Talk to antiwar friends nowadays and the word "Congress" is likely to produce a frustrated diatribe about how spineless and shortsighted the Democrats have been as they squander the opportunities offered by their new majority. And that's the charitable view. Others are convinced that the Democrats are deliberately prolonging the war in order to reap electoral advantage in 2008. Whichever narrative holds sway-whether spineless and shortsighted or cynical and calculating- a common conclusion is that dealing with Congress is a hopeless enterprise.
While there is no lack of evidence for these diverse complaints, the daunting reality is that until the Congress of the United States acts, the war in Iraq will continue. Some insist this "this war will only be settled by events on the ground." Yet barring a miraculous upsurge in which Iraqis literally drive American troops out of their country, these soldiers are staying until the politicians bring them home.
Others maintain that nothing will change until there is a new President in 2009. But in the absence of a strong Congressional mandate, it is difficult to imagine a Chief Executive reversing the policy. Who besides Ron Paul, among that dismal group of Republican contenders, is prepared to orchestrate what will inevitably appear as an American defeat? And, as for the Democrats, which of the leading candidates is prepared to take on their own shoulders such a burden? Certainly not Hillary Clinton, who has already demonstrated that "military toughness" is central to her political persona.
One way or other, this problematic crew of people on Capitol Hill or their successors will have to be moved from their present equivocations to a strong, clear insistence that all U.S. troops must leave Iraq. It is for this reason, that pressuring the Congress remains a priority for much of the organized peace movement.
However this emphasis elicits understandable exasperation. Many feel that, "we have already tried everything," that although the American people gave a "clear verdict on the war" during the 2006 elections, the "Congress isn't listening."
These are, however, only partial truths. For one thing, many members of Congress are listening and there has been a dramatic evolution in their attitudes and voting behavior. Some of that change has come about because of the hard work of thousands of peace activists across the country.
This past spring, 171 members of the House of Representatives voted for a bill introduced by Representative James McGovern that would have required a redeployment of US troops and contractors within 90 days and a complete withdrawal six months later. The previous year, less than 30 representatives were prepared to support such legislation. As for the 2007 Supplemental funding bill, by the time the blank-check version came to the House floor, 142 members voted "No," more than doubling the number of legislators who had taken this stand previously. The votes in each instance were preceded by a substantial mobilization at the grassroots.
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With people dying in Iraq every day and the President obtaining all the money he asked for, it is hard to be exuberant about these results. But in our sorrow and impatience, it is worth noticing that organizing and pressure has made a difference and that we now have more allies on Capitol Hill, who are genuinely committed to bringing the troops home.
To gain perspective on the Congressional situation, the Vietnam comparison is instructive. Despite the fact that "the loss" of that country posed no significant threat to any substantive national interest, it was extremely difficult to halt the war. Iraq has become a more formidable problem precisely because the Bush Administration has been so reckless and incompetent in a region of exceptional importance to American imperial fortunes. Its foolhardy actions have destabilized the Middle East, undermined U.S. authority and strengthened an Iranian adversary. Yet to many in positions of power, as well the mainstream pundits, these very consequences have become a further argument for maintaining a military presence. The operative concern here is not about "new bases for terrorists" but about losing control of the world's oil supply.
The midterm elections notwithstanding, getting the United States out of Iraq is no simple chore. Yet it can be accomplished, if we develop ways to generate more pressure than we have done so far. It is no small problem that the media has consistently underreported the breadth and energy of grassroots activism. Yet if we are candid, we can also acknowledge that given the urgency of the task, and the number of profoundly disaffected Americans, there are still too few people visibly engaged in protesting the war, or leaning on Congress to exercise its Constitutional responsibility.
This partly reflects the paradoxical effects of the Internet, which has facilitated organization on an unprecedented scale, but also keeps people in their homes. As useful as it can be, clicking a finger is no substitute for a personal presence. Elected officials need to see the signs of dissent -in posters, newspaper ads, marches, visits to their offices, town halls, statements by community leaders and direct action. And to the extent that these initiatives are larger rather than smaller, they can pry lose the votes we need to get the troops home.
Moreover, the daily dose of Iraqi carnage that appears on television cannot substitute for the educational work and outreach efforts we need to expand. Since the mid-term elections, it is reflexively asserted that the American people gave the politicians "a clear verdict" Yet this is not entirely accurate The elections made manifest a widespread discontent and a desire that the war be over. But there is also ambivalence about the remedy. The polls have consistently shown that most Americans do not want Congress to simply cut off the funds. And while the majority of people favor a timeline for withdrawal, there is great variation about how rapid and complete they believe this timeline should be.
When members of Congress express reluctance about looking "defeatist," it is easy enough to scoff and complain of their cowardice. Yet there are still millions of their constituents, who truly reject the idea of walking away from the battlefield, as a matter of morality, self-interest, or both. And there are still millions of Americans, who perceive the US role in Iraq as beneficent and do not recognize that the occupation is feeding the violence and polarization there. It remains the work of a vibrant peace movement to address those attitudes and change them.
As we pass another anniversary of September 11, the tragedy of the Bush Administration's response looms ever larger. Yet as disappointing as this Congress may be, lamenting its weakness is less useful than creating the conditions that will compel it to move.