Is a bipartisan coalition emerging to oppose the National Security State?

What is the significance of GOP opposition to the Patriot Act and the wars in Libya and Afghanistan?

Published June 6, 2011 4:07PM (EDT)

When Dennis Kucinich earlier this month introduced a bill to compel the withdrawal of all American troops from Libya within 15 days, the leadership of both parties and the political class treated it the way they do most of Kucinich's challenges to establishment political orthodoxy:  they ignored it except to mock its unSeriousness.  But a funny thing happened: numerous liberal House Democrats were joined by dozens of conservative GOP members to express support for his bill, and the White House and GOP House leadership became jointly alarmed that the bill could actually pass; that's why GOP House Speaker John Boehner introduced a Resolution purporting to rebuke Obama for failing to comply with the War Powers Resolution, but which, in fact, was designed to be an utterly inconsequential act.  Its purpose was to protect Obama's war by ensuring that Kucinich's bill failed; the point of Boehner's alternative was to provide a symbolic though meaningless outlet for those House members angry over Obama's failure to get Congressional support.

Still, Kucinich's bill attracted an extraordinary amount of support given that it would have forced the President to withdraw all troops from an ongoing war in a little over 2 weeks.  A total of 148 House members voted for it; even more notable was how bipartisan the support was:  61 Democrats and 87 Republicans.  Included among those voting for mandatory withdrawal from Libya were some of the House's most liberal members (Grijalva, Holt, Woolsey, Barney Frank) and its most conservative members identified with the Tea Party (McClintock, Chaffetz, Bachmann).  Boehner's amendment -- demanding that Obama more fully brief Congress -- ultimately passed, also with substantial bipartisan support, but most media reports ultimately recognized it for what it was:  a joint effort by the leadership of both parties and the White House to sabotage the anti-war efforts of its most liberal and most conservative members.

A similar dynamic asserted itself during the joint efforts by the White House and the GOP Congressional leadership to ensure an extension of the Patriot Act without any reforms.  What The Nation correctly described as a "Left-Right coalition" blocked the joint GOP/Democratic scheme to force the extension through on an expedited basis, without any debate.  Similarly, opposition to ultimate enactment of the Patriot Act was led by some of the most conservative GOP members of the Senate (Rand Paul, Mike Lee) and some of its most liberal (Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley).  Like the Libya War, the Patriot Act was protected by a union of the White House and GOP Congressional leadership against this dissident, bipartisan coalition.  Much the same occurred when Alan Grayson and Ron Paul joined with members from the Right and Left -- and against the establishment of both parties -- to pass a bill compelling an audit of the Fed.

And today, The New York Times profiles the very conservative GOP Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina.  After cheerleading for the Iraq War -- Jones was the one who notoriously forced the House cafeteria to change "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" as a rebuke to the anti-war French -- he quickly came to deeply regret that support, alienating much of his right-wing constituency by opposing the Iraq War and then the Afghanistan War at a time when few -- especially in his party -- were doing so.  Since the end of Bush's first term, Jones has been one of the most outspoken and consistent antiwar and pro-civil-liberties voices; along with Ron Paul, one could say he's been the only Republican with a national platform expressing those views. 

Last month, Jones co-sponsored a bill -- along with liberal House member Jim McGovern -- to compel the Obama administration to offer a withdrawal plan for Afghanistan.  Most of the Democratic caucus, along with more than 2 dozen GOP House members, voted for it, and it thus almost passed, shocking the political class.  As a result, the NYT suggests today that there is growing anti-war sentiment in the GOP, including among the Tea Party, thus making Jones "no longer a pariah":

Some foreign policy analysts now see Mr. Jones, 68, Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, and a small coterie of Tea Party stalwarts as the leading edge of a conservative movement to rein in American military power — a break from the muscular foreign policy of President George W. Bush.

"They reflect a growing discontent within the Republican Party about the wars and a growing feeling that they don’t want to spend money on them anymore," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, an advocacy group that promotes arms control. "They are military noninterventionists."

Mr. Jones agreed, saying: "We can’t police the world anymore. We're not the world power. It's China. Our economy is in chaos right now."

Conversations with voters in Mr. Jones’s district, which embraces much of North Carolina’s Atlantic coastline, suggest voters who were baffled or infuriated by his opposition to Iraq in 2005 are liking his views on Afghanistan in 2011. . . .

