The Peace Movement's Progress

By David Swanson

The peace movement has made significant progress in the United States since its low point of late 2008, and just about everything anyone in it has done has been a contribution. If everyone keeps doing what they’re doing, and more of it, we might just end some wars, eventually. But I think some techniques are working better than others, and that pursuing the most strategic approaches would make victory likelier sooner and longer-lasting when it comes.

I think the peace movement bottomed out in late 2008 for two reasons above all others. One was the election of a Democratic president. I wasn’t around for Wilson, FDR, or LBJ, but my impression is that electing Democratic presidents is often bad news for both peace and, paradoxically, for the peace movement. But both can eventually recover. The other reason was the unconstitutional and uncertain treaty that Bush and Maliki created, requiring the complete end of the Iraq occupation following three more years of it. The agreement actually made this delay a year and a half, rather than three years, by making the treaty breakable through a vote of the Iraqi people (the outcome of which could not be doubted). However, that was denied to them. While the US peace movement had always demanded an IMMEDIATE end to the war in Iraq, and might have been expected to go on doing so, the combination of a written deadline and the ascension of a Democrat to the throne proved deadly, even as the occupation of Iraq continued and that in Afghanistan escalated.

We now have a larger and more costly military, and larger and more costly wars — costly in financial terms — than when Bush was president. We have more troops in the field, more mercenaries in the field, bases in more nations, a heightened use of drone strikes into additional countries, new secret military forces in still other nations, and greater war powers assumed by the president, including the power to assassinate Americans, the more firmly established powers to imprison without charge, rendition, and torture, and heightened powers of secrecy.

So, why do I say we’ve made progress? Well, I said we’ve made progress from where we were in late 2008, at which point the downward trends I’ve just mentioned could be foreseen. We’d just elected a president promising a larger military and an escalation in Afghanistan. Since then, the U.S. public has turned dramatically from supporting to opposing the war in Afghanistan and the President’s handling of it. The planned escalation in Kandahar has failed to get off the ground. Every official governmental and non-governmental study has deemed the effort in Afghanistan hopeless, pointless, catastrophic, or criminal. High ranking whistleblowers have spoken out. The Pentagon has resorted to wild claims of mineral wealth, as it flails about for new ways to justify the war. And the blame game, surrounding the eventual withdrawal, has begun; the general in charge has been dismissed. In addition, the withdrawal dates that people associate with Iraq and Afghanistan (out of Iraq by the end of 2011, beginning to get out of Afghanistan by July 2011) are closer, meaning that outrage at their violation is closer.

At the same time, counter-recruitment efforts in the United States have begun achieving real successes, forcing the closure of the Army Experience Center in Pennsylvania and denying recruiters students’ test data in Maryland. US troops have begun refusing illegal orders in greater numbers, and a culture of troop resistance coffee houses near US bases has been reborn. The economic slide in the United States, while in no sense desirable, and hurting the ability of some of us to be engaged in the movement, is opening people’s eyes to the impact of the war economy on the peace economy, and allowing coalitions to be formed of groups that want to defund wars and the military plus groups that want to fund everything else: healthcare, schools, jobs, green energy, etc. Resolutions against war spending are being passed by political parties, towns, cities, and labor councils. Cities are putting cost of war counters on city hall. A coalition of peace and social justice groups has been holding monthly vigils at congress members’ local offices, with significant local impact in dozens of districts, even if less noticeable nationally than big annual marches.

During the past year and a half, numerous activist organizations and somewhat independent media outlets have shifted from supporting the war in Afghanistan to opposing it. By opposing it, they are not necessarily lobbying to defund it or taking any other steps to resist it or educate people about it, but they are officially opposed to it, meaning that they are our untapped potential waiting to be put into action. And numerous other groups, old and news, have to various degrees and in various ways become active, opposing the wars, each in their own way, and contributing to these kinds of results:

May-June 2009 – 51 Democrats vote against war funding when it’s guaranteed to pass; 32 vote against it when it might fail.

Late June 2009 – 131 Democrats vote for the Pentagon to produce an exit strategy, any exit strategy, for Afghanistan.

March 2010 – 65 Democrats vote to end the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2010.

July 1, 2010 – Well over 40, at least 51, and possibly 90 or more (up from 32) Democrats refuse to vote for Afghan war escalation funding, even with pleasant unrelated legislation attached, forcing House leadership to delay the bill for months and then maneuver it to passage without a vote.

July 1, 2010 – 38 Democrats (up from 32, but similarly limited to the number Speaker Nancy Pelosi would allow — see below) vote against the Rule that effectively allows the funding bill to go forward toward becoming law.

