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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Giving Democrats a pass on ending the war?

(updated below)

Commissar is a right-wing blogger and long-time Bush supporter. He originally supported the Iraq war but some time last year finally came to the conclusion that the war has been a failure and was a mistake from the start. He acknowledged his own errors in judgment in supporting the war and, in the midterm elections, he supported and voted for Democrats because (like many voters) he wanted them to take over Congress and put a stop to the war. This weekend, he wrote a post in which he asks:

Why are the Netroots NOT constantly hammering the Dem majorities in Congress to de-fund the war? . . . Obviously defunding the war (or at least the surge) could be politically costly. But what is more important? Stopping the war or holding onto political power?

That is a question which is a tough one for the Dem politicians. To some extent, I understand their reluctance to take such a move, which might have political consequences. . . .

Those who disagree with the war in Iraq should be opposing it every day, almost to the exclusion of other topics. . . . Why not pile on the pressure on Congressional leaders to stop funding the war? What would a patriot do? Why did I vote Dem in 2006? Your side has the power, guys.

In this morning's New York Times, John Yoo has an Op-Ed, co-written with attorney Lynn Chu, which makes a similar point:

[B]ehind all the bluster, the one thing all the major Democratic proposals have in common is that they are purely symbolic resolutions, with all the force of a postcard. . . .The fact is, Congress has every power to end the war — if it really wanted to. It has the power of the purse. . . . Not only could Congress cut off money, it could require scheduled troop withdrawals, shrink or eliminate units, or freeze weapons supplies. It could even repeal or amend the authorization to use force it passed in 2002. . . .

The truth is that the Democrats in Congress would rather sit back and let the president take the heat in war than do anything risky. That way they get to prepare for the next election while pointing fingers of blame and spinning conspiracy theories.

It is, I think, very hard to deny that there are some valid points lurking here. Most Bush critics accept these two premises: (1) Congress has the power to compel a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and (2) a withdrawal -- whether immediate or one that is completed within, say, six to nine months -- is vitally important. It is important in its own right and, perhaps even more so, because it is our presence in Iraq which enables all sorts of future disasters, including a looming confrontation with Iran.

Yet the Democratic-controlled Congress is clearly not going to attempt to exercise its power to compel the end of this war -- at least not any time soon. And, with some exceptions, there seems to be very few objections over that failure, very little clamoring that they do more. Why is that? What accounts for the seeming willingness -- even among more vocal war opponents and bloggers -- to give Democrats a pass on actually ending the war (as opposed to enacting symbolic, inconsequential resolutions)?

Over the past month or so, I attributed the muted or even non-existent criticism of Democrats to the very sensible proposition that the new Democratic leadership ought to be given some time, a little breathing room, to figure out what they will do and, more challengingly, how they will accomplish it. It is a complex task to put together a legislative strategy that will attract a coalition of legislators -- Democrats and some anti-war Republicans -- sufficient to command a majority. That is not going to happen overnight, and it would be unreasonable to start demanding that Nancy Pelosi end the war in the first week of her Speakership.

But that explanation really doesn't take us very far any more, because it is clear that Congressional Democrats are not working at all towards the goal of forcing an end to the war. They have expressly repudiated any de-funding intentions, and -- as Chu and Yoo correctly observe -- "two other Democratic Senate proposals that have actual teeth — one by Russell Feingold to cut off money for the war, another by Barack Obama to mandate troop reductions — were ignored by the leadership." Democrats are not going to be any closer to de-funding the war or otherwise compelling its conclusion in March or May or July as they are now, and they themselves have made that clear. For that reason, the "let's-give-them-time" justification lacks coherence.

A more formidable explanation for the lack of criticism of the Democratic leadership is pure pragmatic reality -- a Democratic leadership which can barely scrape up enough votes to pass a weak, non-binding resolution opposing escalation, let alone a non-binding resolution calling for an end to the war, would simply never be able to attract anywhere near enough votes to sustain a de-funding bill or a repeal of the war authorization. That premise is (most likely, though not definitely) accurate, but since when have pragmatic considerations of that sort stifled arguments from war opponents, liberal activists, and bloggers for principled action?

Activists and bloggers routinely demand, based both on principle and political strategy, that their political leaders unapologetically embrace the political position that is Right, and do not generally accept the excuse that doing so is politically unpopular or unlikely to succeed. Bloggers and others demanded support for all sorts of important measures that had little chance of success -- opposition to, even a filibuster of the, Alito nomination, opposition to the Military Commissions Act, opposition to the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. On an issue as crucial as ending the war in Iraq, is likely legislative failure really a justifiable excuse for failing to push that issue, advocate that as a solution, and force a vote?

There are some obvious political considerations that potentially explain the muted objections to Democratic inaction on the war. The most obvious, and the most ignoble, is a desire that the war in Iraq -- as hideously destructive as it is -- still be raging during the 2008 elections, based on the belief that Americans will punish Republicans for the war even more than they did in the 2006 midterm elections. Is that naked political calculation driving some of the unwillingness of some Democratic elected officials to end the war? One would like to think not, but it is growing increasingly more difficult to avoid that suspicion.

Then there is the related, somewhat more reasonable political consideration which is grounded in the fear that if Democrats end the war in Iraq, all of the resulting violence and chaos which rightfully belongs in George Bush's lap will instead be heaped on the Democrats ("we were so close to winning if only the Democrats hadn't forced a withdrawal"). It is certainly true that war supporters, desperate to blame someone other than themselves for the disaster they have wrought, would immediately exploit this dishonest storyline, but does that really matter?

If ending the war is urgently necessary, is that consideration even remotely sufficient to justify a decision by Democrats to allow it to continue? Isn't that the same rationale that was used by Democrats who voted in favor of the 2002 Iraq AUMF -- "if we oppose it, we will be damaged politically for years to come, and since it will pass anyway, why not support it and avoid incurring that political damage"? It is difficult to reconcile criticism of Congressional Democrats who voted on political grounds in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq with a willingness now to allow them to avoid compelling an end to that war.

What does seem clear is that one of the principal factors accounting for the reluctance of Democrats to advocate de-funding is that the standard corruption that infects our political discourse has rendered the de-funding option truly radioactive. Republicans and the media have propagated -- and Democrats have frequently affirmed -- the proposition that to de-fund a war is to endanger the "troops in the field."

This unbelievably irrational, even stupid, concept has arisen and has now taken root -- that to cut off funds for the war means that, one day, our troops are going to be in the middle of a vicious fire-fight and suddenly they will run out of bullets -- or run out of gas or armor -- because Nancy Pelosi refused to pay for the things they need to protect themselves, and so they are going to find themselves in the middle of the Iraq war with no supplies and no money to pay for what they need. That is just one of those grossly distorting, idiotic myths the media allows to become immovably lodged in our political discourse and which infects our political analysis and prevents any sort of rational examination of our options.

That is why virtually all political figures run away as fast and desperately as possible from the idea of de-funding a war -- it's as though they have to strongly repudiate de-funding options because de-funding has become tantamount to "endangering our troops" (notwithstanding the fact that Congress has de-funded wars in the past and it is obviously done in coordination with the military and over a scheduled time frame so as to avoid "endangering the troops").

As Russ Feingold explained in a Daily Kos diary announcing his opposition to the Warner/Levin "anti-surge" resolution:

We owe it to ourselves to demand action that will bring about change in Iraq, not take us back to a failed status quo.

Democrats in Congress have seemingly forgotten that we were in power when Congress authorized the President to go to war in Iraq. . . . We also have to remember that in November, Americans sent over 30 new Democratic Representatives and eight new Democratic Senators plus a very progressive Independent to fix a failed Iraq policy. The public is craving change in Iraq and a resolution like this one will not cut it. Now is the time for strong action.

Those are the type of arguments which one expects to find among anti-war activists and bloggers, yet one sees relatively little dissatisfaction, and almost no anger, directed at the Democratic leadership for its refusal even to force a vote on genuine war-ending measures. It is unclear why that is -- perhaps there are good reasons for it -- but those reasons are difficult to discern, and these seem like questions worth examining.

UPDATE: As but one example, MoveOn.org has a page devoted to a petition opposing escalation in Iraq, and also has an ad criticizing Republicans for supporting escalation, but they do not -- from what I can tell -- have any petitions, actions, marches, campaigns, etc. to urge Congress to de-fund the war or otherwise compel a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. They even supported the Warner-Levin resolution which, as Sen. Feingold pointed out, "signs off on the President continuing indefinite military operations in Iraq."

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