Missed Opportunity On Iraq
Art Levine is a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly and has written for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications.
If you happened to be watching C-SPAN during the sham Republican-sponsored “debate” on Iraq in the House of Representatives earlier this month, you might have glimpsed an angry, gray-bearded congressman, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, complaining about the restrictions on the debate, his hands tied with yellow rope.
Jabbing his fingers for emphasis, Abercrombie said: “Mr. Speaker, I come to the floor to indicate to one and all who cannot be here today that our legislative hands are tied. We have no opportunity, even though we pleaded with the rules committee to give us an opportunity to be able to speak on alternatives to this resolution.”
The Republicans had rigged the floor debate to ensure passage of a nonbinding resolution supporting President Bush’s policies, without any amendments or competing resolutions.
The following week, Senate Democrats were also being painted by Republicans in Rove-like language as being weak and divided on the war, even as most of them supported a resolution by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that called for withdrawal to begin later this year but without a set deadline.
But before that Senate floor debate, Democrats had squandered an opportunity to make the call for an open debate on the Iraq war part of a forceful, unifying attack on Bush’s war policies.
That failure underscored weaknesses in the strategies of antiwar Democrats and progressive organizations for ending the war—most notably in their ineffective and uncoordinated efforts to win the attention of liberal media outlets, blogs and especially the mainstream media for some of their antiwar initiatives.
Did you know that there has been a grassroots campaign to win an open, unrestricted congressional debate on the war since early this year, apparently involving thousands of members of a 40-organization coalition, Win Without War? I doubt it. That coalition includes potentially millions of active members representing such organizations as MoveOn.org, the National Council of Churches and the National Organization for Women. But with each of the major groups having its own wide-ranging agenda for change, the drive for an open Iraq debate—a possible rallying cry for progressives divided over how to exit Iraq—rarely became a top priority.
So you wouldn’t be alone in being unaware of the virtually invisible campaign to have that debate. In fact, Abercrombie didn’t even mention in his brief speech on June 15, the focus of that obscure grassroots effort: his own bipartisan “discharge” petition and resolution (H. Res. 543) that would force the House to have a genuine, open, 17-hour debate on the war that he has championed since last November. Organizing for the discharge petition that would allow the debate to take place stepped up in March, winning 124 congressional signatures as of June 8.
It would take 218 signatures to force the antiwar "Homeward Bound" resolution which directs the president to offer a plan for withdrawal, onto the floor. Advocates were able to draw backing from some conservative Democrats and five Republicans for the discharge petition by emphasizing that the resolution was meant to be a vehicle for amendments and a genuine floor debate about the war, and would not necessarily require support for a specific withdrawal plan.
To its credit, peace advocates and some congressional staffers say the grassroots campaign—even if essentially ignored by most media outlets—helped put pressure on majority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, to schedule a debate, even if it was a ruse to thwart alternatives to Bush’s policies. “It showed that they were facing the heat,” contends Tom Andrews, the national director of Win Without War. A key turning point spurring Boehner’s interest was a relatively little-noticed press conference in April led by former hawk Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and three other Republicans supporting Abercrombie’s resolution. “We owe the American people, and certainly those troops who are on the ground in Iraq, [to show] that we in Congress are not sleeping on this issue,” Jones said.
But imagine how much stronger the pressure would have been for a real debate if there had been extensive media coverage and a Democratic leadership willing to pound home the message.
But both the grassroots and congressional efforts on behalf of the Abercrombie resolution are now sputtering to an end. Paul Kawika Martin, the political director of Peace Action , perhaps the largest grassroots peace organization and a member of the Win Without War coalition, admited, “Most peace groups are going to move on to other issues.”
Andrews insists that the campaign will continue even though no further debate is likely this year. To Andrews and some other advocates of the resolution, it’s understandable that the media paid it relatively little attention over the last six months. “It’s too inside baseball,” Andrews contended, while Martin said, “It’s fairly arcane and hard to explain.”
But the Democrats and progressives groups have shown that they can make the public understand “inside baseball” issues if they’re presented forcefully enough. In early 2005, when Republicans tried to protect former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other sleazeballs by seeking to gut the House ethics committee and rules, they faced a unified, outraged response from Democrats and watchdog groups that forced the Republicans to retreat. Similarly, in ads on its website, Andrews’ own coalition offered a powerful explanation of what they were seeking to do: “End the congressional rubber stamp for the Bush war in Iraq.” That message could have been amplified and repeated by the Democratic leadership. But it wasn’t—for reasons that may have to do with a lack of a unified Democratic position on Iraq.
Unfortunately, national progressive Democratic organizations too often also didn’t match the dedication and passion of their own grassroots activists seeking an open debate. For instance, a four-person team of volunteers from D.C. for Democracy—a chapter of the progressive Democracy for America group—designed their own “Change the Course” national campaign backing the resolution, but got only perfunctory support from headquarters, which is focusing on the 2006 election. Local leader Keshini Ladduwahetty said that she was disappointed, although the organization got access to DFA’s e-mail contact list. On their own, the local volunteer group designed the first spreadsheet analyzing potential congressional supporters for the resolution—work that should have been done by national antiwar organizations.
Until about a month ago, the various groups supporting the Abercrombie resolution didn’t tightly coordinate their lobbying efforts and they never mounted an aggressive media or PR campaign, outside of some radio and print ads that ran in two states.
Even with the Republican stranglehold on power, a public increasingly eager to end the Iraq war deserves a more savvy antiwar opposition.