The "American street" speaks: Will the Democratic Party listen?

As more and more Americans turn against Bush's Iraq war, Democratic politicians remain silent. Their play-it-safe strategy isn't just cowardly, it also won't work.

Published September 29, 2005 7:09PM (EDT)

The antiwar mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, Cindy Sheehan, protested with hundreds of others outside the White House on Monday. She and the others approached the gate of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue three times, and each time police warned them that they were trespassing. On the third approach, Ms. Sheehan was arrested and carried from the scene, as were the others. She left behind, in the fence, a picture of her dead son Casey, who died fighting the Mahdi Army in Sadr City in spring of 2004. Ever since, Ms. Sheehan has been asking the U.S. government to explain what exactly he died for.

On Saturday, well over 100,000 demonstrators, including Ms. Sheehan and the "Gold Star" families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, had rallied in Washington against the ongoing Iraq war. Such numbers are difficult to verify, but this minimum was admitted by the Washington police, and supporters of the event claimed at least twice that. This large and impressive demonstration was accompanied by other protests, in London, San Francisco and other cities, though on a smaller scale. Critics of the event derided it as a carnival, but what popular movement in history has not been Rabelaisian? Crowds and their performers clown and mug, ridicule the sacred and celebrate the deity all at once. Carnivals of protest create their own bubble of consciousness, in which the unspeakable can finally be shouted, the powerful parodied, and the status quo turned upside down.

Brian Bender of the Boston Globe described the scene: "Many wore T-shirts calling for President Bush's impeachment, including 'regime change begins at home,' while others held photos of fallen American soldiers and shouted 'Bush lied, people died.' Demonstrators held signs reading 'College not Combat,' as relatives of soldiers who died in Iraq held one another and wept for their loved ones."

Since Sept. 11, large demonstrations have been rare. A huge antiwar crowd turned out in January 2003 in San Francisco. In spring of 2003, just before the Iraq war, some 100,000 protested in Washington against it. The protest in New York during the Republican National Convention in 2004 was even larger. So Saturday's rally was among the largest in the past four years. But it was hardly covered by the corporate mass media, which favored instead running endless loops of the same tape of hurricane damage in the Gulf of Mexico.

The permits for the protests and some sort of basic organization were provided by small far-left groups, but anyone who took the time to do an Internet search in student and local newspapers could find accounts of ordinary students, churchgoers and municipal peace groups chartering buses for the nation's capital. Surely no one thinks that International ANSWER or the Workers World Party of Ramsey Clark has more than a handful of members. They were good for setting a date and getting a permit. Popular discontent with the war supplied the demonstrators.

Indeed, members of the Republican Party provided some of the protesters in Washington. The St. Petersburg Times reported on Sept. 25 that among the attendees was Paul Rutherford, 60, of Vandalia, Mich., a Republican who said, "President Bush needs to admit he made a mistake in the war and bring the troops home, and let's move on." Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford support Bush on other policies, and both termed the removal of Saddam Hussein "a noble mission." But they said that when no weapons of mass destruction were discovered, the U.S. troops should have left. Opinion polls suggest that a significant percentage of Republicans have come to agree with the Rutherfords.

In a mid-September CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, about a third of respondents wanted to bring at least some troops home, and another third wanted a complete withdrawal. Only 26 percent wanted to just keep the same number of soldiers there, while a gung-ho 8 percent were in favor of sending yet more troops. Many of the protesters on Saturday were similarly divided between those who wanted immediate withdrawal and those, like, that advocate beginning a phased withdrawal next year.

The American movement to withdraw from Iraq is being called "the American street" on the Arabic satellite news networks. Although many Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis have mixed feelings about it, other Iraqis have taken heart. Khalida Khalaf, 52, told the Los Angeles Times of Cindy Sheehan, "Of course she's a mother, and just like our people are hurting, she's hurting too ... Just as she wants America out of Iraq, so do we." Khalaf, a Shiite of Sadr City in Baghdad, lost her Iraqi son, Majid, to the same clashes between the U.S. military and the Mahdi Army that took the life of Casey Sheehan. About 120 members (out of 275) of the elected Iraqi parliament have called for a short timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The Sunni Arab political elite wants the U.S. to get out of Iraq yesterday, as does the puritanical Shiite Sadr movement. There may be an increasing convergence of opinion on the prospect of the U.S. troops staying in Iraq, between the Iraqi public and the American.

