A Promise to Keep Up the Pressure

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007


Lest there be any doubt where Rep. Jan Schakowsky stands, her house is the one with the two red-and-white yard signs, installed just last week, that call out, "Support The Troops. END THE WAR."

The Illinois Democrat, one of the most outspoken Iraq war opponents in Congress, was unimpressed by the assurances last week from President Bush and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who said this year's increase of 21,500 combat troops has been successful and should be extended into next summer, with no exit strategy or timetable for bringing most American forces home.

"We have been bludgeoned with the notion that unless you support endless war, you don't support the troops. It's quite the opposite," Schakowsky said, predicting that the contentious war debate in Congress will continue. "There are going to be legislative battles. I think people have a 'no excuses' attitude. They want to see a demonstration of resolve."

When Schakowsky says "people," she is speaking of a constituency deeply frustrated with the Iraq war and anxious to find a way out. It is a category that has only recently become a national majority but that for years has been emblematic of her progressive district in Chicago and scattered suburbs, where she skated to a fifth term in 2006 with 75 percent of the vote.

Political triangulation here tends to be not only undesirable, but also unnecessary.

"I love this district," Schakowsky said, beaming. "I can say, 'The emperor has no clothes.' "

Constituents including Dickelle Fonda, a leader of the North Shore Coalition for Peace and Justice, are urging Schakowsky to vote against Bush's latest war funding request unless it includes specific steps toward troop withdrawal. War opponents on the left, wary of the search by some Democrats for a compromise that could attract support from Republican war skeptics, see this as a pivotal moment.

A number of Democratic leaders said last week that they will shift their strategy to seek incremental changes in White House war policy. Pursuing a more aggressive path, including a firm pullout date, has failed to attract enough votes. The goal is to create effective pressure. As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) put it, "We want to get something to the president's desk."

Frustrated war opponents are counting on Schakowsky to stand firm.

"In her heart, Jan knows what's right," said Fonda, a psychotherapist who helps organize fortnightly peace vigils in downtown Evanston. "She certainly knows where the peace and justice movement and the activists in her district stand. That's been our bottom line from the beginning: no more money."

For her part, Schakowsky said she will not vote for money that "does not help end the war." She has met with antiwar constituents and invited them to her home to explain her thinking -- and, at times, to dampen their expectations. But she believes they are now pretty much on the same page. She will be "pushing for boldness" among congressional war opponents, she said, when she returns to Washington this week.

"I think the fight matters," Schakowsky said, sitting in her sunny back yard. "It is very unsatisfying to people to hear we don't have the votes, even if it's true, because we still have to put up that fight.

"The reason I think it isn't futile to do that is because -- despite what one may hear if you sit in Congress -- the momentum is going our way out in the real world. People are essentially done. They have had it. They're now looking at this war in the rearview mirror. I'm talking about everyone, except for really staunch Republicans and supporters of the president. They want a timetable of withdrawal, regardless of what the Iraqis do."

"I think if we provide the leadership and the fight, there's a certain contagion about that," Schakowsky said. "It will inspire people all over the country to support this, to get behind it."

Michael McConnell, regional director of the American Friends Service Committee, is a constituent who believes the time for compromise has passed. Another year, he figures, is too long to wait for a significant drawdown of U.S. fighting forces. Beyond the cost of the war, he suspects the Bush administration and the Republican leadership are matching war strategy with electoral stratagems ahead of the November 2008 vote.

"They're going to try to pull some troops back next summer as they go into the election, so the Republicans can run on 'We're withdrawing troops; the end is in sight,' but [by then] we're going to lose a thousand or more troops, and there's going to be another $200 to $300 billion wasted," McConnell said. "Politics and Congress is a game of negotiation and compromise, but you can't just compromise away everything and pull everything back to the least common denominator."

If troop levels are cut by about 30,000, as Bush proposes, about 130,000 U.S. troops will be in Iraq at this time next year, about the same number as when Bush announced the buildup in January. Looking at the front page of the Chicago Tribune, which read, "Bush vows troop cuts. Says 'surge' is bringing real progress in Iraq war," Schakowsky called it "disheartening" that the president would get credit for calling that a reduction.

"The House, we know, has the votes to set a withdrawal date, and I think we should keep sending it to the Senate," she said. "If they pass it, keep sending it to the president if he vetoes it. And, meanwhile, help to organize our antiwar troops to continue to put pressure on."

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