Point Austin: One Step Forward

To leave Iraq is a political journey

Point Austin: One Step Forward
Photo By Jana Birchum

As of Tuesday, the U.S. Congress is on record as requiring the end of the U.S. war on Iraq.

That's not the phrasing they used, of course, and the two bills passed this week and last out of the House and Senate will need to be reconciled in conference, but the imposition of a withdrawal timetable by both houses – to much surprise, especially in the Senate – means that the terms of the debate have changed, and we're no longer fighting the Bush administration on whether to end the war – just when.

To those who have opposed the war from the very beginning – when the first lies of Iraqi culpability for 9/11 were vomited into the public air, for the express purpose of promoting an illegal invasion – it may not seem like much of a victory. Because the timetable is attached to a supplemental military appropriations bill, there have been plenty of activists shouting, "Betrayal!" and charging that the Democrats – who owe their majority in large part to the voters' revulsion against this brutal and unending conflict – have "bought the war." The left blogosphere (and to a lesser extent, my e-mail) is currently rife with such recriminations, claiming that despite Democratic leadership "spin" to the contrary, this is a vote to continue the war, and the only honest vote would be to oppose any and all additional military funding.

Oddly enough, those who fully support Bush's war do not share that opinion. Bush himself promises a veto, and his congressional supporters understood the stakes. This bill "would be the bugle of retreat," grimly declared Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner. "It would be echoed and repeated from every minaret through Iraq: The coalition forces have decided to take the first step backward. We cannot send that message. Not at this time."

Well, consider the message sent – and the step backward taken. (For the record, of course, the "coalition" forces have been steadily backpedaling for some time.)

War Without End

In the end, it was virtually a party-line vote, with only 14 House Democrats (eight of those supporters of the war) opposing the bill, allowing a narrow (218-212) victory to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Pennsylvania sponsor Jack Murtha (the Senate vote was 50-48). Austin Rep. Lloyd Doggett was one of the very last of the Out of Iraq Caucus (some 70 or so members) to vote aye, and afterward he wasn't shy about expressing his doubts. "It was a close question," he told me. "I had to decide whether it would be better to be the seventh Out of Iraq member to vote no – whether there isn't more value in taking a modest step forward to end the war or whether to join the Republicans in voting for endless war, with no restrictions on the president." In this Congress, in these circumstances, the latter was the real choice – not, alas, between "war" and "peace."

Doggett said he had "anguished over this vote more than any other in my 13 years in office," adding, "I understand some people may not understand that and may not agree with it, but that's the reason you get elected, to make those kinds of decisions. ... Anybody who's not happy with it, who's a friend of mine, simply wants to achieve the same goals, but wants to achieve them faster." He said the caucus, led by California's Maxine Waters, had worked for days to make the bill stronger – indeed was responsible for imposing the timetable – but Doggett says they finally couldn't move any more votes for stronger language and had to take what they could get. "It's remarkable to get some of the people in our [Democratic] caucus – who have never voted anything against the war until the [recent] nonbinding resolution – to commit to a timeline."

In the wake of the vote, Waters and California colleagues Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, and a few others have been lavished with praise for "standing fast." Fine. But by direct reports, the actual truth is that Waters and the others voted against the bill while releasing other anti-war colleagues to vote aye, fully understanding that if the bill were finally defeated, it would undermine all their work to strengthen it. The subsequent, much more unexpected vote in the Senate, is ample testimony to the success of that effort.

End the War

Does this bill "end the war"? Of course not. It heads for a White House confrontation and likely veto from Bush and then more weeks of arm-twisting – and continuing public as well as congressional pressure. That's how all legislation – any legislation – works. Doggett noted wryly, "This is not going to be the last vote on the supplemental," and vowed to keep pushing for "shorter timetables and stronger guarantees." That's his job. The job for citizens remains rather different – to keep the pressure on to end this illegal and immoral war as soon as humanly possible.

In an impassioned denunciation of the bill (posted by The Progressive), historian Howard Zinn reminds us of the distinction between "politicians and citizens" and, in this case, between politicians and the anti-war movement. "When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators," Zinn writes, "it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them." I don't concur with all of Zinn's moral absolutism, but whatever you think of this particular compromise, it hasn't changed that inevitable dialectic.

In the immediate aftermath, perhaps the frankest statement of the current situation was that of Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican who once stalwartly supported this godforsaken war. "There will not be a military solution to Iraq," Hagel told the Senate. "Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. It doesn't belong to the United States. Iraq is not a prize to be won or lost."

Amen. end story

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Iraq war, Lloyd Doggett, U.S. Congress, Howard Zinn

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