The Moment of Disillusion

With some effort, the most determinedly optimistic among us may be able to find some upsides to the messy U.S. involvement in Iraq; but, in general, the enterprise has produced more than enough disappointment to go around.

And if anyone is entitled to hers, it's Cindy Sheehan.

The disillusionment got the best of the anti-war activists this week. Sheehan quit the movement, deciding that she had waged as good a fight as she was able to and could no longer abide the frustration. The thing that seemed to put her over the top was the retreat by Democrats on the withdrawal component of the Iraq supplemental spending bill, which Congress sent to the president without any withdrawal timetables.

The GOP claimed victory; the media declared a capitulation by the Dems, and the Stop-The-War crowd is still howling mad at Democratic leaders. In an excoriating letter to the Democratic Congress, Sheehan denounced them for complicity with George Bush and spineless political expediency. "You think giving [Bush] more money is politically expedient, but it is a moral abomination and every second the occupation of Iraq endures, you all have more blood on your hands," she writes.

She is apparently not aiming for balanced analysis here. She isn't just burning bridges; she is blowing them to bits. She ended the letter thusly: "We gave you a chance, you betrayed us."

Who can blame her? She put herself on the line and got in the president's face when he was a lot more popular than he is today. She gave voice to a movement that was desperate for one, and then that movement delivered -- Democratic control of the House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years and nine new Democratic senators. And what does she get? A compromise with a weak and wounded president.

"Congratulations Congress," she writes, "you have bought yourself a few more months of an illegal and immoral bloodbath. And you know you mean to continue it indefinitely …" As with her early opposition to the war, Sheehan disenchantment with Democrats is symbolic of a larger phenomenon. She represents a lot of people who believed that big Democratic wins in the midterm elections meant an end to the war.

But as they let their disappointment balloon into outrage and then into disdain and then disgust, it may be worthwhile for them to stop and rethink, with an eye to preventing their reaction from becoming an over-reaction. Overkill is the natural curse of new majorities.

As has been noted in this space before, Democrats cannot end the war. It's the president's war to end, and he will have to be persuaded, cajoled, forced, and bullied into doing it. The truth is that cutting off funding for the war would not so much end the war as change the conversation around it. Each time an American soldier got killed in Iraq, it would not be because the war was ill-conceived and pointless, but because the Democratic Congress has not provided adequately for the warriors.

It is easy to understand the skepticism about Democratic motives. After all, too many of them voted for the war, and for the Bush tax cuts, and for No Child Left Behind, and for the flawed prescription drug benefit to Medicare -- all of which struck the Democratic base as hideously expedient capitulations, the typical Democratic cave-ins. It was lucky that the next thing the president wanted to tackle was Social Security, or we may never have seen Democrats walking upright again.

So if some people are a little suspicious, they come by it honestly. However, it would be doubly ironic if the effort to end the war was undone by the same kind of ideological zealotry that got us into Iraq in the first place. If you oppose the war -- see it as a moral wrong -- then the supplemental, however it is packaged or presented , will take on the taste and texture of ashes in your mouth. But to end funding for the war would only be as good as the message it sends, and the outcome it produces. It would give an embattled president reason to fight on. It would likely cause his GOP allies on the Hill to stand by him longer than they otherwise would. And it would not bring the troops home tomorrow.

The war is obviously unpopular, and President Bush's job approval rating is at historic lows -- it would be tempting to just play the strongest available hand. That would be to force him to keep vetoing bill, and to force unpopular votes on the GOP in Congress. That would be easy, but it wouldn't end the war. The vetoes would be sustained, and at any rate wars don't end at the conclusion of a roll call vote. It will take Republican votes to force the president into the corner. Those are starting to come; cutting off funding would turn back that support.

So even though the supplemental compromise had the look of past weak-kneed Democratic surrenders, there was a strategic rationale to it that should make the opponents of the war, if not proud, at least hopeful. The slow build from a series of failed non-binding resolutions last summer to a presidential veto this spring shows a level of persistence -- and strategery -- among Hill Democrats that would make the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue proud.

Considering the public mood and the president's approval numbers, the vote for the supplemental may have been the actual gutsy one for Democrats. Admittedly, that may just be the optimistic view.