Congress Plays Politics over Iraq War

In the face of furious opposition from the White House, the U.S. Congress recently voted to end the U.S. war in Iraq. The bill required U.S. troops to begin leaving Iraq before October 1 and an end to combat operations by March 2008. The White House dubbed it “defeatist legislation” that set a “date for surrender.” President Bush vetoed the bill, and Democrats do not have the two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate to overturn the veto.

While it failed to end the Iraq war, the congressional vote was significant for other reasons. The vote on withdrawal was almost entirely along party lines and reflected the small Democratic majorities in both houses. The House of Representatives voted 218 to 208 to pass the bill (216 Democrats and 2 Republicans supported the bill, while 195 Republicans and 13 Democrats opposed it). In the Senate, 49 Democrats and 2 Republicans voted for a withdrawal date and 45 Republicans and 1 Democrat were against.

These votes are a far cry from the overwhelming support that President Bush received from Congress in going to war against Iraq. In late 2002, the House of Representatives approved an attack on Iraq by 296 to 133 and the Senate by 77 to 23. In both chambers, the Democrats were deeply divided. In the House, 81 Democrats voted for war (in support of 215 Republicans) while 126 Democrats (and 6 Republicans) voted against. The split was even clearer in the Senate, where 29 Democrats voted for war and 21 against.

The Republicans, in other words, have continued to support President Bush and the Iraq war as a cohesive party, but the Democratic Party has seen a major shift in position. This change is in part a testament to the determined efforts of the American peace movement to oppose the war and to educate public opinion. The fact that the war has been going very badly for the United States has certainly been important in making public opinion more receptive to critical voices. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) now argues that for Democrats “the solution in Iraq is a political solution,” not a military one. This solution, Hoyer explained, “has to be a politically forged solution by the Iraqis themselves.” The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says more bluntly, “this war is lost.”

In Iraq, the failure of the American occupation grows ever clearer. The UN reports that 34,452 civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded in 2006. The increase in U.S. troops, dubbed the ”surge,” and intended to overwhelm the resistance, has had little effect. According to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq report for January to March 2007, “While government officials claimed an initial drop in the number of killings in the latter half of February following the launch of the Baghdad security plan, the number of reported casualties rose again in March.” The report did not give Iraqi casualties for this period. For the first time, neither the US nor the Iraqi government would release the figures. Over 3,300 American soldiers have also died in Iraq.

The congressional vote reflected public opinion about the war. Before the election, the Iraq war was a top priority for 61% of Democrats and 52% of Independents, compared to 38% of Republicans. Democratic Party leaders in both the House and the Senate have explained their effort to pass legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq as keeping faith with the voters in the November 2006 congressional elections, which brought Democrats to power. As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) put it, “Last fall, the American people voted for a new direction in Iraq.”

Public opinion has become even more opposed to the war since the November elections. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll found 64% of Americans supported a timeline for withdrawal in 2008. A CNN poll shows that 54% of American opposed the Bush veto of the deadline for withdrawal bill. In February 2007, the Vermont state legislature became the first in the union to support resolutions calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Other states may follow as they see the congressional initiative stall.

But there is another logic at work also. The vote by both House and Senate on withdrawal from Iraq was preceded by a series of others on issues related to Iraq. There have been more than half a dozen Iraq-related votes in the Senate alone in the past three months and two Iraq-related votes in House.

These efforts do not mean that the Democrats who control Congress are doing everything they can to end the Iraq war. The Democratic Party leadership has made it clear that they will not use the one power they have that would certainly end the war. They will not stop funding the war. The legislation requiring withdrawal from Iraq was part of a bill that approved $124 billion in military spending, $95 billion of this is for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in fact more money than the military and the White House had asked for.

What is at play is party politics. The November 2006 elections gave the Democrats a majority in both houses for the first time since the “Republican Revolution” in 1994. Before that, the Democrats had controlled the House since 1954 and the Senate since 1986. The Democrats are seeking to use the votes against the Iraq war to identify Republicans with a deeply unpopular president and a deeply unpopular war. The Democrats present themselves as opposed to both.

The Democratic Party’s goal is to strengthen its position for the 2008 Congressional elections. The key concern is the Senate, where Democrats currently have a majority of only one. In the 2008 elections, 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. Of these 33 seats, Republicans currently hold 21 and Democrats hold only 12. “We’re going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war,” argues Senator Reid.

There will be a price for congressional party politics taking priority over ending the war. It will be paid by the people of Iraq.

Zia Mian is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (online at www.fpif.org). This report is a slightly revised version of an article published in Economic and Political Weekly.