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Congressional Antiwar Efforts and the Role of the Peace Movement

By       Message Joel Wendland     Permalink

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Seven out of 10 Americans want most of the troops home from Iraq by April 2008, according to a recent USA Today poll. And a measure being debated in the Senate could make that possible.

Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jack Reed (D-RI) have offered an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill that would begin phased redeployment of US troops out of Iraq within 120 days of passage of the bill and combat operations would end by next April. (A similar resolution is being voted on in the House today.)

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Sen. Levin put the troop withdrawal amendment within the context of congressional debate over pressuring the Iraqi government to meet certain "benchmarks" for determining the progress of the ongoing occupation.

Levin was quoted by the Voice of America as saying, "Without setting a date to begin ... a phased redeployment of troops, there is much too little pressure on the Iraqi leaders to do what they can only do, which is to work out a political settlement."

This comment came just as media stories showed that a report to Congress on benchmarks due July 15th will reveal that not a single one has been reached.

The Levin-Reed amendment, which has already received the public support of 3 Republicans, is one of five related to Iraq considered by the Senate in its deliberations on the Defense Authorization bill.

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The Webb Amendment Marks a New Moment

The first was an amendment offered by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) to increase troop readiness by requiring more "dwell" time for troops in the war zone.

The amendment was a response to criticism of the Pentagon for increasing the length of deployments for many troops in Iraq to 15 months, returning soldiers to the war zone for second, third, and even fourth tours, and decreasing down time for rehabilitation.

Increased exposure to combat is being blamed for high rates of mental disorders experienced by returning veterans.

Reagan-appointee and retired Army General William Odum wrote an op-ed earlier this month in which he argued that extended tours in combat zones increase the risk of harm to individual troops. "The impact on the psyche accumulates," Odom wrote, "eventually producing what is now called 'post-traumatic stress disorders.' In other words, they are combat-exhausted to the point of losing effectiveness."

According to Pentagon and Veterans Affairs documents obtained by Veterans for Common Sense, the impact of this policy has been huge but mostly hidden from the public. About 180,000 veterans have filed disability claims between 2001 and the middle of 2007. Medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan have totaled more than 65,000 since 2001.

Harvard Professor Linda Bilmes recently authored a report showing that the long-term cost of the war could top $700 billion in payments made solely for medical treatments, disability claims, and other VA benefits for wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (This is aside from the $500 or $600 earmarked already for operations.)

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So while, Webb's amendment did not mandate troop withdrawal, more benchmarks, or the like, it would have forced a change in Bush's Iraq war policy that would have gone a long way in helping the men and women who fight wars to get rest and rehabilitate, which could have helped them avoid extended exposure to combat. It could have saved lives.

But Senate Republicans have already opted to filibuster the Webb amendment and forced a procedural vote that required 60 "yes" votes in order to even bring the amendment to the floor.

In a sign of growing dissension in Republican ranks over the war policy, 7 Republicans voted to bring the amendment to the floor for a vote.

Even more importantly, several Republicans have flat-out jumped Bush's ship and are signing on to a host of Iraq-related amendments.

It gets confusing, so bear with me here.

Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NB) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are offering a bipartisan amendment to the Defense Authorization bill to end the combat mission of US troops without mandating withdrawal.

Sens. Ken Salazar (D-CO) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have introduced a separate bill that would implement the Iraq Study Group recommendation without a troop withdrawal timeline. This bill was added to the list of amendments to the Defense Authorization bill yesterday.

Sens. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and John Warner (R-VA) have offered an amendment this week to the Defense Authorization bill that combine the Iraq Study Group recommendations with a shift in mission to combat to training. (Again no mandated timeline.)

And Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold (WI) and Harry Reid (NV) have offered an amendment to the bill which would cut off all funding for the war except the safe and orderly withdrawal of US troops.

While none of these bills set a date for the complete end of the occupation of Iraq, they also do not foreclose the possibility of future congressional action on fully withdrawing US troops.

In all, about 10 or 11 Senate Republicans appear to be prepared to vote with 48 Democrats and 1 Independent on some measure or another that would force a change in Bush's Iraq war policy. And because 60 is the magic number in the Senate for anything to pass, it is clear that Congress is on the verge of implementing a major policy change.

Because a number of other Republicans are staunchly holding to the September deadline to measure progress, a veto-proof majority (67) is still in the offing.

What is the Antiwar Movement's Goal?

This new wave of antiwar sentiment in the Senate is, of course, mainly politics. Hard right Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions (AL) and Lindsey Graham (SC) accused their colleagues of "flip-flopping" and playing "political yo-yo."

And they're right. Republicans who have seen the light for fear of losing their jobs in the 2008 or 2010 elections are playing politics, working to give voters the impression they aren't the Bush clones their voting records will bear them out to be.

