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ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007


Shakeup in the antiwar movement

Cindy Sheehan says, "I am leaving the Democratic Party"


Cindy Sheehan, one of the best-known Iraq antiwar activists in the world, dropped a political bombshell over the Memorial Day weekend when she announced that she was resigning from the Democratic Party and temporarily withdrawing from political activity. She did this in response to the decision by the Democratic Party to grant the Bush administration’s request for $120 billion in unconditional supplementary spending for the war in Iraq, and after the Democrats agreed to abandon their demand that the Bush administration set a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential contenders Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were among the top Democrats to vote against the legislation. However, by that point the bill’s passage was certain, and Pelosi had acknowledged that the deal she helped negotiate was a concession to Bush’s demand for a bill without even a highly qualified withdrawal timetable.

In her blistering “Open letter to the Democratic Congress,” Sheehan declared:

There is absolutely no sane or defensible reason for you to hand Bloody King George more money to condemn more of our brave, tired, and damaged soldiers and the people of Iraq to more death and carnage. You think giving him more money is politically expedient, but it is a moral abomination and every second the occupation of Iraq endures, you all have more blood on your hands.

Sheehan goes on to call for an alternative to the two-party system:

The Camp Casey Peace Institute [named after her late son] is calling all citizens who are as disgusted as we are with you all to join us in Philadelphia on July 4th to try and figure a way out of this “two” party system that is bought and paid for by the war machine which has a stranglehold on every aspect of our lives. As for myself, I am leaving the Democratic Party. You have completely failed those who put you in power to change the direction our country is heading. We did not elect you to help sink our ship of state but to guide it to safe harbor.
Sheehan, the founder and president of Gold Star Families for Peace, opposed the Iraq War from its inception, but devoted herself to stopping the war after her son Casey was killed in Sadr City in Baghdad in April 2004. She has tirelessly traveled the world and has inspired many family members of active duty GIs to speak out against the war. Cindy gained world fame through her vigil outside of the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August 2005, which temporarily reignited the antiwar movement in the United States. She is literally a hero to millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe. Her fury at the actions of the Democratic Party represents the anger of a large section of the population—those who voted to end the war in Iraq when they brought the Democrats back into power in Congress after a decade in exile.

Democratic Party apologists are trying to excuse their behavior by claiming, after months of what was clearly empty posturing about setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces, that they didn’t want to be seen as “against the troops,” or that they didn’t “have enough votes to override a presidential veto.” Antiwar columnist Stephen Zunes wrote in Foreign Policy in Focus,

If they really supported the troops and wanted them out of harm’s way, they would have passed legislation that would bring them home.… There are precedents for Congress to stop war funding over presidential objections in the past. For example, in May 1970, Congress was able to eliminate funding for U.S. troops fighting in Cambodia and President Nixon was forced to withdraw them by June 30. The Democrats could have done the same regarding Iraq, but they obviously did not want to. Democratic majorities were also able to suspend U.S. military operations in Angola, limit U.S. troops in El Salvador to 50, and end support for the Nicaraguan Contras.

Sheehan came under intense pressure from the Democratic Party, and various organizations like to tailor her activity and message to the electoral needs of the Democrats. In 2006, Cindy announced at the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, that she would challenge prowar Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the upcoming California Democratic primaries. After behind-the-scenes pressure, Sheehan dropped her plans to challenge Feinstein. After Sheehan made public statements critical of the war in Afghanistan and Israel’s policies toward Palestine, she was told to “stay on message.”

When it became clear during the course of May that the new Democratic leadership was going to capitulate to Bush on the war-funding bill, she began to put pressure on the Democrats to hold the line. Writes Sheehan,

However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode and the “left” started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used. I guess no one paid attention to me when I said that the issue of peace and people dying for no reason is not a matter of “right or left,” but “right and wrong.”

I am deemed a radical because I believe that partisan politics should be left to the wayside when hundreds of thousands of people are dying for a war based on lies that is supported by Democrats and Republican alike. It amazes me that people who are sharp on the issues and can zero in like a laser beam on lies, misrepresentations, and political expediency when it comes to one party refuse to recognize it in their own party.

Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), an organization that worked closely with Cindy Sheehan, responded to her with a statement from PDA national director Tim Carpenter that can only be described as a polite “Thank-you and good-bye.” It reads, in part: “No one deserves a rest from the public eye and physical threats and media attacks more than does Cindy Sheehan. We wish her well as she steps back from public view.” Carpenter’s message avoided dealing with any of the substantive issues raised by Sheehan, or the attacks on her by liberal Democrats for her decision to quit the party.

Most liberal Democratic Party spokespeople will see in Sheehan’s move something alarming. “We have not seen the last of Cindy Sheehan,” writes John Nichols in the Nation. “But this may be the last we see of her as that Jeffersonian Democrat who believed so deeply and so unapologetically in America’s promise. To my mind, this is the truest measure of the darkness in which we now find ourselves.” Only those committed to restoring some “faith” in the two-party system could speak that way. Where liberals see darkness, millions of people who voted the Democrats into Congress because they wanted something done about the war, have had a bright light shone on the party they’ve pinned their hopes on. Sheehan’s education is the same education that millions are getting, and will continue to get about the nature of the Democratic Party.

Judith Le Blanc, co-chair of United For Peace and Justice, the leading liberal antiwar coalition with close ties to the PDA, and a leading member of the American Communist Party, defended the actions of the congressional Democratic leadership. “I think the Democrats are using the politics of reality,” LeBlanc said. The only “reality” that should be made clear by recent events is that despite the critical rhetoric of the Bush regime, the Democratic Party is as committed to a Middle East and Central Asia dominated by the United States as are the Republicans. Right now polls show that 82 percent of Americans want Congress to immediately cut off funding for the war or approve funding that has strict conditions including a timetable for withdrawal. Bush has a 28 percent approval rating in the polls, something akin to the approval rating that Nixon had before resigning from the presidency in August 1974. All the factors are there for a vibrant antiwar movement in this country, as has been true for many years now; the major roadblock holding things back is the subordination of our movement to the Democrats. This must be broken in the course of building a vibrant and independent antiwar movement.

Sheehan’s decision to leave the Democratic Party should be supported by all of us committed to building an antiwar movement that is for immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. And, as socialists we support her call for an alternative to the two-party system.

Thankfully, Sheehan is only taking a break in order to regroup. As she told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “We’re closing down the factory, we’re going to retool, and we’re going to open up, and it will be a new and improved version of it. But we are definitely going to come at it from a totally different direction.” We can only hope that she will return to political activity soon so that we can together get on with the tasks of ending of this criminal war.

Joe Allen is author of the forthcoming Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost (Haymarket Books) and is a frequent contributor to the ISR.

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