Wednesday, February 28
On February 13 the Senate voted to condemn the president’s plan to escalate the war in Iraq and asked Bush to “obtain explicit approval from Congress if he wants to send more American troops to Iraq.”
Confused? Think Sacramento, not Washington: In an increasingly common practice, the Golden State decided to take foreign policy into its own hands instead of simply watching the U.S. Congress debate about how to debate. The California State Senate, lead by Senator Carole Midgen (D-San Francisco), rebuked the president’s Iraq policy with a non-binding resolution the likes of which Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) can only dream about.
California joined Vermont and Iowa in passing resolutions voicing disapproval of Bush’s troop surge, while Maryland, Maine, Connecticut, and Minnesota have all drafted official letters to the president for the same purpose. And more legislatures are poised to express their disapproval, with resolutions or letters pending in another 21 states, ranging from Massachusetts to Montana.
But as The Los Angeles Times points out, even if a more prominent resolution passed in Congress, it “would have no more force of law than the one approved [earlier this month] commending the Miss America Organization for its commitment to ‘the character of women in the United States.'” What hope, then, can state governments have in their ability to effect U.S. foreign policy?
The Progressive States Network, which is leading the charge to pass anti-surge resolutions at the state level, argues that states do have a considerable voice in the foreign policy process. “Historically, there have been a number of precedents for states taking stances on foreign policy issues that affect them; you can go back to Vietnam, to Apartheid, to free trade agreements.” Joel Barkin, Executive Director of the Progressive States Network told Campus Progress. “Can state legislatures have a binding affect on foreign policy? No. But they can send a clear message and put political pressure on those who represent them in Congress.”
Indeed, political pressure from states has often been essential to forcing politicians in Washington to listen to their constituents back home. “When seven states passed an increase in the minimum wage, we got 380 votes to increase it [in the House] with 80 Republicans supporting it as well,” said Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Ma.), a supporter of Progressive States Network’s efforts in a teleconference with resolution supporters. “They did it because they knew what was happening at the state level.”
Outside of the pressure exerted on Congress, these resolutions can also have far-reaching political consequences. Much like the anti-tax pledges interest groups like Americans for Tax Reform have convinced politicians at the state level to sign, anti-surge resolutions will give voters important information on what the future class of politicians thinks about this unpopular war. “One of the things that the right-wing understands is how to use state legislatures to create wedge issues against the left,” Barkin said. “Getting politicians on record in favor or in opposition to the war will be very important politically in the future.”
A debate on foreign policy, though, can also be a chance to shamelessly grandstand, and some legislators have taken every opportunity to accuse opponents of escalation of hating the United States: California State Senator Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) claims that the anti-surge resolution passed in the California State Senate “emboldens our enemies.”
“This resolution simply tells al-Qaida and other state sponsors of terrorism, ‘we’ve got the Americans on the run,'” Hollingsworth said. “They are crumbling in state legislatures all over the country.”
This argument is somewhat dubious, however, when polls show that more than 60 percent of the U.S. public is in favor of congressional action against Bush’s troop surge. And the underlying claim–that al-Qaida operatives are keeping tabs on state legislature resolutions–is even more questionable.
But the allegations of anti-Americanism don’t hold up well when one realizes that most of the resolutions are explicit in stating that their purpose is to help Americans and Iraqis by bringing an end to a pointless, bloody conflict. The resolution that passed in the Iowa Senate, for example, states that “an open-ended commitment of United States forces in Iraq is unsustainable and a deterrent to the Iraqis making the political compromises…that are needed for violence to end and for stability and security to be achieved.”
Another, less politically-motivated criticism cites the fact that the language of the majority of these anti-surge resolutions is based on a national model written by the Progressive States Network in order to emphasize that the nation is united against the surge. Since these resolutions are written for Kansans as well as New Yorkers, though, they may not accurately reflect the unique constituencies of the different state legislatures. The San Jose Mercury News, for instance, called the resolution passed by the California Senate a “yawn,” arguing that the progressive legislature could have passed a much harsher condemnation of the Bush administration if it had strayed from the Progressive State Network’s language.
Tracy Fairchild, communications director for Migden, the state senator from San Francisco, argues that such criticism misses the point. “There’s little value at throwing stones at the language,” Fairchild said. “The goal is getting the attention of our congressional delegation and the nation, and I think we did that.”
The ultimate goal of any anti-surge state resolution is to force Congress to stop the political bickering and listen to their constituents on Iraq. But regardless of their immediate effect on the national level, these resolutions prove there are still legislatures in this country where the will of the majority is expressed.