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Even with Obama in Charge, Anti-War Democrats Powerless

David Lightman

In 2002, protestors marched in Washington D.C. against an Iraq War. (Ken Cedeno/MCT)

WASHINGTON - The anti-war crowd had waited years for this moment,
when it could finally use its political muscle to end or at least
sharply curtail American involvement in a war that seems endless.

Instead, Congress' most vocal anti-war activists were badly outnumbered
this week when they tried to define an exit strategy for U.S.
involvement in Afghanistan.

need a plan while we are there and a strategy for leaving," said Rep.
Donna Edwards, D-Md., who last year defeated an eight-term incumbent
Democrat who backed the Iraq war. "We don't have it."

weren't even allowed a vote on a plan. It was a setback because for
years, anti-war lawmakers lacked the votes they needed to impose
restrictions on former President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Now, the
president is a Democrat, and the Democrats have a 79-seat majority in
the House of Representatives and 59 Senate seats, including two
independents, which gives them their biggest margins since the early

Nevertheless, the anti-war crowd remains as impotent as it
was during the Bush years amid widespread support for President Barack
Obama and a public that's preoccupied with economic issues and largely
unperturbed by the escalating war in Afghanistan.

simply doesn't arouse the same kind of broad opposition that Iraq did,"
said John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna
College in California.

While the reasons for invading Iraq proved
to be questionable, there's far less controversy about Afghanistan,
Pitney said, because, "That's where the bad guys are."

Obama has
said that U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq by August 2010, so the
congressional anti-war effort is now turning largely to Afghanistan.

Democratic leaders urged members to trust Obama, and they quickly
debated and passed the $96.7 billion emergency spending bill that will
fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate will consider its
version next week.

The experience of Rep. William Lacy Clay,
D-Mo., was typical. The veteran lawmaker held a "telephone town hall"
meeting earlier this week, and heard from thousands of people in his
district, an economically and racially diverse area that includes the
city of St. Louis and some of its suburbs.

"We have a lot of
anti-war sentiment in the district, and I thought people would provide
me cover to vote against the bill," Clay said.

Instead, he found,
"It was just the opposite. Lots of callers told me they trust the
president, and we should give him a chance." Clay voted for the bill.

liberals are frustrated by the lack of a clear strategy to end the war
in Afghanistan, by supporting a government there that's widely thought
to be corrupt and allied with opium traffickers and by the reluctance
of U.S. allies to lend any military help.

"I worry about mission creep," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

tried to band together. About 30 met on the eve of the Thursday House
vote, but they couldn't come up with a united strategy.

realized this came up so fast we didn't have the time," said Rep. Lynn
Woolsey, D-Calif., the co-chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus.

Many members vow to keep pushing for a more clearly defined strategy.

not advocating for an immediate withdrawal of our military forces from
Afghanistan. All I'm asking for is a plan," said Rep. Jim McGovern,
D-Mass. "If there is no military solution for Afghanistan, then,
please, just tell me how we will know when our military contribution to
the political solution has concluded."

McGovern is leading a
group of 73 members who are sponsoring legislation to require Defense
Secretary Robert Gates to outline a military exit strategy from
Afghanistan by the end of this year.

"My bill doesn't withdraw
our forces. It doesn't set a definite timeline. It simply asks the
Secretary of Defense to outline what our exit strategy is," he said.

Other members are urging the U.S. to put more emphasis on diplomacy and humanitarian aid.

war funding the House passed would spend about nine times as much on
military help for Afghanistan as it would on diplomatic and
humanitarian aid.

"Winning requires a long term sustained
commitment to turn 90 percent illiteracy to literacy and grow food
products instead of producing heroin and opium, build a civil society
and rule of law," Edwards said.

House Appropriations Committee
Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., was sympathetic to the anti-war crowd's
concerns, and he likened the mood to the one in Congress when he
arrived in 1969.

Richard Nixon had just been elected president,
and people urged Obey to give Nixon a chance to end the Vietnam War. By
the spring of 1970, however, the Nixon administration was expanding the
war into Cambodia, and Obey began speaking out.

"I'm pretty much in the same situation today," Obey said.

included in the House spending bill this week a requirement that Obama
give Congress by early next year a detailed report on the status of the
Afghanistan effort.

"So there are no deadlines, no conditions, no
timelines," Obey said. "But there are clear measurements against which
we should be able to judge the performance of the Afghanistan and
Pakistani governments."

Even Obey was uneasy, however.

clear to me that there is a consensus to try to do something to
stabilize the situation," he said. "If we're going to go down that
road, I want the president to get everything that he asked for and then
some to maximize his chances for success, and that is what this bill

But, he added, "I frankly have very little faith that it will work."

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