The Republican gains in the mid-term elections have been portrayed as a major political victory for the Bush administration, and, in some circles at least, as an indication of strong public support for the administration's war policies. The reality is more complicated, but there is no question that the administration will seek to utilize its newfound control of the Senate, the House, and the presidency to press even more aggressively for its "war without end" approach to foreign policy.
What the mid-term elections demonstrated more than anything else was the disconnect between growing elite and popular opposition to going to war in Iraq and the electoral process.
The months leading up to the elections witnessed the largest anti-war rallies since the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement - 100,000 to 200,000 in Washington, 20,000 in New York's Central Park, 40,000 to 60,000 in San Francisco, plus scores of local vigils and sizeable rallies in major cities like Austin and Denver, and smaller cities and towns like Kingston, New York and Montpelier, Vermont.
Many of the participants in the rallies were new to the peace movement, rallied by groups like Not In Our Name, whose strong moral stand against the war drew support from prominent artists and intellectuals. Major religious denominations ranging from the National Council of Churches to the Mormon church to the U.S. Catholic Bishops have all come out with strong statements against the war, and religious leaders did roughly a week of coordinated anti-war educational and lobbying work in Washington in late September and early October.
In Congress, despite the wavering of the Democratic leadership (topped off by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's decision to cut a deal with the White House on a resolution giving the president the authority to go war against Iraq) 136 members of the House voted against the war, including a majority of Democrats. This was four to five times as many anti-war votes as the media pundits (and many activists) expected. The stronger than expected anti-war vote was driven by an outpouring of calls, e-mails, and letters to Congress which ran heavily against the war, by margins of 20 to 1 or higher in many offices.
MoveOn.org tapped into this anti-war sentiment to raise $2 million in small contributions for peace candidates, including hundreds of thousands of dollars for the late Paul Wellstone, the only incumbent Senator running for re-election who voted against the Iraq war resolution. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which argued that a vote against a popular President in wartime would have negative repercussions at the voting booth, Wellstone's polling numbers improved noticeably after his anti-war vote. One of the more ironic reactions to his tragic death was the common refrain among his colleagues in Washington that Wellstone was "one of a kind" because of his principled stands on issues like the Iraq vote. While Wellstone was indeed a unique and inspiring leader who will be sorely missed, the idea that taking a principled stand on issues of war and peace would make one "unique" in the United States Senate is a sad commentary on the state of
What the Bush administration was successful in doing in the mid-term elections was in using the issues of Iraq and the war on terrorism to mobilize their conservative base in key states and districts, while simultaneously confusing independent voters as to their true intentions. The decisions to seek the authorization of Congress and pursue a resolution in the United Nations Security Council helped blunt public opposition to the administration's policies. While polls had been indicating that a majority of Americans supported going to war against Iraq, that fragile majority turned into a 2 to 1 margin against going to war if the Bush administration chose to "go it alone" without UN authorization or allied support. This popular opposition to a unilateralist war drive was mirrored at the elite level in articles by prominent Republican elder statesman like former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft,
strong anti-war statements by major military leaders like former the former head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Anthony Zinni, and doubts about the administration's course that had been expressed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and analysts at the CIA.
The decisions to go to Congress and the United Nations were aimed at mollifying that substantial portion of the electorate who opposed a unilateral march to war, and to a large degree those tactics seemed to work. One poll taken near election day indicated that a majority of Americans assumed that the United States would not end up going to war in Iraq (i.e., that under the threat of U.S. use of force, the inspections and disarmament process would work). Bush and his key foreign policy spokespersons alternated between bellicose rhetoric and assurances that war with Iraq was not a done deal, since they were prepared to give UN inspections a chance to work. Bush's catch phrase on the campaign trail was that Iraq would either be disarmed via cooperation with the United Nations, or the United States would disarm it. Those who wanted to view this as a call to war could do so, while those who wanted to view it as an indication that the administration was willing to give the United Nations process a chance could do that too.
