With the Senate embracing the reckless Kyl-Lieberman amendment, we’ve moved one step closer to attacking Iran. But there’s still time for Congress to assert itself against yet another needless war with massive destructive potential. By defining Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, a core branch of the Iranian military, as a foreign terrorist organization, Kyl-Lieberman put the U.S. Senate on record as vindicating the Bush-Cheney line that Iranian proxies are part of a global conspiracy, linking Al Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents, Hamas, Hezbollah, and any other enemy the administration wants to list. The bill now makes it far easier for Bush to manufacture some Tonkin Gulf-style excuse, then use it to justify an attack. No wonder Senator Jim Webb called it Cheney’s fondest pipe dream.
But this vote also gives opponents of this astonishingly reckless path a chance to push back, and draw a line against a unilateral war. Last March, Senator Webb introduced Senate Bill 759, to prohibit military action against Iran without explicit Senate approval. The Foreign Relations Committee has bottled up Webb’s bill so far, but he’s working to move it to the floor. When the Senators voted for Kyl-Lieberman, most claimed, with echoes of Iraq, that they really weren’t giving Bush permission to go to war. Webb’s bill gives them a chance to back up their rationalizations with their votes.
This past July, Colorado Congressman Mark Udall introduced a companion measure, House Resolution 3119, with identical language. I’m suggesting they both go even further, to include a pledge to initiate or support impeachment proceedings if Bush initiated such an attack without explicit Congressional authorization. In the House, such a resolution wouldn’t even need Senate ratification (or overcoming a Republican filibuster or Bush veto), since the House can initiate impeachment proceedings on its own. While such a line-drawing Senate bill could be vetoed or filibustered, it can still assert a fundamental constitutional prerogative, with a commitment to follow through if Bush violated it.
You might see Lieberman-Kyl as an indication that bipartisan jingoism against Iran has reached such a fever pitch that none of this could happen. But if they hear from their angry grassroots base, the 28 Democratic Senators who voted for it just might start looking for a way to cover themselves politically, and distance themselves from the Bush-Cheney doctrine of reckless preemptive wars. Even co-sponsor Jon Kyl claimed “this is not intended to be an authorization of military force against Iran.” So with enough popular pressure, even Senators who just capitulated might turn and vote for a pre-emptive resolution reasserting that Bush is not the sole decider.
Not all the Democrats supported the Kyl-Lieberman, of course. Although those shamefully backing it included Hillary Clinton and much of the Democratic leadership, John Edwards blasted her for her stand, and Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson all opposed the bill (though Obama missed the vote when Reid scheduled it earlier than he’d previously indicated while Obama was stuck campaigning in New Hampshire). So did newly elected Democratic Senators Jim Webb, Jon Tester, Sherrod Brown, Claire McCaskill, Amy Klobacher, and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar. But the majority got stampeded once again.
Convincing them to switch course and reassert their right to make such a fundamental decision as whether to go to war with Iran will require a major popular outcry: petitions–from groups like MoveOn, TrueMajority, Working Assets, and Democracy for America–that aren’t just mailed in, but publicly delivered by the basket. It means marches, rallies and endless phone calls and visits to Congressional offices. It probably means people sitting in some of these same offices (and I bet similar efforts around Iraq convinced my own Senator, Washington State’s Maria Cantwell, to vote the right way in this case). We can say these kinds of efforts have so far failed to halt the Iraq war, but they’ve certainly fed the Congressional resistance, and it’s always easier to stop wars before they start. We’re also demanding a far more modest initial goal of Congress and the Senate simply reaffirming their constitutional right to make fundamental war-and-peace decisions in the first place. So it should be an easier sell.
It seems inconceivable that the Bush administration could even contemplate a military attack, given the massive global backlash it would create. But this administration feeds off a world of its own illusions, so we’d be wise to heed those, like Seymour Hersh, Daniel Ellsberg, and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who warn that an attack is likely. Working to stop it doesn’t mean sugarcoating Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s more questionable proclamations, though as University of San Francisco Middle East expert Stephen Zunes has pointed out, even some of those are (or have been) misstated. Ahmadinejad’s oft-quoted threat to “wipe Israel off the map” was in fact a mistranslation of a 20-year-old quote by Ayatollah Khomeini, and Ahmadinejad explicitly told a group of American religious leaders that it was “not Iran’s intention to destroy Israel.” We can point out that Iran‘s fundamental decisions on foreign affairs get made not by Ahmadinejad, but by the far more cautious Council of Guardians. And we can suggest that those itching to attack try viewing the world through the lens of the Iranians, who remember, as we do not, that we’ve already once overthrown an elected government of that country, in the 1953 CIA coup that deposed elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in favor of the brutal Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Ahmadinejad might not even have been elected to office had Bush not rejected a major 2003 initiative by Ahmadinejad‘s reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, that included accepting peace with Israel and tighter nuclear inspections, and backing off from supporting Hezbollah.
But the campaign against a new Iranian war doesn’t even have to demand agreement on Iran policy at all. It just has to reassert the right of Congress to be the final arbiter of whether or not we go to war. For all their cravenness in the face of Bush’s demands, I doubt that most Senators would launch into attacking Iran while we continue to be mired down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pushing for a resolution asserting Congressional rights would provide a concrete focus for those of us working to stop such a war, while placing Congressional Representatives, Senators, and Presidential candidates explicitly on record about whether to grant Bush the power to take this immensely reckless action. The voters could then respond to those unwilling to sign such a pledge.
Kyl-Lieberman is unquestionably a setback, giving Bush and Cheney still more latitude in proceeding toward global conflagration. But the now-more-likely war we’re trying to stop is not inevitable. It’s still up to us and the pressure we can create to stop it before it starts. Demanding Congress go on record about who decides would be a critical step.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email [email protected] with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles