Voting Counts

The news from Washington, D.C., is grim, and the news from Iraq and North Korea grimmer still. Congressional Republican leadership is embroiled in one scandal after another, providing yet more evidence that one-party control of all three branches of the government is bad for democracy. In Iraq, an already untenable situation is getting worse. Whether the next Congress can find the backbone needed to right the course of U.S. foreign policy and reign in this president’s dangerous assertions of executive power will be determined by the November 7 midterm elections.

In Iraq, the U.S. effort to control mounting sectarian violence has predictably resulted in the highest monthly toll of American casualties in two years. Nearly eight hundred U.S. troops were wounded in September, and another three hundred in the first week of October. Despite the administration’s claims of “progress,” by almost every measure the intensity of combat, especially in Baghdad, is building. Total U.S. casualties now number more than twenty thousand, many of them maimed for life. According to a recent University of Maryland poll, even those Iraqis who welcomed the U.S. occupation now want us to leave. Sixty-one percent of Iraqis now approve of attacks on Americans, and 78 percent think the U.S. presence is fueling rather than suppressing the insurgency. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times (October 8), “counterinsurgency efforts [are now] almost impossible.” Kristof advocates a withdrawal of U.S. troops within a year. Reporting from Baghdad in Commonweal two years ago, Peter Dula wrote that “Iraq is a catastrophe-on all accounts.” It has only gotten worse.

It has gotten worse at home as well. As they did in 2004, President George W. Bush and the Republican Party continue to think that failure in Iraq can be disguised by fearmongering at home. Like Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush baldly implies that a vote for Democrats is a vote for terrorists. Yet polls suggest the electorate no longer believes what this administration says about Iraq, and rejects the president’s Orwellian assertion that this unnecessary war is the frontline in defeating terrorists. There is no evidence that our bungling presence in Iraq prevents terrorists from attacking the United States. There is plenty of evidence, however, that Iraq provides jihadists with new motivation and a new training ground. At the same time, the four-year-old war is debilitating the U.S. military’s capabilities and discrediting American aims. Some of the most astute observers of the radical Islamic threat argue that tying the United States down in a futile war in the Middle East was precisely what Osama bin Laden hoped to achieve with the 9/11 attacks. Bush may be playing into the hands of our worst enemy. The administration policy of not talking directly with North Korea seems to be having similar results there.

As the November 7 election draws near and the political rhetoric grows fiercer, it is hard to focus on the truly important issues. With the acquiescence of both parties in Congress, the president plunged this nation into a war that threatens the stability of the entire Middle East as well as the integrity of our own democratic system. The president has no coherent strategy either for winning the war or disengaging-his first concern seems to be preserving Republican majorities in Congress. Just as bad, in September, Bush bullied Congress into passing legislation regarding “enemy combatants” that undermines the basic liberties of all Americans. With the support of a handful of Democrats, Congress gave the president the authority to imprison indefinitely almost anyone, without ever charging the prisoner with a crime. Furthermore, the law immunizes U.S. personnel who have tortured prisoners and allows coerced testimony to be used in the proposed system of “military tribunals.” The president is also permitted to define torture and apply the Geneva Conventions as he sees fit. Finally, the new law strips the federal courts of the right to review executive-branch decisions concerning the detention of “enemy combatants.” Hundreds of wrongfully imprisoned people will be denied the opportunity to prove their innocence. Verdicts by the newly created “military tribunals” can be appealed, but no one has been tried by such tribunals, and most prisoners have never, and may never, be charged with a crime.

“I’m not going to support a bill that’s blatantly unconstitutional...that suspends a right that goes back to [the Magna Carta in] 1215,” said Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter nevertheless voted for the bill, saying he thinks the Supreme Court “will clean it up.”

There will be a lot of cleaning up to do after this administration leaves office. That cleaning up could begin November 7, if Democrats and Republicans willing to place the Constitution above political gain are elected to Congress.

October 10, 2006

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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