The Nation

The Dems' Self-Defeat on the Iraq War Vote

The congressional Democratic leaders' big problem: they can't count.

Given the choice of funding the unpopular Iraq war or being accused by George W. Bush of succumbing to a defeatism that endangers America's security, a majority of senators and representatives clearly prefers Option One. This group is composed mostly of Republicans. But a slice of Democrats are within its ranks. Such a reality couldn't be hurdled by Democratic leaders in the House and Senate during the just-ended face-off over an Iraq war funding bill. The Democrats tried at first to have it both ways and ended up with nothing--except a flood of resentment from their core supporters. Amid the debris, there's a lesson for them.

Led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrats thought they could cleverly force Bush to end (or, at least, begin ending) the war. They oppose the war, but their plan was to vote for Iraq war funds and attach a variety of conditions, including benchmarks and a withdrawal schedule, to the funding measure. Such a move would have both continued the war and established a glide path for its end (that is, the end of active US combat participation in the conflict). A few Democrats who wanted to just say no to the war bolted, but Pelosi managed to craft a Rube Goldberg measure that won the barest party-line majority possible. (There was doubt whether the legislation would do much in concrete terms, for it contained escape clauses Bush could exploit.) In the Senate, Reid, with his fellow Democrats aboard, passed a less complicated bill that called for beginning a withdrawal in several months. Next, the president vetoed the blended bill that subsequently emerged.

That was no surprise. For the Democrats, the question was, what to do next? Antiwar advocates, such as the members of MoveOn, demanded the Dems hang tough. Former Senator John Edwards, a presidential candidate, called for Pelosi and Reid to keep passing the same bill in defiance of Bush's veto, as Edwards sought to pressure two rivals, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The media portrayed the episode as a showdown between congressional Democrats and Bush. The key issue: who would blink first?

The answer came on Thursday night when the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate essentially turned tail and allowed votes on a $120 billion war funding measure containing weak benchmarks and little in the way of consequences should the Iraqi government fall short. GOPers provided most of the support for the legislation, but in the House 86 Democrats voted for it (including such leaders as Representatives Steny Hoyer, Rahm Emanuel, James Clyburn and John Murtha). In the Senate, 37 of 50 Democrats went along. Toward the end of the vote in the Senate, Obama voted nay; then Hillary Clinton followed suit.

The war continues. No checks, no balances.

Grassroots and antiwar Democrats who expected their party's win last November to lead to the war's end are enraged. As they see it--and accurately so--a Democratic-controlled Congress has failed to halt or slow Bush's war in Iraq, even though public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor establishing a withdrawal timetable. And, worse, many Democrats have now voted to give the war, with the ongoing escalation, another chance. The Democratic Party leaders stand alienated from their base--while congressional Republicans, though out of step with popular sentiment, are in sync with their core supporters.

Was such an unhappy (for the Democrats) outcome inevitable? Probably. The Democrats do not have the votes to stop the war, even in their own caucus--unless they are audaciously willing to defy majority rule (say, by preventing war funding legislation from reaching the floor). Most House Democrats do favor withdrawing from Iraq. Days ago, 169 House Democrats (and two Republicans) voted for such a measure. And 28 Democratic senators voted for a similar bill. Yet a significant minority of Democrats are aligned with almost all the Republicans in opposition to a legislatively-mandated pullback. Some of these Democrats may believe in the war; many probably fear being blamed for the ugly consequences that could ensue in Iraq following a removal of US troops. In any event, the Democrats were mathematically destined to disappoint those hoping they would suffocate Bush's war in Iraq.

The denouement, though, did not have to be so dismal for the Democrats. If the Democrats had at the start not attempted to outfox an uncompromising commander in chief, they could have reaped the rewards of moral (or political) clarity. Had Pelosi offered a bill forcing a withdrawal of US forces within a year, she would have lost the vote on that measure. But she would have been in a position to declare, "Most of the Democratic Party want to end this war, but because some of our members (and practically all of the Republicans) disagree, we cannot pass legislation to achieve this...yet." A clear picture would have been painted: the war belongs to Bush and the Republicans.