Polls suggest Republican voters are moving in Mr. Jones's direction. In a New York Times/CBS News poll last month, 43 percent of Republicans said the United States should reduce troop strength in Afghanistan, double the number who said that in November 2009. Some prominent Republicans, including Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Grover Norquist, the antitax champion, have also begun questioning the American mission in Afghanistan.

Is there really genuine anti-war sentiment growing among the GOP?  I sincerely doubt it.  If the last two years have taught us anything, it's that the true test of the authenticity of claimed political convictions is whether they endure regardless of which party controls the White House.  Democratic loyalists spent many years pretending to care about civil liberties and wars because doing so allowed them opportunistically to bash a GOP President; as soon as a Democratic President adopted those policies, the purported concerns for such matters all but vanished (just imagine the sustained progressive outcry if George Bush -- rather than Barack Obama -- were conducting an illegal war without Congressional approval, or if Bush had tripled the detainee population at Bagram while insisting that detainees there have no rights of any kind).  Obviously, widespread Democratic opposition to Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies was motivated primarily by partisan advantage, not actual conviction.

Identically, the intense fear of expanded federal power incessantly touted by "small-government" conservatives in the 1990s -- dark tales of black U.N. helicopters, Janet Reno's goon squads (i.e., federal law enforcement agencies), and domestic eavesdropping warrants issued by the secret and nefarious FISA court -- instantly vanished as soon as a GOP administration began wildly expanding federal powers in the name of 9/11.  With rare exception, there was no new federal power these "small-government" conservatives weren't willing to cheer on once their party was the one wielding the power (just as there is no civil-liberties assault Democratic loyalists are unwilling to defend now).  Given that history, it seems abundantly clear that the newfound GOP opposition to war and civil liberties incursions is grounded in the opportunity to oppose the policies of a Democratic President, not any actual belief.  I'll believe in its sincerity if -- and only if -- it endures into a GOP administration.

That said, insincerely motivated anti-war and pro-civil-liberties sentiment is better than none at all.  I've long argued that the only way for a meaningful defense of civil liberties -- and meaningful opposition to the excesses of the National Security State -- to arise is by removing those issues from the partisan prism.  All Americans have an interest in barring the government from transgressing Constitutional limits (if, for no other reason, than because a politically hostile President from the other party may use those powers against them: see this Tom Tomorrow cartoon on the Democrats' support for the Patriot Act).  All non-oligarchical Americans are harmed by the insatiable piggishness of the corporatist beneficiaries of excessive military spending.  And all Americans are inculcated with an instinctive belief in due process and distrust of government power exercised without transparency and checks. 

It is because these inherently non-partisan and non-ideological principles have been deliberately warped into prongs in the partisan wars -- partisans care about anti-war and pro-civil liberties issues only when their party is out of power -- that no effective constituency for them can be created.  Beyond that, trans-partisan and trans-ideological coalitions are extremely difficult to assemble because tribal loyalties render them sinful and heretical: the benefit of trivial, daily partisan bickering (the Weiner Scandal; Sarah Palin's "Paul Revere" comments) is that they prevent citizens with common interests from banding together against the political establishment and the financial elites who own it.  Anything that can erode those impenetrable walls -- even if motivated by ignoble ends -- is to be welcomed; if nothing else, right-wing anti-war sentiment and civil liberties concerns open up the debate by signaling to GOP voters that these are acceptable positions to express (Bill Kristol certainly sees anti-war sentiment among the Tea Party movement as a serious threat to his neoconservative vision of Endless War, which is why he has publicly inveighed against it).

Even if one assumes (as I do) that newly discovered anti-war and pro-civil-liberties positions among the GOP are largely motivated by partisan politics rather than sincere conviction, that doesn't make them harmful.  To the contrary, one of the checks on political power is supposed to be steadfast opposition from other factions; an opposing party is (within reason) supposed to be adversarial to the other party in power.  That's what made the Democratic Party's acquiescence to the Bush/Cheney Terrorism and civil liberties agenda so disgraceful; even as they pretended to their voters with their rhetoric that they opposed those policies, they did virtually nothing to stop them and much to enable them.  They abjectly failed in their duty to be a meaningful opposition party.  Had they blocked those policies for partisan ends (rather than due to actual conviction), that would have been preferable to their acquiescence to and/or support for them.  That is how growing GOP anti-war opposition and pro-civil-liberties posturing can be seen as well:  as beneficial, something that can be exploited for positive ends, regardless of what motivates it.

By Glenn Greenwald

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