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Whitewashing a Sell Out

Democratic Spin Won’t End the War in Iraq

by JOHN STAUBER

After several months of empty posturing against the war in Iraq, politicians in Washington have made what Democratic congressman James P. Moran called a "concession to reality" by agreeing to give President Bush virtually everything he wanted in funding and unrestricted license to continue waging the increasingly detested war that has made Bush the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon.

This is the outcome that we warned against two months ago when we wrote "Why Won’t MoveOn Move Forward?" In it, we criticized MoveOn for backpedaling on its previously claimed objective of ending the war in Iraq immediately. Anti-war sentiment was the main factor behind last year’s elections that brought Democrats to power in both houses of Congress. Once in power, however, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through a "compromise" bill, supported by MoveOn, that offered $124 billion in supplemental funding for the war. To make it sound like they were voting for peace, the Democrats threw in a few non-binding benchmarks asking Bush to certify progress in Iraq, coupled with language that talked about withdrawing troops next year.

Understanding how legislative processes work, we expected then that even those few nods to anti-war sentiment would be eliminated in due course. Bush had already said he would veto the Pelosi bill and pledged to hold out for funding without restrictions of any kind. Moreover, there was little doubt that the Democratic leadership would eventually cave to his demands. Notwithstanding their stage-managed photo ops and rhetorical flourishes for peace, prominent Democrats signaled early that they would give Bush the funding he wanted. Barack Obama even went so far as to state publicly that once Bush vetoed the original bill, Congress would approve the money because "nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground." (Two weeks later, MoveOn announced that it had polled its members, and Obama was their "top choice to lead the country out of Iraq.") In effect, the confrontation between Bush and the Democrats was a high-stakes game of poker in which the Democrats went out of their way to make it clear that they would fold once Bush called their bluff.

Not everyone saw this coming, of course. Back in March, Salon.com called MoveOn’s Eli Pariser "shrewdly pragmatic" for backing Pelosi’s original supplemental war funding bill. It quoted Pariser predicting that after Bush was "forced to veto" Pelosi’s bill, "That forces the Republicans to choose between an increasingly isolated president and the majority of the Congress and the majority of the American people."

Similar "shrewd pragmatism" came from blogger and Democratic campaign consultant Matt Stoller at MyDD.com, praising MoveOn’s "dedication to practical results" and calling the Pelosi bill "a major step forward … Moveon was true to its members in helping this happen." Stoller criticized us by name for our naiveté in thinking otherwise:

JOHN STAUBER, who is an ardent critic of Moveon, comes from a different generation of liberal activism. …

Stauber isn’t used to a non-Southern Democratic Party. It’s nothing he’s ever known, and it’s frankly nothing that any of us have ever known. None of us know how to wield power in this new political world, where the public is liberal, the military industrial state is cannibalizing itself, and the political system is (slowly) reorienting itself around this shocking new paradigm. Stauber is also not used to the idea that activist liberals actually like the Democratic Party. He believes that Moveon members would not support Democratic leaders if presented with a different set of choices, without acknowledging that Moveon members have traditionally supported Democratic leaders when the questions are tactical in nature.

A "tactic," as the dictionary explains, is "an expedient for achieving a goal." If the goal is to end the war in Iraq, the Pelosi bill was never a tactic that had any chance of succeeding. Its provisions had no teeth and it was clear that too many Democrats never intended to see the fight through. As this week’s betrayal by the Democratic leadership demonstrates, ending the war is simply not their goal. Their goal is to continue the war for the time being, while giving themselves just enough distance from it that they can run as the anti-war party in next year’s presidential and congressional elections. Stoller seems to have belatedly arrived at this realization himself. Responding to this week’s news, he writes:

We’re in Iraq because the political system, the public, and all of us became unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood. We’re still in Iraq, and will be there until the public is genuinely convinced to leave. Right now, we’re not there. I know what the polls say, but I also am watching Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Giuliani, Romney, etc running for President, and not one of them is calling for a full withdrawal. Not one. Clinton, the leading nominee in a supposedly antiwar party, is a hawk and doesn’t even think that voting to authorize the war was a mistake.

Amazingly, the conclusion that Stoller draws from these facts is the following non sequitur:

So do not tell me that Pelosi, Reid, and Moveon are doing a bad job. They are not. They are persuading a country and a politics that is used to lazy bullshit that kills a lot of people to think twice about it, and resist.

Here’s the point that Stoller seems to have missed: There is a difference between what the public wants and what politicians do. Just because the high and mighty politicians don’t get it yet, don’t assume that the average American doesn’t. It is not "the public" that needs to be persuaded. The politicians, their marketing campaigns, and the bloggers who join them may be "unable to distinguish between truth and falsehood," but the public at large fully understands that we need to get out of Iraq. The question is simply how to translate that public awareness into effective pressure that will force the politicians to change course. As we wrote in March, "When politicians and advocacy groups like MoveOn play anti-war games of political theater while effectively collaborating with the war’s continuation, they merely add one more deception to the layers of lies in which this war has been wrapped."

