teve Weissman / t r u t h o u t | Perspective – 2009-05-19 00:32:14
(May 17, 2009) — “With respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I am extremely dubious that the Administration will be able to accomplish what it wants to accomplish,” declared Dave Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “The problem is not the Administration’s policy or its goals. The problem is that I doubt that we have the tools there that we need to implement virtually any policy in that region.”
Obey then voted with a majority of the house to pass some $97 billion in supplemental appropriations, much of it to send a fresh supply of unmanned drones and an additional 21,000 troops and to fight a war he predicts will fail.
Obey’s straddle sends a signal that no one should ignore, not least President Obama and those who oppose his AF-PAC war. One of the most liberal Democrats in the House, Obey compared his stance to the way he voted to fund America’s intervention in Vietnam when he first came to Congress in 1969. He opposed the war, he explained. But he felt that President Richard Nixon, who had inherited the war, deserved some time to make his policy work. Obey gave him a year, saw no progress, and began speaking out to bring the troops home.
As Obey saw it, Obama should similarly have a year to show progress in Afghanistan. “We are giving the Administration everything that they want and then some to maximize their chance of succeeding,” he explained as he shepherded the appropriation through his committee. “But the bill requires at the end of the year an honest, tough minded evaluation of the chances of success of the policy and of the performance by the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments.”
In fact, the House stripped away the benchmarks that Obey wanted to measure success or failure and he voted the money anyway. That’s the way insiders play the game, and Obey is, after all, the fifth-ranking Democrat in the House. But his one-year timeline gives warning of the battles that lie ahead.
Congressman Jim McGovern, of Massachusetts, took a different stance. He introduced a resolution requesting that President Obama provide a detailed exit strategy for Afghanistan by the end of the year. “When George Bush was president, I was on this floor saying we need an exit strategy,” he explained. “The same applies with Afghanistan. I’m tired of wars with no deadlines, no exits and no ends.”
With the help of a coalition of peace groups, McGovern and his colleagues in the Progressive Caucus gathered 76 co-sponsors, all in a very short time. The list included at least two house committee chairs, Michigan’s John Conyers and Minnesota’s Jim Oberstar, along with a few Republicans, including Walter Jones of North Carolina and Ron Paul of Texas. McGovern’s goal was to get the resolution accepted as an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill.
House Democratic leaders refused even to allow a vote. No benchmarks. No time limits. No exit strategies. As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi put it earlier in the week, trust Obama. “The president now has to take the time that is necessary to keep the American people safe, to stabilize the region and to do so in a way that makes everyone who has an interest in the stability of Afghanistan to make an investment there,” she said.
“How long would it take?” she asked. “I don’t know, but it is essential that we fight terrorism there.”
In other words, our president, our war.
Not so for Jim McGovern and 50 other Democrats, who cast their vote against the supplemental appropriations, as did 9 Republicans. They lost big-time, 368 to 60. But, in my experience, so much Democratic opposition this early in the term of a very popular president of their own party appears wholly unprecedented.
Their stand was also widely overlooked, unlike the widespread discussions of Obama’s reversals in deciding to try a limited number of detainees in military tribunals and to block further publication of the Pentagon’s torture photos.
Just consider: Obama campaigned vigorously in favor of fighting an aggressive war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He chose as his National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, one of the leading advocates of a major American push in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the entire administration has endlessly repeated that they intend to stay in the region for the long haul. Yet, 51 Democrats in the House stood up against the insiders and refused to go along.
“I like Barack Obama; I thank God he’s president; I think he will be a great president,” said McGovern. “But sometimes great presidents make mistakes.”
The battle to save Obama from his greatest mistake now moves to the Senate, where the Appropriations Committee has already marked up its version of the supplemental appropriations. The full Senate will consider the bill next week, and anti-war groups are urging activists to contact their senators and ask them to vote no. None of the groups expect to win, but the stronger the no vote, the sooner America will pull back from another Vietnam.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.
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