This week marks the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. To commemorate the occasion, the online advocacy group MoveOn.org is organizing more than 1,000 candlelight vigils throughout the United States. "We’ll solemnly honor the sacrifice made by more than 3,000 servicemen and women, and we'll contemplate the path ahead of us," states MoveOn's website. "We cannot send tens of thousands of exhausted, under-equipped, and unprepared troops into the middle of an Iraqi civil war. . . . Honor the sacrifice. Stop the escalation. Bring the troops home."
MoveOn's 3.2 million members strongly oppose any continuation of the war, and the language above seems to suggest that MoveOn's leadership agrees. But MoveOn's organizing around Iraq has become notably ambiguous lately. Although it talks in general terms about bringing the troops home, specific timetables or meaningful steps in that direction are nowhere discussed. Most strikingly, MoveOn has adamantly refused to support the Iraq amendment from Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters, which calls for "a fully funded, and systematic, withdrawal of U.S. soldiers and military contractors from Iraq" by the end of 2007.
Politically, the Lee amendment cannot pass; fewer than 100 members of Congress are expected to vote for it. However, the same thing is true of weaker legislation that MoveOn is currently supporting, in league with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, John Murtha and David Obey. The Pelosi bill merely establishes "benchmarks" of progress in Iraq, so that all Bush has to do is certify that he is making progress on those goals to keep funding flowing for the war. Instead of withdrawing troops this year, the Pelosi bill talks about beginning to withdraw them in March 2008. Even so, it faces united Republican opposition and is not expected to pass the U.S. Senate, even if it is approved by the House of Representatives. And even if it does pass, Bush has already said he will veto it. So why was the Democratic Party leadership so determined to prevent the Lee amendment from even coming to the floor -- and why has MoveOn.org avoided even mentioning the Lee proposal to its members?
On Sunday, MoveOn distributed a survey asking its members to vote on three options: support the Pelosi bill; oppose it; or "not sure." MoveOn's Eli Pariser described the survey in an email as an opportunity for members to participate in "a big decision coming up this week. . . . MoveOn is a member-directed organization -- we believe that all of us, together, are smarter than any one of us." In fact, however, MoveOn's survey was designed to conceal from its members the option of supporting the stronger anti-war amendment put forth by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
There are, of course, other ways of running a survey. When TrueMajority.org recently surveyed its members about the best way forward, they offered three choices: the Lee plan, the Pelosi plan, and the option of demanding that Congress reject any further war funding, period. Only 24 percent of TrueMajority's members supported the Pelosi plan -- which appears to be the reason why MoveOn's survey gave their members no choice but the Pelosi plan.
Even MoveOn's rules for the war's fourth-anniversary candlelight vigils expressly exclude anything specifically aimed at ending it. "There are many ways to commemorate the war anniversary -- but MoveOn and other coalition members are coming together around solemn candlelight vigils," explains their website. "Events other than vigils that honor the sacrifice of our servicemen and women and their families will not be publicly posted here."
MoveOn was not always this reluctant to demand a specific and speedy timetable for ending the war. Just last year, in fact, its organizing slogan was "Out in '06." It circulated that slogan at a time when the U.S. political environment offered less realistic opportunity to end the war than it does now. Last year, the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress along with the White House, and when Murtha called for troop withdrawal, Republicans mocked the proposal as "cutting and running." Now Democrats have retaken Congress in a watershed election in which concern about the war was the top issue on the minds of voters. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup survey, 58 percent of Americans now want U.S. troops out of Iraq within a year.
If MoveOn were serious about ending the war, now would be an opportune moment to mobilize its millions of members and make it finally happen. Instead, its current strategy is dead weight, aimed more at fooling its members into thinking they are pushing forward when in fact they are merely lighting candles. So why has MoveOn begun to blow hot and cold at the very moment when the political winds are seemingly blowing in favor of a speedy U.S. withdrawal?
The answer boils down to some breathtakingly cynical political calculations by the leadership of the Democratic Party, with which MoveOn has aligned itself.
By now even the politicians in Washington, and certainly their advisors, understand that Iraq is a lost cause. Even the Bush administration understands it. Its much-touted current "surge" is a delaying tactic, not a serious attempt to bring order to the chaos that now exists in Iraq. "Even if we had a million men to go in, it's too late now," says retired four-star Gen. Tony McPeak, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. "Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again." It's not a question, therefore, of whether the U.S. leaves Iraq. It's a question of when.
Bush and his advisors are continuing the war in Iraq because politically, they have no other choice. To admit defeat now would win Bush no support at all from Americans who oppose the war, and it would erase his remaining credibility in the eyes of the 35% of Americans who continue to support him.
The Democrats, however, do have a choice, and the choice that they are making is to offer symbolic statements of opposition, while in practice allowing the war to continue, and funding it. This choice is based on their realization that the war has become a political liability for Republicans. If the war ends this year, the debate during the 2008 congressional and presidential elections will turn to "who lost Iraq." If the war continues into next year, however, Democrats will benefit as the de facto "anti-war party," no matter how feckless their opposition in the meantime.
Part of this calculation is based on a common expectation, expressed by many analysts, that a U.S. withdrawal will be followed by an explosion of Iraqi-on-Iraqi bloodletting that is even worse than the current violence. "Even in the best-case scenario," says Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, "the disaster we're seeing now is nothing compared to the disaster that we'll see after we leave. The real issue here is American interest: The longer we stay, the more people we get killed. I don't think the longer we stay, the better we make Iraq. Probably the reverse."
In the short run, a U.S. withdrawal followed by the expected Iraqi national implosion will be spinnable by conservative pundits as proof that the war should have continued, and this is what Democratic politicians fear. Instead of campaigning as the party that will end the war, they are afraid that they may be labeled responsible for allowing a bloodbath to happen. But the bloodbath is happening anyway, and the longer U.S. troops stay, the worse the ultimate reckoning.
What may seem like clever politics, therefore, produces horrible policy. When politicians and advocacy groups like MoveOn play anti-war games of political theater while effectively collaborating with the war's continuation, they merely add one more deception to the layers of lies in which this war has been wrapped. Like Bush and his supporters, they are sacrificing human lives simply for the sake of perpetuating an illusion.
As several anti-war veterans' and soldiers' families organizations noted earlier this month in an open letter, "There is a tragic parallel here with the Vietnam War. The last 28,000 troops who died in that war were abandoned to political game-playing long after Congress and the President knew that it was time to bring the troops home. This was a tragedy that you must not allow to be repeated."
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber work for the non-profit Center for Media & Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin (www.prwatch.org). Their books include: Weapons of Mass Deception, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq, and Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America Into a One-Party State.
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