February 20, 2007

Will Murtha's Plan Damage The Anti-War Movement?

Representative John Murtha (D, PA) has a plan to end the war in Iraq (though at the moment he’s selling it only as a way to end "The Surge."). This plan is based on attaching conditions to Bush’s "emergency appropriation" request. It has the backing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership, and presumably of those significant allies within the military’s High Command with whom Murtha has legendary ties going back decades.

The Murtha plan also serves to provide cover for elected officials, especially Democrats, who are facing intensifying pressure to take strong action to end this fiasco pronto. That pressure comes from (perhaps through would be more apt) a resurgent anti-war/anti-occupation movement which is moving powerfully forward on a broad front these days. The Murtha plan is bound, and perhaps designed, to put obstacles in the path of that advance, and to change the balance of forces within the anti-war movement and its focus.

This piece will summarize the Murtha plan, touch very briefly on its actual prospects for success and then discuss its very serious implications for the anti-war movement.


I recommend that anyone wanting to understand the political terrain anti-war activists will be facing watch the video interview with him posted at MoveCongress.org a couple of days ago. It fleshes out what has been in the press about the Murtha plan, and shows the subtle thinking and the flexibility that has the Right in a foam-flecked attack frenzy.

First, let me state at the outset that I think Murtha genuinely wants to end the occupation of Iraq as soon as possible, and has for some time. He fears the enormous harm it is doing to his beloved Marine Corps and the military as a whole, and he recognizes, like many, that the occupation is lost. And unlike many politicians, he has had the guts to take a stand. His November 2005 call for complete rapid "redeployment" out of Iraq--no timelines, no benchmarks, no phased withdrawal, no residual forces—changed the terms of the debate over the war greatly and for the better. (I also liked that, when asked about what he meant by "over the horizon" redeployment, he suggested Okinawa would be a good place.)

His MoveCongress.org talk lays out a strategy based around the upcoming debate on Bush’s latest trip back to the "emergency appropriation" well—a request for $93 billion this time. In hearings in the House Appropriatioons Defense Subcommittee, which he runs, conditions will be attached to the bill.

Moreover, the most prominent conditions are couched as defense of the troops: No troops to be redeployed to Iraq without a year intervening, and then only if they are certified as being fully retrained and equipped. No more extensions of deployment (which would mean that one year, boots on the ground, would be the maximum). No more Stop Loss, the dreaded "Back Door Draft" that snatches men and women with a few months or weeks left of their service commitment and sends them back into harm’s way for another full tour.

Murtha presents this as a way to stop any further escalation of the US presence in Iraq (and with most of the remnants of the Coalition of the Willing eying the exits, the occupation is the US, a shrinking contingent of Brits, and mercenaries, period). In fact, to a military strapped for troops, with a brutal optempo, sinking morale and barrel-bottom-scraping recruiting practices, this would make anything like the current occupation impossible to sustain any longer.

What’s more, Murtha says he intends to include a clause requiring that the US announce that it will not seek permanent bases in Iraq, which rules out keeping a toehold (meaning a trigger point for re-invasion). He also talks about mandating the closing of Abu Ghraib and even Guantanamo.

The mechanisms through which all this will be enforced are unclear, but the general idea appears to be that the money will be released in batches and failure to comply with the bill’s requirements at one stage will immediately result in the sequestration of the next batch.


Will this pass? We’ll see. And to go into effect, it’ll have to get the Senate’s okay too.

Would it stop the war? Quite possibly, but with a couple of very important caveats. First, almost any scenario for ending or downsizing the war other than waiting until January 2009 may well lead to a Constitutional crisis. Faced by a funds cutoff or by a veto-proof bill calling for withdrawal or a revocation of the war powers bill, Bush will try and keep the war going. Though Murtha’s strategy is gradualist, there are potentially a lot of separate trigger points for such a crisis. Second, it would take a long time to end the occupation this way, time in which the devastation of Iraq will continue unabated, troops will die and be wounded and the damage to the US itself will deepen.

Will it lead to impeachment? It would be foolhardy to predict that now.

Will it help position the Democrats for the 2008 elections? Funny you should ask. By not choking off funding for the war now (or when the 2008 emergency appropriation comes up), they get to run against Bush and his failed war all over again. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children who will die between now and then. Never mind the tens of thousands of troops who will be killed or wounded.


