Shifting Winds on Iraq

Shifting Winds on Iraq

Peace sentiments are rising among the American public and even in the much-divided Democrats. What does this mean for electoral politics and for the course of a war that seems to have no end in sight?


Events in Iraq and Washington, DC, are changing by the day, offering the peace movement and Democrats new dilemmas–and new opportunities to take the antiwar initiative as the midterm elections approach.

It wasn’t so long ago that Washington insiders were advising peace groups to expect no moves toward withdrawal during 2006. Both political parties, the activists were told, were locked into a Beltway consensus against any gestures toward peace. The Senate was particularly frozen, with only Senator Russ Feingold offering a flexible plan for gradual withdrawal. Feingold was unable to stir any sympathy in the Democratic caucus. A seasoned expert in one senior senator’s office predicted the silence would continue. One reason was that unannounced presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, were posturing as hawks.

In the House of Representatives it appeared that the Out of Iraq Caucus was frozen at seventy members. Even after feisty ex-Marine John Murtha stepped forward with an immediate withdrawal plan in mid-November 2005, he was largely abandoned by his colleagues.

But as the quagmire deepens, peace sentiments are steadily rising. According to a June 16 CNN poll , 53 percent of Americans now favor a timeline for withdrawal of troops. A phenomenal 70 percent of Iraqis are demanding a deadline. A Zogby survey of American troops in Iraq shows the same pattern, with a majority supporting a one-year deadline and 29 percent favoring immediate withdrawal.

How did the political tide begin to change? What impact will this have on the war and the coming elections?

Peace groups began adopting a position articulated in a November 2005 Nation editorial, declaring they would refuse to support any candidate in 2006 or 2008 who did not favor a “speedy end to the war in Iraq.” Progressive Democrats in Southern California supported an insurgent challenge against Democratic hawk Jane Harman, gaining 38 percent of the primary vote for Marcy Winograd. Independent Democrat Ned Lamont went after incumbent Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. Jonathan Tasini campaigned against Hillary Clinton. Angry voters, joined by activists like Code Pink, began to boo Senator Clinton at campaign appearances, climaxing at the recent “Take Back America” liberal gathering in Washington, DC.

At the same time, the Center for American Progress, a think tank led by Clinton Democrats, put together “Strategic Redeployment 2.0,” an effective guidebook substituting the more muscular term “redeployment” for “withdrawal,” which provided significant comfort for Democrats too timid to be associated with the antiwar movement.

The booing of Hillary Clinton, which was covered by all major media outlets, was a harbinger of what lies ahead if she campaigns for President in New Hampshire or Iowa. It was becoming intensely personal, ugly and divisive.

Political and institutional leaders never publicly acknowledge the effect of booing. Neither do professional baseball players. In private, it’s another matter. While the proof is elusive, the chain of events starting with the boos on June 13 and the subsequent re-positioning of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party seem to correlate.

First, however, came the repositioning of Senator John Kerry, who introduced a bill on April 6 that issued a bold call for troop withdrawal “at the earliest practicable date.” This was interpreted widely, and correctly, as a major step in preparations for a likely 2008 presidential run. Kerry’s old running-mate, John Edwards, another potential candidate, had issued his mea culpa on Iraq in November, 2005. Feingold, the original advocate of a withdrawal timetable, now had company. It appeared that all the Democratic candidates considering presidential runs were aware of the powerful peace sentiment in party primaries. Chairman Howard Dean, the insurgent antiwar candidate of 2004, was prodding party leaders behind the scenes.

Kerry and Feingold managed to unite around a policy resolution calling for a one-year withdrawal timeline and a peace summit. The Senate icehouse melted. On June 22 twelve Democrats and one independent voted for it. In doing so, they were siding with grassroots antiwar sentiment against Republican smear attacks, centrist Democratic fear of appearing “weak” and the monolithic opposition of the mainstream media. Not a single major media institution, with the exception of USA Today, has editorially favored a withdrawal deadline, despite the views of a majority of Americans.

Caught between the Kerry-Feingold Thirteen and a hardline Republican caucus, the Democratic fence-sitters adopted a new formulation of their own: Support the beginning of a withdrawal without setting a deadline for completion. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden voted for the measure, the first time either had endorsed a unilateral withdrawal step in any form. It was an artful achievement from the viewpoint of the Senate’s culture; two Democratic factions had united in the direction of withdrawal, a sharp difference from the White House and Republicans. In addition, Biden fought to insert bipartisan budget language prohibiting permanent US bases in Iraq, which the White House had succeeded in removing. This too marked significant progress from the days when Rep. Barbara Lee, backed by the antiwar movement, first introduced the legislation in the House.

