As the Senate prepares to debate a resolution against the proposed “surge” in Iraq, the Democratic Party faces something of a conundrum: will it heed the calls of its base and take concrete action to end the war, or will it simply use the opportunity to position itself in opposition to Bush’s policy in the hopes of retaking the White House in 2008?
Although the Democrats can thank a growing antiwar sentiment across the country for their victory in the Nov. 7 elections, so far the party’s leadership has balked at taking bold measures to force a withdrawal from Iraq or even to prevent an escalation of the war, and there is little indication that the party leaders intend to do so.
A proposal by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., that would have required the President to seek additional congressional approval before sending 21,500 more troops into battle was quickly shot down, and instead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a non-binding resolution mildly expressing Congress’s disapproval of Bush’s plan.
Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on CNN, essentially dismissed the resolution as meaningless. “It won’t stop us,” he said, a position reiterated by George W. Bush.
Talking to reporters, the President made clear he will follow whatever course of action he chooses, regardless of whether Congress approves or not. “I’m the decision-maker,” he said, adding that he “picked the plan” that he thinks is “most likely to succeed.”
The problem is, the American people have little to no faith that his plan has any chance of succeeding.
According to a recent Newsweek poll, 68 percent of Americans oppose the "surge," and in another poll conducted just after the State of the Union Address, 64 percent said Congress is not being assertive enough in challenging the Bush administration over its conduct of the war.
While Bush says he won't govern based on polls, the issue is more complicated for Congress. The new leadership was elected by the American people largely based on the hope that the Democrats would stand up to Bush on Iraq, and many voters are counting on the Democrats to exercise their authority to bring the war to a halt.
But instead, the Democrats insist they will not cut off war funding – out of an apparent fear that the Republicans will portray the move as an anti-troop measure – and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has declared that impeachment is “off the table,” regardless of what may turn up in congressional investigations into administration wrongdoing.
But a growing number of citizens appear to recognize that impeachment is perhaps the only solution to a crisis precipitated by a President who dismisses expert advice on everything from global climate change to economic policy to conducting warfare.
While pundits have praised Bush in the past for governing based on his “gut instincts,” he has produced a dismal track record in virtually every area of policy. Given those results, faith in his instincts is now shared by only a small minority of true believers, essentially the hardcore base of the Republican Party.
The rest of the country is understandably skeptical. A majority of Americans seem to share the concern of a panel of retired generals who testified to Congress on Jan. 18 that Bush’s surge plan is “a fool’s errand.”
Retired Gen. William Odom warned that sending more troops could foment even more instability, since the biggest source of instability in Iraq is the presence of U.S. forces.
Because of this reality, experts from across the political spectrum – except for some neoconservatives – predict that the proposed "surge" will result in much chaos and death, but will probably not succeed in pacifying Baghdad, much less the rest of Iraq.
Reinforcing the skepticism of the retired generals was a massive antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., this past weekend, organized by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), an umbrella organization of some 1,500 peace groups around the country.
This was the first major peace protest since the Nov. 7 elections, and while estimates of the crowd size vary from 100,000 to 500,000, what may be more significant than the precise figure was the focus of the protest.
Unlike past protests which were geared toward making demands of the President, the Jan. 27 rally was directed more toward Congress than the White House. Signs distributed by UFPJ called on Congress to “Stand up to Bush,” and others urged the Democrats to cut the war funding with the slogan, “Not one more dollar, not one more death.”
Also notable was the participation of prominent Democrats at the rally. In contrast to past demonstrations against the war, which Democrats tended to avoid, Saturday’s speakers included a number of influential Democrats, including Jesse Jackson, Jerrold Nadler, Lynn Woolsey and John Conyers.
When Conyers – who now chairs the House Judiciary Committee which has the authority to initiate impeachment proceedings – warned Bush that Congress “can fire him,” the crowd expressed its approval with resounding chants of “Impeach Bush.”
What also distinguished Saturday’s protest from past demonstrations was the apparent willingness of many protesters to escalate their tactics and adopt a more confrontational approach to end the war. A feeder march organized by the newly reconstituted Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chose to bypass the main rally and took its demands directly to the Capitol.
Although police on motorcycles tried to stop the protesters, hundreds of them broke through police lines and charged the Capitol building chanting, “Whose Congress? Our Congress!”
The protesters made it all the way to the Capitol steps, where barricades prevented them from going any further. In an at-times tense standoff with police, protesters chanted “Let us in,” and “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
While the attempt to enter the Capitol was largely symbolic, since it was a Saturday and Congress wasn’t in session, the message was clear that a growing number of people are dissatisfied with both the Democratic leadership and the leadership of the established antiwar movement, which has been criticized for channeling popular anger over the war into docile rallies and ineffective mass marches.
Rejecting these traditional forms of protest, SDS revived an old Vietnam War slogan to “bring the war home” and declared the “only solution” to be “people’s revolution.” By scuffling with police, the protesters demonstrated their willingness to escalate the tactics of the antiwar movement.
In the coming weeks, this willingness could become more evident, with campaigns of direct action and civil disobedience planned in response to the expected request for more than $100 billion in new war funding.
Voices for Creative Nonviolence has initiated the Occupation Project: A Campaign of Sustained Nonviolent Civil Disobedience to End the Iraq War. The group is calling on citizens across the country to occupy the offices of senators and representatives in order to pressure them to publicly declare that they will vote against any further funding for the occupation of Iraq.
Another group coordinating direct action is the Troops Out Now Coalition, which has declared Feb. 17 “No More $$$ for War Day.” The plans include demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins and “other forms of creative resistance” across the country to “force Congress to vote no to war funding.”
A month later, on March 17, the ANSWER Coalition is holding a “mass march on the Pentagon,” urging the movement to “move from protest to resistance.”
A number of other organizations have declared March 19 and 20 – the fourth anniversary of the invasion – to be “worldwide days of resistance to end the war.” The groups propose “occupations, acts of civil disobedience, and direct action … directed towards governments, military recruitment centers, corporations, and other institutions that perpetuate American empire and war.”
Judging by the actions of the protesters this weekend who chose to bypass the permitted demonstration and instead charge the Capitol, there seems to be a growing willingness to intensify the movement’s strategy to end the war.
With all the calls for civil disobedience and direct action in the coming weeks, the Democrats in Congress could begin facing increased pressure to use their power to cut funding, or even to impeach the President in an effort to bring the war to a halt.
After six years of acting as a rubber stamp for the White House, Congress is finally in the hands of the opposition party, and many Americans are growing increasingly impatient for a real change of course.
Since Bush has made clear his intent to not just stay the course in Iraq, but actually to escalate the war in defiance of the American people’s wishes, the onus is squarely on Congress to exercise its authority.
So far, despite some tough talk and a symbolic resolution against Bush’s proposed escalation, Congress does not appear willing to exercise that authority. The dilemma for the Democrats is whether they can maintain party unity if they continue to ignore the calls from their base for withholding war funding, or if necessary impeaching Bush.
Considering the participation of congressional Democrats at Saturday’s rally, it is evident that there are signs of fissures within the party between the leadership, which is advocating a cautious approach with the 2008 election in mind, and rank-and-file Democrats who want to adopt a more confrontational approach to force an end to the war.
With the antiwar movement escalating its tactics in coming months, and the grassroots pressure increasing for withdrawal from Iraq, there is a good chance these fissures will grow deeper.