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Art of the Possible

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Put me squarely in the Meyerson camp:

Many of my antiwar friends were furious at Democratic congressional leaders last week for their failure to attach withdrawal deadlines to or cut funding from our occupation of Iraq — a failure chiefly attributable to the simple fact that the votes weren’t there for either option. What they should recall, however, is that the much more heavily Democratic Congress that hastened the end of the Vietnam War during Richard Nixon’s presidency did so by passing a series of incremental measures, each of which constrained Nixon’s warmaking powers a bit more than the last. In succession, Congress banned the use of funds for military actions in Laos and Thailand, then (after Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia) banned the use of ground forces in Cambodia. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, one of the Democrats’ foremost doves, three times introduced an amendment that would have ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam within nine months of enactment, but it never passed.

It took the Democrats, and their dovish Republican allies, four full years to pass a cutoff of funds for U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, by which point Nixon had already pulled all ground forces out (though the legislation kept him from putting those forces back in, which was not a mere academic possibility). That hardly means that Mansfield betrayed the cause of peace, any more than Nancy Pelosi’s failure to shut down the war last week means that she sold out to the Bush administration. Mansfield put one antiwar bill after another to a vote, winning more and more support each time around, leaving Nixon with fewer and fewer options. Pelosi is steering the same course, for a war even more reckless and absurd than Vietnam.

Right. It’s all well and good to point out that Bush and the war are politically unpopular, but while doing so we can’t forget that we live in a Madisonian anti-majoritarian system that privileges the status quo. Combine that with a two party system that has only weak incentives for party discipline, and the ability of a small Congressional majority to change the course of a war becomes quite limited. Frankly, I’m impressed that Reid and Pelosi did as well as they did in resettling the Democratic Party in Congress firmly on the side of withdrawal, and I see little point in excoriating them for not doing enough.

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