As her supporters chanted, "Not one more," Ms. Sheehan thundered, "We're going to Congress, and we're going to ask them, 'How many more of other people's children are you going to sacrifice?' We're going to say, 'Shame on you.'" The necessity of going to Congress was underlined by the virtual absence of sitting legislators at the protest. Only Rep. Cynthia McKinney among Democratic representatives addressed the rally, though Rep. John Conyers of Michigan attended.

Although freelance journalist and former National Security Council staffer Wayne Madsen alleged that the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, pressured senators and representatives to stay away from the demonstrations (which included speeches critical of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians), the more likely explanation for the absence of leading Democrats lies elsewhere. John Judis and others have reported that behind the scenes, the Democratic Party leadership has decided that it should simply avoid saying much about Iraq.

At first glance, this position makes a certain sense. The Bush war has clearly become a huge disaster, and what is more pertinent in Washington, it has become a public relations nightmare for the Republican Party. And Democrats who criticize the ongoing war open themselves up to charges by the Republican sound machine that they are soft on national defense at the least. What pass for news shows in the corporate media are not above carrying scurrilous charges that those who oppose the Iraq war secretly sympathize with al-Qaida or are card-carrying members of the Baath Party. But since the war is sinking in popularity with dizzying rapidity, most Democrats feel that they can simply passively benefit from the Republicans' quagmire, without taking the risk of speaking out. Some Democratic senators have even talked about increasing the number of troops in Iraq, something less than 10 percent of Americans say they would like to see.

The Democrats on the Hill may in some instances be anxious about criticizing the war because they had voted for it, and fear being tagged as inconsistent. But they have other options than silence. They could point out that they were misled by the Bush administration, which menaced them with visions of mushroom clouds from Iraqi nukes, visions that now seem likely to have been outright lies. When Bush wanted to put the bogus story of Iraqi purchases of uranium from Niger in his State of the Union address, Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet knew that his analysts didn't believe it, but being a dutiful administration hack he allowed Bush to source the story to British, not American, intelligence. Later, when Joe Wilson revealed the Niger claim to be false, Tenet apologized. That kind of administration dishonesty, abetted by a complicit and fatally flawed intelligence service, pervaded Bush administration briefings of Congress in 2002 and early 2003. Behind the scenes, many representatives and senators are still furious about having been lied to and misled. They should put aside their fear of looking like dupes (most Americans were duped) and be frank with the American people. They should put the blame on Bush for hyping unreliable intelligence (intelligence which his administration drummed up) and point to his having been the dupe of ambitious Iraqi expatriates such as Ahmad Chalabi (now enjoying cushy offices in Baghdad as vice premier while Americans are taxed to pay for his rise to power).

The frankly pusillanimous tactic of declining to speak out on the war will ill serve the Democratic Party, which has managed to lose both houses of Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court. The American public is not generally antiwar, it is simply impatient with any long-term, highly expensive governmental endeavor that does not appear likely to succeed. Especially in the wake of the natural disasters in the Gulf of Mexico in August and September, the idea of spending over $1 billion a week in Iraq is increasingly distasteful to them. Even Bush's Republican base is beginning to have second thoughts about the Iraq misadventure. It is increasingly clear that Islam and Muslim clerics will have an unprecedentedly powerful role in the new Iraq, that Assyrian and Chaldean Christians are under much worse pressure than before the war, that the position of women is being undermined, and that the country is simply not going to be the missionary field of which the evangelical Christians had dreamed. None of this news strikes Bush's Christian supporters as good.

The potential of a strong antiwar stance striking a chord with the public has already been demonstrated by Paul Hackett. A Marine who recently served in Iraq, Hackett became a civilian and ran in August as a Democrat for Congress in Ohio's 2nd District, traditionally heavily Republican. He lambasted George W. Bush as a chicken hawk and said he should never have begun the Iraq war. Yet Hackett is no peacenik. He says, "I love the Marine Corps. I happen to think it's being misused in Iraq." He only narrowly lost the election, and the Democratic leadership is seriously thinking of putting him up for an Ohio Senate seat, according to the Hill.

Even Democrats who are not veterans of Iraq need to find the courage to speak out on the war if they are effectively to challenge the Republicans. Simply waiting around for things to get worse in Baghdad is a dangerous strategy, not so much because the situation is likely to improve any time soon but because the American people want real leadership on this issue and they know they are not getting it from Bush.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Iraq Middle East