A Devil's Bargain
With the president's signature now affixed to the bill, the clever deal is done. In exchange for another "blank check" for a year of war, the Democrats have wrested from their Republican colleagues and the White House a host of domestic benefits - tens of billions of dollars in educational funding for returning GIs, a thirteen-week extension of unemployment insurance, millions for Midwest flood relief and other laudable projects. "This shows that even in an election year, Republicans and Democrats can come together," George W. Bush boasted.
Depending on their source of news, few Americans may be aware that Congress has now allocated another $162 billion to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until next summer. In many media outlets, the only coverage pertained to the new educational benefits for soldiers. But even when the war funding received nominal attention, one would be hard-pressed to find in the mainstream media, or for that matter in the halls of Congress, any critical discussion of this political deal.
With more than 60 percent of the country opposed to the Iraq war and significant majorities saying they want the troops out within a year, this Congress has handed over to President Bush and his successor the right to persist in this failed enterprise. Or, to put the matter bluntly, Congress has just agreed to keep our soldiers in harm's way for another twelve months, killing and dying for no achievable end. Is this worthy of some attention? Perhaps even distress? Should it be a bland assumption, rather than a horrifying fact, that to get the government to provide adequate veterans' benefits, extended unemployment insurance and relief from summer floods, another year of senseless war is approved?
The reality of this dirty Washington trade is far removed from the inspirational rhetoric on the campaign trail. Whether on the stump or in formal debates, the Democrats reliably bring down the house when they denounce the Iraq war and promise to bring the troops home. Such things were also said in 2006, and two years later a Democratic-controlled Congress cannot even agree to a non-binding "goal" for troop withdrawal, let alone a binding deadline.
If challenged, members of Congress may point to the domestic benefits ("a lot of veterans are going to be happy with the United States Senate," claims Senator Jim Webb) and the need to provide support for US soldiers in the field. None of this justifies or explains the failure of Congress to insist upon a plan for taking the troops out of Iraq.
While the mass media have anesthetized the broader public to this moral collapse, there is a parallel numbness among committed antiwar people. The two are related. For years, there has been a virtual blackout of the grassroots organizing all across this country to get Congress to stop the war. Apart from the occasional story about mobilizations on the internet, one would never know about the thousands of local initiatives that have occurred - the vigils on street corners, the sit-ins at Congressional offices, the petitioners in the mall, the lobby visits, phone calls, public forums and confrontations at legislative hearings. Even the progressive media have tended to downplay these developments. Without sufficient news about a vibrant national effort, many individuals who might be inclined to participate feel discouraged and remain at home, while those who have been organizing feel less sense of accomplishment.
Also muffled are the positive results. Paradoxically, this month's vote on war funding holds significance because there were real choices. In actuality, it was not "the Democrats" who produced the recent debacle, but the Congressional leadership and some individuals from both parties. Twenty-six senators voted against war funding, as did one hundred and fifty-five members of the House. That reflected the largely unreported efforts of activists, who relentlessly pressured these legislators to take a firm stand.
As disheartening as the final result might be, it underscores the need for greater grassroots efforts, not less. All government officials, including a future president, will be affected by the unintended consequences of this administration's mistakes. An American withdrawal from Iraq is likely to mean a reduction of influence in a region of vital economic and strategic importance to the United States. Such a choice runs against the historic temptation to rely on military solutions, even when military activity has been demonstrably futile.
The only hope for a wiser policy is an aroused public, determined to cut American losses and to hold elected officials accountable for what they do. In an electoral season, we have our work cut out for us. Support for a GI bill or flood relief is no substitute for ending the war - that devil's bargain, which has so far escaped scrutiny. Herein lies the educational task, which can be accomplished. Congressional incumbents have made their record and many count on public ignorance to keep them afloat. To quote a presidential candidate, "not this year, not this time." A crucial task for the peace movement is to shatter the silence.