The Democrats’ Support for Bush’s War

The capitulation of the Democratic Party’s congressional leadership to the Bush administration’s request for nearly $100 billion of unconditional supplementary government spending, primarily to support the war in Iraq, has led to outrage throughout the country. In the Senate, 37 of 49 Democrats voted on May 24 to support the measure. In the House, while only 86 of the 231 Democratic House members voted for the supplemental funding, 216 of them voted in favor of an earlier procedural vote designed to move the funding bill forward even though it would make the funding bill’s passage inevitable (while giving most of them a chance to claim they voted against it).

The claim by Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) and other Democratic leaders unconditional funding was necessary to “support the troops” and to “not leave them in harm’s way” is a lie. If they really supported the troops and wanted them out of harm’s way, they would have passed legislation that would bring them home. The Democrats had other priorities, however.

Pelosi claimed that they had to provide unconditional funding for President Bush’s war in Iraq because they could not get enough Republican support to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto. However, they did not need a two-thirds majority to stop funding the war. All they needed to do was to refuse to pass any unconditional funding for the war and instead pass a funding measure that allocated money for the sole purpose of facilitating a safe and orderly withdrawal from Iraq, or, at the very least, a funding measure that set a strict deadline for the withdrawal of troops.

As Speaker, Pelosi could have set the legislative agenda and not allowed any funding bill to come to a vote unless it had such provisions. And, if Bush refused to sign it, he would have been the one to put the troops in harm’s way, not Congress.

No Excuses

Some apologists for the Democrats claim that to not support funding for the supplemental would have allowed political opponents to portray them as “not supporting our troops.” However, three conservative Republican senators—Coburn, Burr, and Enzi—voted against the supplemental because of the $20 billion in domestic, non-war-related expenditures without apparent fear of such charges. So why should the Democrats have been afraid to oppose the measure as well?

And it certainly is no longer the case—as apologists for the Democrats claimed when they supported supplemental spending for the war in previous years—that it would be politically difficult to oppose a key initiative of a popular president now that Bush is one of the least popular presidents in history, a ranking that has come largely as a result of the very war policy for which the Democrats have once again given him a blank check to continue.

There are precedents for Congress to stop war funding over presidential objections in the past. For example, in May 1970, Congress was able to eliminate funding for U.S. troops fighting in Cambodia and President Nixon was forced to withdraw them by June 30. The Democrats could have done the same regarding Iraq, but they obviously did not want to. Democratic majorities were also able to suspend U.S. military operations in Angola, limit U.S. troops in El Salvador to 50, end support for the Nicaraguan Contras, and provide similar restrictions to administration foreign policy without claiming that giving these previous Republican administrations a blank check was necessary to “support our troops.”

Polls show that 82% of Americans wanted Congress to either cut off funding for the war immediately or approve funds for the war with strict conditions. However, the Democrats—assuming they knew better than the American people—decided to go ahead and make possible a vote to provide unconditional funding for the war anyway.

Despite claims to the contrary, Pelosi and the Democrats apparently want the war to continue unabated, even if it means sacrificing the lives of countless additional American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, as well as our national treasury and our country’s long-term security, in their support for Bush’s agenda.

True, some senators and representatives voted for some of the previously unsuccessful measures earlier this spring, which included certain restrictions on funding or called for a deadline for withdrawal. However, if they voted for the supplemental funding bill or if they supported the decision to bring the resolution to the floor, they support the Iraq War and Bush’s policy. If they really opposed the policy, they would have voted against providing the unconditional funding to implement it. We need to make this clear and hold them accountable.

Fiscal Implications

The decision by the Democratic leadership of both houses and the majority of Democratic senators to vote for unconditional funding for the war is also a reflection of the majority party’s spending priorities. There is no Democratic proposal for a $100 billion supplemental spending bill for health care. There is no Democratic proposal for a $100 billion supplemental spending bill for education. There is no Democratic proposal for a $100 billion supplemental spending bill for environmental protection.

When I contacted a number of Democratic offices on Capitol Hill as to why they weren’t supporting comparable supplemental spending measures to meet human needs here in the United States, they insisted this was an unfair comparison. In one sense, this is true. Bush’s budget this year in health care, education, housing, public transit, and environmental protection was woefully inadequate, whereas his military budget is extraordinarily bloated. The Democrats should be cutting military spending, not increasing it by nearly $100 billion. And though the Democrats attached some supplemental domestic spending to the appropriations, the supplemental spending for all domestic programs combined is less than one-fourth the supplemental spending for military operations.

It appears, then, that the reason the Democrats are willing to supporting $100 billion for the Iraq War and not for health care, education, housing, public transit, or environmental protection is straightforward: the Democratic Party believes that continuing the war is more important than meeting the basic needs of Americans.

The Democrats’ support for the supplemental war funding is also evidence of fiscal irresponsibility. If the Democrats really want to spend that kind of money for war, at least they should find some way to pay for it, such as cutting spending for some of the Pentagon’s elaborate and unnecessary new weapons systems or by eliminating some of the tax breaks given to the wealthy. Instead, the Democrats insist on borrowing it from primarily foreign financial institutions or from future government revenue. By the time it is paid off with interest, the total cost will likely be more than twice the $100 billion the Democrats claim the war is costing. The costs of paying off the increased national debt as a result of this war will result in severely restricted funding in health care, education, housing, public transit, and environmental protection for decades to come. But that is of little concern to the Democrats, who place a higher priority in allowing Bush to fight the Iraq War as he sees fit.

It is also interesting to note the Democrats’ claim that the $100 billion only funds the war through the end of September and they will try to stop funding for the war again at that point. At that pace of spending, it would come to slightly under $25 billion per month. However, the war is currently costing the taxpayer about $10 billion per month. This means that either the Democrats are anticipating an imminent, costly escalation in the war or they are actually giving Bush the ability to fight the war well into the next year, thereby negating any leverage anti-war members of Congress might have by withholding additional funding after September.

