Antiwar Voters May Get Less Than They Bargained For

Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, will not necessarily mean major changes for the war in Iraq, analysts say.

That’s primarily because it is the president, and not Congress, that supervises the armed forces and prosecutes war.

"The main control Congress has is financial," said Pratap Chatterjee, who directs the non-profit group Corpwatch. "Congress can refuse to pay for the war, which is what they did in Vietnam, but they can’t really dictate how it’s waged."

At this point, defunding the war does not seem likely. The presumed next speaker of the house, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, told reporters after the election Tuesday that she wants to "work together in a bipartisan way to send a clear message to the Iraqi government and people that they must disarm the militias, they must amend their constitution, [and] they must engage in regional diplomacy to bring real stability and reconstruction to Iraq."

Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the likely majority leader of the new Senate to be seated in January, echoed Pelosi when he told reporters he wants to hold a "bipartisan summit on Iraq" rather than bring the war to a quick end.

Even Democrats swept into Congress on a tide of antiwar sentiment talk gingerly around the idea of defunding the war.

"It’s very important to give our troops the things they need for their own security," Congressman-elect Jerry McNearny of California told IPS. "I don’t know if defunding the war is the best way to go. I want to find a way to end that war that makes everyone more secure."

Since the Sep. 11 attacks five years ago, Congress has cast a series of votes authorizing 448 billion dollars in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the House, each of those votes has been overwhelming with a majority of Democrats, including Pelosi, supporting funding for the war. Every Senate vote on funding the war has been unanimous.

Not that there haven’t been complaints. In a speech against the administration’s war appropriations last spring, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia complained that the George W. Bush administration was making deep cuts in domestic spending, roughly equivalent to the amount spent so far on the Iraq war. Those cuts, he said, included charging veterans for their medical care, underfunding the No Child Left Behind Act, and cutting dollars from the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

While casting his vote in favor of the plan, he noted: "By approving an emergency supplemental for the war," he said, "we are making a choice."

One area where Democrats may exercise their power is in oversight hearings over how U.S. tax dollars are spent in Iraq. The man who is poised to chair government oversight committees with subpoena power, Congressman Henry Waxman of California, and Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota have both indicated they plan to play hardball with the administration.

"They can say ‘we want the head of military contractors like Bechtel or Halliburton to come and testify’ and they’ll have to do it because that’s how the law works," Corpwatch’s Chatterjee said. "Answers can be demanded from people at the top and they can be forced to turn over internal documentation."

"The problem is that it’s not what people in Congress think that will stop the violence, it’s what people in Iraq think," he added. "If you want to improve things, you have to actually talk to them and find out what they want and what they need. The Democrats are looking for ideas, but they don’t have any yet."

Longtime antiwar activist and author Tom Hayden has a slightly different take. He sees the Democratic victory this November as the beginning of a long process that will eventually bring an end to the war, probably after Bush leaves office in 2008.

"It’s very helpful that Democrats have found their voice in condemning the management of the war," he told IPS. "Where they aren’t so good yet is what to do about it, and they don’t have that obligation yet because they aren’t going to take back the presidency – if they ever do – for two years."

"There will be an attempt by both parties to keep the war going and get rid of Iraq as a public issue, but that seems to me to be impossible," he said.

As a result, Hayden said activists may be best off putting the main thrust of their energies into convincing their friends and relatives not to join the U.S. military.

"Counter-recruitment at high schools, universities and community colleges is very important," he said "You have to have a well-rested military to fight a war and the anti-recruiting efforts are the most important. It’s also important to keep popular sentiment against the war so there can’t be another draft."

Resistance to the war is already building within the rank-and-file of the military. Last month, more than 100 active duty soldiers petitioned Congress for protection under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, and a variety of antiwar veterans groups have sprung up in recent months, including Iraq Veterans Against the War and Iraq Veterans for Progress.

(Inter Press Service)

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