Washington police are bracing themselves this morning for what could be the
biggest weekend of protest in the US since the Seattle riots of 1999. With thousands
of demonstrators expected, commuters have been urged to stay off the roads to
The event is timed to coincide with the annual meetings of the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund, but the demands on the placards will cover matters
way beyond world capitalism - with the impending attack on Iraq probably top of
As ever, the protesters will be ignored if they are peaceful, and condemned
- but noticed - if they are not. But they will gather with a growing sense that
the anti-war forces in the US have, not the wind behind them exactly, but at least
the first puffs of a breeze.
Those implacably opposed to the war range from the far left to one congressman
normally regarded as an extreme rightwinger. This week they at last acquired a
semblance of leadership when the two most important Democrats, Al Gore - increasingly
likely to be the presidential candidate again in 2004 - and the Senate majority
leader, Tom Daschle, stopped trying to change the subject away from Iraq and hit
back at the president.
In one of the most electrifying speeches the current Senate has heard, Mr Daschle,
almost in tears, condemned as "outrageous" White House attempts to equate criticism
with lack of patriotism.
He said he had never seen the words "Democrat" or "Republican" on a soldier's
"We ought not politicize this war. We ought not politicize the rhetoric about
war and life and death," he said.
The president failed to offer the apology Mr Daschle wanted, but changed his
tone. "Democrats and Republicans," he said inclusively and pointedly, "refuse
to live in fear."
The White House is negotiating with congressional leaders on the wording of
the resolution they are expected to pass authorizing military action in Iraq.
The negotiations are "civil", the president said, which may not be the whole truth.
Part of the subtext of the Daschle attack was that the administration is spinning
the arguments out so the vote is held closer to the midterm elections on November
Both houses of Congress should pass authorizing resolutions by large majorities,
with Mr Daschle and other Democrat leaders in reluctant acquiescence. But there
will be a revolt, perhaps a substantial one.
This reflects a very different public mood from a year ago when only one lone
Congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, rejected the president's demand to act
There are also memories of the most infamous of these votes, in 1964, when
just two senators voted against giving Lyndon Johnson authority to go to war in
The Senate figures may depend on the final judgment of a few influential doubters,
like the respected Republican foreign affairs specialist Chuck Hagel. In the House
of Representatives, where all the members face re-election, decision-making is
complicated by imminent political concerns.
But David Bonior, a former Democratic whip, insisted that up to 100 of the
House's 212 Democrats could vote against, along with "a handful" of Republicans.
Mr Bonior is visiting Baghdad with an anti-war colleague, Jim McDermott. They
are politically fireproof: Mr Bonior is not running again, and Mr McDermott has
a safe seat in liberal Seattle.
But they and other hardcore members of the awkward squad report a surprising
amount of support for their stand even in less promising parts of the country.
Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat congresswoman from Ohio, said she was buoyed up by the
response of voters.
"I had a big party meeting in Toledo this week and, just listening to the people,
you could tell the country isn't where the president is. They're stunned at the
thought of war," she said. "I left Washington where the place is hunkered down
for war. Back there they're concerned about the Oktoberfest, and the baseball
and the football.
"I've had people coming up to me and questioning the president's balance and
judgment. If there's an imminent threat, that's different, but they don't see
Her views are echoed by a more improbable figure: Ron Paul, an off-message
anti-government-interference Republican from Texas who rejects assisted health
care as well as aggressive wars.
Mr Paul, who came third in the 1988 presidential election on the Libertarian
ticket, brandished 200 papers which he said were the day's e-mail intake. "There's
about 10 in there which say I'm a jerk," he said. "Most are very supportive."
He says that pre-emptive strikes are unconstitutional, since the president
only has the right to respond to imminent threats, adding: "I disagree that there
is a threat to the US from someone as small and ill-equipped as Saddam Hussein."
Ron Paul makes an unlikely bedfellow with the protesters due on the streets
today, but this is a strange alliance. About 70 items of street art - decorated
donkeys and elephants that have adorned Washington pavements this summer - have
been moved for fear of vandalism.
They have found sanctuary in the grounds of a university. The idea that a student
campus should be considered a safe haven from anti-war activists is just one more
sign that this is not a re-run of the 1960s.
The lesson of Vietnam
The words "Gulf of Tonkin" have echoed round Washington again this week as
old-timers remember how war panic can produce bad law. In August 1964, just two
senators - Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska - held out against
a tidal wave of indignation.
President Lyndon Johnson got Congress to authorize"all necessary measures"
after two North Vietnamese patrol boats reportedly launched unprovoked attacks
on US ships. This became the legal basis for the subsequent war.
It is widely accepted now that the first ship attacked, the USS Maddox, was
spying, and that the second attack did not happen.
Mr Gruening said: "This resolution is a further authorization for escalation
unlimited. I am opposed to sacrificing a single American boy in this venture."
Mr Morse said: "I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake."
Nine years later, the War Powers Resolution was passed: now a president can
take military action immediately, but he must go to Congress within 60 to 90 days
for permission to continue the engagement.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002