When Democrats swept back to power in 2006, and took control of both houses of Congress, they promised to end a bloody and unpopular war in Iraq that bankrupted the country both morally and financially. And then, of course, they didn’t.
In an October 2 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reminds everyone of that. In the correspondence, Reid notes that while he “hated the Iraq war” – after voting for it – his opposition never manifested itself in anything more tangible than a press release, much less a government shutdown.
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“There were many gut-wrenching nights when I struggled over what I needed to do to end the carnage,” Reid writes, claiming to have hated the war he voted for “as much as you hate the Affordable Care Act,” the health care law popularly known as “Obamacare” that mandates the purchase of health insurance while requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions. That law is at the center of the budget fight that recently led to a partial shutdown of the US government, with national parks closed and federal employees taking mandatory unpaid vacations to catch up on “Breaking Bad”.
“I could have taken the steps that you are taking now to block Government funding in order to gain leverage to end the war,” Reid continues. “I faced a lot of pressure from my own base to take that action. But I did not do that. I felt that it would have been devastating to America. Therefore, the Government was funded.”
While Reid’s gut was wrenched, as he belabouredly recounts in a downloadable letter, he wasn’t about to play “politics” – a word that, in this case, refers to war and peace and innocent people living or dying – with the federal budget. So he struggled, wrangled with his conscience, rolled around in bed for a few nights and decided to do nothing.
The result, as Republican Congressman Paul Ryan remarked at a 2007 hearing on the Iraq war, was that while Democrats talked a good game “about how much we are spending on war as opposed to children’s health insurance or education programs or what have you,” nothing actually changed when they took over. “The president continues to send his war funding requests to the Hill and, in the end, he continues to get what he asks for.”
Four more years of war
The last US soldier did not leave Iraq until the end of 2011. And even that belated withdrawal, which left behind an army of private military contractors, was required as a result of an agreement signed by President George W. Bush – and, sort of importantly, demanded by Iraqis. Numerous Democratic fundraising letters were no doubt written around opposition to the war, but only an Iraqi refusal to grant US troops legal immunity for their acts on Iraqi soil compelled the US government to finally leave.
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In the meantime, between the Democrats’ return to power in 2007 and the 2011 almost-full withdrawal, more than 48,000 Iraqis died violent deaths, according to an extremely conservative estimate from the group Iraq Body Count; by other estimates, perhaps a quarter-million. Two Reuters journalists and a dozen or more Iraqis, including the father of two young children, were killed in a US helicopter attack made infamous after video of the incident was leaked by US Private Chelsea Manning to the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. The two young children were wounded. And more than 1,400 US soldiers died pointless deaths fighting a war everyone basically knew was unwinnable.
Reid brushed off the desires of his antiwar base in favour of the forever-war status quo. Instead of cutting funding for the occupation of Iraq, Reid and his fellow Democrats reliably appropriated more money every time they were asked. In the end, the US government burned through an additional half-trillion dollars on the war in Iraq after Democrats took over the purse strings: $498.6bn in direct military appropriations and countless more in interest payments and lifelong health care for wounded veterans. That’s a lot of money that could have been spent on children’s health insurance or education programs.
Not just another policy dispute
Shutting down the government – or rather, the parts of government that provide services other than bombing and jailing – over a rather conservative health care reform seems a bit much for a political stunt.
Shutting down the government – or rather, the parts of government that provide services other than bombing and jailing – over a rather conservative health care reform seems a bit much for a political stunt, particularly when opposition to (and support for) that reform appears to be significantly influenced by partisan allegiances. But the occupation of Iraq is not comparable to Obamacare. People didn’t die because of some bureaucrat’s actuarial tables. They died because a Blackwater mercenary shot them in the head.
Had Democrats withheld funding for the war in Iraq and, perhaps, threatened – just maybe threatened – to hold up the federal budget until the troops came home, that would have been a rather different thing than closing down the Centers for Disease Control because you think a health insurance mandate is how Hitler came to power. If President Bush wanted his war, he would at least have had to compromise. But Harry Reid gave him his money and his troop surge, no strings attached.
Rather than giving his advice to Boehner the air of the time-whittled wisdom of a statesman, Reid’s recalling of the Democrats long-term complicity in the Iraq war suggests that Democrats, unlike the current crop of Republicans, can’t be counted on to follow through on their rhetoric; that they consider ignoring the desires of those who elected them to be laudable, rather than an indictment of their party and the US brand of “representative democracy.”
Americans and Iraqis would have been much better off had Democratic leaders listened to their base all those years ago. An extra half-trillion dollars spent not killing people could have gone a long way toward boosting the economy and aiding those currently most threatened by a shutdown in government services, as well as funding some reparations for the people of Iraq.
But we’ll never know. Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders were serious and responsible, failed to stand up to an incredibly unpopular president over his incredibly unpopular war then lost a few seats in the Senate and control of the House. And, oh yeah: a lot of people died.