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Glass Half Full: House Democratic Caucus Backs McGovern Afghanistan Exit Amendment

For those concerned the U.S. is becoming mired in a military quagmire in Afghanistan there was good news and bad news on the House floor Thursday afternoon:

The good news is that a majority of House Democrats just voted (131-114) to support the McGovern amendment to the House Defense Authorization bill that requires the Pentagon to develop a military exit strategy from Afghanistan.

The bad news is that the overwhelming majority of House Republicans voted against the amendment (164-7), leading to its defeat.

For opponents of endless war in Afghanistan, it is a question of the glass being half empty or half full.

One the one hand, the glass is half full: this was a strong first vote on what will likely become a prolonged struggle. The early Congressional votes on the Vietnam and Iraq wars were lopsided affairs as Members took the bait that a vote against administration policy is a vote against our troops. With this vote, it's clear that a majority of Congressional Democrats understand that establishing a clear mission that includes a strategy for getting our troops home is necessary to support and protect the men and women we're sending into harm's way. Endless war is not.

On the other hand, the glass is half empty: Congressman McGovern's proposal was very modest. It did not proscribe what the exit strategy should be or on what time-line it should be accomplished. It simply required the administration to come up with one. As Congressman McGovern argued on the floor today: "This should not be controversial." How does something that does what the president himself told a national television audience last month was needed in Afghanistan go down to defeat in the House? How does one oppose such a reasonable and modest proposal?

Simple. You find yourself under pressure from your party leadership-be it Democratic or Republican-and the administration. Leaders on both sides of the aisle pulled out all the stops to defeat this measure. The Democratic and Republican leaders of both the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees lobbied hard. They circulated a letter from all four leaders of the committees imploring a no vote while the debate was underway on the House floor. The administration enlisted the direct engagement of Secretary of State Clinton and Ambassador Holbrooke to convince Members to say no. The president may believe in the necessity of an exit strategy for US forces in Afghanistan but his administration is loathe to actually come up with one.

The McGovern amendment may have come up short Thursday, but nevertheless count me in the glass-half-full camp. Winning the House Democratic Caucus on an issue opposed by Democratic leadership and the White House is no small feat. Indeed, it is hard to vote against the position of a president who you so desperately want to succeed. But this is precisely why many did just that. They do not want to see this administration-and all of the hope and promise that it brings-mired in an endless war that ends in a disaster for all. The very real prospect that the escalation of our forces in Afghanistan will make things much worse and not better is why 80% of Afghans oppose it.

Our congratulations and thanks go to Congressman McGovern (D-MA), Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Ca), and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), the lead sponsors of this amendment. They deserve our thanks not only for taking a principled stand on an important and controversial issue, but for going to work to make this a significant vote - one that will stand as a marker for the struggle ahead. Come to think of it, with friends like these in Congress, our glasses are more than half full.

Now, back to work.

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Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews

Tom Andrews, a former Member of Congress from the first Congressional District of Maine, is senior adviser to the human rights group, Fortify Rights. Andrews is the former President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Tom also served as National Director of Win Without War, a coalition of forty-two national membership organizations including the National Council of Churches, the NAACP, the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, and MoveOn.  He is also a co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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