After that, Pelosi could have permitted the Republicans to bring forward an appropriations bill for the war. The Democrats could have offered various benchmarks, conditions, timetables, and deadlines via amendments. Most would have failed, a few (but no withdrawal deadlines) might have passed. Again, there would be clarity. The narrative would have been that the Democrats first tried to stop the war and then attempted to place limits on the war. If they failed, they failed. Sure, there still would have been anger from the base at those Democrats who bucked the Democratic gameplan. But the party's grassroots and netroots--and the rest of the public--would have seen that the Democratic leadership had endeavored to change course in Iraq.

The House Democratic leaders can now contend that they did try to force a change on Bush and point to the 140 Dems who voted against the war funding bill. But this claim cannot overcome the appearance of Democratic strategizing gone awry. The Democrats created too much confusing context for their failure. Bush had a simple position: I want my war the way I want it, and if the Democrats don't give it to me, they'll be harming the troops and bear responsibility for whatever ill befalls America from the evildoers. The Democrats presented a series of hard-to-follow and hard-to-explain gyrations. They were rolled.

At the end of the day, Bush and the GOP--who are on the wrong side of public opinion on the war--came out political winners. And the Democrats looked divided, confused, and weak. Which brings me back to the first point. In politics, you can sometimes turn a liability (not enough votes) into an asset, if you play for a clean loss that sends the right message. That's not what happened on this round.

The match is not over. The war slogs on, and Congress will face another vote on war funds in the fall. Lawmakers of both parties are already saying that September will be the make-or-break month, meaning that if there are no obvious signs of progress by summer's end, even Republicans may start to proclaim enough's enough. "This is not the end of the debate," Pelosi asserted before voting against the war funding measure. She's right about that.

Pelosi and Reid will get another shot at Bush's war soon. Democrats should wonder what their leaders learned from this defeat.


DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

EC for Soldiers Too

Did you know that women in the US armed forces are currently denied access to legal reproductive options?

About 350,000 women currently serve in the military, making up about 15 percent of all active-duty personnel. But federal law does little to protect their reproductive rights. Not only are servicewomen banned from accessing abortion care at all military medical facilities, many can't even obtain emergency contraception at their base pharmacy and thus have no effective access to Plan B contraceptives.

Timely access to emergency contraception is important for military women, especially since nearly 3,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported in the military last year-- an approximate 24 percent increase from 2005. Congress has an opportunity to improve health care for women in the military with a bill sponsored by lawmakers in both parties supporting the addition of Plan B to the list of medications that must be stocked at every military health-care facility.

A vote is expected soon and the count is going to be very close. This is an issue that popular opinion really could influence. And it makes eminent sense for Congress to make every effort to reduce unintended pregnancies in the armed forces. So click here to join NARAL Pro-Choice America's campaign to convince Congress to vote in favor of the Compassionate Care for Servicewoman Act.

Going Slow

Enough with talking about "going slow"--this weekend I'm walking the walk...If that means a taking three teenage girls--it's my daughter's 16th birthday--on a long weekend break! I'll back on duty first thing Tuesday morning. In the meantime, check out Dara Colwell's Alternet piece explaining why working less is better for the globe.

John Boehner's Crying Game

House Minority Leader John Boehner wept Thursday night, as he delivered the final Republican appeal on behalf of funding President Bush's perpetual war in Iraq.

This is obviously a serious matter for the tear-inclined Ohio congressman, who last lost his composure during a February soliloquy on the need for "solemn debate" in the House.

Unfortunately for Boehner, he is seriously misinformed about the issue that is bringing him to tears.

Perhaps we can help Boehner compose himself.

The minority leader made clear that he believes it will be necessary to sacrifice more U.S. lives in Iraq as a response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Speaking of the 19 religious zealots from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon who have been identified as the perpetrators of those attacks, the ranking Republican in the House was shaking with anger at Democrats who had delayed the dispatch of the latest billions to fund the president's Iraq adventure.

"After 3,000 of our fellow citizens died at the hands of these terrorists, when are we going to stand up and take them on? When are we going to defeat 'em?" demanded Boehner. "Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, if we don't do it now, and if we don't have the courage to defeat this enemy, we will long, long regret it. So thank you for the commitment to get the job done today."

