Who Can Stop the War?

Who Can Stop the War?

The people don’t like the war, but it will go on as long as there is money to fund it.


Aside from winning, there aren’t that many ways of ending wars. Governments pay attention when the troops mutiny, when there are riots out­side recruiting offices, when there’s revolution on the home front, when the money runs out.

In Vietnam the troops mutinied. Units shot their officers in the back or threw grenades into their tents. Navy ratings pushed aircraft off the side of aircraft carriers. In 1971 the Pentagon counted 503,926 “incidents of desertion” over the previous five years and reckoned that more than half of US ground forces openly opposed the war. At Christmastime in 1971 Vietnam Vets Against the War seized the Statue of Liberty, draping it with a banner demanding Bring Our Brothers Home.

On the home front people fought the draft or simply fled it. In 1967 Maj. Gen. William Yarborough, assistant chief of staff for Army intelligence, observed the great antiwar march from the roof of the Pentagon and concluded, “The empire is coming apart at the seams.” He reckoned there were too few reliable troops to fight the war in Vietnam and hold the line at home.

The elites, always prone to panic in such matters, thought revolution was around the corner. The left, in those days prone to optimism, thought the same thing. In the end, Congress cut off the money. Between 1970 and 1973, Congress enacted five restrictions on funding US military operations in Indochina.

You don’t need a draft to have a vibrant antiwar movement. We saw that in the 1980s, with the campaign against US intervention in Central America. These struggles failed but reignited a domestic spirit of resistance. Out of them, in part, came the Jackson campaigns of 1984 and ’88. And just as the antiwar movement helped give us Jimmy Carter in ’76, in ’92 we got Bill.

Yet aside from a heartening flare-up against the WTO in Seattle, the Clinton years pretty much snuffed out the radical spark. Swallow NAFTA, sanctions against Iraq, plus welfare reform and the Effective Death Penalty Act, and you aren’t in any mindset to seize the Statue of Liberty.

So here we are, coming up on four years of war in Iraq. There’s not going to be any significant mutiny among the troops. They are volunteers, furious though they may be at their extended tours of duty. There has been some good work against Army recruitment, but not at a level to panic anyone. The campuses are quiet. The churches? They might be protesting torture, but the vocations are dying. We need more nuns!

The respectable old antiwar “movement”–as opposed to real rabble-rousers like Cindy Sheehan, Medea Benjamin and Kathy Kelly–stirs into action once in a while for pleasant outings like last Saturday’s in Washington, DC. For sure there was no chieftain in Army intelligence standing on the roof looking at the marchers and thinking the Empire was on the verge of collapse.

The people don’t like the war, but this doesn’t mean it won’t go on so long as there’s money to fund it. This brings us to Congress. There are the powder-puff nonbinding resolutions. On January 26, even as Biden and the others were grandstanding about their rhetorical stance against the war, the Senate confirmed, 81 to 0, the nomination of General Petraeus–prime military booster of troop escalation–to command US troops in Iraq. Democrats voted for him, same as they voted to confirm Abizaid’s successor, Admiral Fallon, same as they voted unanimously for Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates.

There are various bills put forward by Senators like Ted Kennedy and Representatives like Jerry Nadler calling for timetables, ceilings on spending and the like. The question is, what actual effect could they have? My guide here is Winslow Wheeler, who spent thirty years as a Hill staffer working on defense budgets, and who now runs the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.

In September 2006 Congress passed the FY 2007 Defense Appropriations Act, containing $70 billion for war, which Bush has been spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That money will last at least until March, and after that, Defense can always shift money around in its existing budget till a new supplemental is passed. So for now Bush has the money he needs to surge. But it’s untrue that there’s nothing effective Congress can do.

On February 5, in considering the supplemental appropriation requested by the White House, Congress could decree no money for the surge and impose a ceiling on the number of US military in Iraq. The President could rotate the troops but not increase their number. To give this teeth, Congress could simultaneously decree that no money for surging could be used from previously appropriated funds, which is something the Defense Department can do unless there is an express prohibition.

So a surge no-no in the supplemental appropriation is a legislative possibility. In the House, the defense appropriations subcommittee is chaired by Jack Murtha, who wants to bring the troops home now. Murtha could put a ceiling on troop levels and other prohibitions in the bill, but then he’d have to get it through the full committee and onto the floor. A lot would depend on Nancy Pelosi, who could dispose of procedural tripwires. Then Murtha’s bill would land in the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense, chaired by Daniel Inouye, where it would be vulnerable to fiercer procedural attacks on a “point of order,” since it would be “legislating” an appropriations bill previously passed. And of course the supplemental, altered by Congress, would have to survive a Bush veto.

It’s easy for Bush to veto a one-page bill decreeing no money for any troops above, say, 140,000. On February 5, Congress also begins to consider the half-trillion-dollar FY 2008 Defense Appropriations Bill. If Congress installs curbs on the war in Iraq there, Bush can only veto the entire bill.

So Congress can deny Bush the money he wants, to escalate the war or even continue it, through either of the two legislative routes described above. I doubt the resistance in Iraq is counting on it. They no doubt think it’s up to them to get the troops out, and that’s probably a realistic assessment.

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