Are the Democrats an Antiwar Party?
Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) November 17 press conference was, if nothing else, a wake-up call to the Washington establishment from one of its own. The U.S. “cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily,” Murtha said. “It is time to bring them home.”
Judging by the abuse he received from outraged Republicans and the cheers heard in antiwar circles, you might have thought that a pro-war politician had decided to become an antiwar activist.
Newly elected Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) almost provoked a brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives when she accused Murtha, a decorated combat veteran, of being a coward.
At the same time, Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the antiwar group Code Pink, in an article on the “10 Reasons to Give Thanks” this year, put at the top of the list: “We’re thankful that Congressman John Murtha has joined us in calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq.”
The battle over Murtha’s proposal that ensued in the media and in the halls of Congress itself was an example of the widespread antiwar sentiment outside Washington finally finding an expression in official politics -- something that hadn’t happened in this way before, despite the growing disillusion and discontent with the war among ordinary people. For example, in a recent Gallup poll, Bush’s handling of the war had the support of only about 35 percent of the public.
But if this were all antiwar activists took from this debate, we’d be missing the bigger picture -- not just of Murtha’s own intentions, but those of the Democratic Party generally.
Rhetoric aside, the text of Murtha’s proposed congressional resolution never uses the word “withdrawal” -- but rather “redeployment” -- when referring to plans for U.S. troops in Iraq.
Murtha is well known as a mouthpiece for sections of the Pentagon officialdom. If a hawk like this is saying the Iraq war is unwinnable, that’s because sections of the military think so, too. They fear that the looming defeat in Iraq will damage the U.S. military machine, and prevent it from being used in other imperialist interventions.
Despite Murtha’s far-from-peace-loving motivations for proposing his resolution, Democratic leaders nevertheless distanced themselves from him. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Murtha spoke only for himself, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) touted his plan for “responsible redeployment” from Iraq.
But in a maneuver aimed at embarrassing the Democrats, the Republicans rushed through an alternative resolution to Murtha’s proposal, calling for the immediate withdrawal of all forces from Iraq. The Republican resolution went down to defeat by a vote of 403-3.
Virtually all of the liberal Democratic members of Congress who claim to be allies of the antiwar movement voted against a resolution that -- whatever the Republicans’ intentions--proposed the movement’s common point of agreement, at least on paper: get U.S. troops out of Iraq now.
Sadly, many liberal voices outside Congress defended the Democratic lawmakers. For example, the Progressive Democrats of America, which styles itself as a grassroots lobby to pressure Democrats to oppose the Iraq occupation, issued a statement supporting Democrats who voted against the replacement resolution -- which it called “an attempt to trick Democrats into supporting a ‘cut-and-run’ position on withdrawing U.S. troops.”
Middle East expert Stephen Zunes, one of the leading intellectuals in antiwar circles, went even further, urging the antiwar movement to embrace Murtha’s call for a rapid reaction force to prevent the victory of the Iraqi resistance to occupation. “The peace movement should be open to such a strategy,” Zunes wrote, “since it ends the occupation, it shifts our policy to diplomacy, and it creates the common ground necessary to unite politically around the language of Rep. John Murtha, a retired Marine and staunch supporter of the military, who calls for America to get out of Iraq ‘as soon as practicable.’”
All of this might be mystifying to antiwar activists. The Democrats seem unable to capitalize on an opportunity, dropped in their laps by an Iraq war hawk, to rally around a genuine antiwar position. And while more Americans than ever are willing to hear a straightforward antiwar message, leading organizations and figures in the antiwar struggle are retreating into talk of “exit strategies” and “responsible withdrawal.”
The debate that has erupted in Washington between Republicans and Democrats isn’t between those who support the war and those who oppose it. It is between two ruling-class parties that start from the same assumption that U.S. global and regional interests must be preserved, but bicker over the best strategies to accomplish that.
Many of the Democrats who today criticize Bush for lying about pre-war intelligence or complain about the human and monetary costs of the Iraq disaster were Bush’s enablers only a few years ago.
Democracy Now! journalist Jeremy Scahill pointed out their hypocrisy in a recent article. “Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, but he couldn’t have done it without the years of groundwork laid by Clinton and the Democrats,” Scahill wrote. “How ironic it was recently to hear Clinton call the war ‘a big mistake.’ It’s easy to resist war with a president like Bush in the White House. Where were these Democrats when it was Clinton’s bombs raining down on Iraq, when it was Clinton’s economic sanctions targeting the most vulnerable? Many of them were right behind him and his deadly policies the same way they were behind Bush when he asked their consent to use force against Iraq.”
During the Clinton administration, economic sanctions took the lives of more than 1 million Iraqis, and bombing runs by U.S. warplanes were a regular occurrence. The Clinton era paved the way for a number of policies that are now known collectively as the Bush Doctrine. For instance, “regime change” in Iraq became official U.S. policy when Clinton signed into law the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998.
Historically, Democrats have been responsible for some of the worst crimes of U.S. imperialism.
It was Democrat Harry Truman who ordered the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- not so much to defeat Japan, which was on the verge of surrender, but to send a message to the USSR of the extent of U.S. power at the end of the Second World War. As Truman’s secretary of state, Henry Stimson, admitted, “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”
In the 1960s, it was Democrat Lyndon Johnson who finished the job started by his predecessor John F. Kennedy, and escalated the war in Vietnam. This followed Johnson’s successful 1964 presidential campaign, in which he was seen as the “peace candidate,” against his war-mad Republican opponent Barry Goldwater. Opponents of the Vietnam War accepted that Johnson would be the “lesser evil” and voted for him. Johnson repaid them by plunging the country deeper into a nightmarish war.
The Democrats may have small differences about how to “get the job done”--troop redeployment, greater collaboration with international bodies like the United Nations, using the cover of “humanitarianism”--but their “job” is the same as the Republicans.
If the Iraq War hadn’t become such a disaster and Iraqi resistance to occupation hadn’t been so fierce, the current congressional “debate,” such as it is, probably wouldn’t be happening. Instead, politicians from both parties would be trying to associate themselves with Bush and his Iraqi adventure.
But with more and more sections of the ruling class becoming concerned that the Iraq debacle is undermining the U.S.’s ability to pursue its global agenda, the Democrats are offering themselves as new managers who can put the U.S. imperial train back on the tracks.
The irony in all of this is the fact that the Pentagon and the Bush administration are preparing to “draw down” U.S. forces in Iraq next year. Bush will present this as having been his plan all along, but this won’t mean an end to the occupation any more than Democratic-sponsored exit strategies.
Relying on the Democratic Party to set the terms of the debate is a losing proposition for antiwar activists. It only makes the antiwar movement weaker to applaud the compromised half-measures put forward by the Democrats.
If the antiwar movement is going to stop the occupation, we have to organize an opposition independent of the Democrats and their cynical maneuvers. We have to continue to press for nothing less than an immediate and complete withdrawal of all U.S. personnel from Iraq and the region.
Lance Selfa and Elizabeth Schulte write for the Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website: www.socialistworker.org. Thanks to Alan Maass.
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