July 1, 2010 – 25 congress members vote to cut off all funding for the war in Afghanistan. 100 vote to fund only withdrawal. And 162 (up from 131, and for a strengthened amendment) vote to require the president to present Congress with a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan and a withdrawal plan and completion date, and to require that Congress vote by July 2011 “if it wants to allow the obligation and expenditure of funds for Afghanistan in a manner that is not consistent with the president’s announced policy of December 2009 to begin to drawdown troops by July 2011.”

Two separate events in 2009 were combined into one in 2010. First, the funding vote was held in 2009, and the peace movement pushed for No votes hard. The White House and the House leadership were forced to bribe and threaten congress members for weeks to keep the Democratic No votes down to 32. Had they reached 39 the bill would have (at least in its current form) failed, due to all the Republicans voting No because of an unrelated measure packaged into it. It was easy to see that we could get to 39 by the next “emergency” supplemental bill if we wanted to work at it. The second event in 2009 was the vote on Congressman Jim McGovern’s proposal for an exit timetable. The peace movement worked hard for this and won 131 Yes votes. This generated two separate stories, and the two agendas did not come into conflict with each other.

In 2010 it was a different story. Congressman McGovern made his proposal for an exit timetable an amendment to the funding bill. So, some peace groups promoted yes votes on that amendment, some pushed for No votes on the funding, and others did both. And the pressure for No votes on the funding was felt by congress members whose constituents were organized and active. Rep. Chellie Pingree was pressured hard in Maine, and began to speak out for stopping the funding. She told General Petraeus in a hearing that he was making us all less safe (even if she did thank him three times for that “service”). And Congressman Alan Grayson, in a move I don’t recall ever having seen before, set up a website for people to use in lobbying his colleagues to vote No on the funding.

If the amendments had been held back for a later date and a second event, then what happened on July 1, 2010, might have looked a little different. Progressive congress members might not have accepted a byzantine procedural maneuver that allowed the war escalation funding to be sent back to the Senate without the House actually voting on it. Or if such a procedure was tried, more of them might have voted No on the Rule allowing it. Instead, almost all the committed war opponents voted for the Rule that moved the funding along, with the double excuse that it was only a Rule vote, not a real true policy vote, and they were voting for it in order to have a chance to vote for good amendments.

And what would have happened next, if this procedure had been rejected? I can’t be sure, because I don’t know every crazy trick to be found in House parliamentary precedents, but one distinct possibility is that the Democratic leadership would have been forced to pass the war escalation funding on its own with mostly Republican votes, and to pass useful peaceful spending on its own with mostly Democratic votes. The war funding would then have sailed through the Senate and been signed by the President. The non-destructive spending would then have passed the Senate if its leadership had fought hard enough and been willing if necessary to throw out the filibuster rule. McGovern’s exit strategy bill could then have garnered its 162 votes the next week or next month instead of being buried in the news of late-night funding passage.

Why would this result have been any better than what we got?

Well, for one thing, it would have informed people that there was a war and that the war was being funded. My local right-wing Democrat voted No on the Rule and Yes on McGovern’s amendment, but he voted No on the Rule because of all sorts of other nonsense added into it. The local media reported on his objection to the budgetary procedures involved and never reported in any way that there had been any vote in Congress related to the war. As far as my neighbors know, the wars fund themselves.

Secondly, it would have identified who was pro-war and who was anti-war by their votes. Local activists in my town spent months demanding that our representative take a position on the war. He has yet to do so, and if he can avoid it he never will. We can’t hold people accountable unless we know what they’ve done. Right now some congress members are claiming they opposed the war by voting against the Rule while others are claiming they opposed the war by voting for it.

Thirdly, forcing the Democratic leadership to line up with the Republican caucus and against most of the Democrats on war votes would be educational for people who are unaware that their chief opponent when lobbying their local Democrat for peace and justice is the leadership of his or her party.

Fourth, the demand to stop funding the war comes from people. It’s a demand we take to Congress, not one we pick up from Congress and try to explain to others. We can form huge coalitions with economic justice groups around the demand to shift our spending from wars to jobs and housing. We can’t organize two kids and a dog from outside the peace movement to join a coalition for an unspecified non-binding exit timetable or a new National Intelligence Estimate. That doesn’t mean these are counterproductive demands. I would certainly support them on any day of the year other than the day Congress is voting to fund the wars. The problem is when one useful campaign unnecessarily interferes with another.