Before it does anything whatsoever to bring the end of the war closer, this approach has the potential to do real damage to the anti-war movement. That movement, let me underline, is on a roll. The January 27 demo was large and determined and far broader than generally understood, campuses are stepping up, resolutions against the war are in play at the state level instead of just in cities, local activities are doing very well. And there has been intense focus on Congress and stopping the funding as the key to stopping the war.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. Congress has been the focus of anti-war strategy for a long time now, as activists and everyday people alike realized that how intent Bush administration was on "staying the course" (and possibly rolling double or nothing in Iran). Mass disapproval and indeed seething anger were not gonna change much of anything in the White House. Congresscritters on the other hand are clearly more susceptible to mass pressure, especially after the wholesale rubbishing of Republican candidates in the November election.

Thus lobbying, petitions and other pressure tactics have been intensified even more than demonstrations and broadly-directed educational activities. Some organizations like Progressive Democrats of America and Military Families Speak Out have mobilized to really bear down on this, supported by United For Peace and Justice and other groups in the mainstream of the anti-war movement. One whole new effort, the Occupation Project, sponsored by the Committee for Non-Violent Action, represents a bold ramping up of this approach. They’ve been occupying Congressional offices, demanding that the Senator or Representative targeted agree to vote against the "Emergency Supplemental"--in the case of those who’ve declared their opposition to the occupation but done squat, to put their money where their mouths are.

Absent a serious worsening of the situation on the ground in Iraq, it has been a long shot that we would be able to cut off the funding this time. On the other hand, all it would take would be defeat of the $93 billion appropriation by a simple majority vote in either house. No need to get the same bill agreed to by both houses, to beat back a filibuster in the Senate, to overturn a presidential veto. One more "No" than "Yes" vote, and that’s that (or rather, here comes the Constitutional crisis).


The Murtha strategy and its adoption by the Congressional Dems knock this topsy-turvy. First off, it gives pro-war, waffling, and anti-war but gutless elected officials an out: "I’d love to vote against Bush’s request, but we are using the appropriation to turn the tide and start bringing the war home." It may even increase pressure on the more principled souls who have voted against emergency appropriations in the past to fall in line now.

(How much pressure will depend on how smart the Republicans play this. Suppose that they can stay united on voting against Murtha’s booby-trapped version. Suppose further that they put their opposition in terms of not getting in the way of the troops—after all, at this point nobody’s likely to rally behind, "We can’t tie the President’s hands." Too many people would like to see his feet tied, too, and wired to the engine block of a 1947 DeSoto and dropped in the Potomac. How many Dems will vote "No" if it means joining the Republicans in trying to block the Murtha plan?)

Second, it sets up the folks who have been working hardest on pressuring Congress to defund for a big, fat demoralizing hit.

Third, and more broadly, if the Democrats and a bunch of Republican allies go with the Murtha approach, gradualism becomes the order of the day. We will be back to politicians and pundits talking about timetables and phased withdrawals and benchmarks and all the rest of the think tank nonsense we had to fight to sweep away in 2003 and 2004. Once again we will have to blaze a path our way through thickets of policy wonkery to keep to the fore the simple demands that more and more people in this country are uniting around: Stop The Occupation! Bring Them Home Now!

This is already happening. Tom Hayden has jumped out with a convoluted plan that amounts to dumping the current puppet government and somehow getting the Iraqis to set up a new one. These puppets would then demand that the US withdraw all troops within six months to a year. Oh yeah, and the new regime will also establish a cease-fire among the militias and call an international conference to "fill the vacuum." And people like him claim it’s "not realistic" to demand that the US government just end the occupation!)

Fourth, it has the potential to drive a wedge into the critically important movement of Iraq veterans and active duty troops who are speaking out against the war. With Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Appeal For Redress leading the way, more and more soldiers are coming to the anti-war side. Murtha’s approach, cast as it is as a defense of the troops and a way to enhance their capacity to fight, thus making it eassier to isolate those who attack the occupation as insane and unjustifiable and call for its immediate end.

Finally, it gives a big boost to the more reformist Beltway-based opponents of the war, as opposed to the left, progressive, pacifist, and just plain fed-up folks who are the rank and file of the peace movement. They will again claim a disproportionate share of resources and media attention. Meanwhile, grassroots opponents of the occupation will get discouraged or quickly grow more radical (the latter being just fine with me, but concerning if it comes at the expense of weakening or sidetracking the anti-war movement.)

