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What happened to standing up against the war?

June 1, 2007 | Page 2

WHY DID the Democrats cave? That was the question millions of people were asking after the Democratic majority in Congress blinked in its showdown with George Bush over legislation to fund the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Democratic leaders agreed to strip out a timeline for troop withdrawals from the nearly $120 billion war spending bill. After that, the measure passed easily, with support from nearly all Republicans, a majority of Senate Democrats and more than a third of House Democrats.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were among the top Democrats to vote against the legislation--though by that point, the bill's passage was certain, and Pelosi had acknowledged that the deal she helped negotiate was a concession to Bush's demand for a bill without even a highly qualified withdrawal timetable.

The angry outcry from opponents of the war--including many liberal voices that have not only accepted but justified the Democrats' concessions in the past--was immediate.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann denounced the deal as a "shameful, bipartisan betrayal." Eli Pariser of said his group would work against Democrats "who ran on ending the war, but vote for more chaos and more troops."

The Democrats' defense--that they would be blamed for putting U.S. soldiers in harm's way if the impasse continued--rings hollow.

After all, Bush's support has dropped, even among Republicans, specifically because people blame him for the Iraq disaster. According to the latest major poll, this one from the New York Times and CBS News, six in 10 people think the U.S. never should have gone to war; three-quarters believe the Bush "surge" of combat troops has had no effect or made things worse; and almost two-thirds want a definite withdrawal date set for next year.

So why couldn't the Democrats vote to cut off funding for the occupation--or at least keep passing legislation with a withdrawal date intact, to put the pressure on Bush?

Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan spoke for many in her open letter to Democrats in Congress: "There is absolutely no sane or defensible reason for you to hand Bloody King George more money to condemn more of our brave, tired and damaged soldiers and the people of Iraq to more death and carnage. You think giving him more money is politically expedient, but it is a moral abomination, and every second the occupation of Iraq endures, you all have more blood on your hands.

A few days later, an emotional Sheehan announced that she was retreating from political activity. In explaining he decision, she especially singled out the abuse from liberals who praised her as long as "I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party...However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode."

Sheehan has been a lightning rod for slander precisely because she was so effective in exposing Bush's war--and in challenging the Democrats who claimed to sympathize with the antiwar movement. "[I]t can be reasonably argued that it was Cindy Sheehan who made it okay for Middle America to protest, and for that she must be thanked," Ron Jacobs wrote in a commentary on CounterPunch.

Hopefully, Sheehan's withdrawal from activity isn't permanent, because the struggle she has been a part of remains urgent--and the potential for activism is growing. "Now that she is taking a breather from the madness," Jacobs concludes, "it is up to us to continue expanding those protests. It is certainly not time to give up.

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WHEN THE Democrats initially challenged Bush over the war spending bill, it was welcomed by many people as a sign that the antiwar majority in public opinion would finally have a voice in Washington politics. But a closer look at the history of the Democratic Party shows why last week's retreat from a showdown is not so surprising.

The Democrats are the second party of the Washington political system, and while they claim to speak for the broad antiwar sentiment among ordinary people, in reality, party leaders listen "to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove--namely, wealthy individuals and institutions," as Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel and war critic, whose son was killed in Iraq in May, wrote in the Washington Post.

"When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought."

Within the U.S. ruling class, opposition to Bush's disastrous handling of the Iraq war has spread significantly. But the real concern in these circles is for the future of U.S. military and political power, which would be harmed by a crisis in funding the war machine.

In surrendering to Bush on the war spending bill, the Democrats showed that they were a responsible ruling-class party--prepared to put the future interests of U.S. imperialism ahead of antiwar sentiment among the people whose votes last November put them back in control of Congress.

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SO HAS George Bush regained the initiative? Has he weathered a storm of disapproval and is ready to rebound?

The answer is no.

Even among Republican lawmakers who stuck with the White House on the war spending bill--providing the assurance that a Bush veto couldn't be overridden--no one echoes the administration's talk about remaining in Iraq until "the mission is accomplished."

In the wake of the vote, for example, two hawkish Republican senators, Jeff Sessions and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, basically announced that they want a troop withdrawal to begin after Gen. David Petraeus presents a progress report to Congress in September.

But the administration has other plans. Bush's "surge" of more than 20,000 troops to Iraq won't be complete for several more months, and according to media reports, the administration is quietly preparing a second "surge." According to an analysis of deployment orders by Hearst Newspapers, by the end of the year, the number of combat soldiers in Iraq could have nearly doubled since January.

So three months after the supposedly decisive moment in September, the overall number of U.S. forces in Iraq could reach 200,000--higher than any point since the aftermath of the invasion.

The Bush administration is determined to continue the war, no matter the opposition. This can only lead to more crises--and even greater bitterness and anger about the occupation.

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BUT THIS is only part of the picture. For antiwar activists, it is equally important to recognize how much the ground has shifted in mainstream politics--in spite of Bush's victory on war spending.

The Democrats' surrender was greeted by an outpouring of anger, not least from liberal individuals and organizations that were quickest to defend the Democrats in the past. There is a rebellion brewing in the base of the Democratic Party--even if its political outline and future direction is still vague.

Such an outcry would have been unheard of even one year ago. Then, the reasoning of liberal organizations would have been that the antiwar movement needed to wait until a Democrat was in the White House--and that would require tailoring the movement's message so that its Democratic "allies" weren't exposed to attack by Republicans.

A year ago, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted for Bush's war spending without conditions, along with all but one member of the U.S. Senate--and large parts of the antiwar movement were silent about it.

This isn't the result of a change of heart by Democrats--or the scales suddenly falling from the eyes of, for that matter. It's the consequence of mounting pressure from outside Washington--the landslide vote against Bush's Republicans last November, the steady growth in antiwar sentiment, the beginnings of a new confidence to take action against the war.

For some activists, the war spending vote will be a turning point. Many others will be angered by the Democrats' surrender, but will continue to see them as the main alternative to Bush's war policies when it comes to the 2008 election.

But what is most important to recognize is that the leftward shift in U.S. politics--highlighted once again by the outburst of anger after the Democrats� surrender--has created the potential for much larger numbers of people to take an active stand against the war.

Antiwar protest and organization has lagged behind the overwhelming sentiment against the war--in part, because many opponents put their hopes in the Democrats as the only "realistic" way of stopping Bush.

Now, the tide has turned decisively against the Bush administration, and the Democrats are showing in action that they won't lead the way.

The key to ending the occupation of Iraq and building an opposition to U.S. empire lies outside Washington--in building up antiwar groups, organizing protests and turning the vast sentiment against the war into active opposition.

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