Fifth, if we think of Congress as sending messages to the president who will make all the decisions as “the decider,” I would rather have two events and send two messages. And the strongest message I can imagine is this: “A growing number of House members have committed to voting against any more war funding, no matter how much lipstick is applied to it, and this group includes the majority of your party’s caucus, and people are organizing to keep these members in office and vote the others out”. Other, weaker messages could still be sent, and sent more strongly, on another day.

Sixth, if we think of Congress as potentially resembling the creature defined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, as capable of actual action, not just rhetoric, then our goal becomes building toward the day on which the House actually refuses any more funding for a war it opposes. In order to think this way, we have to stop thinking exclusively in terms of passing bills that then must pass the Senate and the President. We have to also be able to think in terms of blocking the passage of bills. For this we only need the House. We can focus our attention on the House and stop petitioning the Senate and the President. This gives us a lot more resources. Plus, we don’t have to antagonize president worshippers. Instead we can focus our demands on House members. And we can insist on other forms of action from Congress as well, such as oversight of wars involving subpoenas and their enforcement and the threat of high level impeachments. The strongest message a Congress can send to a president is, with all due respect to many of my friends, not “We wish you would end the war some day,” but “We will expose any war crimes, and we hold the power of the purse.”

Seventh, while our ideal must be ending the current wars in whatever combination of approaches is most likely to succeed the fastest, we should also take an interest in ending wars in a manner that helps prevent the next ones from beginning immediately. This means focusing on the funding, and moving from the defunding of wars to the defunding of the military and the empire of foreign bases, shrinking the machine that creates the wars. And it means taking the power to initiate or escalate or indefinitely continue wars away from presidents.

The peace movement in the US, organizationally, and much to its disadvantage, has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. We are, consequently, often instructed in the need to relate to congress members on their terms, using their language, etc. One good friend of mine is quite energized with the need to instruct us that the recent vote on a Rule did not technically fund the war escalation, even while readily admitting that the only way to stop that particular bill that day (at least momentarily) was to vote No on the Rule. But there is also a value to forcing congress members to speak our language. It is not, after all, our job to represent them. Peace activists in Maine made themselves so clear to Rep. Chellie Pingree that she was compelled to vote against the Rule and understood immediately that its being merely a Rule vote would constitute no excuse whatsoever. Peace activists in some parts of Tennessee and Pennsylvania (who may have a harder base to work with) did not do as well, as illustrated by this passage from the Hill describing the July 1, 2010, vote on the Rule:

“Party leaders were forced to hold open the vote for several minutes, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could be seen huddling with Reps. Steve Cohen (Tenn.) and Paul Kanjorski (Penn.), the last Democratic holdouts. Both cast ‘yes’ votes to push the motion over the top. When it was clear the measure had passed, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) switched her vote from ‘yes’ to ‘no.’ The final total was 215-210, with 8 lawmakers not voting. Cohen told The Hill earlier in the week that he was disinclined to support a war funding bill after bowing to pressure from party leaders who needed him to switch his vote from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ a year ago.”

Almost no one in Maine, including the leading activists had any idea what a self-executing Rule is. But Congresswoman Pingree had a good idea what was expected of her. We have to take our message to Congress, not the reverse. Our message, the one that comes from our people, the one that builds coalitions with our allies in the broader justice movement is: Stop the funding!


UPDATE: How they voted:

The Peace Movement’s Progress.

Democrats forced to cheat to fund war.

Live blog of the vote.

How they voted on the Rule.
Democrats who voted No:
Adler (NJ), Berry, Boccieri, Bright, Childers, Conyers, Driehaus, Filner, Foster, Giffords, Grayson, Grijalva, Halvorson, Herseth Sandlin, Himes, Kratovil, Kucinich, Lipinski, Maffei, Marshall, Michaud, Minnick, Mitchell, Murphy, (CT), Murphy (NY), Napolitano, Nye, Perriello, Peters, Pingree (ME), Pomeroy, Schrader, Shea-Porter, Shuler, Skelton, Space, Taylor, Titus.

How they voted on disaster relief, teacher funding amendment, which passed.

How they voted on an amendment to eliminate military funding from the bill.

How they voted on an amendment to limit military funding to withdrawal.

How they voted on an amendment to require the president to present Congress with 1) a new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan by January 31, 2011 and 2) a plan by April 4, 2011, on “the safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, including a timeframe for the completion of the redeployment.” In addition — and this was a late addition to the amendment strengthening it considerably — Congress would be required to vote by July 2011 “if it wants to allow the obligation and expenditure of funds for Afghanistan in a manner that is not consistent with the president’s announced policy of December 2009 to begin to drawdown troops by July 2011.”

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