Following the protest at her January "town hall meeting," San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi reportedly remarked that the event might give some of her Washington colleagues a better understanding of the pressures she faces in her district. In the nation's capital – and among the press corps – she is seen as a leading critic of the war in Iraq, but at home she faced loud and visible protest against her ongoing support for funding that same war.
Pelosi actually demonstrated the accuracy of both perceptions at the event, calling the Iraq war "a grotesque mistake ... a tragedy," while defending her December 19 vote to continue it by providing an additional $50 billion in war funding. "The money is for the troops,'' she said – a point tough to argue– and "I'm not prepared to go against the troops' having the equipment they need."
So far as her critics in the audience were concerned, though, the only equipment the troops need is planes to get them out of Iraq. And that is precisely the equipment they would get under the legislation the war opponents were pressing Pelosi to support – the "End the War in Iraq Act," introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), would quite simply prohibit the use of funds to deploy United States Armed Forces to Iraq. While allowing expenditures for reconstruction or negotiation, the only American military spending the bill would permit in Iraq would be for "providing for the safe and orderly withdrawal of the Armed Forces."
That San Francisco supports immediate withdrawal is not in dispute. 63 percent backed a ballot measure calling upon the federal government to "bring the troops safely home now" in November, 2004 (the margin was greater in Pelosi's district), and all polls show support for the war shrinking markedly since that time. Pelosi was actually in tune with her district before the war started – as Minority Leader, she figured prominently in the October, 2002 vote when House Democrats opposed the authorization of force by a 126-81 margin. (Her lower-profile San Francisco House colleague Tom Lantos has consistently voted for the war.)
Since then, however, she has staked out a profile disturbingly similar to the one John Kerry's presidential campaign rode to defeat in 2004, attempting to befriend both the war's opponents and the Pentagon's budget-makers. UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain probably summed up Pelosi's perception of her situation pretty accurately: "A lot of the pressures of her constituency point to her taking a very aggressive position on withdrawing from Iraq. But her role as minority leader demands that she pick a position that does not damage the chances of Democrats in races around the country."
An earlier local effort urged Pelosi (and Lantos) to co-sponsor a resolution introduced by fellow California Democrat Lynn Woolsey declaring "the sense of Congress that the President should develop and implement a plan to begin the immediate withdrawal of United States Armed Forces from Iraq." Despite the urging of 2,000 signatures, several Democratic Clubs, and the city's Labor Council, Board of Supervisors, and Democratic Central Committee, Pelosi (and Lantos) refused to do so, going so far as to vote against a simplified version of Woolsey's resolution offered as a budget amendment, even while a 122-79 majority of the party she leads voted in favor.
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But then came John Murtha's (D-PA) dramatic call for withdrawal from Iraq – which Pelosi embraced. So why, then, were Pelosi's antiwar constituents still on her case? As a 37-year military man, Murtha makes an unlikely antiwar leader. Hence his resolution produced far greater media attention than did the McGovern bill or the Woolsey resolution, attention which has not extended to the legislation's details. Not only does his resolution not specify immediate withdrawal of American forces, calling for them "to be redeployed" only "at the earliest practicable date," but it also states that "a quick-reaction U.S. force and an over-the-horizon presence of U.S. Marines shall be deployed in the region," seemingly guaranteeing a permanent American military presence in the area. So, once again, Pelosi has not endorsed actual withdrawal of troops now, which she presumably fears would fuel Republican charges of undermining the war effort, but withdrawal sometime in the future – which everyone claims to believe in.
The message of the Pelosi leadership appears to be that Republicans started the war and it's up to them to end it so that Democrats can get back to work on domestic issues. It could well be that this strategy of criticizing the Administration's conduct of the war while offering no clear alternative will actually succeed in this year's congressional elections and she will become Speaker of the House. But the approach does carry great risks of its own, not least of which is ignoring the basic truism that you can't beat something with nothing.
While there are individual Congressional Democrats currently making the good fight against the war, the Kerry/Pelosi strategy does little to challenge the presumption that the Republicans remain the party to turn to when there really are legitimate national security concerns. Should the voters desert them in November, it will presumably be because they have realized that this war has had nothing to do with our national security, except in undermining it by presenting the U.S. as a country opportunistically using the September 11 attacks to realize long-held militarily designs.
And there is a more serious consideration arguing against the passive approach of hoping the Republicans beat themselves. The basic urgency of ending this occupation before one more American or Iraqi life is lost calls out for a party that says just that.
But speculation on national political strategy aside, one thing is certain – the people who actually send Nancy Pelosi and Tom Lantos to Washington, DC are entitled to have their views on war and peace represented there.