These developments leave many antiwar activists with mixed feelings, as often happens when social movements begin having political effects. There is no question that grassroots pressure and lobbying has had an impact on Iraq policy, despite the frequent assertions of politicians that they pay no attention to public pressure. However, there is a vast difference between an impact and an actual policy outcome. The impact may create a sense of buoyancy, while the ongoing killing in Iraq can trigger a morning-after despondency. The impact may even lead to troop withdrawals, but may leave American oil companies dominant.

Infighting may intensify as well, as a movement gains mainstream support. The so-called principled radicals divide from the so-called pragmatists. Fights break out over “withdraw now” versus “withdraw in six months” versus “withdraw in one year” camps, while the war itself grinds on with no end in sight. One group accuses another of “shilling for the Democratic Party.” Sectarian factions battle one another over permits, microphones, speakers and demands. A coalition of factions can become a cacophony of confusion to the public. The booing of Hillary Clinton promises to have long-term consequences in bitter splits between groups and personalities who otherwise could be allies around specific agendas. The blessed community is long dead, and petty power clashes fill the void.

Still, the Iraqi resistance to occupation will continue to drive events at home. As the White House and Congress debated the issue, the new Iraqi regime was showing signs of possible contradictions to the expressed American interest in “staying the course.” It is Iraqis, of course, who will continue suffering in massive numbers as the price of permanent occupation and the dead provide evidence of US “resolve.”

It is rarely reported in the US media, but as long ago as June 2005 some eighty-two Iraqi lawmakers signed an open letter calling for a near-term US withdrawal. After the inclusion of Sunni nationalists in the current regime, the pace of peace sentiment has been accelerating. Iraqi sources project that a majority of the present parliament will support a withdrawal deadline if the question is posed. Last week, the new Iraqi national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, published an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for significant cuts of US troops this year and virtually complete withdrawal in eighteen months, the eve of the 2008 US elections. In addition, London papers last week reported an Iraqi peace deal in the making that would include a United Nations-determined withdrawal deadline, the end of offensive urban operations, amnesty for those currently imprisoned for fighting the occupation. Immediately, the United States responded in the negative. The top Iraqi adviser promoting the plan resigned. The US embassy “sought to distance itself” from the Iraq security adviser’s troop withdrawal scenario. By the weekend, Prime Minister al-Maliki was reduced to presenting a hollow version of the “reconciliation plan” without the proposals for amnesty or new options for ex-Baath Party members.

The contradiction between the US and the Iraqi government may reflect divisions inside the American security establishment. Murtha’s 2005 call for withdrawal was based on his conversations with some US commanders close to him in the field. Several retired US generals have gone public with their criticisms of the White House. The man in the middle, General George W. Casey Jr., US commanding general in Iraq, has prepared detailed plans for US troop reductions exactly paralleling those of the Iraqi national security adviser. The most recent seemed to be timed for the forthcoming Iraqi proposal. But Casey’s plans quickly were described as hypothetical by the White House, and a new military spokesman emphasized on Sunday that military operations would continue indefinitely in western Iraq.

Despite the doubts of some high-ranking military commanders and the Iraqi government it backs, the White House appears firm in its intention to “stay the course” indefinitely, with long-term plans to station 50,000 American troops in a pacified Iraq. Clearly, the Iraqis themselves are restless with this scenario, and can be expected to keep pressing for a withdrawal deadline and political settlement.

Many American officials, past and present, are worried over the strain a prolonged occupation would have on the armed forces–especially because a draft is a political impossibility. They are intensely worried also about the increasing power of Iran to support its Shiite allies in Baghdad. The “Iran factor” as well as the insurgency account for the recent tilt of the US embassy toward empowering the Sunni minority to balance Teheran’s influence throughout the Iraqi government and security forces. Some in the security establishment, perhaps even US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilizad, himself a Sunni, may think a deal fortifying the Sunnis is better than allowing so much of Iraq to fall peacefully to Iran. The contradiction is between renegotiating empire and attempting to expand it by force.

The American peace movement will have to carefully evaluate these events, including the actual content of any peace proposals, before issuing demands any broader than “withdraw now.” The time seems at hand for Americans to at least support the Iraqis’ own peace process, especially if it includes timelines, interim cease-fires, prisoner releases, reconciliation and compensation.

But clearly antiwar forces have been a significant factor in limiting the Administration’s options as the November elections approach and with presidential politics already under way. At this point, it appears that the Kerry-Feingold Democrats are barely ahead of the Iraqi government, if at all. Hawkish Democrats and Republicans, on the other hand, might wind up staying the course, while the Iraqis themselves press for a timeline to prevent any more slaughter under occupation. If the alleged puppets become peacemakers, will the White House call them soft on terrorism?

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