The Politics of Peace

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

So we blink, take a breath, stare once more at the vote total: 149 nay, 141 yea. War funding request denied!

This is a first, fleeting and fluky though it may be. Look quickly and imagine a Congress that doesn’t feed the war god every time it pounds the table. Look quickly and imagine what courage can accomplish. We can breach the fortress of special interests that is our government and let historic change flow in.

Well, maybe. This isn’t the time to get carried away. If the “victory” for peace last week in the U.S. House of Representatives turns out to have historic significance, it will be because history has a sense of humor.

I say this not to denigrate the passionate effort that peace-minded citizens put into it; their lobbying and calls to power have created a constituency that 147 Democrats and two Republicans were unable to ignore.

As David Swanson of, one of the groups that regularly pushes Congress to have a conscience, observed, “It used to be five or 10” no votes on war-funding bills. Last week’s vote, no matter how provisional, “is still a huge victory because those 147 Democrats have been afraid for years that if they did this the media would denounce them, the sky would fall.”

So noted. The pressure works, folks. The peace we feel in our hearts doesn’t have to stay there. It can cross the Potomac.

Of course, when it does, it will turn into politics. Hang onto your hats. In the corridors of power, ideals are flattened out, cauterized with cynicism and ground into sausage — I mean legislation.

Witness what went down last week in the House, and why the god of war is unlikely to go hungry despite his little setback. The Democratic leadership, seemingly trying to please every constituency under the sun, grafted a triad of amendments, including one that would appropriate $165 billion for the Iraq/Afghanistan war efforts — the final war-funding request of the Bush presidency — onto a “phantom” bill that had already passed last fall. There were votes on each amendment, but none on the nonexistent “bill” itself.

The other two amendments, both of which passed, were: A) a set of provisions regarding the conduct of the war, including prohibitions on the construction of permanent bases and the use of torture, and a wimpy, nonbinding troop withdrawal deadline of December 2009; and B) a smorgasbord of domestic funding proposals, the most high-profile of which would have made college scholarships available to post-9/11 military veterans.

Why this Frankenstein monster of a bill, convoluted even by congressional standards? Maya Schenwar, writing for truthout, put it this way: “Although the three amendments were considered at the same time, there was no final vote combining them, so Congress members could readily vote for war funding while voting against Iraq withdrawal and domestic spending. The bill’s Democratic drafters fully expected war funding to pass, since Republicans and conservative Democrats would be able to vote for it, unhindered by any attached provisions.”

And CQ Today Online News added: “Democrats split up the bill in order to allow members opposed to the war to vote against providing more funding but for a timeline to withdraw troops as well as the domestic items.”

Are you following this so far? It was all about making things easy for everyone. Democrats who needed to make a phony show of anti-war sentiment could vote for a nonbinding withdrawal timeline yet still vote to appropriate unfathomable billions more to keep the mistake going. Some of the Dem leadership even voted against the war-funding amendment, but nevertheless had felt obliged to craft a structure that would guarantee its passage.

CQ Today reported, for instance, that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin “argued that he opposes giving any more funding for the war but felt he had a professional obligation to produce a bill that can pass.”

The Polite Democrat strikes again! What irony, then, that 132 conservative Republicans, annoyed with the way the Dems had piled “pork” atop the “troops in the field”— to them, all domestic funding is pork, as far as I can tell, including veterans’ benefits — and failed to give them a simple piece of Smite Evil legislation, voted “present” rather than “yea” on the $165 billion appropriation. And voila, the amendment went down to a shocking defeat that no one had expected.

A temporary defeat. The castrated war-funding bill now hobbles to the Senate, which will certainly reman it and, probably, trim the withdrawal timeline and other restrictions, then send it back to the House.

As Swanson pointed out, this monster, known as H.R. 2642, only has to be defeated in one chamber. Call your senator and congressperson ( and let them know the country wants the war, and the unconscionable cash transfusions, to stop.