The Democratic Party took back Congress thanks in large part to a growing desire among Americans to see an end to the war in Iraq. But leaders with practical experience in trying to stop another war say that might not be as easy as it sounds.
Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society who helped organize the first national protest against the Vietnam War, was pleasantly surprised by the November election results. But he said withdrawal won’t happen as fast and in the way many people hope.
In a telephone interview, Gitlin called the war “unsustainable” and said there’s “a firm majority that wants steps toward withdrawal … some reasonably rapid withdrawal.”
But “it won’t be a complete exit,” he said.
“There will be arguments between the administration and the generals, between the Democrats and the White House, within the Republican Party and within the Democratic Party about the terms of withdrawal and the duration of it and the placement of the troops withdrawn. And there may well be other big foreign-policy fights, like about Iran, so my optimism is not unlimited.
“Joe Lieberman will be the last guy hanging in with Bush while everyone else looks for a way out because it can’t be won—the absurdity of it, [of] the winning claims, is generally manifest.”
Somewhat more pessimistic is former California state Senator Tom Hayden, who also was an SDS leader during Vietnam and traveled to Hanoi, where he won the release of some U.S. prisoners. Hayden called the recent election in America a victory for the people of Iraq and predicted that the Democrats probably will hold hearings on war contracts and profiteering that, he said, is the reason some big U.S. firms are quickly leaving Iraq. But Hayden warned against expecting the war to end soon.
“The national-security elites believe America’s image as a superpower is at stake,” Hayden wrote in his blog. “We’ve heard it all before. No one is willing to lose a war even when they know the war is unwinnable.”
Hayden said anti-war forces should use a combination of working outside the system while still pushing members of Congress inside the system.
“The White House may wish to lure the Democrats into a bipartisan approach to Iraq in order to extend the war while defusing it as an issue with voters. … It is almost certain that they will replace the current Iraqi regime with a strongman to go after the Mahdi army of Muqtada al Sadr, the main Shiite leader who wants the U.S. to withdraw its troops. Finally, both parties will hide behind the recommendations of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton study group, which is likely to propose a partial ‘redeployment.’
“These are steps in the right direction, but only baby steps. The Vietnam War continued for seven senseless years after the Paris peace talks began. While scaling back its original victory plans, the U.S. still wants to station tens of thousands of troops in a subdued, and perhaps partitioned, Iraq, and it wants the issue neutralized by the 2008 elections. The peace movement needs to gear up for the 2008 elections by establishing anti-war coalitions that no candidate can avoid in the primary states. The first four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—have large peace-and-justice constituencies.”
Mark Rudd, a former leader of the Weatherman faction of SDS and now a New Mexico college mathematics professor, wrote in an e-mail exchange with this paper that even if the Democrats can be counted on to end the war, there is no assurance that they will act to undo other wartime abuses they supported.
“I’m happy that the Republican grip on Washington is broken. I don’t think the Democrats deserved this victory, though, since they haven’t been clear on opposition to the war or the fascist inroads against civil and human rights of the Bushies. They even supported torture, believe it or not. …
“I also wish that there was a coherent and strong antiwar movement to inform all this diffuse public opinion which is now vaguely anti-war. The two are not the same. An antiwar movement could help people understand why this war happened, for global conquest, rather than being some sort of well-meaning mistake. And why global conquest is not possible. But these are all wishes. Mostly I hope the Demos get it together to withdraw the troops from Iraq and rescind the torture and spying that Bush has put into place.”
David Harris, former Stanford University student-body president who was imprisoned for draft resistance and now is a noted author, said in a phone interview that he was pleased by the election outcome but has less than complete faith in the Democrats.
“You know, I have my doubts about the Democrats and how far they’re prepared to go with this mandate that they’ve been given, but that it was a mandate was really clear. I mean, there’s no spin that you can apply to this that doesn’t end up an extraordinarily clear rejection and rebuke of the Bush administration and their war policy. So I think … it’s a real watershed moment. Hopefully the Democrats will live up to that instruction from the voters. … So far, so good.”
But he said citizens will have to hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire.
“You know, anybody who pauses to think for a moment will remember that the Democrats certainly let all of our hopes down extraordinarily when this was being called in the first place. They did not answer the bell. Far from it. They handed Bush a rubber stamp. I think to their credit they’ve been trying to make up for it in the year since but that memory is still fresh enough with me that I’m not going to assume that they’re going to bring sense to this policy immediately. … I think the potential for this just becoming somebody else in the driver’s seat … is immense, and we should not lose our vigilance by any means.”