Senator Mikulski finds herself on the other side of the protests

March 18, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

In the lengthening hall of mirrors created by the war in Iraq, friends become enemies. Legislators who voted against the war are called supporters-in-effect when they try to support the troops without supporting the war.

Strategies for withdrawal founder on the rocks of compromise. Decisive action in Congress is muted by half-measures. Senators who voted against the war are targeted as zealously as those who voted for it.

In Maryland, an anti-war coalition pressures Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski to advocate something like immediate withdrawal. The conflict brings her into conflict with many who have backed her for decades. Her public career comes full circle.

Years ago in Baltimore, she made her spurs by hectoring officials about a toxic highway project. She and her allies against "The Road" prevailed - and her extraordinary career in politics was launched.

But where is she now? Where is the quick-witted people's advocate? Why doesn't she lead against the war if she really opposes it? Why does she keep approving the billions needed to keep the war alive? Haven't we gotten to the point where someone has to take risks - political risks - which, after all, have declined after the last election's Democratic Party victories?

Her answer: I voted against the war, but I won't abandon our troops in the field. She speaks via press releases, declining interviews with reporters eager to hear more of her thinking.

It's not an unusual tactic for people in power. The higher the stakes in such matters, the less likely a decision-maker will be open and candid.

Thus Senator Mikulski, one-time bane of officialdom in Baltimore, now refuses to meet with the protesters who have been demanding to hear from her and courting arrest in her Fells Point and Capitol Hill offices.

The practitioners of pressure have grown more sophisticated in the years since Ms. Mikulski emerged as a scrappy social worker with a gift for cutting through official rhetoric to force an open examination of issues.

Now, though, it's not just a road. The stakes are immeasurably higher. It's the standing of the United States in the world community. It's terrorism and the lives of the nation's troops - not to speak of the Iraqis.

Senator Mikulski's anti-war constituents want to provoke a vote for legislation that would get the U.S. out of Iraq more or less immediately. They would like her to support House Bill 508, which would require that funds appropriated for Iraq be used to complete the withdrawal of all U.S. armed forces and military contractors by Dec. 31. It also would provide for the protection of those forces and contractors during the course of that withdrawal. And it would effectively end the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

The peace coalition appeals to the Mikulski image, her history and her underlying support of their position.

"We miss you!" comes the plaintive lament of a group called Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore. "We miss the citizen activist so many of us have known, admired and loved for years. We miss the brave woman who had the guts to stand up to the powers that be and shout `No' to a highway that would have destroyed Fells Point and much of Baltimore. ... We miss the senator who used to meet and listen to her constituents."

So far, she has repelled these advances. Hers is a different kind of solidarity now, the kind that binds senators in their great deliberative body. To break ranks might not go over so well there. Her voice might not be so effective with her colleagues as she argues for this or that measure of importance to her in the matter of Iraq or on some bill of importance to her constituents.

Or she may believe nothing comes to a U.S. senator behaving like a community organizer. The rules are different.

The protesters say her opposition is meaningless. The troops have never been adequately supported, they say. Support means bringing them home.

In her heart of hearts, she may admire her tormentors. But she's a senator now and unwilling to be pushed around - the way she pushed others around years ago.

The senator responded Thursday as she voted for a resolution that would have brought the troops home by March 31, 2008.

"I say to those well-intentioned activists: Know we are on your side," she said. But, she added, "You can sit in every single day; you can follow me throughout my Senate career; you can tail me to my grave. I will not vote to in any way harm the men and women in the U.S. military."

The demonstrators had won this much. They had a voice. Their message was heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

But, as former demonstrator Mikulski surely knows, the protests are probably not over.

C. Fraser Smith is news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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