Should Activists Look to Democrats to End the War?

On Sept. 26 the Democrat-controlled Congress passed its second blank check for war in Iraq. Three days later in a debate between leading Democratic presidential candidates, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards were each asked to commit to withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013 if elected president. All said that they could not.

Since the invasion of 2003 numerous antiwar groupings have poured their resources and energy into projects that rely on the Democratic Party to end the war. But while the Democrats have won a majority in both houses of Congress – and Bush has been demonized in the eyes of most Americans – the war has only escalated.

The coalition Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), which counts MoveOn.org and SEIU among its membership, is the clearest example of a trend that calls for unifying behind the Democratic Party and turning all fire against Republican politicians in order to pressure them into pulling support for the war.

The strategy assumes that the Democratic Party is doing its best to end the war, and that it only needs more political strength (read: “seats in Congress”) and Republican support to force a withdrawal vote.

The coalition’s campaign manager and Washington Director for MoveOn, Tom Matzzie, told The New York Times Magazine that the war will end only when a group of Republicans “walks down to the White House and says, ‘You have got to get us out of this mess.’ “

This position is more than a little curious considering how the newly acquired control over Congress gives Democrats the ability to cut funding of the war without a single Republican vote. Democratic Senators can filibuster any bill that comes through with as little as 41 votes and Pelosi can use her position as speaker of the House to prevent a war budget from even reaching the floor. Preventing further funding in May or September would have forced the Bush administration to pull all troops out with the remaining funds.

The AAEI coalition works practically hand in glove with the Democratic Party. As The New York Times observed in a May 6 article, AAEI and its related organizations are “heavily funded by foundations close to the Democratic Party and are being largely directed by Democratic Party strategists.”

The Times quoted a spokesperson for Senator Reid’s office, saying that AAEI “helps us reverberate a unified message outside the Beltway.” These groups give voice to a message we’re trying to get outside.”

Indeed, for AAEI and like-minded organizations, projecting the Democratic Party line is essential to ending the war in Iraq. They have even gone so far as to help Democrats portray votes for war as votes for troop withdrawal:

After they took Congress in 2006, Democrats proposed a bill to fully fund the war while including non-binding timelines for withdrawing some troops from Iraq later on. When the bill was vetoed, Democrats maintained that they had no choice but to pass an even laxer bill!

Rather than criticize the Democrats’ maneuver, MoveOn.org argued that voting against their war-funding bill was in fact a “vote for a war without end.”

While many became frustrated with the Democrats after this charade, AAEI/MoveOn propaganda helped shape the perception that the Democrats had in fact voted against the war.

Is “electoral pressure” effective?

Others such as Code Pink and the leadership of United for Peace and Justice have advocated approaches that combine support for some Democrats with pressure on others to end the war. This approach, too, remains dependent upon the Democrats.

Code Pink’s strategy, like AAEI’s, assumes that the war will end when politicians are cajoled through electoral pressure into legislating or ordering an end to the war. This in turn assumes that politicians derive their power from their ability to win votes from their district and that they will act when this ability is threatened.

Nancy Pelosi certainly exhibits little fear from her San Franciscan constituents. As early as November 2004, a ballot proposition calling on the federal government to “bring the troops safely home now” was passed by 63 percent of San Francisco’s voters. Yet the war has roared on for nearly three more years, and despite her powerful position Pelosi has only showed interest in cynical maneuvers.

Other referenda calling for immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq were passed – often with a two thirds majority – in counties throughout Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin in 2006. Clearly, politicians like Pelosi have more pressing concerns than whether the voters in their district would approve their actions.

Pelosi and her colleagues are tied to the ruling class. They are dependent not only upon campaign finances but on political support from their party, from corporate media outlets and their advertisers, from fanciers who shape the fate of their districts’ economy, and from countless elite institutions. They have a concrete interest in seeing the powers of U.S. imperialism expand – even when the expansion occurs under the hand of a rival party.

