Iraq Debate Returns, but Atmosphere Changes

Anti-War Groups on Defense

Posted April 8, 2008 at 6:56pm

The last time Army Gen. David Petraeus came to Congress, he was greeted by a cutting advertisement in a major newspaper that labeled him “General Betray Us.”

But in advance of the general’s appearance this week before lawmakers, anti-war groups have been decidedly less aggressive, and perhaps less optimistic, about pushing their message.

MoveOn.org, the group that penned the controversial Petraeus ad, appears to be no longer flying solo in its Iraq lobbying efforts. Calls to the group’s spokespeople were referred to a broader anti-war coalition.

That coalition, known as Win Without War, existed before the Iraq War began and is headed by ex-Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine).

It is composed of a diverse group of 41 national organizations with a broad range of political interests, including MoveOn.org, the National Council of Churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club.

The group planned several special features to coincide with the House and Senate Petraeus hearings on its Web site, including live blogging, analysis and rebuttals. Two retired generals planned to weigh in with their views on the failure of the troop surge in Iraq.

“Basically, we’re providing people with information and analysis to cut through this political rhetoric,” Andrews said.

But the group is also pushing for zeroing out funding for the Iraq War in the upcoming supplemental spending bill, except in the case of troop withdrawals. That has led some critics, even within the coalition, to charge that its goals are too narrowly focused and unrealistic.

Prior to this week’s hearings, the coalition circulated a letter addressed to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the head of the Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations and a key player in the Democratic war debate, calling for cutting off funds for the war except in the case of troop withdrawals.

But Murtha’s press secretary had not seen the letter as of Monday. He was uncertain whether the lawmaker’s staffers on the defense subcommittee were aware of it.

“There’s no way that there’s going to even be a majority” of lawmakers in support of solely funding troop withdrawals, said John Isaacs, one of the coalition’s leading voices and executive director of the Council for a Livable World.

Isaacs noted that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has advanced similar amendments, each of which received no more than 25 votes in the Senate. “He can’t get half of the Democrats,” Isaacs pointed out.

Ron Zucker, legislative director of 2020 Vision, a group in the coalition, said that despite polls “pretty consistently” showing that about 60 percent of Americans want out of Iraq, anti-war groups do not appear to be gaining any new traction with members of key committees.

“It doesn’t seem like we’ve made any headway” since the Petraeus hearings last fall, Zucker said.

Murtha “is still trying to find a way out and is probably not going to make a lot of headway.” Still, Members “who were with us are still with us.”

The director of one group in the coalition, who requested anonymity, flatly said anti-war efforts this year may be in vain. “Everyone is just waiting for next year. There is not a sense that, realistically, we can win this year. … It’s almost like Iraq has become a placeholder issue,” said the anti-war advocate.

“It’s not because we don’t care anymore. It’s a realistic sense of ‘we’re not getting there this year, so let’s get through the supplemental, let’s do what we’ve got to do to be ready for next year.’”

House Democratic leaders declined to comment on the influence of anti-war groups on their strategy this week.

One senior aide noted that leadership holds a conference call “every day” with outside groups to coordinate a message on Iraq. These groups help to “develop the message” used by leaders, said the aide, and play a key role by reaching out to other grass-roots groups.

Andrews defended his group’s strategy to focus on the supplemental regardless of whether it has a chance of succeeding.

“We think it’s the right thing to do, to speak truth to power. I don’t know how it will be received,” Andrews said.

Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, which runs its own anti-war coalition, said it is “irresponsible” for anti-war an group to suggest that this year is a bust.

“The truth of the matter is, there is a daily struggle,” he said. Fighting for incremental change in war policy “is what we’re engaged in as much as anything, to define what is happening in Iraq and how what is happening in Iraq is impacting Americans in other ways.”

Woodhouse said his group has a “long-standing and close relationship” with Congressional leaders and pointed to efforts by his organization that contributed to what he considers successes on the anti-war front, including the resignations of key Congressional Republicans who support the war.

“We’re not defining that as ultimate success. That would be ending the war,” Woodhouse said. “But you can’t just have one vote in Congress, or one supplemental vetoed and that veto upheld by the president and say, ‘Oh well, we couldn’t end the war. Let’s pick up our marbles and go home.’”