Decoding the Democrats

Congressional Democrats are seizing control of U.S. foreign policy and running roughshod over the Constitution as they push for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Or so the Bush Administration and its right-wing media mouthpieces would have us believe.

“Democrats took Congress last fall in part by opposing the war in Iraq, but it is becoming clear that they view their election as a mandate for something far more ambitious–to wit, promoting and executing their own foreign policy, albeit without the detail of a presidential election,” the Wall Street Journal complained in an April 6 editorial.

The Journal’s editorial board was worked up over two things: the decision of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to back Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wis.) plan to cut off funding for the Iraq war by March 2008, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria to meet with President Bashir Assad, despite Bush administration claims that Syria is a sponsor of terrorism.

The Journal went so far as to publish an op-ed piece by a former Reagan-era State Department official making the case that Pelosi had committed a felony by breaking an obscure 200-year-old law prohibiting anyone but the president from making U.S. foreign policy decisions.

But it wasn’t only the hard-right Journal taking aim at Pelosi. A Washington Post editorial harrumphed at what it called an “attempt by a Democratic congressional leader to substitute her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president”–concluding that “Ms. Pelosi’s attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish.”

Sounds like a constitutional crisis–until you consider that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of the Republicans traveled to Israel in 1998 and declared Jerusalem to be “the united and eternal capital of Israel,” contradicting long-established U.S. policy and defying the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton.

The fact is that congressional officials regularly undertake foreign trips to push their own agendas–or rather, those of the business interests that support them. But Pelosi’s initiative stands out because of the paralysis of the Bush administration.

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi engages Syrian President Bashir Assad in Damascus and passes him a peace message from Israel,” noted Associated Press reporter Tom Raum. “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frees 15 British captives, defusing a crisis with Britain. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah moves to take the lead in pressing for Mideast peace. The missing thread in these international developments? President Bush.”

Bush has bet everything on the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq in the hope that it will stabilize the Iraqi puppet state. This disastrous stay-the-course policy, along with the deep unpopularity of Bush and the war, is bringing to the fore splits in the U.S. political establishment–and giving confidence to Pelosi, Reid, Feingold and others to push for a change of course.

The question that remains, however, is: How much of a change?

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George Bush is promising to veto any Iraq war spending bill that includes a timeline–any timeline at all–for troop withdrawals.

But the reality is that proposed legislation in the House would fund the occupation for virtually the remainder of Bush’s term. The Democrats’ plan for withdrawal also makes a very big exception: U.S. troops who would remain in Iraq with the mission of “fighting terrorists” and protecting U.S. installations.

Leaving aside numbers and timetables, the Democrats’ proposals reflect the Bush administration’s goal of creating a more stable Iraqi puppet state with its own armed forces, with the U.S. military taking a lower profile, but still a dominant role.

Bush’s all-but-certain veto of the Democrats’ war spending bill obscures the underlying unity of their Iraq perspectives, argues Noah Feldman, the New York University law professor who drafted the Iraqi constitution.

“It is not only that the [Democratic resolutions] were drafted and adopted with the certain knowledge that they would be vetoed,” he wrote in the April 8 New York Times Magazine. “More important, even if a future Democratic president did try to implement the new plans, the results would likely end up looking oddly similar to the Bush administration’s current strategy.”

“The ‘fight al-Qaeda’ strategy may be billed as a withdrawal plan, but it almost certainly could not and would not lead to a significant reduction in troop levels,” Feldman concludes. The reason: A total pullout of troops from Iraq would be the greatest strategic defeat in U.S. history, something neither the Republicans nor Democrats are yet prepared to face.

Certainly the Democrats’ challenge to Bush over the war reflects the pressure from the electorate, which used last November’s election to send an antiwar message and kick out the Republicans.

But the Democrats also have a different audience in mind–Corporate America, the military brass, the State Department and intelligence bureaucracies that are increasingly aghast at the self-destruction of the Bush administration and the damage it is inflicting on U.S. interests.

The contrast with the period following September 11, 2001, couldn’t be greater. Then, Bush was handed the greatest opportunity for U.S. imperialism since Pearl Harbor–overwhelming political support for an aggressive, militarized foreign policy to secure U.S. interests in the post-Cold War world.

If the Democrats were perceived as political doormats during that period, it’s because the “Bush doctrine” of pre-emptive war reflected the post-September 11 consensus in the U.S. ruling class.

Today, however, Bush is presiding over two failed occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. credibility has sunk to an all-time low. Thus, there is mounting pressure for the Democrats to present an alternative.

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IF HISTORY is any guide, the Democratic Party will be at least as determined as the Republicans to advance U.S. imperial interests.

Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be remembered for his New Deal social reforms of the 1930s, but it was his administration–and that of his successor, Harry Truman–that turned the Second World War into a vehicle for establishing U.S. hegemony in the West.

Democrat John F. Kennedy took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and laid the basis for the war in Vietnam that was enormously expanded by his vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson.

The next Democrat in the White House, Jimmy Carter, had a different role to play, carrying out damage control in the wake of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. His solution: intensify the Cold War.

It was today’s “peace activist” Carter who authorized the doctrine of “limited” nuclear war in Europe under Presidential Directive 59; reinstituted registration for the military draft; created the Rapid Deployment Force in the Middle East (the forerunner of today’s Central Command); and declared that any outside military aggression in the Persian Gulf would be considered hostile to the United States. Known as the Carter Doctrine, this policy set the stage strategically for the U.S. wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003.

The administration of Bill Clinton may seem peaceful in comparison with Bush’s. But it was Clinton who presided over the expansion of NATO and the bombings and occupations of Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans. As Andrew Bacevich, the retired military colonel turned political scientist, put it, the Clinton years saw the “unprecedented militarization of U.S. foreign policy.”

After two terms of George W. Bush, the Democrats are finding it easier to talk the antiwar talk on the campaign trail–to the enthusiasm of millions of people who want the disastrous Iraq war to end. But walking the walk will be a different matter.

A Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards in the White House may help rehabilitate the U.S. image abroad. But the nature of the Democratic Party and the imperatives of U.S. imperialism will strictly limit the changes in U.S. foreign policy.

Under a Democratic White House, challenging the U.S. war machine will continue to depend on resistance abroad–and protests at home.

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at:



LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker