Half a decade of war

EDITORIAL Five years ago, the antiwar movement shut down San Francisco. It was a moment in history, one of those times that those of us who were there will never forget. No cars on Market Street. No cars on Mission Street. No business as usual anywhere downtown. Just a powerful statement that the city was not going to pretend that invading Iraq was an acceptable move.

And yet, for five years, the war has gone on. Sometime this spring, it’s likely the total number of American soldiers killed in the pointless military adventure will pass 4,000. And that’s just a fraction of the carnage: according to iraqbodycount.org, more than 89,000 civilians have died since the George W. Bush administration launched the invasion in March 2003.

There will be any number of newspaper stories, special reports and anniversary programs in the next few weeks, but of all the facts and statistics they’ll cite about the war, one ought to be at the top:

The antiwar movement was right.

Everything that the activists in the streets (and the very few newspapers that supported them, like this one) said at the time would prove to be absolutely true. As Steven T. Jones notes on page 14, there were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Iraq had nothing to do with Sept. 11. United States troops were not welcomed as liberators. There is no functioning Iraqi democracy. The situation in the Middle East is more unstable now than it was five years ago. Nothing has come of this war except disaster, death, and a bill to the American people that could reach $3 trillion.

In fact, Bush’s war is one of the main reasons that the economy is such a mess today — and that’s something the Democratic presidential candidates need to be talking about.

There has been nowhere near enough debate over the cost of the war. Bush has managed to fund the entire effort through supplemental appropriations, without once presenting a full budget to Congress. And the Democrats, fearing political criticism if they cut funding to troops who are in harm’s way, have gone along with every single spending request.

That’s been a huge factor in the nation’s mounting budget deficits and rapidly growing debt. And unlike deficit spending that funds social and infrastructure priorities, the red ink has done little to create jobs or improve the economy. It’s well known that military spending does less to help economic growth and recovery than any other type of government program. Put another way: If the $3 trillion that will go to the Iraq war were put into any other public venture, it would have tremendous positive consequences for society. It could, for example, preserve Social Security for another entire generation without new taxes or benefit cuts.

But those sorts of choices haven’t been presented to the public, because the war has been sold as a painless effort that requires no national sacrifice. And the bills won’t all come due until this president is gone and his successor has to deal with a deep recession, a horrible budget mess, growing unemployment, and a legacy of international distrust.

The good news is that the antiwar activism has forced both presidential candidates to pledge to bring the troops home — and Barack Obama could be the first president in years to be elected in large part on the basis of a strong grassroots peace movement. But the next president won’t stop the war without continued, constant pressure. It’s easy to think of the antiwar movement as a failure and to get discouraged — but this is not time to let down. If a Democrat wins the White House, visible and organized activism will be more important than ever. And this time, it might actually change American politics.