On the late afternoon of the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a grim, surreal procession made its way up DC’s Capitol Hill. Down Independence Avenue alongside the House office buildings marched a single file of protesters, each clad in a black T-shirt, wearing a haunting white mask and holding a sign with the name of a civilian killed in Iraq. As they trudged up the Hill, a drummer rapped out a spare and mournful beat. Aside from several police escorts on bicycles, few were there to bear witness. Congress was in recess, the usual passel of commuters away or shuttered indoors, the streets empty under a misting gray sky. Like the real-life funerals for the Iraqi dead they represented, this re-creation, too, would pass with hardly a notice.
That morning in Washington, as protesters marched and danced and chanted, as progressives assembled for the Take Back America conference and as thousands of soldiers’ families mourned their dead, Vice President Cheney gave an interview to ABC’s Martha Raddatz. When she pointed out that two-thirds of Americans thought the war was not worth fighting, he answered: “So?”
“So?” Raddatz replied. “You don’t care what the American people think?”
“No,” said Cheney.
There you have it. To the millions who marched before the war began, to the hundreds of thousands who have protested since, to the tens of millions who voted for candidates in 2006 who pledged to end it, the Bush Administration says, more or less, Go fuck yourself.
We are now faced with two problems. One is a war that grinds on, subject only to its internal logic, each day further embedding an imperial occupation. The other is arguably even more profound, a terrifying breakdown in the basic mechanisms of democracy whereby the will of the majority is transferred into policy. We have two ostensible democracies (the United States and Iraq), each with a polity that wants an end to the war (the most recent polling from Iraq shows that 70 percent of Iraqis favor US withdrawal), yet the war does not end.
In the face of this official indifference to public opinion, it is tempting to succumb to despair. The antiwar strategy, after all, has not been static. In the run-up to the war, organizers managed to pull together the largest simultaneous worldwide demonstrations in history. That didn’t work. Then the antiwar movement channeled much of its energy into electoral politics, helping to elect Democratic majorities in both houses. That hasn’t worked either. So we find ourselves in the situation of Beckett’s protagonist in Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Although the electoral strategy has not yet borne fruit, it is still the most viable option, barring a draft or a radical turn in public opinion that would once again bring people en masse into the streets. (There are, of course, parallel strategies to be pursued. Passing a ban on mercenaries in Iraq would make the occupation untenable.) The question, then, becomes how to create the electoral conditions that maximize the power and representation of the majority who want the war ended. The antiwar caucus doesn’t have enough votes to override a delusional President or enough members willing to bear the political risk of cutting off funding for the war. The solution to this impasse is, in the words of Congressional candidate Darcy Burner, to elect “more and better Democrats”–Democrats who have publicly committed to pursuing a legislative strategy to end the war.
So at Take Back America, Burner–a former Microsoft manager from the Seattle suburbs who narrowly missed unseating a GOP incumbent in 2006–with nine other Democratic Congressional challengers released A Responsible Plan to End the War. Developed in collaboration with retired military officers and national security professionals, the plan attracted the support of fifteen additional Democratic Senate and House challengers in the first week after it was unveiled (see ResponsiblePlan.com). Unlike the withdrawal plans offered by both Democratic presidential candidates, the Responsible Plan opposes any residual forces as well as permanent military bases. It flatly states, “We must stop counter-productive military operations by U.S. occupation forces, and end our military presence in Iraq.” It looks toward restoring “Constitutional checks and balances and fix[ing] the ways in which our governmental, military, and civil institutions have failed us.” It also addresses the need to take responsibility for a humanitarian crisis in which thousands of Iraqis who worked with US forces are in danger and millions are displaced across the region.
As an organizer working on the Responsible Plan stressed to me, it is an explicitly legislative road map, to be pursued by Congress with or without a President committed to withdrawal. Among other actions the plan calls for war funding to be brought into the normal budgetary process, as opposed to the ersatz emergency supplementals, which detach the cost of the war from the rest of the nation’s discretionary spending. The plan also highlights more than a dozen bills that have already been introduced, like HR 2247, the Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act of 2007, which the signatories would support if elected.
Meanwhile, in Iraq on March 23, the 4,000th US service member was killed (twenty-five died in just two weeks), at least fifty-eight Iraqi civilians died in attacks, the Green Zone was shelled, violence flared in Basra and Muqtada al-Sadr seemed to be toying with the idea of revoking his militia’s cease-fire. American generals presented a plan to maintain post-surge troop levels through 2008, and George W. Bush continued to pursue an agreement with the Iraqi government that would keep US troops there well into the future.
At the plan’s unveiling, Burner–articulate, impressive and infectiously energetic–refused to be pessimistic. Despite the White House’s indifference, despite the war’s diminished presence on the front page, the people want the war to end.
“We can do this,” she said.
Ever tried. Try again.