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The antiwar "yes" vote

By David Sirota | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted March 29, 2007

To understand last week’s passionate debate about the Iraq War spending bill, and why so many committed antiwar members of Congress voted for it, we must understand the difference between protesting and legislating.

Protesting is a critical part of U.S. democracy. At its core, it is designed to put pressure on government in the lead up to legislative decisions.

Pres. George W. Bush is requesting a supplemental spending bill for ongoing operations in Iraq. In the opening congressional negotiations about this supplemental bill, antiwar Democrats like Vermont’s Rep. Peter Welch joined with courageous antiwar organizations to protest the request, with some threatening to vote against the bill and send it down to defeat. That principled protest stance forced Democratic leaders to add binding language into the bill that forces the president to complete a withdrawal of troops from Iraq by September 2008.

Many antiwar progressives continued to threaten to vote against the supplemental bill in the weeks leading up to the vote — another positive move because it made sure Democratic leaders rebuffed attempts by Republicans to strip out the binding language. The protest brinksmanship, in other words, worked.

Unfortunately, the end of the legislative process demands compromises and does not tend to create perfect outcomes. In this case, the glaring imperfection for the antiwar movement is obvious: The Iraq War supplemental bill brought to the House floor still included funding for military operations in Iraq for the next 17 months. Thus, for antiwar lawmakers, the question when the final bill came up for a vote was whether their objections over this awful imperfection should outweigh their protest’s success at forcing the inclusion of a law ending the entire war.

How does a principled legislator like Welch, who wants to end the war, decide what to do? By gaming out the possible outcomes of a “yes” or “no” vote.

Had these antiwar lawmakers joined with pro-war Republicans in voting “no” and killing the bill, Democratic leaders would likely have come back to write a “clean” supplemental bill — one that funds the war but does not include the binding legislation to end it.

Under enormous White House pressure to not “leave the troops in the lurch,” the Democratic leadership would have had more than 200 pro-war Republican votes to help pass a “clean,” pro-war bill that did not include any of the provisions ending the war in 2008. Put another way, had antiwar lawmakers followed through on their protest threats and voted down the bill, they most likely would have ended up with a bill that enormously set back the antiwar cause.

By contrast, voting “yes” and passing the Iraq supplemental with all of its odious flaws was the most effective step at this moment to end the war. Not only does the bill and its binding antiwar provisions have the best chance of passing in this Congress at this moment, they have the best chance of being signed into law because the president will not want to veto the funds for troops he spends so much time berating Democrats about.

Honest people can disagree with the tactics in this situation, and the antiwar movement must continue to pressure Congress to end this war as soon as possible. But we should not attack progressive Democrats for “selling out” the antiwar cause because they voted for this bill. The decision to vote for this bill was a decision not about whether to end the war — that issue was never in question. It was a decision about whether a “yes” or “no” vote on this bill in particular at this moment in time in this unfortunately pro-war Congress would bring us closer to ending the war. Considering those circumstances and the likely outcomes, it’s clear a “yes” vote was the strongest antiwar position.

David Sirota previously served as the spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and then for the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. He is the co-chair of the Progressive States Network, which has helped 29 state legislatures introduce antiwar resolutions.