June 2005: Phase II of the Anti-War Movement

By Medea Benjamin

Rep. Conyers after he turned in the 560,000 signatures from American citizens demanding answers to critical questions raised by the Downing Street Memo.

For the history books, mark down June 2005 as the moment the US movement against the occupation of Iraq got its second wind. In June, the US public became solidly anti-war, Bush's approval rating took a nosedive, and a significant number of Congresspeople started to call for an exit strategy. This marks a seismic shift from just one month ago, when Congress overwhelmingly passed another $82 billion for war—with only 44 members of the House and not one Senator dissenting. 

The continued violence in Iraq, the daily deaths of US soldiers, and the non-stop drain of financial resources has finally moved the anti-war sentiment from a much-maligned minority position to a mainstream one. A Gallup poll June 6-8 found that 6 in 10 Americans advocated a partial or full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and for the first time, a majority said they would be upset with the president if he decided to send more troops. An Associated Press poll showed only 41% approved of Bush's handling of Iraq. With such negative perceptions of the war and 2006 midterm elections approaching, an increasing number of elected officials have finally started to listen to the public and push for an exit strategy.

Thursday, June 16 was a snapshot of just how much the ground has shifted. The day started off with a press conference of strange bedfellows announcing the first bi-partisan Congressional resolution calling for an exit strategy. Appearing together before the press were two liberal Democrats—Dennis Kucinich from Ohio and Neil Abercrombie from Hawaii—with Republican libertarian Ron Paul from Texas and even more astonishing, conservative Republican Walter Jones from North Carolina—the very same congressman who pushed the House cafeterias to scrap "French fries" from the menu and serve up "freedom fries."

Their new resolution, with a counterpart in the Senate introduced by Russ Feingold, calls on George Bush to announce a withdrawal timetable by the end of the year and start bringing American troops home by October 1, 2006. It has no end date for full withdrawal, and has a longer timeline for initiating the pull-out than many of us would have liked, but it's as far as the Republicans were willing to go and it's certainly a step in the right direction. Rep. Kucinich called it “the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq.”

Giving Rep. Kucinich's remark more punch is the fact that on the very same day, Congresswoman Maxine Waters from California announced the formation of a new Congressional Caucus succinctly labeled the Out of Iraq Caucus, with 41 members already signed on. We can no longer keep quiet waiting for our Party to speak out against this war,” she said in her press release. "The American people are expecting us to provide leadership to end this war and bring our troops home.” The Caucus plans to coordinate Congressional anti-war activities, including legislative strategies, press events, liaison with national peace groups, and support for families and veterans against the war.

Thursday also marked a step forward for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents the solidly anti-war district of San Francisco but has refused to take leadership against the war. On Thursday she introduced an amendment to the 2006 defense spending measure that would require Bush to report to Congress within 30 days on his criteria for bringing troops home. While defeated, it got an impressive 200 votes.

But the real hero of the day was Rep. John Conyers Jr., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who made history on Thursday by holding a hearing on the scandalous Downing Street memo and then hand-delivering to the White House over 560,000 signatures of American citizens demanding answers to critical questions raised by the memo.

The Republicans forced Rep. Conyers to hold the hearing in a cramped basement room, and much of the mainstream press either ignored or belittled his efforts. But Rep. Conyers has tapped a wellspring of support from an angry public that sees the Downing Street memo as the smoking gun proving that the Bush administration was determined to go to war back in July 2002 and “fixed” the intelligence to fit the policy.

The witnesses at the hearing included constitutional lawyer John C. Bonifaz, who said that if the documents were proven to be true, the president may have violated a federal law against misleading Congress, and his actions would be grounds for impeachment. Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, said the memo confirmed that the leadership of this country rushed us into an illegal invasion of another sovereign country on prefabricated and cherry-picked intelligence. She chided Congress for handing its responsibility to declare war over to the president, and said that a full investigation into the Downing Street Memo would be agood beginning for Congress to redeem itself for abandoning the Constitution and the American people.

Two dozen Congresspeople showed up at various times during the hearing to show their support. Afterwards, Conyers and seven other representatives hand-delivered two huge stacks of petitions to the White House, and then joined a spirited rally organized by Code Pink and Progressive Democrats of American on behalf of the coalition AfterDowningStreet.com.

Before an enthusiastic crowd of about 800 people, Rep. Conyers and the other representatives vowed to continue to push for the truth, for accountability and for an end to the war.

It was quite a day, and all of us left with a renewed sense of possibilities and responsibilities. The peace movement, demoralized after the unsuccessful efforts to both stop the war and get George Bush out of office, must lift itself out of the doldrums and into the streets and the corridors of power. We must push our representatives to sign on to the new legislation, keep demanding an investigation into the Downing Street Memo, and pressure the media to cover these new developments in a serious, respectful way. We should march in July 4 parades with the “Bring the Troops Home” message, reinvigorate our local vigils, step up the counter-recruitment efforts that are making it so difficult for the military to get enough new soldiers for this war. And the next big anti-war mobilization scheduled for September 24 in Washington DC, coupled with lobbying on September 26, must be huge.

We've got new momentum. Now let's ride the wave.

Medea Benjamin (medea@globalexchange.org), cofounder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange, is co-editor of the new book Stop the Next War Now.