After a series of legislative defeats in 2007 that saw the year end with more U.S. troops in Iraq than when it began, a coalition of anti-war groups is backing away from its multimillion-dollar drive to cut funding for the war and force Congress to pass timelines for bringing U.S. troops home.
In recognition of hard political reality, the groups instead will lower their sights and push for legislation to prevent President Bush from entering into a long-term agreement with the Iraqi government that could keep significant numbers of troops in Iraq for years to come.
The groups believe this switch in strategy can draw contrasts with Republicans that will help Democrats gain ground in November and bring the votes to pass more dramatic measures. But it is a long way from the early months of 2007, when Democrats were freshly in power and momentum for a dramatic shift in Iraq policy seemed overpowering.
"There was a consensus that last year was not productive," John Isaacs, executive director of Council for a Livable World, said of a meeting attended by a coalition of anti-war groups last week. "Our expectations were dashed."
The meeting, held at an office on K Street, was attended by around 20 representatives of influential anti-war groups, including MoveOn.org and Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, which spent $12 million last year opposing the war.
Isaacs said he thought the meeting would be a difficult one, with an adamant faction pressing for continued focus on timelines and funding. It wasn't to be.
"We got our heads together and decided to go a different way," Isaacs said. "The consensus was not to keep beating our heads against the wall trying to block every funding bill - not because we don't agree with it, but because we don't have the votes."
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for AAEI, was also at the meeting. "There was a lot of agreement that this is really the way that we can best get our message across about endless war versus end-the-war and draw clear distinctions between anti-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans. They really don't want to end the war. This is the perfect legislative opportunity."
An additional factor: The failure of last year's end-of-the-session efforts to oppose the war convinced some in the movement that the numbers just weren't there. "At the end of the year, Congress went out with a whole bunch more votes on Iraq with the same result. Some of the [news] stories were saying that members of Congress were getting tired of it," Isaacs said.
The new strategy doesn't mean that the groups won't be active during budget battles. "The budget debates provide an enormously rich opportunity to engage the public," said former Maine Rep. Tom Andrews of the group Win Without War. "We're spending $8 [billion] to $10 billion a month."
During Tuesday night's presidential debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) referenced the kind of legislation that the anti-war crowd will be backing when she asked Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) if he would co-sponsor a bill to prevent the president from entering into any long-term agreements with the Iraqi government without consulting Congress.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama will "support all common-sense efforts to ensure that President Bush does not tie the hands of future presidents through agreements with the Iraqi government."
In December, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) sent a strongly worded letter to Bush asking for information about what types of agreements the president planned to enter into and urging that he consult with Congress first. It was signed by Clinton and Democratic Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.).
"The feeling is that Clinton's too hot to handle for legislation right now, so we're hoping somebody like Casey will carry it," Isaacs said, expressing concern that Clinton's presidential run could give the bill too much partisan edge to get through the Senate.
In the House on Tuesday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced a bill that would make clear that no federal money could be spent to implement an agreement Bush reaches with Iraq unless it's in the form of a congressionally approved treaty.
Members of the anti-war coalition say they are working to gather co-sponsors for the bill but that they will also attempt to insert similar language in the upcoming supplemental spending bill. Late last year, Bush requested nearly $200 billion for the war effort; Democrats gave $70 billion and will be revisiting further funding soon.
For Mack, the logic of the argument seems straightforward. "Maliki is talking about getting congressional approval on the Iraq side," Mack said, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "It's absurd that Bush wouldn't go to the U.S. Congress."
The anti-war movement also thinks it has a winning argument when it comes to the length of time Americans are willing to see U.S. forces in Iraq. Roughly half of Americans recently surveyed by CBS News want most U.S. troops out within a year, and more than half think it was a mistake to invade in the first place. Every Democratic candidate for president has promised to withdraw almost all troops from Iraq within the first year of his or her presidency.
Earlier this week, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir said U.S. troops might need to remain in Iraq until 2018, which could cost the United States $1 trillion or more between now and then, according to Congressional Budget Office projections. Bush said recently that it is "fine with me" if U.S. troop levels remain the same in Iraq, if Army Gen. David Petraeus recommends such a deployment.
Bush also said last week that U.S. troops "could easily" be in Iraq for a decade or more.
AAEI will have a budget roughly as large as it had last year, Mack said, and the new focus should be seen as an addition to its strategy, rather than as a retreat from a previous position. "Clearly, folks continue to oppose any more money for the war, and that was discussed as well. Our groups are still going to actively oppose any more funding," she said.
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