It appears that Boehner is suffering from some confusion about the reason why President Bush dispatched U.S. troops to Iraq.

In a moment of such confusion, perhaps it is best to turn to the commander in chief for clarification.

In August, 2006, when President Bush was explaining how the 9/11 attacks inspired his "freedom agenda," Cox News reporter Ken Herman of Cox News, interrupted to ask what Iraq had to do with 9/11. And the president set things straight once and for all.

"The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East," said Bush.

"What did Iraq have to do with it?" asked Herman.

"What did Iraq have to do with what?" responded a confused Bush.

"The attack on the World Trade Center," explained Herman.

"Nothing," admitted Bush, who went on to say that "nobody has suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack."

For emphasis, Bush repeated, "Nobody's ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq."

Hopefully, this will come as some comfort to Congressman Boehner. Debates about Iraq funding have nothing to do with September 11 or fighting terrorism. They are about whether young American men and women will continue to die in another country's civil war, and that does not seem to bother Boehner or the Congress.

So there's no need for tears here, except perhaps for the republic.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

"A Big Mistake" Vote Gives Bush His Iraq Money

Despite the results of last November's elections, which gave them the authority to check and balance George Bush, and despite polls that show roughly two-thirds of Americans want them to do so, Democrats are not quite ready to say "no" to the president's demand for more money to wage the war that he pleases in Iraq.

On the critical Senate vote on whether to hand Bush a blank check he sought, 37 Democrats and so-called "Democrat" Joe Lieberman of Connecticut voted with the White House. They joined with 42 Republicans -- including Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who talks a good anti-war line but votes with the administration when push comes to shove -- to pass the $120 billion supplemental spending bill.

Against the 80 votes for perpetual war were 14 "no" votes. Three came from conservative Republicans -- North Carolina's Richard Burr, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn and Wyoming's Mike Enzi -- who objected to the pricey domestic initiatives and policies that were attached to the measure in an attempt to render it more palatable.

That left nine Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, objecting to giving Bush the go ahead to keep his war going through 2008, and perhaps to January 20, 2009.

The Democrats who voted "no" were: California's Barbara Boxer, New York's Hillary Clinton, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, Massachusetts' Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Illinois' Barack Obama, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse and Oregon's Ron Wyden.

Clinton, Obama and Dodd are all 2008 presidential candidates. Dodd gets the highest marks, as he was out front in his opposition to the spending bill, while Obama and Clinton took the right stand only after Dodd and another Democratic contender, John Edwards, turned up the heat on the frontrunners -- as did activist groups such as Progressive Democrats for America and MoveOn.org.

The Senate vote was the most closely watched, because of its potential impact on the Democratic presidential contest and because it provided a clearer measure of Democratic willingness to stand up to Bush.

In the House, where the spending bill was split into two parts, the calculus was more complex. But Democrats still showed their divisions when it comes to challenging Bush's warmaking.

On the question of whether to give Bush all the money and more that he sought to keep his war going, the vote was 280-142 in favor. Republicans cast the majority of "yes" votes, 194. But 86 Democrats -- including the House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and a number of key committee and sub-committee chairs -- joined the "yes" camp.

Voting "no" were 14O Democrats -- including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisconsin, the man who negotiated the bill -- and two Republicans with steady records of anti-war voting, Tennessee's John Duncan and Texan Ron Paul. Obey called the process that ended in the president getting the money he wanted with no timeline for withdrawal and inconsequential "benchmarks" a "step forwrad" to the fight to end the war.

But it didn't feel like that to Feingold, the first Democrat to call for a withdrawal timeline and an outspoken advocate for using Congress' "power of the purse" to bring the troops home. Calling Congress' compromise with the White House "a failure," Feingold said, "This is the first real turn in the wrong direction in several months. I regret it, and I think it's a big mistake."

So what are we left with? Not much to be encouraged by. Pelosi says this is not the end of the fight, that Democrats will press the president when additional Iraq spending demands come to the Congress in the summer and fall. The speaker's sincere; she does hold out hope for a turn of events that will make it possible to block Bush. And there is no reason not to wish her well. But the fact is that Democrats in the House and Senate remain divided to the point of dysfunction. And the anti-war camp is still far short of the numbers it needs to get Congress to check and balance Bush, not just in the Congress as a whole but in the Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate.

