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Is Our Peace Activists Learning?

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Over the past two months of repeated Congressional votes to fund the occupation of Iraq, culminating in President Bush's signing the bill on Friday, what – if anything – have we learned? Have we learned anything about individuals or political parties or activist organizations to trust or despise, or have we learned better what to demand of them regardless of such emotions? Have we learned anything about policies to support, battles to lose, pyrrhic victories, or how to talk about ending the occupation?

A clear and growing majority of Americans wants to end the occupation. Yet many people are opposed to defunding it. So, not enough of us have learned that you cannot end this occupation without defunding it. And far too few of us fully understand that ultimately we'll need impeachment before the occupation actually ends.

Because we don't grasp the need for impeachment, we focus on asking Congress to oppose the war but ignore Congress' failure to investigate the lies that launched the war (and we call it a "war," giving credence to the notion that it is something that can be won or lost). http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/22933 Because we haven't faced up to a choice between continuing the occupation and defunding it, we allow Congress Members to make anti-occupation gestures and then fund the occupation, not in order to prolong the occupation and fund its profiteers, but "for the troops."

As long as we allow the pretense to continue that wars are fought on behalf of the young men and women sent to fight them, we will never see a serious effort on the part of the Democratic leadership in Congress to end the occupation of Iraq. One thing many people have gradually come to realize is that we have not seen such an effort yet, only pretenses of it. Certainly, some who now disapprove of what the Congress just passed still think they were right to support what it was doing two months ago, and it's less important to return to that debate than to get our act together from here on out. But we are more likely to make wise decisions in the future if we learn the right lessons from our mistakes. So, a quick review may be in order.

Two months ago, peace activists were pushing hard for the House to allow a vote on an amendment by Barbara Lee to end the war. Numerous activist groups sided with Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leadership and opposed the Lee amendment in favor of a supplemental spending bill to end the war. The push back from principled peace activists against the supplemental was muted by concerns that if the Lee amendment passed, then the supplemental would be a good thing.

On March 22nd, the Democrats decided not to allow a vote on the Lee Amendment. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20355 So the debate became clearly one for funding the occupation or not funding the occupation, but there was only one day to lobby before the vote, and numerous groups were pushing the idea that the bill was the best we could get and actually took serious steps to end the occupation of Iraq.

This flew in the face of the simple fact that no bill at all would have been better than this one, not to mention that the bill promoted the theft of Iraq's oil, failed to use the power of the purse to end the war, and allowed Bush to "waive" other measures he might not like. The Democratic leaders themselves didn't pretend this was a bill to end the war, so much as a bill to move the war to Afghanistan. But the media lapped up the astroturf-roots talk about peace and standing strong against to Bush. Here's a video of Rep. Lynn Woolsey opposing the bill in a debate with Bob Borosage who promotes it as the best antiwar bill possible: http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20356

But even Woolsey, and Congresswomen Waters and Lee, played along with the game. They planned to vote No, but promised Pelosi they would not ask any other members to follow them. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20370 Only Congressman Dennis Kucinich pledged to vote No and urged his colleagues to join him. Peace activists demanded that standard from other members http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20376 and an unfortunate split developed between those taking such a strong position for peace and those activist groups following Pelosi's lead – a split that may be healing as the Democrats' position has worsened ever so slightly over the past two months.

But this history lesson could begin much earlier. Pelosi's plan for her first 100 hours as speaker didn't even mention Iraq. She pledged that defunding the occupation and impeaching the warmakers were both "off the table." Democratic Party-led activist groups take her "off the table" pledge seriously on impeachment, but pretend the one on the funding of the "war" never happened. This is an advantage because it means more people lobby her to end the war. But it's a disadvantage if we're insufficiently skeptical about what she's doing.

Pelosi used every dirty trick imaginable to badger Congress Members into voting for this spending bill, including threatening to take away chairmanships and to back primary challengers and deny election support. On March 23rd, the House passed the supplemental. http://afterdowningstreet.org/heroes The corporate media and the groups following Pelosi called this a vote against a war, not a vote to continue funding an occupation. This made the position of peace activists almost incomprehensible, because we opposed the Republicans who voted no in opposition to the little bells and whistles and nonbinding deadlines, we opposed the two Republicans who voted yes to fund the occupation, we opposed the bulk of the Democrats who voted yes to fund the occupation, and we praised the eight Democrats and two Republicans who voted No for the right reasons. The media was completely incapable of telling this story, but Congress Members and the leaders of activist groups heard it quite clearly from constituents.

By March 27th, the Democratic leadership had announced its willingness to compromise with Bush and weaken further the weak bill that had just been voted on. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20532 But activists' eyes were moving to the Senate … and devising a new way to get distracted. We focused on urging Senators to pass Jim Webb's amendment to discourage an attack on Iran http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20502 We failed to focus strongly on opposition to the money that could fund an attack on Iran, money that is now in Bush's pocket. On March 29th, the Senate passed the supplemental and did not even vote on an Iran amendment. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/20655 Again, the media called this a vote against the "war."

On April 25th and 26th the House and Senate passed a compromise version supplemental, which had been watered down further from what both the House and Senate had originally passed. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/21833 And on May 1st Bush vetoed the bill.

Now, here's where things get really weird. Even though the bill funded the occupation, required stealing the oil, permitted an attack on Iran, and contained nothing useful with any teeth in it, the story line had been spread so effectively that this was a good bill, that even the peace groups that had opposed its passage supported protesting its veto. And of course the veto was objectionable. Bush opposed the tiny impositions in the bill on his dictatorial power. But once you've protested the vetoing of a bill to fund an occupation of someone else's country, you pretty well have got yourself stuck promoting a new bill to do the same. And you can either back a bill with the same or greater likelihood of being vetoed, or you can back one less likely to meet that fate. And there can be no question which route the Democratic leadership will take. So, the question becomes whether you are yet ready to break with them, even if – as it turns out – they break with themselves and oppose their own bill after they support it.

But there was an important act left in this drama before we reached that deus ex machina. On May 7th the progressive Democrats in the House cut a deal with the leadership. They would be permitted to vote on a good bill to end the occupation (which the leadership would not whip for and which would fail), and in exchange they would turn around an hour later and vote to fund the occupation with an even weaker bill than last time. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/22239

The new supplemental did not contain even a hint of a deadline to end the war, and for most of the month of May almost no one noticed or remarked on this state of affairs. Media coverage by May 8th had completely dropped any mention of the absence of a deadline in the bill. The focus was all on "benchmarks" and how many months of the occupation would be funded at a time. It was as if the presence of even a nonbinding deadline in the vetoed bill had been completely eradicated from history and memory, even though that deadline had been Bush's primary professed reason for vetoing the bill. The story now was of the Democrats getting tough and standing up to Bush with "benchmarks" even though this meant sending him exactly what he wanted, a bill with no deadline, and even though he supported all of the "benchmarks." http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/22284

So, what did peace groups and other activist groups do? They promoted Yes votes on Jim McGovern's bill to end the occupation, and almost completely ignored the vote coming an hour later on funding additional months of "war". So, on May 10th, a huge number of Democrats (169) voted for McGovern, and then all but 10 of them turned around and voted to fund the war. And then we thanked them. They had played us like a fiddle. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/22334

The Senate was far less slick. It didn't hold its votes an hour apart, but separated them by two weeks. On May 16th, the Senate voted down an amendment by Russ Feingold to end the occupation. http://afterdowningstreet.org/node/22540 The vote for the money was still to come, and who had voted right on Feingold would be forgotten by then.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)
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