Capitalist politicians must keep in mind, moreover, that an effective defender of the establishment – with plentiful friends in the right places – could later find himself or herself rewarded by being appointed a key advisor to this or that office, a successful CEO, or even at the helm of the World Bank.

The Vietnam War did not end through electoral pressure – let alone through replacing pro-war politicians with antiwar ones. Before any congressional vote or executive order to withdraw troops was made in Washington the soldiers themselves developed a resistance to the war that reached such a height that by 1971 top Pentagon brass declared their own ground troops a liability in the war effort.

The growing rebellion among U.S. soldiers (which the Pentagon compared to the Russian Revolution) not only made waging the ground war impossible but threatened to cripple the military’s ability to wage future operations.

This troop rebellion did not sprout from a vacuum, but grew alongside the mass movement at home. It was the mass movement that supplied the necessary political and social base to foster widespread troop resistance. By the time the ground war began to crumble, the military was drafting legions of young men who had opposed the war before boarding the bus to basic training.

The mass movement in the U.S. not only contributed to ending the war in Vietnam, (a contribution that was only possible because of the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese themselves) but weakened the U.S. war machine to an extent that prevented it from using ground troops in any serious fashion for nearly 30 years.

This was only possible with the formation of a movement that was independent from ruling-class institutions. Officials make concessions to the extent that they fear growing independent organization arising around the demands of working people – though even then they hope to frame their concessions in a manner that will demobilize and domesticate the movement.

Kucinich: A left prop for Democrats

Many antiwar activists with some hope for Democrats hold up Dennis Kucinich as an opponent of two-faced hawks like Pelosi, and as a friend of the struggle. But rather than help build the movement, “opposition” candidates like Kucinich serve to bring credibility back to the pro-war Democratic Party and derail the development of independent antiwar politics.

Kucinich openly uses the authority he builds among opponents of the war to bring clout to the party’s chosen war candidate. After losing Democratic primaries with abysmal percentages in 2004 (he won 1% of the vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire), Kucinich proclaimed before the National Urban League convention that “with the same passion and commitment I demonstrated in my own campaign for president, I intend to reach out on behalf of the Kerry-Edwards ticket to unite our party with all those who may have felt left out.”

When asked by Ruth Conniff of The Progressive what he thought about Kerry’s consistent support for the war (and intention to send thousands more troops) Kucinich replied: “This war belongs to George Bush, and we’re not going to insist John Kerry take the burden of the war until he’s in the White House. If John Kerry desires to take a new position on Iraq when he becomes president, he’ll have the support of the grassroots.”

While Kucinich’s marginalization by every ruling-class institution – including his own party – makes his chances of winning the presidency lower than those of Ralph Nader, his presence pervades movement activities and media. He safely protects the prestige of the Democratic Party and its program among leftists without granting significant visibility to the struggle.

While winning back support for his party, Kucinich advances a discretely pro-war position. Instead of calling for a complete, immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, Kucinich wants to keep the door open for a continued occupation. Like every other war supporter, Kucinich employs fears of sectarian violence to justify maintaining a foreign presence.

He calls for the UN to continue the occupation, arguing that “any Sunni revenge impulses can be held in check by international peacekeepers.” Despite the Orwellian lingo, this might not be such an encouraging thought to Iraqis who remember the UN from its horrific assault in 1991 that crippled their infrastructure and killed more than 100,000 people; or from the its sanctions that killed half a million children.

According to Kucinich’s plan, just when could we be sure it would be safe to leave the Iraqis to themselves? What would ensure that the occupiers don’t employ the same divide-and-conquer tactics used in every other occupation?

Kucinich’s call for continuing the occupation under slightly altered auspices preserves the racist and imperialist assumption that Iraq should be ruled by anyone other than the Iraqis. There is no fundamental difference between the stated intentions of this plan and those of the Bush administration. The call by Kucinich criticizes the current strategy without opposing the war itself.

Rather than entangle ourselves in the false hopes and distortions of the upcoming 2008 elections, opponents of the war must build our own organization through independent, democratic action that gives no ground to the prejudices or interests of the war machine.