Democratic Spin Won't End the War in Iraq

After several months of empty posturing against the war in Iraq, politicians in Washington have made what Democratic congressman James P. Moran called a "concession to reality" by agreeing to give President Bush virtually everything he wanted in funding and unrestricted license to continue waging the increasingly detested war that has made Bush the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon.

This is the outcome that we warned against two months ago when we wrote "Why Won't MoveOn Move Forward?" In it, we criticized MoveOn for backpedaling on its previously claimed objective of ending the war in Iraq immediately. Anti-war sentiment was the main factor behind last year's elections that brought Democrats to power in both houses of Congress. Once in power, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through a "compromise" bill, supported by MoveOn, that offered $124 billion in supplemental funding for the war. To make it sound like they were voting for peace, the Democrats threw in a few non-binding benchmarks asking Bush to certify progress in Iraq, coupled with language that talked about withdrawing troops next year.

Understanding how legislative processes work, we expected then that even those few nods to anti-war sentiment would be eliminated in due course. Bush had already said he would veto the Pelosi bill and pledged to hold out for funding without restrictions of any kind. Moreover, there was little doubt that the Democratic leadership would eventually cave to his demands. Notwithstanding their stage-managed photo ops and rhetorical flourishes for peace, prominent Democrats signaled early that they would give Bush the funding he wanted. Barack Obama even went so far as to state publicly that once Bush vetoed the original bill, Congress would approve the money because "nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground." (Two weeks later, MoveOn announced that it had polled its members, and Obama was their "top choice to lead the country out of Iraq.") In effect, the confrontation between Bush and the Democrats was a high-stakes game of poker in which the Democrats went out of their way to make it clear that they would fold once Bush called their bluff.

Not everyone saw this coming, of course. Back in March, called MoveOn's Eli Pariser "shrewdly pragmatic" for backing Pelosi's original supplemental war funding bill. It quoted Pariser predicting that after Bush was "forced to veto" Pelosi's bill, "That forces the Republicans to choose between an increasingly isolated president and the majority of the Congress and the majority of the American people."

Similar "shrewd pragmatism" came from blogger and Democratic campaign consultant Matt Stoller at, praising MoveOn's "dedication to practical results" and calling the Pelosi bill "a major step forward ... Moveon was true to its members in helping this happen." Stoller criticized us by name for our naiveté in thinking otherwise:

John Stauber, who is an ardent critic of Moveon, comes from a different generation of liberal activism. ...

Stauber isn't used to a non-Southern Democratic Party. It's nothing he's ever known, and it's frankly nothing that any of us have ever known. None of us know how to wield power in this new political world, where the public is liberal, the military industrial state is cannibalizing itself, and the political system is (slowly) reorienting itself around this shocking new paradigm. Stauber is also not used to the idea that activist liberals actually like the Democratic Party. He believes that Moveon members would not support Democratic leaders if presented with a different set of choices, without acknowledging that Moveon members have traditionally supported Democratic leaders when the questions are tactical in nature.

A "tactic," as the dictionary explains, is "an expedient for achieving a goal." If the goal is to end the war in Iraq, the Pelosi bill was never a tactic that had any chance of succeeding. Its provisions had no teeth and it was clear that too many Democrats never intended to see the fight through. As this week's betrayal by the Democratic leadership demonstrates, ending the war is simply not their goal. Their goal is to continue the war for the time being, while giving themselves just enough distance from it that they can run as the anti-war party in next year's presidential and congressional elections. Stoller seems to have belatedly arrived at this realization himself. Responding to this week's news, he writes:

We're in Iraq because the political system, the public, and all of us became unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood. We're still in Iraq, and will be there until the public is genuinely convinced to leave. Right now, we're not there. I know what the polls say, but I also am watching Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Giuliani, Romney, etc running for President, and not one of them is calling for a full withdrawal. Not one. Clinton, the leading nominee in a supposedly antiwar party, is a hawk and doesn't even think that voting to authorize the war was a mistake.

Amazingly, the conclusion that Stoller draws from these facts is the following non sequitur:

So do not tell me that Pelosi, Reid, and Moveon are doing a bad job. They are not. They are persuading a country and a politics that is used to lazy bullshit that kills a lot of people to think twice about it, and resist.

Here's the point that Stoller seems to have missed: There is a difference between what the public wants and what politicians do. Just because the high and mighty politicians don't get it yet, don't assume that the average American doesn't. It is not "the public" that needs to be persuaded. The politicians, their marketing campaigns, and the bloggers who join them may be "unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood," but the public at large fully understands that we need to get out of Iraq. The question is simply how to translate that public awareness into effective pressure that will force the politicians to change course. As we wrote in March, "When politicians and advocacy groups like MoveOn play anti-war games of political theater while effectively collaborating with the war's continuation, they merely add one more deception to the layers of lies in which this war has been wrapped."

Since 2003 we've co-authored two books on Iraq, and we have been reporting on the war for over five years now, since we began to dissect the Bush administration's propaganda push almost immediately after 9/11. We've been reporting on MoveOn for almost as long. And by the way, we are not "ardent critics" of MoveOn, as Stoller claimed. We are trying to constructively criticize an organization whose leaders mean well, even though they have been selling a flawed strategy. MoveOn has emerged as a powerful political player with a massive email list of more than three million names and the ability to raise millions of dollars for Democrats while waging innovative PR campaigns around the environmental, political and social issues they promote.

The bottom line, however, is that MoveOn until now has always been a big "D" Democratic Party organization. It began as an online campaign to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, and its tactical alliances with Democratic politicians have made it part of the party's current power base, which melds together millionaire funders such as George Soros and the Democracy Alliance, liberal unions like SEIU, and the ballyhooed Netroots bloggers like Matt Stoller, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos. At a personal level, we presume the members of this coalition genuinely want the war to end, but their true and primary priority is winning Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress and the White House. Now that the war in Iraq hangs like a rotting albatross around the neck of the Bush administration, it has become the Democrats' best weapon to successfully campaign against Republicans. From a "shrewdly pragmatic" point of view, therefore, they have no reason to want the war to end soon.

Some Democrats (not the top politicians, of course) are saying this openly. Here, for example, is how one blogger at the Daily Kos sees things:

I know, that means more American casualties, more Iraqi casualties, more treasure and lives wasted.

But I think you've got to keep in mind the big picture here. ... [B]y the end of September, people will be beginning to pay real attention to the next election...

I think this does give the Democratic party a tremendous opportunity to crush the Republicans for perhaps a couple of decades to come. Iraq, and the Republican support of it, may well do for the Republicans what Vietnam did for Democrats — make the public suspicious for decades about the party's bona fides on foreign policy.

In this analysis, "more treasure and lives wasted" are the "little picture," while winning elections is "the big picture." Democrats like Russ Feingold who oppose the Iraq supplemental do not share this strategy, and it is never explicitly stated even by the Democratic politicians who are signing on this week to fund the war, but it is implicit in their actions.

If you visit the MoveOn website today as we write, the top item on the page is a request for people to sign a petition against price gouging by oil companies. They're focused on the "big picture" of using the current spike in gasoline prices as an opportunity to build their email list, while the little picture of ending the war has fallen from the top of the page. Yesterday MoveOn began a campaign calling on Democrats to vote no on the Iraq supplemental. MoveOn is also talking for the first time about supporting primary challengers to Democrats who "ran on ending the war but vote for more chaos and more troops in Iraq." This belated spark of independence, however, is too little and too late to stop a deal that has already been struck, in which politicians that MoveOn has been supporting have just surrendered ground from a position of strength to a president and party that is weakened, on an issue of utmost importance to their country.

MoveOn is expert at marketing, PR and advertising. Their emails to members convey a friendly, informal style and a sense that "they" are just like "us." But there are important differences between the organization and many of the people who sign their petitions and give them money. MoveOn has not been primarily a movement against the war. It has been a movement of Democrats to get the party back into power.

We do not doubt that MoveOn's leadership sincerely believes they are pursuing the most practical and effective course to improve America's political problems by vanquishing the Republicans and getting Democrats elected. However, when given a choice between building a powerful grassroots movement to end the war, versus exploiting the war for the benefit of getting Democrats elected, MoveOn has repeatedly chosen the latter while probably believing there is no difference.

There is an organized anti-war movement in America that is not an adjunct of the Democratic Party. Up until now, it has been weak and divided and unable to organize itself into an effective national movement in its own right. In its place, therefore, MoveOn and its Netroots allies have become identified as the leadership of the anti-war movement. It is vitally important, however, that a genuinely independent anti-war movement organize itself with the ability to speak on its own behalf.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, the civil rights movement was most definitely not an adjunct of the Democratic or Republican Parties. Far from it, it was a grassroots movement that eventually forced both parties to respond to its agenda. Likewise, the movement against the Vietnam War was not aligned with either the Democratic or Republican parties, both of which claimed to have plans for peace while actually pursuing policies that expanded the war.

That's the sort of movement we need again, if we wish to see peace in our lifetime.

This commentary is a joint statement by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the co-authors of books including Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq.

Comments the imperialist foreign policy the U.S. has followed for a century or more. How much of the public's sentiment against this war stems from true outrage at its criminality, and how much from buyer's remorse because this shiny new machine is burning so much more oil than it pumps? "Anti-war" by itself isn't enough. We'll always have wars unless we become thoroughly disenchanted with militarism and imperialism by all their euphemisms. Vietnam didn't do it, and this war probably won't, even if it ends soon. That's the biggest thing MoveOn seems not to get.

...a good article making this exact point: "[ Becoming Imperialist: An Urgent Warning to Critics of the Iraq Wars]," by Arjun Chowdhury, Kevin Parsneau, and Mark Hoffman.

<blockquote>War critics who accept any of the three familiar assertions listed above are caught in a dangerous paradox. By suggesting that more troops would have helped create a stable Iraq, they betray a retrospective expectation that large numbers of Iraqis were going to resist."</blockquote> And come to think of it, our war-planners betrayed the same expectation when they built that "Emerald City" and displayed the same incompetence by failing to roof it over. This link above takes you to an interesting anecdote from Anthony Lappe of Guerrilla News Network: "In early 2005, I attended a two-day conference organized by the labor union SEIU. The event gathered some of the nation’s leading young left-leaning activists, in particular those working in the media, with the goal of synergizing our efforts around core issues. Over the course of the weekend, the idea was to come up with five “top issues” we could all agree to focus on in the coming year. Wal-Mart was a big issue, as was the looming battle of the White House’s plan to privatize social security. To my dismay, Iraq was not one of them. I expressed my shock, pointing out that we were a nation at war and that as progressives it was not just a moral duty but a good tactical decision to oppose it. I noted the war was only going to worsen and American public opinion would turn on it and that we needed to get out in front of it. In addition, many soldiers and their families were turning away from Bush because of the war and that this represented a new opportunity for the left to connect with members of the armed services. While several participants thanked me for my comments in private, I was mostly met with blank stares. Between sessions, I found myself talking with a representative from MoveOn. I asked him why Iraq didn’t seem to be on the top of MoveOn’s list of issues at the time. His response sent a chill up my spine: 'Iraq is not a winner.' In contrast, he pointed out, Bush’s social security privatization program was unpopular and provided the left with a tangible opportunity for a much-needed political score. We need wins, he said, repeating a mantra I would hear throughout the weekend from several other participants."

<blockquote>'Iraq is not a winner.' In contrast, he pointed out, Bush’s social security privatization program was unpopular and provided the left with a tangible opportunity for a much-needed political score. We need wins, he said, repeating a mantra I would hear throughout the weekend from several other participants."</blockquote> This merely points it up one more time -- Bush led America into the Iraq quagmire, and MoveOn, albeit unwittingly, is luring progressives into the quagmire of the perpetual warfare state by dangling illusory tactical "wins." The right knows there will be no place for social security in USA-Patriotland. Do the folks at MoveOn know it?

I have severed my association with and the Democrat Party (The Repubs are right. The Democrats are not entitled to the "ic". They do not represent the people of this country.) I had a short email correspondence with [[Tom Matzzie]] after began to develop their strategy to seize and consolidate power, damn the consequences. But then who suffers the consequences? Not the Democrats or members. Others do--the troops that fought and are still fighting this illegal war: the millions of Iraqis who have had hell rained down on them since 1991. What was Matzzie's response when I emailed him about my concerns that my stepsons are fighting in an illegal war? My concerns that, an organization that I have supported for years, was losing its way? Oh, he'd like to meet me and sit and talk with me. After all, he lost a cousin in this war and he's spending every waking hour of every day doing what he can to stop this war. I got a version of the big picture argument. They are taking small steps, and yes, Rhoda, there will be many of these small steps, to get to the ultimate goal, Democrat control of the government. Yesterday I got the usual email asking me to contact my Congressman. I did not waste the money on the long distance call. Instead I emailed and asked them if this total capitulation to the Bush Administration was what they intended all along. I asked how it was going to accomplish anything. I have not received a response nor do I expect one.

...And then when I read this today, by Andrew Bacevich, author of <i>American Empire</i> and <i>The New American Militarism</i> and whose son was recently killed in Iraq -- -- I was struck by the parallel between these two passages: Yours -- <blockquote>Oh, he'd like to meet me and sit and talk with me. After all, he lost a cousin in this war and he's spending every waking hour of every day doing what he can to stop this war. I got a version of the big picture argument. They are taking small steps, and yes, Rhoda, there will be many of these small steps, to get to the ultimate goal, Democrat control of the government."</blockquote> -- and his: <blockquote>Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son's wake. [Senator John] Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don't blame me."</i> Looks like they gotta keep the party going to keep the Party going.

Rhoda: You made the right choice when you severed ties with Move On. Resignation and removing yourself from all of their lists is key. To allow your name to remain on Move On's member list would have been an error. It's time to send a message to elected officials and candidates that Move On has no real clout with it's so-called 3 million members. It's all an illusion. They argue from a script and cannot participate in any real discussions that require thought and intellect. Their need to control every aspect of the "message" is hilarious. There are 10 people at the top of this organization who are gaining wealth and clout at the expense of passionate, concerned citizens who have no idea they are pawns being used for an email address and contributions...

Here's their latest: <blockquote>Dear MoveOn member, Last night, Congress sent the president a blank check to continue the war through the summer. Anyway you slice it, it stinks. The worst part is that too many Democrats--who we elected in November with a clear mandate to lead us out of the chaos in Iraq--crumbled when we needed them to fight....</blockquote> If they claim the earlier check they pushed for Congress to hand Bush wasn't blank, I guess they're right -- it had a decimal point with a wide space to the left and two zeros to the right.

All these complaints about the funding vote are dismayingly adolescent. Politics is not a playground fight. If we don't stick together better than this, the Republicans will always kick our butts.