Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




May 18 , 2007

Figuring out the motives and actions of a wartime President while those actions are taking place is always difficult because, after all, one of the key elements of the successful prosecution of a war is deceiving the enemy, and you cannot very well do that while honestly explaining your true plans and intentions to your own people. Wish it weren’t so, friends, but that seems to be a fact. And for democracies, which bill themselves as being based on an informed public, it is a contradiction that will never be fully resolved.

Perhaps Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most famous speech was the “day of infamy” address he gave following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, mobilizing the nation to go to war. We did not learn until many years later that this was not as much a surprise to Mr. Roosevelt as he wanted us to believe, with credible historical evidence now emerging that the Roosevelt Administration may have goaded the Japanese into an attack—although the belief almost certainly was that the attack would be on a lesser American military base, and not on Hawaii—on the assumption that the then-isolationist American public would probably not otherwise support U.S. troops going to the defense of Britain and France against the German Axis.

That being said, we who live in war times do not have the luxury of historians to be able to comb through declassified documents and interview survivors freed of national security restraints. We have to make our decisions in real time, based upon our imperfect assessments and the available evidence, and so we risk that la historia no nos absolverá, to paraphrase Fidel Castro’s famous phrase, but may, in fact, find our assumptions wrong. But that is the chance, and we have no choice but to take it.

And so, let us try to figure through this morass we face.

To begin with, I do not think that the Bush Administration threat to enter war with Iran is more than a feint and, if it is, there is little we could do about it, anyway, before it could be carried out, and its effects felt.

Having never served in the military, I know as little about assessing military strengths and weaknesses as the average person, but it seems a valid question to ask that if the United States were to engage in a prolonged military conflict with Iran beginning while we are still engaged in other military matters, one has to wonder, with what forces? We know that the current United States military has been stretched and strained in trying to man and manage two wars—Iraq and Afghanistan—and that the country has been drained of the conceivably available National Guard troops. We see that it is difficult for both the National Guard and the regular military to maintain enlistment levels under the present circumstances and absent an Iranian nuclear strike on, say, Los Angeles, it is also difficult to imagine circumstances that would cause such enlistments to suddenly increase. Without such a troop increase, how would the nation open up a third front in these wars, considering that the Iranian military would be a significantly superior force to what the country faced against either the Taliban or the Sadaam Hussein regime?

But we have long ago learned that what seems insensible and irrational to the rest of the country and the world can seem perfectly reasonable within the White House of George W. Bush, and so it is certainly possible that the Bush Administration believes that it could get away with lobbing a few missiles from a carrier group into what it says is an Iranian nuclear weapons-making facility, with few consequences to America beyond the loss of several thousand pounds of ordnance. To do so risks bringing Iranian troops, in uniform, across the border into Iraq to hit the flanks of American forces currently bogged down in the Baghdad “surge,” but the Bush White House might believe this would also bring the generals back into line, as well as a run of flag-waving young American men and women to the recruiting stations. Seems doubtful, but who knows what lurks within the minds of these men of the Bush Administration?

But to plot progressive strategy to try to end the current conflict, we must try to look into these dark recesses.

At the beginning of April, when the Democratic-controlled Congress was considering war funding measures that put a timetable on U.S. military involvement in Iraq, I wrote in a column that progressives should look at this as the first skirmish, and not the place where the line in the sand should be drawn.

“Much as we would like them to move immediately,” I said, “Congress must move cautiously on the war issue. Because the anti-war majority in the country has not yet hardened, this is not the time to test its resolve in a showdown with the President. If Mr. Bush vetoes the military spending bill because of its withdrawal language—as he has promised—Congress should give in, and pass legislation that leaves the withdrawal language out. A point will have been made, and in the next budget showdown—which will inevitably come—the anti-war members of Congress will have the stronger hand.”

In response a local progressive activist—whose work and opinion I respect—wrote me privately “I followed the rationale of your article, but, alas, and probably for the first time, I find myself in disagreement with your conclusion. To my mind, best you had left it at outlining the various alternatives and leave it to each to ponder their personal selection.” He suggested another option—a proposed bill that “would approve the requested funding, but, with the stipulation that the funds can ONLY be used for disengagement and withdrawal,” which he was suggesting to House and Senate leaders.

But, respectfully, I think my good friend missed the point I was trying to make, most probably because of my inadequacies in attempting to explain it. I’ll try again, now that events have helped to make the situation clearer.

Democrats hold a majority in both the United States Senate and the House of Representatives, but it is the slimmest of majorities, certainly not veto-proof. Further, while there is a mandate coming out of the last Congressional elections for the United States military involvement in Iraq to end—a mandate that has spilled over into the consciousness and actions of some Congressional Republicans as well most Democrats—there is no generally-agreed-upon “plan” by which such an end should take place, or what Americans think should be left when American military forces are gone. By the end of the war in Vietnam, for various reasons, neither of those were national issues in this country, and so the call to “Get out NOW!” resonated in those days. But these are different days.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can certainly put forward a military funding measure with a date-certain withdrawal provision on it. But so could Glendower in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV call spirits from the vasty deep. “Why, so can I, or so can any man,” Hotspur responded. “But will they come when you do call for them?”

How would Congress respond to such date certain language? They would probably pass it, again, but there does not seem, for the present, a workable, veto-proof majority to uphold it.

In no small part, this comes from no small fear that the Bush Administration might purposely put American troops in greater danger than necessary in order to advance their political goals if the funding bill is further delayed. And so the seeming impasse, with two things appearing possible which might break it.

The first would be a virtual revolt among the troops. Though conventional thinking may be that this is something out of the realm of possibility, that is, to some extent, what happened in Vietnam, and what helped lead to an end to that war. But Vietnam was a mostly-involuntary war, made up in large percentage by troops who came there not by choice, but by coercion. Other than large sections of the National Guard forces, the American troops in Iraq are for the most part voluntary. They may grumble, but they are almost certainly going to continue to follow orders so long as they are there.

The other factor that could lead to an earlier end to the U.S. involvement in Iraq would be a virtual revolt within this country itself. That, again, was what helped lead to the early U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. That included massive anti-war demonstrations, as well as widespread civil disobedience campaigns.

But although sentiment within the United States against the war in Iraq rose and converged to critical mass vastly quicker than it did during the war in Vietnam, that sentiment has not reached a level where large numbers of Americans feel so much in opposition that they will walk down, en masse, to the nearest Army recruiting station and sit down in front and block it until the police come and take them away to jail.

Unless and until that happens, or some other manifestation of mass sentiment against the war comes to the surface, it would appear that President Bush—and the people who want to continue to prosecute the war in Iraq, regardless of the consequences to the military and the nation—currently hold the current upper hand, no matter how much otherwise we wish it so.

The present work, therefore, would seem to be not so much to convince Congress, but to first catalyze the crowd.