The anti-war movement and Congressional ‘opposition’

Jan 1, 2006

Congressman John Murtha serves as a mouthpiece for a sector of the Pentagon generals.

Photo: Mark Keraly

Nearly three years after launching the war on Iraq, the Bush administration has a crisis on its hands. The war has proven to be unwinnable militarily. Bush’s goal of setting up a stable client Iraqi regime remains a distant fantasy.

The Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation grows stronger every day. It enjoys broad support among the country’s population.

Inside the United States, most polls show that a majority opposes the war. Massive anti-war demonstrations in recent months, combined with daily casualty reports have contributed to this sentiment. The brutal economic and racist realities exposed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have diminished the government’s ability to present a “united effort” behind its imperialist project.

These factors have pushed sectors of the U.S. ruling class and political establishment to raise questions about the Bush administration’s Iraq war policy. Most significantly, Congressperson John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, spoke out at length on Nov. 17, 2005. At a press conference, Murtha—known as a hard-line, pro-Pentagon war hawk—called for “immediate redeployment” of U.S. troops from Iraq, dubbing the war a “flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” Murtha elaborated, “The United States cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It’s time to bring the troops home.” (Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2005)

Murtha’s blunt presentation sent shockwaves inside the Bush administration. It initially hit back, likening him to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore.

Leading Democrats did not know how to respond. Most of them were incoherent. Senators John Kerry and Jack Reed disagreed with Murtha, but defended his right to speak out. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi fumbled about, unable to decide whether to support Murtha’s position or not.

Some liberal anti-war groups and activists hailed Murtha as a champion of the anti-war cause. “We’re thankful that Congressman John Murtha has joined us in calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq,” read a statement by the group CodePink.

But Murtha is not against this war for the same reason as most working class people and anti-war activists. He has not suddenly shed his pro-imperialist pedigree to join the people’s movement.

Murtha has never opposed the bloody march of U.S. imperialism. He is a life-long militarist, having spent 37 years as an officer in the Marine Corps. He fought in the U.S. war against Vietnam and is a ranking member and former chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Murtha’s pro-war credentials are impeccable. In his own words, Murtha “led the fight to go to war in 1991” and “supported Reagan all though the Central American thing”—the brutal U.S. proxy wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s. Until recently, he also staunchly backed the occupation of Iraq.

What is behind’s Murtha’s seemingly miraculous transformation?

When he spoke, Murtha was not speaking as an individual. He was acting as the mouthpiece for sections of the U.S. senior officer corps in the Pentagon.

The political forces behind Murtha’s position reveal how politics within the capitalist system really work.

Speaking for the generals

A significant section of the military brass has come to the conclusion that U.S. policy in Iraq must shift dramatically. They were never against the Iraq war, and they don’t oppose it in principle now. But some high-ranking generals now see the Bush administration’s strategy for Iraq as a failure and want to change it. They are worried that, if the U.S. strategy does not change, they will eventually lose all control over Iraq and its resources.

They also fear that the imminent defeat in Iraq will damage the U.S. military machine and prevent it from embarking on future imperialist interventions. They view the military as “broken, worn out” and “living hand to mouth,” as voiced by Murtha. (Washington Times, Dec. 2, 2005)

These generals used Murtha as their mouthpiece.

This view first surfaced in Murtha’s Nov. 17 speech: “The future of our military is at risk. Our military and our families are stretched thin. Many say the army is broken. Some of our troops are on a third deployment. Recruitment is down even as the military has lowered its standards. … They have been forced … to try to meet a reduced quota.”

But the generals are not allowed to openly speak out against the President’s stated policy goals. Under the U.S. Constitution, the uniformed military is under the control of the executive branch of government. The president serves as the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the military Joint Chiefs of Staff answers to the Secretary of Defense, a cabinet position appointed by the president.

So the generals who oppose the current Iraq policy found in John Murtha a vehicle to strike the Bush administration in Congress.

As a veteran officer and experienced member of Congress, Murtha enjoys the closest ties with the military bigwigs. Journalist Seymour Hersh confirmed that “Murtha’s message is a message … from a lot of generals on active duty today. This is what they think, at least a significant percentage of them.” (, Nov. 29, 2005) “The four-star generals picked Murtha to make this speech because he has maximum credibility,” according to a Pentagon source cited in the Dec. 3 and 4 online edition of CounterPunch. His hard-right credentials make him difficult to attack as being “soft on terror.”

Of course, Murtha’s statements do not reflect the only trend among the military leaders. There are those who want more troops deployed to Iraq, and others who seek to pull back some troops and strengthen the Iraqi puppet army. All of these different factions have representatives in Congress who speak for them. But the camp that Murtha represents is currently receiving a wide hearing in the press and public. It also represents the most radical proposed shift in imperialist tactics in the region.

The Bush administration is getting the message. After initially blasting Murtha, the administration changed tactics.

Its officials began respectfully but vigorously disagreeing with Murtha. Shortly after the initial Bush administration outburst against Murtha, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld started floating the possibility of troop reduction in Iraq. But Bush also went on the offensive, giving several major speeches outlining the U.S. “successes” in Iraq and praising effusively the Iraqi army. The Bush gang wants to reduce dissention within the military leadership while still “staying the course.”

These various positions represent the debate raging within the ruling class on how to get out of a military conflict that has gone badly. In the capitalist system, this is how ruling class conflicts are handled. Workers, rank-and-file soldiers and others who suffer from imperialist policies aren’t invited to participate.

Democrats are not anti-war

If military leaders are behind Murtha’s plan, should workers and anti-war activists support it? Absolutely not.

Thousands of Iraqis in Tikrit demand the release of Saddam Hussein from U.S. captivity, Dec. 5, 2005.
Photo: EPA Photos

Murtha’s position is for a continuation of U.S. imperialism’s dominance in the Middle East. He is calling for “immediate redeployment of U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces to create a quick reaction force in the region, to create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines, and to diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.” (Washington Post, Nov. 17). In essence, Murtha’s plan is to shift U.S. military personnel to bases in countries bordering Iraq; to have Marines inside and outside of Iraq that are less visible targets for the resistance but can strike militarily when necessary; to fund, arm, support and advise the new, U.S.-created Iraqi army; and to continue propping up the U.S.-backed Iraqi puppet government.

There is nothing anti-war or anti-imperialist about that. Massive military spending would continue unabated; social programs still would suffer; and new imperialist wars would soon surface.

But, in the wake of Murtha’s Nov. 17 speech, many people claimed that he represents the viewpoint of the anti-war movement. Liberal anti-war groups praised him; Democrats wavered, but showed no real support; and the Republicans quickly moved to bolster Bush.

The Republicans introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that called for the “deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq to be terminated immediately.” This was meant to embarrass the Democrats by forcing them to choose sides quickly and show their true position.

They succeeded. The Democrats weakly protested the Republican maneuver, but quickly lined up with the Republicans to defeat the measure 403-3. Virtually all of the liberal Democratic members of Congress who some in the anti-war movement view as allies voted against the resolution. Some anti-war groups were surprised at the overwhelming Democratic support for continuing the war. They should not be. The Democrats have overwhelmingly supported the U.S. ruling class’s Iraq policy since it was hatched. The Democrats, including Murtha, continue to support U.S. imperialist designs in the region.

Of course, there are varying shades of positions on Iraq among Democratic Party politicians. But none of these are significant to the ruling class’s debate. Other than Murtha, who is operating as an agent for some top military commanders, all of the other posturing politicians are basically insignificant—Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and so on. They do not even claim to be leaders for the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States. They are simply maneuvering opportunistically for reelection in 2006 and beyond. They ride the fence to appease their corporate backers while attempting to pander to an increasingly anti-war electorate.

Getting preoccupied about what each Democratic member of Congress says about the war, as some anti-war groups do, actually deceives the millions of people who are honestly looking for an end to the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. It is part of the politics of diversion—the “democratic sham,” as Karl Marx called it. It diverts attention away from where the fundamental problem lies—with the capitalists’ tight control over the political and economic system.

Does Congress matter?

Focusing anti-war sentiment toward Congress also reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of Congress in U.S. politics. The U.S. Congress retains a few formal powers that once constituted real authority in military affairs—but exercises no real powers today.

Congress—the legislative branch of government—once had an integral role in U.S. political affairs. But now, the U.S. ruling class has little use for Congress when it comes to important policy decisions. It is primarily just a talk shop.

Around the time when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Congress served an important role for the growing capitalist class. It was created as a federal body to amiably resolve disputes within the ruling class. Historian Charles Beard described this role in his 1913 landmark book, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” In the late 1700s, there was intense regional competition between small industrialists and agricultural producers. Congress provided a way for the bourgeoisie to debate amongst themselves without having to go to war or economically sanction each other.

But as the capitalist class has become more centralized over the decades, especially in the era of monopoly capital, the role of regional representation has become much less important. Nearly all power to make policy decisions is lodged firmly with the executive branch.

As set forth in the Constitution, the major power of Congress is to control government spending. Congress alone, according to the Constitution, can declare war.

But since World War II, no U.S. war has been declared by Congress. When the ruling class decides to launch a war, it is initiated by the president. Congress has had no role in this except passing supportive resolutions after the executive branch has made the decision.

Whenever the executive branch has needed money for its policies—whether to bail out U.S. or foreign investors or for war appropriations—Congress invariably has rubber-stamped the request.

For example, in the Vietnam War, Congress waited until 1974—one year after the last U.S. soldier left Vietnam—to cut off financial aid for the military adventure. The U.S. population was polarized and the victory of the Vietnamese people was clear. Yet, Congress was totally subservient to the executive branch.

It plays the same role today. The Defense Department is now preparing its seventh supplemental budget request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Boston Globe, Dec. 4, 2005) Congress has approved the previous six, allotting a total of $350 billion dollars for the “war on terror.” There is no reason to believe that Congress will not overwhelmingly approve this request too.

Building an independent movement

The working class should not get fooled into thinking that John Murtha speaks for us. He is part of a sharp debate within the ruling class about the war in which all sides care only about the interests of the oil monopolies and strategy of the Pentagon. They are worried about the viability of the war, to be sure, but they want to find a way to achieve the best outcome for U.S. imperialism. What workers need—either in Iraq or in the United States—is not a consideration.

Nor should workers believe that other members of Congress, with very few exceptions, are their allies. Their ever-changing positions on the war are purely reactive and designed to meet their reelection needs. Their fundamental interest lies in keeping anti-war sentiment firmly within the bounds of imperialist politics and, as much as possible, in the electoral arena and out of the streets.

What the U.S. ruling class fears most is that wide sectors of the working class will break from the politics of imperialism. That is what makes the task of building an independent working class movement so important—a movement not tied to either bourgeois party, Democrat or Republican.

Such a movement would oppose all imperialist tactics—not only outright war but also U.S. military bases, economic sanctions and U.S.-backed proxy armies. It would find its strength in the millions of poor and working people who are suffering from war, racism, layoffs and unemployment. It would find its energy in the anger and outrage in the face of the continuing racist neglect of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A united working class movement can strip the capitalists of their ability to make decisions on wars that harm workers in the United States and abroad.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...