is based on the 1973 War Powers Act, passed during the upsurge of Congressional opposition to the unilateral war-making of the executive branch during the Richard Nixon era. The War Powers Act, strongly opposed by Bush-era officials including Dick Cheney and John Yoo, was based on Article I, Section 8, of the federal Constitution, which, according to James Madison, "expressly vested" the power to "declare" war in Congress.
According to Gary Wills's history in Bomb Power, the War Powers legislation actually diluted Congressional authority by making declaration of war a joint exercise with the White House. Nonetheless, the symbolic threat to presidential prerogative inflamed Cheney into describing it as a Congressional usurpation. Yoo, the author of the notorious torture memos in the Bush administration, went so far as to argue that "declare" in the eighteenth century meant simply to "recognize[d] a state of affairs."
The Kucinich measure seeks to remind Congress of the peak progressive moment when, in tandem with a vast antiwar movement in the streets, Richard Nixon was forced to resign and the Vietnam War was terminated. A decade later, Congress again would play a key role in the Iran/Contra hearings during the Reagan era.
But Wednesday's vote may be a measure of how much Congress has continued to surrender its war-making prerogative to the administration. Many liberal Democrats interviewed for this article expressed discomfort or exasperation towards the Kucinich measure, claiming that it will be overwhelmingly defeated and weaken efforts this spring to introduce antiwar amendments during debate on the war budget.
In one member's view, the Kucinich proposal represents "complete and total withdrawal now," which most in Congress refuse to support. A more common complaint, voiced in a memo from Peace Action, is that "some of our allies on the Hill are concerned that the relatively low amount votes for this resolution may make us look weak."
Another member said, "You can't stop Dennis, he does this all the time, he squeezes members who aren't consulted." Another, who intends to vote for the Kucinich proposal despite having had no input, said bluntly, "A shitty vote has consequences."
Meanwhile, on Afghanistan, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is in disarray. Leadership on Afghanistan issues has been passed to Representative Mike Honda, a progressive Democrat from San Jose, who last year circulated a dramatic exit proposal that would flip US Afghan spending from 80 percent military to 80 percent civilian. Honda's staff did not return calls from The Nation requesting further information.
Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynne Woolsey is up in arms against progressive Democrats who are supporting Marcy Winograd, an antiwar citizen-candidate running against hawkish Representative Jane Harman in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. Woolsey now refuses to work with "outside groups" such as Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) who are backing Winograd's primary bid. Woolsey also opposed last year's forums on Afghanistan sponsored by Democrats including Honda and CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva. Woolsey simply says the US shouldn't be in Afghanistan, but nothing more, which leaves her isolated from peace groups and leaves her own colleagues searching for strategies.
During the Iraq war, the congressional Out of Iraq caucus represented a bloc of 70. Nothing on that scale exists for Afghanistan and Pakistan and few are paying attention to the continuing tensions in Iraq. The Out of Iraq Caucus appears dormant or dissolved, despite the growing threats to Obama's plan for a phased withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by 2012.
Just ahead are debates over the $33 billion funding request for Obama's troop escalation, and the $159 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq contained in the proposed military budget. Despite significant opposition among Democrats to the president's escalation proposal, it is highly unlikely that the funds will be turned down now that American troops have been dispatched. Whether a vote will be taken on Representative Barbara Lee's proposal to block the $33 billion in funding is unclear at the moment. But sizeable opposition is expected to rally around exit strategy measures being jointly contemplated by Representative Jim McGovern and Sen. Russ Feingold this spring.
Despite White House opposition, McGovern was able to win support from a majority of Democrats last year for his resolution calling on the Pentagon to report an Afghanistan exit strategy by year's end. With the president having committed to an exit strategy by beginning troop withdrawals by summer 2011, McGovern's measure might gain greater traction. He told The Nation he will introduce a revised version of the exit strategy resolution in the coming weeks.