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Feeling The Heat From Afghanistan Part 2: Lame Duck Incumbents

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Part 1 – 2010 Midterms: Both Parties Feel The Heat From Afghanistan

Last week we talked about politicians on both sides of the aisle suffering for their support of the war. In particular we looked at Democratic staple Jane Harman’s bloody primary battle with a challenger whose position on the war is merely moderate and mainstream. You wouldn’t normally expect a convention fight over a boring centrist compromise like a withdrawal time line and transition to a peace mission, but this is the political climate we’re dealing with right now. Constituents across the country are standing up and demanding to be heard, exactly as our political system is intended to function, and any representative who thinks they can ignore it is in for a terrible year. As I said in part 1, it’s no longer safe to support the war in Afghanistan.

But what about the dreaded lame duck incumbents who won’t be running again, the members of congress who aren’t really under any obligation to listen to their constituents? After all, they don’t have need any more re-election funds, campaign volunteers, none of that. With important votes like the supplemental budget still facing this congress, are these lame ducks able to run out the clock and support the war? Nope. Even the lame ducks are being brutalized by the war in Afghanistan.

Let’s look at just one of these lame ducks, Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts. He recently held a public forum specifically on the upcoming vote for the supplemental war budget. And he didn’t do it by choice, he was forced. David Swanson reports:

On Sunday, April 11, 2010, Congressman Bill Delahunt hosted a public forum in Falmouth, Mass., on the question of whether or not he should vote for another $33 billion to escalate war in Afghanistan.  Delahunt was honoring a commitment he had made to Cape Codders for Peace and Justice following a sit-in in his office.

Two pro- and two anti-war speakers were scheduled to speak.  But Delahunt put out a press release announcing only the two pro-war speakers, and the day before the event disinvited one of the anti-war speakers, Chris Hellman, and communicated that neither of them would be included.  After a flurry of Emails and phone calls made clear that this new plan would not be accepted easily, the speakers were re-invited.

So Delahunt’s constituents actually shut down his office and forced him to hold the forum, and when he tried to muddy the waters and disinvite the anti-war speakers, he was again forced by public pressure into re-inviting them. Delahunt is retiring this year, so theoretically he could spend the rest of his time voting to nuke the Quetta Shura, his political career is over anyway. But still he had no choice but to listen to his constituents.

And just in case we think Delahunt has had a change of heart in his old age, and suddenly he thinks war is wrong or something, let’s look a little closer at Delahunt’s conduct. He hasn’t had a radical epiphany, he’s still in the pro-war mindset:

Delahunt has said that he wants to obey the President, but at this event insisted that he agreed with my statement that war powers belong in Congress.

So even though Delahunt is apparently a subscriber to the Spears Doctrine of Executive Authority, he still admits that it’s his responsibility as a legislator to deal with the war, not President Obama’s. That is, he really wants to support the war, but he has to listen to you, not the President. And this isn’t some selfless, noble act of Delahunt listening to the people in his final hours. He’s just being a smarmy politician:

Prior to the event, Delahunt said that he would not be announcing his decision that day, but that he would announce it at least 10 days before the vote.  He said that he craved the attention that comes from not announcing how you will vote, as if the attention he gets matters more than the lives he funds the taking of.  One of Delahunt’s staffers, also chatting prior to the event, said that the Congressman had worried about making his recent announcement of his coming retirement, because he had thought that he would get less attention and the phone would ring less if he were a lame duck, but that happily he gets even more attention now.

These lame ducks do have a weakness. Apparently, they crave attention and power. He knows the war is his responsibility, and he actually wants his citizens to call him up and tell him how to vote. Politicians aren’t geniuses or master philosophers, they’re narcissists who need to be told what to do. Delahunt is if nothing else honest, he’ll give in to public pressure as long as you shower him with attention.

Delahunt is retiring, so he has to worry about legacy. We shower him with attention now, but what will our attention be like after he’s gone? This is likely why he’s picked the issue of Afghanistan funding to give in on. Maybe he wants the first line of his obituary to contain the word "peace" instead of "controversial" and "occupation," or maybe he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren that he thought supporting Hamid "I’ll Join The Taliban" Karzai against a bunch of hillbilly religious wingnuts thousands of miles away was a good way to spend their future tax dollars. Delahunt doesn’t want his legacy to be ignoring his constituents and supporting a futile war in Afghanistan. And that’s exactly what his constituents are threatening:

"You don’t have many votes left," She says ominously. "This would be the golden time for you, in your retirement, to say I will vote against escalating the war in Afghanistan, by saying ‘no’ to the supplemental funding. We will honor you for that vote."  Clear as crystal. Delahunt’s reputation with the voters of Massachusetts rests squarely on his support for the war in Afghanistan. His constituents are obviously more than willing to give in to his demand for attention, and now Delahunt is faced with the position of retiring as a warmonger or, as Diane Turco promised, as "taking leadership" on difficult issues.

In this political climate, it’s not safe to support the war. Whether it’s a mainstay facing a primary challenge like Harman or a lame duck on the way out the door like Delahunt, if they can’t join the mainstream and move to end the war, their reputation is toast. This is the choice politicians are facing in 2010. Either they’re with the mainstream American opinion, or they’re with this:

U.S. and allied forces storm an Afghan family’s home. They kill civilians. They lie about it. The public affairs officer denies it. Outraged community members are outraged. Violence spikes. More people die.

U.S. and allied special forces are under fire in Afghanistan for killing civilians in Gardez, a town in Paktiya Province, and for attempting to hide their crime and smear journalists who caught them. This incident is striking for the brutality of the cover-up (troops reportedly dug the bullets from the bodies to try to hide their crime) and because pregnant women died. But a simple look at the most recent record shows that it’s hardly unique

Want to help the politicians make that choice? Join us on Rethink Afghanistan’s Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.

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Josh Mull

Josh Mull

Josh Mull aka “Ultimate Josh” is the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for Brave New Foundation/The Seminal as well as Community Director for Small World News (Alive in Baghdad, Alive in Afghanistan).

He is also a contributor to Enduring America, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia, and Politics in the Zeros, focusing on Politics, Energy and World Events in the 21st Century.

In his spare time, he manages a comic book store, Haven Comics, in Madison, AL.