While it seemed in recent weeks that Congress might actually be prepared to stand up to the president, Feingold said Thursday "we are moving backward."

"Instead of forcing the President to safely redeploy our troops, instead of coming up with a strategy providing assistance to a post-redeployment Iraq, and instead of a renewed focus on the global fight against al-Qaeda," the frustrated senator said, "we are faced with a spending bill that kicks the can down the road and buys the Administration time."


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Ron Perelman--Duff, Barkin and Time to Find New Timelines

Ron Perelman. A fixture in New York society. Gorgeous wives. Patricia Duff. Ellen Barkin. Didn't like any of them having a timeline to do their stuff--whether active political work with Al Gore and the Democratic Party (this, with Duff) or any timeline to get back into movie projects (this, with Ellen Barkin who, Lew Wasserman, MCA head, once told me was the hottest actress he'd ever seen--this, after her scenes with Al Pacino in Sea of Love. This month she stars in the repertory cast of Ocean's Eleven or Thirteen.)

Well, true to form, Ron is holding a pricey fundraiser for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on June 4. Hoyer's the man who undermined, along with some other Dems, the attempt to pass a funding bill with a timeline for withdrawal. On June 4, head to 36 East 63rd to protest *peacefully* outside out of Perelman's townhouse....Tell Hoyer that it is time to stand with his Caucus-- and end this war and occupation.

Campus Unrest

On some West Coast college campuses this week, students and workers have been outspoken. Tuesday afternoon the Stanford students occupying their presidents office were arrested, as expected. The next day, at UC Davis, fifteen people -- food service workers, students and others -- were arrested while demanding that the university stop subcontracting the university's food services, and allow the workers to join the union. Subcontracting to notorious unionbuster Sodexho Marriott saves the university money but results in shoddy conditions for the workers. Earlier this month, 24 people were arrested in a demonstration on the same issue. It's the end of the school year, and the administrations will probably try to get away with making some nefarious decisions over the summer, while the students are gone. Let's hope this spring's organizing has laid the groundwork for a highly organized fall 2007.

Car Seat Hazards

Car seats are admittedly a parochial concern. And, although I have two small kids at home, car seats are something I haven't had to think about as much as most parents because we're lucky enough to not own a car (and to live in one of the few areas of America in which lack of car ownership isn't a crippling hindrance.)

Still, I couldn't help noticing the headline in an email I recently received from the terrific enviro mag Grist. It seems that car seats have now joined the list of potential dangers to your children. Apparently, crash tests aren't the only way to prove the safety of a car seat. A Michigan-based environmental group, The Ecology Center, released a study this week indicating that chemicals such as chlorine, bromine and lead - which have been linked to cancer, as well as liver, thyroid and developmental problems in children and lab animals - could be leaching from seats, endangering the health of young children.

The center, which tested 62 different car seats, obviously isn't advocating driving with your kids on the lap Britney Spears-style. "Car seats save lives. It's absolutely essential that parents put their children in them while driving," says the group's Jeff Gearhart, but "some car seats are safer than others when it comes to chemical composition."

The Ecology Center suggests the Graco SnugRide Emerson or EvenFlo Discovery Churchill as the two safest seats to buy. The most dangerous: The Combi Centre EX Mango and Peg Perego Primo Viaggio Toffee infant seats; Britax Marathon Platinum convertible seats; and Graco's TurboBooster Emily and TurboBooster SafeSeat booster seats.

Click here to check out a database listing the results for all car seats. And if you own one of the chairs that is a candidate for leaching, the report suggests parking out of direct sunlight, opening car windows, cleaning regularly, and limiting junior's time in the seat as ways to decrease the chances of ingesting chemical.

Taken together with the fact that the number one cause of death for infants and children in the US is automobile accidents, I suggest simply driving less.

