This “rant” was originally published on Nation National Affairs Correspondent Wiliam Greider’s website. Click here for more riffs and reflections from one of America’s foremost journalists and authors.
When the Senate threw a small log in front of Little Caesar’s $87 billion, it seemed of no great consequence. He will clearly get his money for Iraq, regardless. The Senate majority, including eight Republicans, merely decreed that half of the $20 billion for reconstruction funds should be sent to Iraq as a loan, not a gift, from the American taxpayers. The House voted otherwise and will probably prevail in the end.
But I read that Senate roll call as a decisive rebuke to our warrior President and one that will be understood eventually as having pivotal meaning–the beginning of the end for Bush’s misadventure. The message from the Senate is: Get out–NOW. If the White House has any sense, they will read it that way. As every authority knows, $87 billion is not the half of what will be demanded from US taxpayers if this war of occupation continues. Eight Republicans came back from recess, their ears burning with constituent anger, and voted with the Dems.
If Bush encounters this level of rebellion with this year’s appropriation for Iraq, next year’s will be a bloody revolution. Only there won’t be another appropriations bill for the war between now and next fall’s election. The White House wouldn’t dare. The Republicans in Congress would not allow a roll call, not with their own re-elections approaching.
I am interpreting these events against the quite relevant history of Vietnam. During the slow but steady disintegration of public support for that war, wise heads in Congress built a strategy of persuasion, aimed at convincing Lyndon Johnson that his cause was hopeless and that he ought to sue for peace. Resolutions were proposed, and eventually passed, that urged a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam. Mindful of LBJ’s ego, learned senators like Republican John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky tried to create circumstances that would allow the President to undertake US withdrawal without losing face.
It was this period when Senator George Aiken, Republican of Vermont, uttered his famous solution: “Declare victory and get out.” The great tragedy was that Johnson, either too willful or too worried about history’s judgment, would not yield. Instead, it destroyed his presidency.
What’s new and significantly different this time, however, is that the rebels in Congress are going after the money. During the long, bitter political struggle over Vietnam, Congress never found the nerve to challenge the appropriations for the war–lest they be accused of undermining American troops in combat. This time, they have found a way to do roughly the same thing and with righteous support from voters. Their constituents have figured out the contradiction of pumping billions into Iraq’s recovery while neglecting similar projects at home. History is moving more swiftly this time. The outcome will be messy, but it’s better than staying with Bush’s bad hand.
So, as I have written previously, the Bush White House is indeed pursing a bug-out strategy (as the warrior sector used to call withdrawal proposals in Vietnam). The special fund that’s being created to receive donations from skeptical nations in Europe and Asia does what the Bush team insisted was not permitted. It begins the step-by-step transfer of authority from Washington to international institutions. Bush will deny this is happening, even as it proceeds. At some point in the next six months, I expect him to announce, with appropriate ruffles and flourishes, that things are going great in Iraq and that it’s time to restore sovereignty to the locals. At that point, he will announce with solemn triumph that America’s job is done–a famous victory for missionary democracy–and begin the withdrawal of US troops. It may be hypocritical, fraudulent and not totally convincing, but bug-out is a better risk than imperiling Caesar’s re-election.
George Aiken was a conservative Republican of the old school–a conservator of cherished values and regular order in governing institutions, not a radical right-winger like the present crowd in the White House. In private life, Aiken was a nurseryman. He wrote a celebrated book in the 1930s, Pioneering in Wild Flowers, in which he described his self-learned methods for propagating the rare species of wild flowers hiding in his native woodlands. It’s still in print and still a charming and educational book to read.
Aiken could see the future even then. Eventually, he realized, development and aesthetic tastes would put unbearable pressure on the pink lady slipper and other natural gems. To prevent their extinction, he explained, Vermont and other forested states needed laws prohibiting their harvest in the wild (those laws are now standard). Instead, people could cultivate the plants for sale from seed or cuttings, thus multiplying the supply and protecting the species in wild places from human predators.
He was, in other words, a wise, plain-spoken environmentalist before that term came into usage. One misses his type in public life, especially in the Republican Party.