On War and Peace, the Senate Starts to Move

In the salad days of my youth, when God was a teenager, I worked as a computer programmer. Once, I complained to another programmer that writing programs for Windows machines was a pain in the butt.

“Look,” he said. “Anyone with a C manual can write a program for a UNIX box and make it compile. But if you can write a program for a Windows box and make it compile – now you got something. And if the program not only compiles, but actually runs and does what it's supposed to – now you have an accomplishment you can be proud of.”

Lobbying senators for peace can be kind of like that. Senators are often much harder to move than House members on peace issues, and sometimes people get demoralized. “No, No!” cries the Greek chorus. “Please don't ask us to call our senators!” In general, your average senator is much more attached to the Empire than your average member of the House, because senators are much more insulated from public opinion. They only have to run every six years, and senators rarely seem to show their faces in Yourtown, USA, to answer your questions about why they are supporting endless war.

But when the Senate starts to move – now you got something.

This week, the Senate started to move. Fifteen senators – so far – have signed a bipartisan letter to the president initiated by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), urging “strong support for a shift in strategy and the beginning of a sizable and sustained reduction of US military forces in Afghanistan, beginning in July 2011.” The letter, including the fifteen signers so far, is here. A group of former military officials is supporting the letter, as well as a coalition of national organizations, including MoveOn and the National Organization for Women.

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Meanwhile, on the Libya war, Sens. Jim Webb (D-Virginia) and Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) – both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – have introduced a bipartisan resolution – S.J.Res.18 (not on THOMAS yet, as of this writing, but you can find the text here) – echoing actions that have been taken by the House, including the Conyers amendment prohibiting the introduction of ground troops, the Garrett amendment affirming that US military operations have not been authorized and the Boehner resolution demanding more information from the president (which never would have happened had it not been necessary to draw support from the sharper resolution introduced by Dennis Kucinich mandating the withdrawal of US forces).

There's been a lot of kvetching about the president's violation of the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution in ordering US forces into combat in Libya and keeping them there, but until May 26, there was no effective bipartisan action in Congress to do anything about it. Whatever may be true in any other arena, in trying to retrain any president on war powers – always an extremely difficult task – broad, bipartisan action is essential. “Your guy is worse!” “No, your guy was worse!” – that's not going to get us where we need to go.

The first step toward broad, effective bipartisan action was the passage on May 26 of Michigan Representative John Conyers' amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the introduction of US ground troops (uniformed forces) to Libya.

Writing in The Washington Post, defense and foreign policy correspondent Walter Pincus praised the Conyers amendment:

What may turn out to be a good precedent, because neither the House nor the Senate has voted to authorize what the United States is doing in Libya, is what the House did on [May 26]. It passed, by 416 to 5, an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Bill that would prohibit deploying US ground troops to Libya for any purpose other than to rescue fellow members of the US armed forces.

Pincus likened the Conyers amendment to Sen. Fulbright's amendment during the Vietnam War – when Pincus worked for Fulbright – that prohibited the introduction of US ground troops to Laos or Thailand, noting that this was the first Congressional initiative that limited the scope of the Vietnam War. Like Fulbright's amendment, the Conyers amendment enacted a presidential promise into law.

The Webb-Corker bill is pursuing the same idea as the Conyers amendment: constrain the president from unilateral war making with broad, bipartisan action.

If you want your senators to sign on to the Merkley-Lee-Udall letter and the Webb-Corker bill, you should tell them. The Congressional switchboard is 202-225-3121.

Here is Senator Webb's speech on the Senate floor introducing the Webb-Corker bill. Note how Senator Webb goes out of his way to emphasize the points of agreement of his bill with the actions taken by the House, including the passage of the Conyers amendment.