To End This War, Don’t Ask For What You Don’t Want

Many of us in United for Peace and Justice- SF Bay Area have been pushing Nancy Pelosi for months to have a “town hall meeting” on the Iraq war. When she finally agreed to hold one on Saturday, January 14, it confirmed my belief in the maxim of “don’t ask for what you don’t want”–you’ll usually regret it.

Think about it–she controlled the Marina Middle School auditorium, the neighborhood, the guest list (you had to RSVP to get inside), the agenda, the 45-minute opening statement, the subsequent Q&A format (written questions only). Good luck having a reasonable dialogue. Anyway, when life hands you a lemon, lemonade remains the best option.

Our group agreed that we would give her half an hour to bore the audience–packed with her pals–knowing that she wouldn’t be able ! to stop talking. Based on the safe assumption that she also wouldn’t be able to address her nonstop votes for war funding, we would then leave our seats and stand on the side of the hall with our signs. One side of the signs read, “Stop voting to fund the war”, “Bring ALL the troops home now”, and “Lead the Democrats to end the war now”. On the other side, all the signs said, “Speak to the War Funding”.

When the discussion turned to supporting Rep. Jim McGovern’s bill (“de-fund the war”) rather than Rep. John Murtha’s bill (which would “re-deploy” the troops “over the horizon” to US bases in neighboring countries as well as US ships), I was amazed that we didn’t have unanimity on this issue, even in our small group. When I protested that the Murtha bill set the stage for a possible later attack on Iran or Syria and failed to address stopping the air war on Iraq, I was met with the response that the Murtha bill still represented a good “firs! t step”.

Don’t ask for what you don’t want. Go ahead, say good things about Murtha, but for God’s sake don’t say a good thing about his bill. Because if George Bush wants to avert a Class 5 hurricane at the polls in November, he’s going to have to conduct at least a fig-leaf-style withdrawal by then. Let’s set the stage for the right kind of withdrawal. Complete and utter. The focus has got to be on “de-funding the war now”. The McGovern bill does that.

Things went according to plan for the first part. The audience was listening intently as she talked about the NSA spying, but she gave us no explanation for her failure to blow the whistle on this illegal program since she was tipped off about it back in 2002. When she started carrying on about her leadership role to amend the worst provisions in the PATRIOT Act, we picked up our signs and took our stations along the left side of the 700-seat hal! l. Everyone read our signs, and looked back and forth at us and at Nancy. We remained silent. Not so for Nancy’s aide Dan Bernal, who was in our face shouting that we were somehow “blocking the aisles”, which was only true as long as his butt was in the way.

Before we had a chance to flip our signs to “Speak to the War Funding” en masse, the speech ended and it was time for Q&A. The moderator decided to try to moderate us by getting our question out of the way: “Are you prepared to lead the Democrats by voting to stop the funding of the war?”

What happened next? She answered the question, in just the way the most cynical person would expect. As the press described it:

“‘The money is for the troops,’ said Pelosi, who initially voted against the war, but has voted in favor of appropriations bills to pay for it. I’m not prepared to go against the troops’ having the equipment they need.'” (Erin McCormick, San Francisco Chronicle)

“Her response ” that she would not undercut support for U.S. troops ” was quickly drowned out by shouts and chants of Bring them home’ and No more money for war.'” (Mark Z. Berabak, Los Angeles Times)

Any chance of a follow-up question was lost due to the lack of a disciplined response in our ranks. Nancy and the moderator had the only mikes firmly in their hands. Once again, we had got what we had asked for.

We had bungled our moment. Now, what to do? Sit down, or shut down a town hall meeting as part of a call for greater democracy?

Code Pink, stationed on the other side of the auditorium, walked right up to front of the stage under Nancy’s feet. That made it easy for our black-clad, largely middle-aged group–we had to support Code Pink. Thirty of us and our signs took center stage with Nancy for the rest of the meeting. Dan shouldn’t have quite so mouthy about us standing in the aisles. He too had asked for what he did not want.

The questions continued. When the impeachment question hit, it was clear that the vast majority of the room was on our side on this one. Even the LA Times admitted that “many in the crowd…wanted nothing less than the ouster of Bush”.

According to the Chronicle:

“Speak to Bush’s impeachment,’ members of the crowd chanted at one point.

Pelosi called for a congressional investigation on the revelation that the Bush administration had authorized domestic spying, but pooh-poohed calls for impeachment hearings against the president.

I think we should solve this issue electorally,” she said, urging audience members to channel their energy into the 2006 elections.'”

Well, if an electoral solution is what you want, don’t follow Ms. Pelosi. It’s one thi! ng to acknowledge that conservative Democrat John Murtha did the nation a big favor when he said bluntly that it was time to get “all the troops” out of Iraq in the next six months. But it’s another thing to say that she would never “impose” any leadership on the question of getting the troops out of Iraq. there was no official party position on the war and she would never seek to impose one. Her prediction was that Democrats would eventually adopt Murtha’s position based on public pressure.

Let the LA Times weigh in on this one:

“Quite frankly, I think the fact that people have to get to this place in a period of time is a healthy thing,” Pelosi said. Many in the audience….disagreed. They repeatedly challenged the antiwar resolve of Pelosi and her fellow Democrats, in both the written questions they submitted and the criticism they hollered out.”

We need candidates to challenge Pelosi. She is far from invincible. The idea of her as Speaker of the House is too awful to contemplate. When asked to provide any reason to believe that the Democrats had a future, she meandered into a long-winded invocation of FDR and then scolded the crowd for the repeated peals of laughter.

There’s hope in New York, where two candidates are opposing Hillary Clinton–former National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini and former Green Party member Steven Greenfield. As Tasini puts it, Clinton is a “pro-war candidate, who opposes bringing our troops home now, believes NAFTA was a good thing, supports trade deals that cost American jobs, who opposes a real universal health care plan and who gets large amounts of money from corporate donors.” Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Thomas Mann agrees. “She has a reputation as a strong liberal, which is at variance with her background, her agreement with her husband on most issues and ! most of her policies in the Senate,” Hillary will be in San Francisco on January 28–join us in giving her a warm welcome.

We can end the war this year, much to Pelosi’s dismay, if the Republicans are convinced that they are looking at a Category 5 hurricane in November. Let’s put the heat on Democrats as well as Republicans. Let’s not let women such as Pelosi or Clinton off the hook despite the need for gender balance. Let’s link our antiwar efforts with a full-court press to isolate the interests of the rich from the interests of the poor AND the working class AND the middle class. As just one example, universal health care has proven to be a winning political issue in states such as Oregon and can win in many more when its taxpayer-based cost is compared to the current soaring insurance rates.

The antiwar movement is moving in the right direction by exposing Pelosi and Clinton and their lack of commitment to either peace! or justice. Now we have to take it to the next level by making McGovern’s bill to “de-fund the war” and a corresponding call for economic justice the litmus test in every Congressional race in the United States. While we’re at it, let’s join Cindy Sheehan and The World Can’t Wait during Bush’s State of the Union on January 31 and see if we can drive his regime right into the sea. Ask for what you want.

BILL SIMPICH is an Oakland civil rights lawyer and anti-war activist. He can be reached at: