In an unusual ploy to force more public debate on our looming attack on Iraq, a congressman plans this week to introduce legislation urging we reinstitute the military draft.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), revealed his plans in an op-ed column in the Dec. 31 New York Times. He argued that legislators would be less likely to send the nation's youth to the battlefields if their own children were on the front lines.
"I believe that if those calling for war knew that their children were likely to be required to serve--and be placed in harm's way--there would be more caution and a greater willingness to work with the international community in dealing with Iraq," he wrote. "A renewed draft will help bring a greater appreciation of the consequences of decisions to go to war."
Rangel's call to resume the draft is an anti-war argument dressed in military garb-- an obvious bit of political gamesmanship. He casts doubt on the capacity of our armed forces to meet its present and future commitments without a draft, even though he opposes many of those commitments.
Still, the longtime New York legislator raises some useful issues with his crafty maneuver.
"A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent." With this complaint, Rangel is echoing sentiment heard often within the black community.
About 25 percent of the troops that served in the first Persian Gulf War were black, and African-Americans are afraid that their children once again will bear the brunt of America's belligerence.
An October poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that just 19.2 percent of blacks support war with Iraq. Rangel reasons that America's decision-makers would be similarly gun-shy were their kids likely to be in the line of fire.
For all of its cleverness, Rangel's ploy bespeaks of a profound weakness within the Democratic Party. The Bush administration's new foreign policy doctrine is stridently imperialistic. Why must Rangel resort to tongue-in-cheek legislation to force a debate on this new and dangerous doctrine?
Where are the compelling voices of dissent, making the obvious case that a pre-emptive attack on Iraq would be the action of a rogue state? Is there any Democrat around who can boldly and compellingly state the obvious?
The UN Charter is a binding treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate in the aftermath of World War II; the charter disallows the unilateral use of force except in the case of self-defense. Article 51 recognizes the right of all states to engage in self-defense in the case of "armed attack." But even the most fervid war hawk has not argued that Iraq is planning such an attack on the U.S.
An articulate Democrat would find no problem criticizing the Bush administration's rejection of virtually all of the international agreements previous administrations have supported.
Rather than spotlighting this insufferable global arrogance, Democrats grin and bear it. Instead of presenting arguments against the Bush administration's radical unilateralism, the poll-reading Democrats are too busy trying to "triangulate" their way into the hearts of patriotic, but ill-informed, constituents.
In lieu of a robust debate on the pros and cons of an Iraq attack, Rangel has come up with another way to make his case. His tactic may be catching on; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), another strong critic of the Bush administration's foreign policy, said he would join Rangel's efforts to reinstitute the draft.
While clever, Rangel's maneuver is also risky. Although his proposed bill is doomed to failure, it likely will soften the public attitude toward a future resumption of the draft.
Progressives who applaud Rangel's gambit should remember the draft was banished from public life in 1973, courtesy of an anti-war movement that viewed compulsory military service as adjunct to military aggression.
But it was also a shared civic experience that lessened the gap between the military and civilian cultures. While the draft had inequities that allowed many to evade its clutches, it was a powerful force for class and racial integration.
Rangel may have an angle, but his proposal may take on a life of its own.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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