In the run-up to both the Congressional vote and the UN Security Council vote, administration officials made it clear that they felt they had the authority to go to war with Iraq with or without Congressional or UN approval. Hence the veiled threat voiced by Bush and other administration officials that if the Security Council and the United Nations wanted to remain "relevant," they had better support U.S. calls for strong action - up to and including military intervention - against Iraq.
As for the Democrats, their leadership badly misplayed what admittedly was a difficult hand. The notion that granting the President his war resolution would somehow take the war issue off the table and clear the way for discussion of domestic issues, which were considered the Democratic party's strong suit, was a colossal miscalculation. Not only did it give voters concerned about the war nowhere to turn on election day - depressing turnout in the process - but the national Democratic party never even bothered to craft an alternative domestic agenda. Not only was there no equivalent of the ten-point "Contract With America" that helped Republicans seize control of the house in the 1994 mid-term elections, there was no plan at all.
Despite the President's extensive campaigning throughout the fall, public support for the war continued to decline from late August up until the eve of the mid-term elections: support dropped 10% according to a Fox news poll, and 9% according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. The percentage of Americans who said they would support a war in Iraq if the United States were acting alone dropped from 33% to 27%, according to the Pew poll. "There is a great deal of concern about the consequences of the war," noted Pew researcher Carroll Doherty.
In short, this is no time for anti-war forces to get discouraged, or to sit on their hands. Well aware that it has failed to win the "hearts and minds" of the American people on the war issue, Bush administration officials announced in early November that they would be offering support to the newly formed "Coalition for the Liberation of Iraq," a conservative front group chaired by former Lockheed Martin vice-president Bruce Jackson and including among its high profile supporters former Secretary of State George Shultz, Sen. John McCain, and (sad but true) former Nebraska Senator and current New School University President Bob Kerrey. The group's executive director, Randy Scheunemann, has argued that their goal is to make sure that the Bush administration isn't put on the defensive on the war issue during the "post-election vacuum" by trying to turn around the situation in which Congressional offices have been "getting a lot of calls against and not many for" the war.
There are a few small glimmers of hope in the new Congress, but it's clear that the momentum against war in Iraq (and the war-driven policy of the Bush administration) will have to come from the citizenry, not Washington. San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the new Minority Leader in the House, helped lead the Democratic opposition to the Iraq war resolution, and should be more receptive to progressive concerns than Dick Gephardt was. Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, who is in line to run the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, comes from what is left of the moderate internationalist wing of the Republican party, and should be receptive to certain issues such as joint efforts to eliminate U.S. and Russian nuclear materials and stockpiles. Other Republican moderates like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who was a persistent critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy in the summer and early fall, could be reactivated with enough public pressure. Dennis Kucinich, the head of the House Progressive Caucus, has been traveling the country spreading his anti-war message, and has been extremely well-received at every stop; if the progressive bloc could unite on key votes and issues, it could hold greater sway within a Democratic caucus with Nancy Pelosi at the helm.
One important "plank" in the opposition platform should be exposing the hidden costs of the war: for the U.S. and global economies, for security, for human rights, and for civil liberties and the health of democracy, both here and abroad. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Yale University economist William Nordhaus makes a "best case" and "worst case" set of estimates of the economic impacts of a war in Iraq, and comes out with figures ranging from $120 billion to more than $1.5 trillion. The larger figure takes into account the effects of possible disruption in the oil markets, Iraqi use of chemical and biological weapons, the costs of an extended military occupation of Iraq, and other factors that have not been addressed in estimates to date.
What is needed now is a "big tent" approach to pushing back the Bush administration's unilateralist military policies, involving a broad coalition ranging from moderate Republicans and anti-war Democrats to religious, business, trade union, and student leaders. It will not be possible to create a common program among such a diverse group, but it should be possible to at least work in parallel and coalesce on issues of interest.
William D. Hartung is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and
the Director of the Arms
Trade Resource Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.