Yesterday, at long last, there was a vigorous debate about the war in Afghanistan on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. The legislative vehicle was a resolution introduced by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich calling for US troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year. But House critics of the war have long been agitating for a real debate.
This is the debate that should have been held - at least - last fall when the administration was considering sending more US troops to Afghanistan, or - at least - when the administration announced its plans to send more troops. If the House had held this debate while the administration was mulling its decision, the Congressional airing of arguments against military escalation and in favor of political and diplomatic solutions would have attracted a lot more attention, and could have affected the decision. No doubt, the possibility that a Congressional debate then might have affected the policy was a key motivation for some in the House leadership not to allow this debate to occur then.
But it is much better for the House to debate now than not to debate at all, or to fail to debate the policy until the question of money is on the floor, a point emphasized by Rep. Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who vigorously opposed the resolution but vigorously supported the debate. Pro-war views are hardly lacking venues for making their case, meeting in church basements, passing out flyers on the sidewalk. Pro-war views dominate the mainstream media. It's dissent against the war that has to fight to be heard. Yesterday, dissent was heard.
Of course, the House debate on Afghanistan didn't get the media play yesterday that the Eric Massa soap opera did, as Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) passionately noted (ironically, arguably garnering more press attention for the Afghanistan debate with his jeremiad than any other intervention on the House floor.)
But compare the press coverage of the Afghanistan debate to almost any other day of press coverage on Afghanistan, and the thing that stands out is that there was any coverage of dissent at all. Kennedy was absolutely right to call attention to the media's choices in the exercise of their agenda-setting power, but it's always important to keep in mind that the causality also always runs the other way: the media take cues about "what is an issue" from politicians, and the increase in the reporting yesterday of dissent on the war was a reflection of that. There was some press coverage of Congressional dissent, in part because there was a newsworthy Congressional dissent event to report on.
Julian Barnes of The Los Angeles Times got the story exactly right:
The measure ended up losing, 356 to 65 [roll call here], a margin that had been expected. Nonetheless, antiwar lawmakers welcomed the debate as a chance to express pent-up frustration with the continued troop buildup in Afghanistan, and to express their view that the original mission of US forces, defeating al-Qaeda, had been lost.
Barnes specifically noted the dissents of Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Edwards said she supported the resolution because the US was no longer fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. "This Congress has an obligation to send a strong message to the White House that the war must come to an end," she said. "Who are we fighting? Over the course of this time this war and its mission and its goals have morphed and morphed and morphed."
Here's what people watching C-Span saw when Donna Edwards spoke:
Grayson, wearing a tie festooned with peace symbols, called the Afghanistan war a "foreign occupation" that was unconstitutional and would leave thousands more young people with brain damage. "We won and now we could go home a long time. In fact, we could have gone home a long time ago," Grayson said. "We simply can't afford these wars any more in price of money or the price of blood."
Here's what people watching C-Span saw when Alan Grayson spoke:
"The country is totally bankrupt and we are spending trillions of dollars on these useless wars," said Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian and also a former presidential candidate. "History shows all empires end because they expand too far and bankrupt the country, just as the Soviet system came down."
Here's what people watching C-Span saw when Ron Paul spoke:
The New York Times noted the dissent of Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine):
"Is the cost of this war worth it?" asked Pingree? "Can we afford to turn our backs on the challenges we face at home and continue to pursue failed policies abroad?"
Here's what people watching C-Span saw when Chellie Pingree spoke:
And National Public Radio noted the dissent of the gentleman from Ohio.
Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one of the more liberal members of Congress, brought up a resolution Wednesday to pull US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year at the latest. Although the measure failed after a 65-356 vote, lawmakers on all sides agree on one thing: Wednesday's debate itself was important for the Congress to have.
Kucinich said he wrote this bill because he wants Congress to take responsibility for the war in Afghanistan. He said it should "claim responsibility for the troop casualties, which are now close to 1,000; to claim responsibility for the cost, which is approaching $250 billion and, together with the Iraq war, close to $1 trillion." Kucinich said Congress must also take responsibility for the great cost at home: the money spent on the war that hasn't gone to job creation, housing and public works projects.
As the sponsor of the resolution, the gentleman from Ohio was not limited to one short intervention, and anyone watching the debate for any length of time would have had the opportunity to see Kucinich present one aspect of his case against the war. Here he presented his argument for introducing the resolution, prior to the debate: