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US Congress and Iraq War

The US House of Congress voted to end the Iraq war, a vote that was vetoed by president George Bush. However, the interest of the Democratic Party, which has a slim majority in Congress, is not to ensure an end to the occupation but to increase its tally in 2008.

Letter from America

US Congress and Iraq War

The US House of Congress voted to end the Iraq war, a vote that was vetoed by president George Bush. However, the interest of the Democratic Party, which has a slim majority in Congress, is not to ensure an end to the occupation but to increase its tally in 2008.

ZIA MIAN

I
n the face of furious opposition from the White House, the United States Congress voted last month to end the US war in Iraq. The bill required US troops to begin leaving Iraq by October 1 at the latest and end combat operations by March 2008. The White House dubbed it “defeatist legislation” that set a “date for surrender”.

However, everyone acknowledges that American troops are unlikely to be withdrawn by the date set by Congress. President Bush expectedly vetoed the legislation and Democrats do not have the two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate that they would need to overturn it.

While it will fail to end the Iraq war, the congressional vote is significant for other reasons. It reflects public opinion. Democratic Party leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have explained their effort to pass legislation to withdraw US troops from Iraq as keeping faith with the voters in the November 2006 congressional elections, which brought Democrats to power. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House said “Last fall, the American people voted for a new direction in Iraq”. Senate majority leader Harry Reid claimed, “We have carried forth the wishes of the American people”.

Public Opinion

Public opinion has become even more opposed to the war since the November elections. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll found 64 per cent of Americans supported a timeline for withdrawal in 2008. In February 2007, Vermont became the first state whose legislature supported resolutions calling for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Other states may follow as they see the congressional initiative stall.

The congressional vote on withdrawal was almost entirely along party political 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 two Republicans supported the bill, while 195 Republicans and 13 Democrats opposed it). In the Senate, 49 Democrats and two Republicans voted for a withdrawal date and 45 Republicans and one 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 had 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 six Republicans) voted against. The split was even clearer in the Senate, where 29 Democrats voted for war and 21 against.

It is clear that Republicans have continued to support president Bush and the Iraq war, 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 US has certainly been important in making public opinion more receptive to critical voices. House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, 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, says more bluntly, “this war is lost”.

In Iraq, the failure of the American occupation grows ever more clear. The UN reports that 34,452 civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded in 2006. The increase in US troops, dubbed the “surge”, that was intended to overwhelm the resistance has had little effect. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq report for January to March 2007 notes that “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.

But there is another logic at work also. The vote by both the 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 the House. But 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 will 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 more money than the military and the White House had in fact 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. The Democrats are seeking to use the votes against the Iraq war to identify Republicans with president Bush, who is deeply unpopular, and support the war. The Democrats are presented as opposed to president Bush and the war. The goal is to strengthen the Democratic Party’s position for the 2008 congressional elections.

The key concern is the Senate, where Democrats currently have a majority of one. In the 2008 elections, 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. Of these 33 seats, 21 are currently held by Republicans and only 12 by Democrats. Senator Harry Reid has claimed “We’re going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war”.

While the US Congress plays politics, the people of Iraq will continue to suffer and die.

EPW

Email: zia@princeton.edu

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

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