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The Innocent Bystander Fable

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"There are 232 Democrats in the House of Representatives," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) tells us in yesterday's Washington Post. "There are 232 Democrats that believed that our policies in Iraq are failing."

On this Memorial Day these are comforting yet insulting words from a man who, according to the same Washington Post, less than four days ago "jury-rigged" a vote on the House floor to make sure the Iraq War continues - a vote that most of the 232 Democrats in the House supported (For background on this vote, see here - it was deliberately confusing). Hoyer's platitudes speak to what I will call the Innocent Bystander Fable - a myth that has become a self-reinforcing ethos in our nation's capital these days.

The Innocent Bystander Fable teaches that every politician in America except the President of the United States has absolutely no power at all to stop or even slow down the escalation of the war in Iraq - an escalation that is expected to deploy "more than 200,000 [troops to Iraq] -- a record high number -- by the end of the year," according to Hearst Newspapers. This fable says that despite Congress's constitutional power - no, responsibility - to wield the power of the purse and despite its constitutional power to declare war or revoke declarations of war, Congress nonetheless can do absolutely, positively nothing other than dutifully hand over a blank check war spending bill to the White House. We are simply expected to take comfort in the supposed fact that "232 Democrats believe our policies in Iraq are failing" - but are also expected to believe that none of them can do anything about the situation and that they are all just innocent bystanders, powerless to do anything to address the worst national security crisis in contemporary American history.

The Innocent Bystander Fable is convenient for all players involved, even if it is a fable - that is, "a story not founded on fact" or "an untruth," as defined by the dictionary. For Democratic congressional lawmakers, it serves to cast a feel-bad-for-the-martyr light on them. In the House, they use devious parliamentary procedures to create situations that deliberately help continue the war, while delivering speeches saying they are trying to do everything they can to stop it. In the Senate, presidential candidates grandstand about voting against bills to fund the war - but refuse to back up those votes with any move to engage in a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibuster.

For congressional Republicans, the Innocent Bystander Fable keeps the war they openly back going. Whereas in their majority years of the past, they have asserted Congress's power against a Democratic president in military actions, they now berate any congressional proposal to slow down this war as unacceptable "micromanaging."

And for media pundits, the Innocent Bystander Fable keeps them in good graces with the Beltway politicians whose approval they so desperately pine for. Take Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, who in the wake of Democrats handing Bush a blank check uses his column this week to berate "the left" for demanding Democrats fulfill their campaign promise to use their power to end the war. Alter, like other pundits, would have us believe the vast majority of Americans - Republicans and Democrats - who tell pollsters they want Congress to end the war is just a tiny segment of "the left" (for reference, 82 percent of Americans now tell pollsters they want Congress to either fund the Iraq War only with binding conditions, or cut off funds completely - apparently "the left" is now almost the entire country). Alter then says "it's juvenile to toss around threats or make it seem as if voting wrong on this bill means you aren't sincerely against the war."

This, of course, is an eloquent regurgitation of the Innocent Bystander Fable (and one that was ably backed up by E.J. Dionne last week as well). Demanding accountability is "juvenile," according to Alter, because Important and Very Smart Pundits like John Alter understand what he believes the rest of us in the Unwashed Masses don't have the mental capacity to fathom: That is, the very Serious and Non-Juvenile - and non-existent - reasons why Congress is supposedly just an innocent bystander that can't do anything. And, he adds, it's especially juvenile to - gasp - have the temerity to float the idea of actually using our democratic elections system to run antiwar candidates against those who support the war. The horror!

Alter does all this, of course, while actually admitting in his column that he urged Democrats to make ending the war the central thrust of their 2006 campaign. He says Democrats "lack the votes" to do anything other than write President Bush a blank check, making no mention of the fact that if they did nothing at all and didn't pass any bill, they would have taken a major step toward ending the war (I'm not necessarily saying that should have happened - I support a timetable for funding to be reduced and stopped on set dates in the future so there is adequate time to plan for a redeployment - but the point is that the ultimate power over the situation clearly rests in the Congress, no matter how many pundits try to say otherwise). And he makes no mention of the devious parliamentary tactics employed by the Democrats he worships that were designed to fool the public - precisely the secretive, manipulative and Dick Cheney-esque tactics that led folks to say they were behaving like "Dick Cheney Democrats" last week (ha, silly us for thinking a political "journalist" should bother to report on what actually went on in the U.S. Congress when writing an opinion column attacking people for criticizing what actually went on in the U.S. Congress).

But then, to Alter, expecting politicians to actually fulfill the promises he admits he asked them to make - or at least expecting them not to try to deceive us when they break said promises - is "juvenile" because the Innocent Bystander Fable and the media power-worshiping it justifies must continue soldiering on in order to insulate the Establishment from any real pressure. "Reasonable people can disagree over tactics," he sums up. That's true - but they can't disagree over the actual facts of what Congress can and cannot do to end a war, as elucidated in the Constitution of the United States. Only unreasonable people desperately clinging to the Innocent Bystander Fable in order to appease and worship power can disagree about that.

The saddest part of all this is that while the Washington Establishment seeks refuge in the Innocent Bystander Fable, the actual innocent bystanders - American troops, their families and Iraqi civilians - get stiffed. As Washington's career politicians trip over each other to delegate all of their power to the most unpopular president in three decades, as pundits desperate to be in the good graces of the Beltway's Important People come out guns blazing in defense of total capitulation, our soldiers continue to be ordered into the most unpopular war in five decades with no plan to bring them home safely, and Iraqi civilians are caught in the crossfire of an increasingly bloody civil war.

If Memorial Day is a time to remember the sacrifice our soldiers make for our democracy, then it is also a time to ask whether the democracy they are sacrificing for is living up to its promise. How can we ask soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice of life and limb for our democracy, when those who are supposed to be guarding our democracy here at home - our elected officials and our media - so clearly believe our democracy is just another cheap cliche that exists merely for use as filler in poorly written speeches and even more poorly written horse-race punditry?

Our troops - past and present - deserve better than that. They deserve better than Washington politicians and their word-twisting consultants engineering an Innocent Bystander Fable as a transparent way to pass the buck. They deserve better than armchair columnists sitting in comfortable offices saying elections - the core of democracy, after all - are really not to be taken seriously and portraying the vast majority of Americans who oppose the war as some sort of tiny, ultra-fringe cult. They deserve, in short, a political system that actually tells the truth, and one that actually believes in democracy - not one that wages a guerrilla war against it.

P.S. I'm truly hopeful and optimistic that Democrats are going to start understanding all this - and the absurd nature of the Innocent Bystander Myth - after going home to face their constituents. I really am. But I don't think pressuring them now by letting them know that their votes for the blank check were unacceptable is somehow "counterproductive." In fact, it's the opposite. Letting them know that their behavior was unacceptable in the past will give them more incentive to stand up in the future. This is Movement Building 101.

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)

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