The Vote for Endless War

On Tuesday, December 18, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate combined to give President Bush $70 billion to carry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into next summer. Only 23 Democrats and one independent supported an amendment by Senator Feingold that would have required the safe redeployment of troops from Iraq. Here are the senators who voted to end the war:

Akaka (D-HI)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feingold (D-WI)
Harkin (D-IA)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Kohl (D-WI)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Murray (D-WA)
Reid (D-NV)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)

Next summer, when the money runs out, a cutoff of funds will be unimaginable. The election will be too close. So our troops are committed till the end of the president's term; after all the talk, the Democrats have ended by obeying him. This capitulation marks the climax of one of the most extraordinary displays in history of a complex phenomenon: power wielded in the face of popular rejection, and power surrendered in spite of overwhelming public support. A president whose policy was disapproved by more than half of the American people chose to defy a majority whose midterm victory he himself had called "a rout." And the majority, saying they wished things were different, pleading the necessity of 60 rather than 50 votes, but never exacting reprisals or driving a hard bargain against defectors from their own ranks--the majority, again and again, backed down.

This definitive result of the 110th Congress will confirm the popular feeling that George W. Bush believes in his disaster more than the Democrats believe in anything.

Some day, an inspired historian will answer the question what the Democrats of the new majority in Congress were thinking in the months of December 2006 and January 2007. For consider their position. The report of the Iraq Study Group had lately told the president to pull back from Iraq; numbers of generals and retired military officers had registered their dissent from the war (a thing unheard-of in earlier wars); the party had on its side the good will of the public and the suffrage of the licensed experts. And then? The Democrats sat, and watched, and waited. They talked about their social policies. They knew if they waited long enough, the next move on Iraq would be the president's; and this apparently was what they wanted. They knew that his next move would be to widen the war. They had decided by February that they would not stop him.

Those who appeared most consequential in the scene were not the real movers. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi can hardly have carried as much weight in these larger deliberations as Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel. Senator Clinton outranked Senator Reid in fame, fortune, and influence; she was the apparent candidate by acclamation for the presidential race in 2008; and her desires, however conveyed, would count for more than those of an obscure and hesitant lawmaker. Rahm Emanuel had taken credit for the winning election strategy of 2006. Ascending with the majority, he avoided the substantial issue of Iraq, and addressed the need to get the best armor for the soldiers already there. Emanuel talked about armor, and soon Pelosi was talking about armor. All the while, on the floor of the Senate and in public speeches, Hillary Clinton gave her best energies to free the president to go after Iran.

If the Clinton-Emanuel axis is indeed a more accurate clue to the workings of the party than Reid-Pelosi, one may well ask what guided the accommodation of the Bush policy through 2007 by the de facto leaders of the opposition.

The premise on which, in fact, the two parties for all their differences seem now impressively unified, is the projection of American power in the Middle East. Whose interest does that serve? The list is long, and the proportions impossible to gauge. There are the oil companies (the province of Cheney and Bush), greedy for the last of a dwindling resource. Another half-century of profits is worth much more than a war to them. There is also Israel, with its largely uncritical American backers, including political supporters in both parties and financial supporters without whom the Democrats are lost (Senator Clinton in particular). Add to these the arms industry and the security bubble of the 2000s--from cluster bombs to retina scanners--alike dependent on the maintenance of this war and the urgency of the next, whatever the next may be.

Four superbases, we were told in 2003, were to be built for Americans in Iraq, but now there are five or six. As Clinton and Emanuel know, those bases are meant to be permanent. They will not be used only to secure Iraq and intimidate Iran, but to harry Russia by way of the friendly belt of former republics, and to raise a bulwark against the growing power of China. The missile interceptors we want to install in Poland and the radar station in the Czech Republic, about which Vladimir Putin was said to be unreasonably exercised, could indeed seem, to a suspicious eye, part of the same broad strategy. Camp Bondsteel, built on 955 acres in Kosovo, might also be supposed to make some contribution. The vice president is not the only American who does not want the Cold War to be over.

To judge by the votes of the 110th Congress, and by what has and has not been said on the campaign trail, some understandings are now clearly in place. The main agreement concerns what is not to be said. If either Clinton or Obama is the Democratic nominee, and if no new insurgency erupts, the Iraq war will drop away completely as an issue of the presidential race in 2008. To have prophesied this a year ago would have seemed fantastic; but the soothing indications are already being slotted in. Baghdad is now said to be "quieter." We are shown few pictures of American soldiers and fewer still of Iraqi civilians. The New York Times ran its story about the $70 million appropriations vote on page 24. Nevertheless, December 18 will be remembered. It was the day when a thirteen- month contract was signed, and the domestic powers told us that nothing more could be done about this. Go back to the economy, they said, and the mortgage crisis, and the role of religion in politics and the views of undecided voters about gay marriage. While you are talking, the Vatican-sized embassy in Baghdad will be completed, and the superbases will go up. The next step will have been taken for projection of American power in the Middle East.

When did we agree to this? At what time, and in what place? The United States, for the first time in our history, is more feared than it is trusted, and more hated than it is feared. And the opposition does not dare to think aloud about the reasons.

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines.

Copyright (c) 2007, Inc.

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