Madame Speaker Gets a Code Pink

The Generals are jumping ship. Retired Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, onetime head of the US army in Iraq, is the latest to put daylight between himself and the White House. The Bush team, he said in early October, is “incompetent and corrupt.” Their policies in the Iraq sector, he pointed out, would have earned them a court martial had they been in the military.

The Surge strategy pushed by Bush can only “stave off defeat,” and indeed, “There is no question that America is living a nightmare with no end in sight.”

In 2006, this was just the message sent by the US electorate when they dismissed Bush’s Republican Party from control over the legislature. There was little faith in the new Democratic leadership, except there was certainly enthusiasm that they would not be able to ignore the mandate given them. The Democrats chose Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco to lead them in the US House of Representatives. Pelosi has been in the US House for twenty years, during which time she and her husband amassed a tidy fortune in the lucrative California real estate market (there have been intimations of scandal, but thus far these have been successfully squelched). On many issues Pelosi is fairly progressive, but in general she is a striking example of a “limousine liberal.” She is on the right side of the debate over energy policy and children’s health care insurance, and has been a forthright critic of the Bush administration’s easy recourse to torture as state policy.

Early into her tenure as the 60th Speaker of the US House (the first woman to this post), she disappointed the Democrat’s anti-war base. First, she dismissed any plan to impeach President Bush as a “waste of time.” During the lead up to the November elections, Pelosi used to say that a Democratic-controlled Congress would “drain the swamps” in Washington; the first to go if the slime was removed would be the President and his Vice President. Less than a month after the November victory, she backed away from this commitment. Then, she promised to use every means to end the Occupation of Iraq. This was to be the priority for the Democrats. It has thus far stalled, partly because the Democrats have not been courageous enough to refuse to fund the war effort (the war has cost about $611 billion, with an additional $147 billion disbursed by the Democratic-led Congress). In December 2006, Pelosi told the media, “We will not cut off funding for the troops. As long as our troops are in harm’s way, Democrats will be there to support them, but we will have oversight over that funding.” In other words, the only lever given the Legislature (the purse) will not be used against the White House.

As the Democrats showed over and over again that they are not willing to confront the Bush team on Iraq, two developments became apparent in the anti-war camp. One, the more liberal section of the anti-war element, put their faith in the Democrats and were either disappointed into inaction by Pelosi’s leadership or relieved her of any responsibility by putting the entire onus for disaster on the Bush regime. The other section, by far the smaller, decided to challenge the Democrats. Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq and who has become the public face of the anti-war movement’s left, pledged to run against Pelosi in liberal San Francisco. On September 29, 2005, Pelosi and Sheehan met in Washington, DC, when Pelosi said that she would insist on tangible benchmarks to ensure a withdrawal from Iraq.

Times have changed. Over the summer of 2007, Sheehan challenged Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings by July 23. When the Speaker did not do so, Sheehan announced that she would run against Pelosi in the 2008 elections.

“The country is ripe for change,” she said, and one piece of it was to remove leaders like Pelosi who “protected the status quo” of the corporate elite.

Meanwhile, a group of activists who are close to Sheehan, set up a camp in front of Pelosi’s well-appointed mansion in the ritzy area of Pacific Heights. Leslie Angeline of Code Pink, the group set up in 2002 by women prominent in the antiwar movement, said of their camp, “We’re here to occupy [Pelosi's] house, to show her what it feels like to be occupied.” Medea Benjamin, one of the founders of Code Pink, said that her group would continue to pressure Pelosi to initiate impeachment proceedings because it is “a legitimate process for holding the president and vice president accountable” for the lies that led to the war on Iraq. Pelosi refused to meet with the activists. Instead, at a lunch with reporters on October 9, she attacked the activists, many of whom say that they voted for her over the course of the past twenty years. “I had, for five months, people sitting outside my home, going into my garden in San Francisco, angering neighbors, hanging their clothes from trees, building all kinds of things Buddhas?” I asked Medea Benjamin about these charges, and she said, “It is a total exaggeration. No Buddhas. No ‘permanent living facilities.’ And all done out of tremendous frustration over Congress doing nothing to stop the war, and Pelosi refusing to have a public meeting with her constituents.”

When pushed about her comments disparaging her new neighbors, Pelosi said, “If they were poor and they were sleeping on my sidewalk, they would be arrested for loitering, but because they have ‘Impeach Bush’ across their chest, it’s the First Amendment [to the US Bill of Rights, which protects freedom of speech].” Later in the lunch a reporter asked her, “What do you see as your greatest mistake?” She smiled and said, “Why don’t you tell me.”

It might turn out that her comment on the protestors is at least one mistake Pelosi might come to regret.

As the occupation of Iraq begins to seem more and more permanent, the US Congress has turned its attention to other seemingly intractable problems.

Darfur and Myanmar provide two places to appear self-righteous. “The American people are demanding an end to genocide,” Pelosi said at a Save Darfur conference in early October. China, rather than US-based corporations, remains the focus here. In the context of the Democrat’s commitment to ending genocide everywhere else but in Iraq, Pelosi is leading the charge to censure the Ottoman Empire for its ninety year old brutalities against the Armenian people, a measure that has threatened the ties between Turkey and the US. Wealthy Armenian Americans, many of whom live in Pelosi’s affluent San Francisco district, have lobbied for this measure for decades (Pelosi’s closest ally is Los Angeles’ Congressman Adam Schiff, whose district includes the city of Glendale, where forty percent of the constituents are Armenian American).

If Pelosi has been wary of directly pushing the Bush administration on Iraq, this bill might actually do more to make the Iraq occupation unfeasible (but alas, it is certain to fail, and so even this back door brake on the Bush agenda will be thwarted). Three quarters of the material for the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan goes through Turkey. If the Turks decide to disallow this transit (and the use of Turkish airspace), it might suffocate the US occupation. Furthermore, the Turkish government has now signaled that it is ready to strike inside Iraqi territory against Turkish Kurds (notably the separatist PKK fighters). All of this is certain to create further instability in Iraq’s neighborhood. Lt. General Sanchez’ criticisms of the Bush team for its incompetence can now be widened. It is not only the prosecution of the war and the character of the occupation that is to be questioned; these rash attempts at a foreign policy of spectacle are equally dangerous for people who must bear their actual costs. Rather than stand up to the President and directly confront his right to intensify the occupation, Pelosi and her team have outsourced the job to the Turks and others who are not interested in an orderly evacuation of US troops to create the basis for a stable Iraq.

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