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A Defeat that Moves Us Closer to the Victory of Withdrawal from Afghanistan

March 18, 2010

The House rejected a resolution March 10 that would have required all U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The vote was 65 for and 356 against. Rather than a resounding defeat for opponents of the administration’s aggressive war-fighting strategy in Afghanistan, the episode was actually an important step in hastening the much needed and—if the concerned public remains engaged with Congress—the inevitable withdrawal.

The resolution, introduced by Dennis Kucinich (OH), was the vehicle for a three-hour debate of the Afghanistan war on the House floor, the first in many months. The resolution, which cited the Vietnam era War Powers Act, was also a powerful reminder—and an uncomfortable one for some—of congressional responsibility for U.S. war-making.

The debate gave Rep. Jim McGovern (MA) an opportunity to remind colleagues that 138 members voted last June for a measure he introduced to require the administration to prepare an exit strategy for Afghanistan. McGovern said, “While my amendment did not carry the day, I believe it demonstrated to the administration that an open-ended commitment was not sustainable.” The odds are that McGovern’s assessment is right. When President Obama outlined his Afghanistan strategy in December he included a pledge to “begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.” Administration officials tried to whittle those words down to next to nothing in subsequent testimony to Congress, but the fact remains that the administration felt compelled by public and congressional opinion to speak about withdrawal even as it was announcing its troop surge of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

The debate was also the occasion for members opposed to the war but reluctant to support the Kucinich resolution to speak out. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR) said,

I have profound reservations about the course we are on and the ability to generate positive long-term, fundamental changes that will persist over time. I think it is absolutely essential that we have this debate. While I don’t agree with the resolution that somehow we are going to be able to pull the plug and be able to end this in 30 days or 30 weeks, I do think it is important for Congress to focus on what is here, what is possible… I don’t agree that we are powerless on some of the defense appropriations, for instance. We can in fact push back. We can be heard. And we can start reversing what I think is an inappropriate course.

Blumenauer is right and, in fact, the reversal has already begun. The beginning is evident in the July 2011 “transfer out” date, in the pressure from the Afghan government, Britain, and other U.S. allies to engage Taliban leaders in reconciliation talks, and in the Afghan government’s interest in negotiating a status of forces agreement and withdrawal timetable with the United States. Congress will have an opportunity to hasten the process when it votes on the $33 billion Afghan war supplemental funding bill this spring. There is no chance that all of the funding will be rejected, but there is every chance of votes on amendments that will constrain administration policy and put the U.S. on a course of de-escalation and withdrawal.

It’s well worth remembering that, with one exception, opponents of the Iraq war lost every Iraq war vote in Congress, yet those failed votes were an important part of the political process that forced none other than the Bush Administration to sign an agreement with Iraq to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country by the end of 2011. Congress shapes foreign policy, for good or ill, by the resolutions it introduces, the debates it holds, and the votes it takes. But the vote count doesn’t always indicate the direction of congressional influence. The March 10 debate on the Kucinich resolution was an important milestone on the road out of Afghanistan. The more we push Congress to change the course of U.S. Afghanistan policy, the sooner we’ll reach the next milestone.

P.S.: The March 10 debate would have been an even bigger step on the road to end the war if the mainstream media had paid more attention to it. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (RI) in his floor speech asked that

if anybody wants to know where cynicism is, cynicism is that there are one, two press people in this gallery. We’re talking about Eric Massa 24-7 on the TV. We’re talking about war and peace [here, on the House floor], $3 billion [sic; possibly  a reference to the expected $33 billion supplemental funding bill or a high, $300 billion, estimate of the cost of the Afghanistan war to date], a thousand lives, and no press? No press? You want to know why the American public is sick? They’re sick because they’re not seeing their Congress do the work that they’re sent to do. It’s because the press, the press of the United States, is not covering the most significant issue of national importance, and that is the laying of lives down in the Nation for the service of our country. It is despicable, the national press corps right now.

(I confess a momentary absence from the U.S. media world and had to look up Kennedy’s reference to Eric Massa. But I excuse myself, since I was in Ramallah, absorbed in the news of the West Bank and Israel on the BBC and al-Jezirah, at the time that the story broke.)

  1. March 18, 2010 12:48 pm

    Rep. Kucinich performed a valuable service to our country and the world by introducing this legislation. That it received some support is important and a healthy sign that there are some who believe we must change our approach to Afganistan.

    Thank you, Dennis!

  2. martina nicholson MD permalink
    March 18, 2010 1:28 pm

    Every candle in the darkness shines brighter than it looks in daylight. Thanks to Rep. Kucinich for bringing this debate forward, and thanks to Patrick Kennedy, for pointing out the press’ absence as part of the enormous cynicism in the country.
    For those of us who believe war is a failure of diplomacy, this is an important vote. For those of us who think diplomatic efforts should be redoubled, and that military options narrow the potential for peaceful and productive solutions, this is a thousand candles in the darkness! BRAVO!

  3. March 18, 2010 1:41 pm

    Heartfelt THANKS to Representative Kucinich WHO DOES KNOW RIGHT FROM WRONG, and who points us in the right directions!!

    Representative Patrick Kennedy rightly admonished the Press for its absentia. They are one of the reasons that the extraordinary coverage of Eric Massa was the keynote, rather than Life and Death Matters, and these thing do MATTER!! Oblivion by the National Press on MATTERS, IS NOT THE WAY TO GO. SHAME on them.

    Janet C. Tillotson, Scottsdale

  4. March 18, 2010 2:02 pm

    Wonderful write-up Jim. I’m in full agreement with Rep. Kennedy. Glad to see C-SPAN posting its video archives for all of us.

  5. irving rosenbaum permalink
    March 18, 2010 8:22 pm

    As an aging veteran of WWII,I firmly believe that war should be reorted to only when there is no other alternative. If we really want to aid Pakistan and Afghanistan it should not be with military force,which sometimes results in the deaths of the very people we say we are trying to help.
    Perhaps every member of Congress should take the time to read the books of Greg Mortenson which show the sanest way to win the respect and appreciation of the local populace by turning “stones into schools”.

  6. Francis Scheuer ll permalink
    March 18, 2010 11:05 pm

    In my opinion, Rep. Dennis Kucinich is of tremendous spiritual strength. To year after year speak out against and work for sane approaches to vital matters in the face of immense peer opposition is heroic.

  7. Robert P. Bowles permalink
    March 20, 2010 6:18 pm

    The time is long overdue for us to resist trying to “save” the world. Bring our troops home and begin to act diplomatically.

  8. Christopher Schroeder permalink
    April 24, 2010 2:33 pm

    I agree in general, but I think the question regarding the media is not “How can the mainstream media be compelled to report the important issues?” but rather “How can the mainstream be compelled to demand reporting of the important issues?” The coverage reflects the audience, no? Sure, there is enormous corporate influence over the media, but the audience doesn’t seem to mind.


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