Protesting war online, not in streets

June 22, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - As the war in Iraq drags on, the daily violence mocks the "Mission Accomplished" banner that was a backdrop to President Bush's 2003 post-invasion flight to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

With the death toll of Americans surpassing 1,700, the most visible reminders to the nation of that cost are the periodic displays of photos of the dead in newspapers and on television.

The president's support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, has plunged from 45 percent of those surveyed in February to only 37 percent. And a majority now say that invading Iraq was a mistake that has not, as Mr. Bush keeps insisting, made Americans safer.

Yet the public and Congress seem to be in a state of lethargy. It's in sharp contrast to 30 years ago, when outpourings of street protest eventually played a key role in ending the American involvement in Vietnam.

Critics of this war point out that in the Vietnam conflict, the protest did not reach a boiling point until this country had been engaged for much longer.

These critics also note that while the 1,700-plus American deaths have been shocking and deplorable, they don't approach the 58,000 lost in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the steady return of thousands of Americans in body bags and the existence of a draft significantly fueled the protest.

But why hasn't the U.S. experience in Vietnam spurred those strenuously opposed to the American presence in Iraq to hit the streets? Instead, except for some spasmodic demonstrations and a round of intellectual anti-war teach-ins copied from the Vietnam era, there has been nothing comparable to what happened three decades ago.

In place of militant protesters, thousands of Americans are using the Internet to express dissatisfaction with the war. It may not yet be a new silent majority, but it's clearly growing.

Assorted peace groups are making noise, but only what could be called a guerrilla war of words is being waged in Congress by a band of mostly Democrats and a few Republicans.

Three California Democrats have up to 40 House members signed on for separate anti-war resolutions. Rep. Lynn Woolsey's calls for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq; Rep. Maxine Waters' wants withdrawal by year's end; Rep. Barbara Lee's seeks rejection of Mr. Bush's policy of pre-emptive war.

Seeking to ignite a broader protest, war critics in Congress last week seized on the publication of the Downing Street memo, calling it a "smoking gun" of Bush duplicity. It refers to the minutes of a 2002 secret meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and top aides in which the chief of British intelligence reported that Mr. Bush had already decided to go to war.

One of the leaders in Congress against the war, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was thwarted by the Republican leadership in an attempt to conduct a formal committee inquiry into the issue. So he held a Democrats-only forum into the ramifications of the Downing Street memo.

One witness, Boston lawyer John C. Bonifaz, co-founder of the Web site AfterDowningStreet.org, argued that if the minutes were accurate, Mr. Bush should be impeached on grounds his invasion of Iraq was based on false premises and contrary to the Constitution's stipulation that only Congress can declare war.

Others, including 2004 presidential candidate Ralph Nader, have joined the chorus for impeachment hearings.

So far, the White House has been able to brush aside such notions, saying there's nothing new in the Downing Street memo. Meanwhile, the public protest seems largely channeled through cyberspace.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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