Betraying the Voters

Despite promising during the 2006 election campaign that, if given the majority in Congress, they would no longer give Bush a blank check to prosecute the war, they have done just that. And despite polls showing that a majority of Americans want U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq and support setting a deadline for their departure, the Democrats have voted to instead to side with President Bush against the American people

In fact, the situation is even worse now than it was last fall. Since the Democrats became the majority in Congress and were given the power, through their fiscal oversight, to finally put curbs on the administration’s ability to wage war, the number of U.S. troops and the level of violence in Iraq have increased rather than decreased.

This comes despite exit polls from the November 2006 elections that showed that opposition to the Iraq War was by far the primary factor in giving the Democrats the majority in both houses for the first time since 1994. Particularly important to the Democratic victory were young voters, many thousands of whom volunteered countless hours going door-to-door in swing districts, and whose opposition to the war was strongest. With more than six out of 10 voters under 30 casting their ballots for the Democrats, hopes emerged for a Democratic majority for years to come. However, thanks to last week’s betrayal by the very Democrats whose leadership positions in Congress came as a result of burgeoning anti-war sentiment, the Democrats are likely to lose many of these young activists, embittered that their many hours of sacrifice for the party was for naught and now cynical at any hope for change through electoral politics.

Polls also indicate that an overwhelming majority of voters oppose U.S. military support and strategic cooperation with regimes that engage in gross and systematic human rights violations. But once again the Democrats are as out-of-step with the American public as the Republicans. Indeed, the vote for the supplemental is indicative of how far to the right the Democrats have gone regarding human rights in recent years. There was a time when the Democratic Party was willing to eliminate or restrict U.S. military support for repressive governments like Indonesia, El Salvador, and others due to their human rights abuses and use of death squads against perceived opponents. Despite the widespread and well-documented human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, including the death squads operating out of the Interior Ministry that have taken the lives of tens of thousands of Sunni civilians, the Democrats appear to have few moral qualms about providing the Iraqi regime with unrestricted taxpayer funding.

Signs of Hope

It is important, amid the anger and disappointment at the Democrats’ decision to continue funding the war, to acknowledge the growing strength of the anti-war movement and signs of hope that the American public can still force an end to the U.S. war in Iraq.

In the vote on supplemental funding last year, only 48 House Democrats voted against the Bush White House. This year, the number of Democrats voting against funding nearly tripled to 140.

And, as disappointing as it may be that only 10 Senate Democrats voted against war funding last week, it is important to remember that not a single Democrat voted against war funding in 2006.

All four of the candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination who were in the U.S. Senate in 2002—Christopher Dodd, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Joe Biden—voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in October of that year. All four had supported unconditional funding subsequently. This year, however, all but Biden opposed the supplemental. A fifth Democratic senator seeking the presidency, Barack Obama, who had opposed the war prior to be elected to the Senate in 2004 but had voted for the supplemental funding in his first two years in office, also voted against the supplemental this year. That traditional hawks like Dodd and Clinton, who had vehemently supported the war as recently as last year, feel obliged to vote against it now reflects the acknowledgement of a new political reality. It will be virtually impossible for anyone to win the Democratic presidential nomination without opposing funding for the war.

Shifts within leadership are also happening. Though Reid joined the majority of Senate Democrats on May 24 in voting in favor of the supplemental funding measure, just weeks earlier he co-sponsored—along with Senate anti-war stalwart Russ Feingold—another measure that would have required the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. forces within nine months.

This is a sign of the growing influence of the anti-war movement. The calls and emails to Capitol Hill offices, the tough questions at town hall meetings, the vigils outside district offices, the protests at public appearances, the letters to the editor, the sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience—all targeting the Democratic lawmakers on the Iraq War—are finally having an influence, even though it has not yet translated into effective legislative action.

Next Steps

In certain respects, the movement against the war in Iraq today is in a similar situation to the movement against the war in Vietnam in 1969. After more than four years of fighting, the majority of Americans and increasing segments of the news media and elite opinion are finally recognizing the need for a withdrawal of American troops. However, the Democratic majority in Congress still refuses to challenge the increasingly unpopular policies of the Republican administration. As a result, though it is widely recognized that a military victory is impossible and American forces are going to be pulled out, the administration and Congress remain determined to drag out the war still longer, costing many thousands additional lives and further draining our national treasury.

The United States will be forced to pull out of Iraq sooner or later. The question is how many people will die needlessly beforehand.

The war will last a long time and claim many more deaths as long as Democrats believe they can continue to bankroll Bush’s effort and get away with it. Every Democrat who voted for the supplemental must be challenged in primaries next year. If he or she is re-nominated anyway, a strong Green Party or independent challenger must try to defeat the incumbent in November. We must demand that Democratic Congressional leaders who allowed the unconditional supplemental funding measure to move forward be removed from their posts and replaced by representatives and senators who actually oppose the war. While individual anti-war Democrats still deserve our support, all contributions in time or money to the Democratic Party must cease until the leadership takes a firm and uncompromising position against further war funding.

And it may take heightened measures, including sustained nonviolent direct action. When Congress forced the withdrawal of American troops from Cambodia in 1970, it came only after anti-war protests shut down more than 300 colleges and universities across the country and more than 100,000 demonstrators converged on Capitol Hill in early May.

The betrayal by Congressional Democrats last week should be met not by despair but by escalating popular resistance to the war. The gains of recent months by the anti-war movement must not stagnate as a result of the Democrats’ capitulation on the supplemental funding, but must be built upon to demand an end to Democratic collusion with the war policies of the Bush White House enforced through binding legislative action.

Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus. He is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003.)