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Democrats and America's Wars

Tom Gallagher

Phil Angelides says get out of Iraq; John Kerry says get into Afghanistan. The Democratic Party faces no more important question than which of these directions will prevail. 

California gubernatorial candidate Angelides recently announced that "I will do everything in my power as governor of the state of California to bring our National Guard troops home" from Iraq. Meanwhile, Kerry, past, and perhaps future, Democratic presidential candidate, attempts to turn the tables on the Bush Administration in claiming that it "has cut and run," not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, where he argues "we must send significant reinforcements ... at least 5,000 more troops."

Angelides, currently state Treasurer, was predictably criticized for talking foreign policy in a state race, particularly since conventional wisdom holds that recent laws and court rulings both render his goal impossible. But Iraq War opponents who dismiss his stance as opportunism or grandstanding will make a serious error – equivalent to dismissing the importance of an antiwar demonstration because we know it will not in itself end the war. Angelides pledges that if elected he will not only make a formal request to return the Guard units "on day one," but that he will go to court, work "to mobilize other governors" and even "walk the halls of Congress to mobilize support to return our troops home."

All of this is not simply a moral stance. The reason he currently trails by double digits in the polls is the large number of Democrats who have yet to warm to Angelides since his nomination in a fractious primary. So with pollsters finding 91 percent of Democrats disapproving of Bush's handling of the war and 77 percent favoring troop withdrawal now, it is urgent that Angelides remind them who the incumbent governor really is. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not only an action hero and Kennedy in-law, but a war supporter who told "Meet the Press" earlier this year: "I think that we had to go in ... There was a threat of terrorism. I think that it was the right thing to do." 

The end of the Vietnam War came into sight when there was nowhere left to hide politically, when officer seekers from top to bottom of the ticket had to weigh in on it to an electorate that had come to see our foreign policy as the entire nation's responsibility. So you better believe that a gubernatorial candidate from the largest state talking this way is an important step for the anti-Iraq War movement.

John Kerry, however, is tacking the other way. The Massachusetts Senator's vote for the Iraq War obviated much of the value of a carefully constructed career as an antiwar Vietnam veteran who opposed the Gulf War. He certainly deserves credit for acknowledging that error – he now calls for withdrawal from Iraq by next July, but unfortunately, he still finds it necessary to demonstrate that a Democrat can be just as bellicose as a Republican – in some war or other.

Granted, the war in Afghanistan is not the abomination that the war in Iraq is, in that Afghanistan did actually have something to do with the World Trade Center attacks that set the US on its current ruinous political and military course. And the US is not so obviously losing there -- yet. Still it seems a fool's errand to try to outflank and out-tough the Administration on that front. 

It would be an overstatement to say that it was the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan that destroyed it, but it played a crucial part. And certainly our war there won't actually destroy the US, but as a friend working in Afghanistan recently wrote me, "they have now merged the development function in with the military in the form of what are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams ... a disastrous combination ... because once the locals equate "development" with military occupation it is all over." 

We've had five years to learn that occupying Muslim nations is not the road to peace and security. And at this point, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the recognition of this fact may have to come from outside of Washington, DC – maybe California. 


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Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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