Has the end of America's war on Iraq been brought closer by the recent vote in the House of Representatives? On March 23, the full House voted 218 to 212 to set a timeline on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, with Sept. 1, 2008, as the putative date after which war funding might be restricted to withdrawal purposes only. It's not exactly a stringent deadline. It only requires Bush to seek Congressional approval before extending the occupation and spending new funds to do so.
On Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi's website we find her portrait of what U.S. troops will be doing in Iraq following this withdrawal or "redeployment," should it occur late next year on the bill's schedule: "U.S. troops remaining in Iraq may only be used for diplomatic protection, counterterrorism operations and training of Iraqi Security Forces." But does this not bear an eerie resemblance to Bush's presurge war plan? Will the troops being redeployed out of Iraq even come home? No, says Pelosi, as does Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. These troops will go to Afghanistan to battle al Qaeda.
So the bill essentially adopts and enforces Bush's war plan and attendant "benchmarks" as spelled out in his Jan. 10 speech. On March 27, the Senate voted 50-48 to start withdrawal in March 2008, said schedule being nonbinding on the president. At any rate, Bush has promised to veto all schedules for withdrawal coming out of Congress. Meanwhile the war goes on, with a supplemental, Democrat-approved $124 billion, more than Bush himself requested. As Congress considers the half trillion-dollar FY 2008 Pentagon budget, there is no sign that the Democratic leadership will permit any serious attack on further war funding.
Thus when it comes to the actual war, which has led to the bloody disintegration of Iraqi society, the deaths of up to 5,000 Iraqis a month, and the death and mutilation of U.S. soldiers every day, nothing at all has happened since the Democrats rode to victory in November courtesy of popular revulsion in America against the war. Bush's reaction to this censure at the polls was to appoint a new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, to oversee the troop surge in Baghdad and Anbar province. The Democrats voted unanimously to approve Petraeus, and now they have OK'd the money for the surge. Bush hinted that he would like to widen the war to Iran. Nancy Pelosi, chastened by catcalls at the annual AIPAC convention, swiftly abandoned all talk of compelling Bush to seek congressional authorization to make war on Iran.
Although nothing of any significance actually happened on March 23, to read liberal commentators one would think we'd witnessed some profound upheaval, courtesy of Nancy Pelosi's skillful uniting of the various Democratic factions. What she accomplished in practice was the neutering of the antiwar faction. In the end, only eight Democrats (plus two Republicans) voted against the Supplemental Appropriation out of opposition to the war. The balance of 202 no votes came from Republicans who opposed Pelosi's bill as anti-Bush and antiwar. So, in Congress, 420 representatives officially have no problem with the war in Iraq continuing until the eve of the next election. Ten are foursquare against it, which is more or less where Congress has always been, in terms of committed naysayers.
Antiwar forces in Congress are now weaker. Take Sam Farr of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Peter DeFazio of Eugene, Ore., both congressmen with large progressive constituencies. In the last Republican-controlled Congress they were stout opponents of the war, voting against authorization to invade and money for the war thereafter. No longer. Pelosi handed Farr bailout money for his district's spinach growers, and DeFazio got funding for schools and libraries. Who knows? Perhaps a few dollars of the latter will go to wheelchair access for the paraplegics who will come home from Iraq over the next 16 months, maimed in the war for which DeFazio just voted more money.
Seeking to explain his yes vote for Pelosi's war-funding bill, Farr issued a press release saying, "This bill brings our troops home." But he also told the San Francisco Chronicle, "They want to go gung-ho. They want to escalate in Iraq. So what would our 'no' votes mean?"
Mr. Farr, they would have meant more votes against the war, and had there been four more holdouts against Pelosi's palm-greasing, these no votes would have monkey-wrenched her bill, thus demonstrating that it is impossible to get a majority in the House of Representatives to endorse a piece of fakery designed to deceive the very people who put the Democrats back in power.
The real antiwar movement proved itself incapable of pressuring House Democrats to hold out. The Jan. 27 demonstration organized by United for Peace and Justice did involve active lobbying of Democrats to hold their feet to the fire, but the demo itself was really a Bush-bashing session, with scant reminders that Bush's war has been and continues to be a bipartisan project.
Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn, said after the March 23 vote, "Bush is our worst enemy and our best ally." In other words, when Bush savaged Pelosi's bill with accusations that it gives aid and comfort to the enemy, he cemented Democratic support for it. The focus stays always on Bush, over whom MoveOn will never have influence, as opposed to Democrats, whom MoveOn could have pressured with its three-million-strong e-mail list. But rather than rousing its members to accuse Pelosi of enabling the war, MoveOn carefully limited the available options in polling its members. It only asked whether they were for, against or not sure about war funding as dealt with in her bill.
MoveOn could have phrased it another way: Do you support the Pelosi plan (fully describing it); do you support the Barbara Lee plan (funding exclusively for gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops); do you reject war funding altogether?
Will Congressional opposition to the war now get stronger, anchored by Pelosi's bill? Not likely. The window of opportunity for that flew open right after the election, when antiwar forces roared in outrage after being snubbed by Pelosi and Reid, who omitted the war and the Patriot Act from their must-do agenda. Instead, the Democratic leadership chose merely to appear to oppose the war while continuing to fund it. This they have now achieved, amid the satisfied cheers of the progressive sector.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.