On April 20 Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean tried to steer his party out of a forceful position on Iraq: “Now that we’re there, we’re there and we can’t get out,” he told an audience of 1,000 in Minneapolis. Dean’s comment was startling not just because the chairman stepped so far back from the vigorous posture of his presidential campaign but because public opinion is so actively and rapidly moving away from the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy. In a recent Gallup poll, Iraq topped the issues Americans would like to discuss with the President, and three-quarters of those for whom Iraq is the top issue want to see an American withdrawal.
The public increasingly recognizes what Washington has been slow to accept: Indefinite US occupation will lead neither to peace in Iraq nor to genuine democracy. Early May saw American military dead exceed 1,600; Iraqis killed by the dozens in escalating bombings; the nascent Iraqi government still squabbling over portfolios three months after the election; the emergence of an official Iraqi death squad made up of ex-Baathists; the cost of the war move past $200 billion with passage of the $82 billion emergency war spending bill; and the Inspector General’s scorching report on $100 million in unaccounted-for reconstruction funds. The occupation of Iraq is a military, fiscal and moral crisis. Democrats who rejected Dean’s defeatism (among them Tom Hayden and Dennis Kucinich, whose open letters to Dean can be read at www.thenation.com) correctly argue that if their party tries to evade a strong and principled position on ending the occupation it will lose credibility and votes.
The Administration portrays the choice in Iraq as between occupation and insurgent atrocity. But it’s a false choice. Practical alternatives already exist. In the Iraqi election the consensus of all leading parties was that there is a need for a timetable for American withdrawal. Only a timetable accompanied by, and spurring, negotiations among all parties will give hope for an end to the instability and violence. One lesson from Vietnam, Palestine and Northern Ireland is that many insurgent nationalists can be drawn in, isolating those addicted to nihilistic sectarian violence.
An end to occupation also requires accountability, on all sides, for war crimes and corruption. There is undeniable historic justice in bringing Saddam and his associates to trial. But those trials will further disillusion Iraqis if they’re held without an effort to assign high-level US responsibility for torture in Abu Ghraib, rendition of prisoners, civilian deaths, theft of funds and other grievances. An end to occupation also means concrete plans for providing international assistance and support for Iraqi-led reconstruction, along with abandoning dreams of US-controlled oil supplies and long-term military bases. By contrast, continued occupation, with Washington controlling the government, the purse strings, oil revenues and public safety, can only erode Iraqi democratic aspirations.
The US antiwar movement–activists outside and inside electoral politics–must now seize the language of democracy that Bush has so devalued, finding ways to support the majority of Iraqis who want to regain control of their own future. As Naomi Klein said recently at a teach-in sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, “The future of the antiwar movement requires that it become a pro-democracy movement.” And with Iraqis and Americans alike growing impatient, the future vitality of the Democratic Party requires that it become a strong voice for an end to occupation.