The (Air) Power of Withdrawal

In a recent inside-the-fold round-up of the previous day's mayhem in Iraq, David S. Cloud, writing for my hometown paper, devoted 729 words to an account of American casualties from IEDs ("Six American soldiers and their interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad..."), Iraqi Army, police, insurgent, and civilian casualties, and various bombers -- all of whom were on the ground: suicide bombers, car bombers, truck bombers. Nine words in the report were devoted to the American air war: "American troops killed eight suspected insurgents on Sunday, the military said -- six in an airstrike near Garma, in Anbar Province, and two southwest of Baghdad." We have no further information on that air strike in Garma; no idea what kind of aircraft struck, or with what weaponry, or how those in the air were so certain that those dead on the ground were "suspected insurgents," or who exactly suspected them of being insurgents. The equivalent Washington Post round-up did not even mention that the operation involved an air strike.

This has been fairly typical of the last few years of minimalist to nonexistent mainstream media coverage of the air war in Iraq, based almost singularly on similarly minimalist military press handouts or statements. We do, however, know something about an air strike, also "in the Garma area," last December in which the U.S. military announced that it had "destroyed a foreign fighter safe house in a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, killing five insurgents, two women and a child." Local residents later claimed to an Iraqi journalist that the strike had actually "killed nine members of the same family -- three women, three girls and three boys -- and wounding a man." Air power, for all its "precision," remains a remarkably indiscriminate form of warfare, though headlines like this one from the BBC, are seldom seen here: "US attack ‘kills Iraqi children.'"

We also know from a recent report that the ill-covered operations of the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan have nonetheless significantly degraded American equipment, in the air as on the ground. According to the Air Combat Command's Gen. Ronald Keys, U.S. planes and helicopters are wearing down (and out) from conducting so many missions "in harsh environments." For instance, the general tell us that the A-10 -- a plane used regularly because "its cannon is particularly effective in strafing" -- is increasingly likely to have "cracked wings."

Keep in mind that, however poorly covered these last years, air power has long been the American way of war. After all, it was no mistake that the Iraq war began with a pure show of air power meant to "shock and awe" not just Iraqis but the world. And yet, in recent years in Iraq, the only "bombers" we hear about are of the suicide car or truck variety. This is strange indeed, because nothing should have stopped American journalists from visiting our air bases in the region, from spending time with pilots, or from simply looking up at the evidently crowded skies over their hotels.

The only good mainstream report on American air power in Iraq in this period has been Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece, "Up in the Air," in December 2005 -- significantly enough, by a journalist who had never set foot in Iraq. He reminded us then of something forgotten for several decades -- that President Richard Nixon's "Vietnamization" plan to withdraw all American "ground troops" (but not tens of thousands of U.S. advisors) from South Vietnam also involved a massive ratcheting upward of the American air war. Hersh reported that, in late 2005, George W. Bush's Iraqification formula ("Our strategy is straightforward: As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down…") was but a Vietnamization plan in sheep's clothing. As he wrote at the time: "A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by U.S. warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units."

In recent months, as the revived Taliban has surged in Afghanistan and U.S. as well as NATO troops have proven in short supply, this is just what has happened. Air power has increasingly been called upon; civilian casualties have been spiking; and Afghans have been growing ever more upset and oppositional. Iraq will undoubtedly be next. There is, as Nick Turse indicates below, already evidence that the use of air power is "surging" in that country.

Here, then, is a post-surge formula to keep in mind: "Withdrawal" equals an increase in air power (as long as the commitment to withdraw isn't a total one). This is no less true of the "withdrawal" plans of the major Democratic presidential candidates and the Democratic congressional mainstream as it is of any administration planning for future draw-downs. All of these plans are largely confined to withdrawing or redeploying American "combat brigades," which add up to only something like half of all American forces in Iraq. None of this will necessarily lessen the American war there. As Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Hersh, it may only "change the mix of the forces doing the fighting." A partial withdrawal is actually likely, at least for a time, to increase the destructive brutality of the war on the American side.

Since 2004, my website, Tomdispatch.com, has, from a distance, been following as carefully as possible what can be known about the American air war in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Tomdispatch regular Nick Turse has been heroically on the job of late. His latest piece (which also appears in abbreviated form in the latest issue of the Nation Magazine) is, I believe, the best assessment of the air war that can, at present, be found in our media world.