Since 2003 we’ve co-authored two books on Iraq, and we have been reporting on the war for over five years now, since we began to dissect the Bush administration’s propaganda push almost immediately after 9/11. We’ve been reporting on MoveOn for almost as long. And by the way, we are not "ardent critics" of MoveOn, as Stoller claimed. We are trying to constructively criticize an organization whose leaders mean well, even though they have been selling a flawed strategy. MoveOn has emerged as a powerful political player with a massive email list of more than three million names and the ability to raise millions of dollars for Democrats while waging innovative PR campaigns around the environmental, political and social issues they promote.

The bottom line, however, is that MoveOn until now has always been a big "D" Democratic Party organization. It began as an online campaign to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, and its tactical alliances with Democratic politicians have made it part of the party’s current power base, which melds together millionaire funders such as George Soros and the Democracy Alliance, liberal unions like SEIU, and the ballyhooed Netroots bloggers like Matt Stoller, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos. At a personal level, we presume the members of this coalition genuinely want the war to end, but their true and primary priority is winning Democratic Party control of both houses of Congress and the White House. Now that the war in Iraq hangs like a rotting albatross around the neck of the Bush administration, it has become the Democrats’ best weapon to successfully campaign against Republicans. From a "shrewdly pragmatic" point of view, therefore, they have no reason to want the war to end soon.

Some Democrats (not the top politicians, of course) are saying this openly. Here, for example, is how one blogger at the Daily Kos sees things:

I know, that means more American casualties, more Iraqi casualties, more treasure and lives wasted.

But I think you’ve got to keep in mind the big picture here. … [B]y the end of September, people will be beginning to pay real attention to the next election…

I think this does give the Democratic party a tremendous opportunity to crush the Republicans for perhaps a couple of decades to come. Iraq, and the Republican support of it, may well do for the Republicans what Vietnam did for Democrats – make the public suspicious for decades about the party’s bona fides on foreign policy.

In this analysis, "more treasure and lives wasted" are the "little picture," while winning elections is "the big picture." Democrats like Russ Feingold who oppose the Iraq supplemental do not share this strategy, and it is never explicitly stated even by the Democratic politicians who are signing on this week to fund the war, but it is implicit in their actions.

If you visit the MoveOn website today as we write, the top item on the page is a request for people to sign a petition against price gouging by oil companies. They’re focused on the "big picture" of using the current spike in gasoline prices as an opportunity to build their email list, while the little picture of ending the war has fallen from the top of the page. Yesterday MoveOn began a campaign calling on Democrats to vote no on the Iraq supplemental. MoveOn is also talking for the first time about supporting primary challengers to Democrats who "ran on ending the war but vote for more chaos and more troops in Iraq." This belated spark of independence, however, is too little and too late to stop a deal that has already been struck, in which politicians that MoveOn has been supporting have just surrendered ground from a position of strength to a president and party that is weakened, on an issue of utmost importance to their country.

MoveOn is expert at marketing, PR and advertising. Their emails to members convey a friendly, informal style and a sense that "they" are just like "us." But there are important differences between the organization and many of the people who sign their petitions and give them money. MoveOn has not been primarily a movement against the war. It has been a movement of Democrats to get the party back into power.

We do not doubt that MoveOn’s leadership sincerely believes they are pursuing the most practical and effective course to improve America’s political problems by vanquishing the Republicans and getting Democrats elected. However, when given a choice between building a powerful grassroots movement to end the war, versus exploiting the war for the benefit of getting Democrats elected, MoveOn has repeatedly chosen the latter while probably believing there is no difference.

There is an organized anti-war movement in America that is not an adjunct of the Democratic Party. Up until now, it has been weak and divided and unable to organize itself into an effective national movement in its own right. In its place, therefore, MoveOn and its Netroots allies have become identified as the leadership of the anti-war movement. It is vitally important, however, that a genuinely independent anti-war movement organize itself with the ability to speak on its own behalf.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, the civil rights movement was most definitely not an adjunct of the Democratic or Republican Parties. Far from it, it was a grassroots movement that eventually forced both parties to respond to its agenda. Likewise, the movement against the Vietnam War was not aligned with either the Democratic or Republican parties, both of which claimed to have plans for peace while actually pursuing policies that expanded the war.

That’s the sort of movement we need again, if we wish to see peace in our lifetime.

JOHN STAUBER is Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin and co-author of Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever. He can be reached at: john@prwatch.org