But under the surface, trying to win an election isn't the only thing at stake. Some observers believe they are playing a game of triangulation that may serve the long-term goals of the Bush administration.

In a statement released earlier this week, antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice argued that the Bush administration may be maneuvering to win support for a long-term occupation of Iraq. Some White House leaks have hinted that the administration is prepared to accept some troop withdrawal to win support for extended occupation.

Obviously, the shift in public sentiment and the change of power in Congress forced the Bush administration into this position of possibly accepting a war policy it would not have otherwise proposed or pursued.

But the rules and the balance of power in Congress and the Constitutional system of checks and balances ensures the process is slow and that the proposals with the best chances of passing will be those which represent compromises across partisan lines.

For some in the peace movement, understanding this naturally produces what might be termed a realistic approach to the question of ending the war. Some groups, like the faith-based Friends Committee on National Legislation, have argued that, despite their own support for such measures, the make-up of Congress forecloses serious efforts to cut off funding for the war or for legislated timetables for full withdrawal in the near term.

In this view, changing course in Iraq is the best that can be expected and advocates of this position call for supporting bipartisan measures that open the door for new policy such as that advanced in the Iraq Study Group recommendations.

Other groups like Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq, VoteVets.org, Americans United for Change, and Win Without War are focused on changing Iraq policy by pressuring congressional Republicans who face strong discontent in their home states and districts to change their votes.

These campaigns, composed of media ads, congressional office visits, letter writing campaigns and the like, has been largely responsible for a good portion of the shift against the war by Republicans in recent weeks. These groups are less insistent on supporting specific measures that will bring the troops home without rejecting any that have so far been offered in Congress.

But United for Peace and Justice, which represents the largest national coalition of local and national peace groups, argues only for full withdrawal as soon as possible and for a complete cut-off of funding for the war.

While this position doesn't have majority support in Congress, and recent polling suggests many Americans are still split on it, the coalition's activists have successfully maintained wide pressure on the Democrats to continue to push for measures that will bring the war to a close. And, with an eye on the long-term, United for Peace and Justice agitates for systematically altering our militaristic culture and power structure.

Traversing a middle course between the two has been MoveOn.org, which has focused both on pressuring Democrats to adopt and stand firm on antiwar positions and congressional Republicans to hear the voices of discontented constituents. MoveOn.org's 3 million active members have insisted that Republicans turn rhetoric into action and votes. To Democrats they have insisted that simply changing policy on Iraq is not enough and that the war and occupation have to end completely.

Unity is Needed Now More than Ever

Disagreements over the short-term steps needed to end the war and the long-term goals of completely ending the occupation have caused a lot of people with partisan leanings toward one section of the peace movement or the other to turn sharply on each other.

Some on the left, for example, accused those who supported the Iraq Supplemental Bill with its timetable for withdrawal last March of being traitors and turncoats, or having been influenced by corporate interests. A notion leveled more out of frustration than rational thought.

Others who favor working within the realities of Congress for winnable short-term gains sometimes lashed out at the left-wing of the peace movement for being extremist and a barrier to progress.

(I would note that my labels "moderate" and "left" are artificial and reflect less an organizational division with which the vast majority of the people who oppose the war would identify with than abstractions.)

Clearly, one faction or one organization cannot end the war alone. The unique perspectives and modes of organizing and activism that each group brings, to my mind, complement each other and are absolutely necessary to win peace.

The goals of the left cannot be won without a larger Democratic majority in Congress, or even without a Democratic president in the White House in 2009. And it is clear that the left has little choice but to participate in making this happen. Pretending that the system, under current circumstances, will be shaken up by third party candidates is neither borne out by history nor is it rooted in current reality. (See here for example.)


At the same time, the moderate goal of changing course in Iraq cannot be won without the energy, the organization, or the numbers the left brings to the table. Indeed, when speaking out against the war was not a popular thing to do, the left stood up. And it was right about the war all along. Indeed, the best systematic and programmatic reforms the left has to offer should be the aim of all people who seek lasting peace.

I would argue, too, that jeopardizing the struggle by refusing any support for some of the best proposals of the moderate sections of the peace movement isn't in the interest of the peace movement as a whole. Insisting that the advanced demands of the peace movement, like impeachment of members of the Bush administration or votes for a complete cut off of funding, be the conditions of support for those who hold the reins of power are divisive and unproductive.

Those kinds of staunch positions risk handing the political momentum back to the Bush administration and a potential Republican controlled Congress in 2008. Such intransigence would put more lives at risk, isolate the most progressive sections of the movement, and would be a giant step backward.

Let's find policy on which we can agree that will allow us to move forward together and save the hostilities for the extreme right wing that still, in crucial ways, dominates the political process.

--Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net

 

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--Joel Wendland is editor of Political Affairs.

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