It’s hard to judge how serious the confrontation over Iraq between George Bush and the Democrats in the US Congress is.
The bill passed by both houses of Congress last week is certainly a major challenge to the president’s authority to carry on waging the “war on terror”.
Even the Senate, where the Democrats’ majority is wafer-thin, voted to continue funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – to the tune of $95 billion – only if US troops are withdrawn from Iraq by 1 October. The pullout could be even earlier if the Iraqi client regime fails to meet various “benchmarks” laid down by Congress.
The White House has denounced what it calls “defeatist legislation that sets a date for surrender”. Bush has made it clear that he will veto the bill. Overriding him would require two thirds majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which the Democrats have no chance of making.
This confrontation is just a stage in a longer term political struggle between Bush and the Democrats. But what’s at stake is not ending the “war on terror” or improving the plight of the wretched people of Iraq. The real issue for the politicians is who will win the White House in the November 2008 presidential election.
With the Republicans in disarray, the Democrats know they have a real chance of winning. They also know that, to the extent that they take an anti-war stance, they have public opinion on their side. In a New York Times-CBS News poll last week, 64 percent supported setting a “time line” for the US to withdraw from Iraq in 2008.
That’s why in their first debate last week, all eight Democratic presidential candidates united in denouncing the war and supporting Congress. Even Hillary Clinton, who has taken a strong pro-war stance, said she would not have voted for the invasion of Iraq “if I knew then what I know now”.
But this facade of unity conceals many differences. Harry Reid, Democratic leader in the Senate, caused outrage in the White House when he said a couple of weeks ago that the Iraq war was lost. He contemptuously brushed aside a subsequent denunciation by vice-president Dick Cheney, saying, “I’m not going to get into a name calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating.”
Reid’s stance shows both the despair within the US ruling class about the Iraq debacle and the degree to which the Republican right’s ability to intimidate opponents into submission has crumbled.
But this doesn’t alter the fact that the Democrats remain the second party of US imperialism. In order to maintain the support of big business, they have to show their ability to defend the interests of US capitalism – and that means maintaining US global power.
So Hillary Clinton, for example, does not want full scale US withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, as she explained in a recent New York Times interview, she favours pulling a reduced US force to bases outside the cities. This would allow the Pentagon to retain military leverage in a region that will remain of huge economic and strategic importance whatever the outcome of the Iraq war.
The real divisions on the Democrats’ side became clear in last week’s debate. Only three weaker candidates, Senator Christopher Dodd, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and ex-Senator Mike Gravel, said they favoured eventually cutting off all funding for the war.
Barack Obama is the youngish black Senator from Illinois who has rapidly emerged as the major threat to Clinton’s chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. He has the great advantage in current circumstances that he opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2002-3.
But Obama is no radical. The Financial Times reported last week that he’s getting big campaign contributions from the hedge funds that have done so well out of the US’s booming financial markets.
Kucinich and Gravel challenged him for refusing to rule out any option, including war, in dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme. “Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?” Gravel asked him. Obama laughed and brushed the question off, but it was a good one. The Democrats will do their best to ensure that the US empire is in good hands.