What do readers think of this take on developments, and what do you think should be done about it? I’ll save my few suggestions about how the anti-war movement might respond to this turn of events for a later post, but as a sneak preview let me leave you with two words: Iraq Moratorium.

[crossposted at DailyKos]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is all I have to say. Nothing has ever changed in this country, ever, without some form of sustained and widespread civil disobedience. Period. If you go back to the immediate post-revolutionary times, the "founding fathers" found that they had to expand their notions of what democracy would be, not because they were so enlightened, but because there were riots and mayhem. The original GW had to raise an army of 15,000 and take them to western PA to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. Black people were able to gain legal rights due to widespread, massive non violent civil disobedience, not because LBJ and Congress were so enlightened that they dreamed up the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can look at the entire labor movement as far as I'm concerned as one long, long sustained civil disobedience, so we have (or had at least) an 8-hour day because of that, not because of "good" legislators or nice respectful middle class Progressives who politely lobbied them.

All of these assorted plans are coming at a time when there are many people leaning towards moving a little further, participating in some form of non violent civil disobedience. Murthra and others are still sticking to the old white powerful male "be responsible" mentality. This attitude is keeping people confused, with all of the myriad plans and legislation available, and holding people back from arriving at solutions that are truly moving us to actually end the war and withdraw the troops. I don't even care what the details of their plans are, maybe I'm just being ignorant, and even so, I don't care, defund the war period, no conditions. Fund the withdrawal, not the war. Stop playing games.

I was at a MoveOn "Ground Truth" showing the other day, trying to plug the Occupation Project. A former candidate for congress here, a great guy, a veteran of both the military and diplomatic corps who spoke at our Watada event here, was so concerned that we would "alienate" people by suggesting that. For some reason, he used an example of how people would be alienated if he started calling GB a Nazi. I told him I called him a fascist all the time. If we are not alienating people, we are not on the right track. If people in this country are still able to live nice comfortable lives with this war going on, we are not doing the right thing. Why do I care if people who say they are against the war but won't lift a finger to do anything to stop it are alienated? I don't care.

As soon as they started tearing down that fence and rolling into Iraq in 2003, and I knew that my son was going with them, I knew that we had failed. We outnumbered GB and all his minions, we just did not do enough, we were collectively not willing to do enough to stop it. I have felt that responsibility deeply, I always knew that my son was part of this occupation because I was simply not willing to inconvenience myself enough. Shoot, even if we had no good plan, even if we all had just gone out and laid down in the middle of the road, shutting down the whole country, it would have been better than this. Irresponsible? Very, but all of those nice responsible people in DC got us into this and have kept us in it, and now they are trying to play the responsible card again. As long as they and their staffs can drop by the Starbucks or Panera's or wherever they get their coffee in the morning, and hope to squeeze in a round of golf later, then we are not doing our job. If life in this country is not disrupted, this war won't end, and we won't have done our job. And they can come up with all the gradualist legislation they want, it will still be the same, dragging it on and on with thousands and thousands more lives disrupted.

I talked for about four hours the other day with another mother of a soldier, the mother of a war resister, and it really put things in perspective for the first time. We are just on the same page, how much we resent all the nice people who say they are against the war but would not really lift one finger while our sons were in Iraq, or when they came home and we had to deal with them. These people want to go with the responsibility section, that is just an excuse to go on with their nice undisrupted lives while our lives are disrupted permanently. This mother is very active, mainly because she lost her job due to her anti war work. She described what she is doing as going around the country cussing people out for not getting with it. Why should we feel there is something wrong with us because of our resentment and anger?

So I agree that Murthra is very sincere, I have no question about that. And I do think we should keep pressuring Congress in very real ways. But as long as we are playing the same games we will get the same results. Writing nice letters to Congress and letters to the editor or setting up nice meetings is just not going to do it. Being nice is not going to do it. Worrying about not alienating people is not going to do it. We've been up that road for four years.

I'm sorry to rant and rave, but I hear too much of people discussing the ins and outs of congressional plans. We need to stop worrying about the plans they come up with, they have already failed miserably in their alleged responsibility, and start pushing them to take our plans. Period.