WASHINGTON — The anti-war crowd had waited years for this moment, when it could finally use its political muscle to end or at least sharply curtail American involvement in a war that seems endless.
Instead, Congress' most vocal anti-war activists were badly outnumbered this week when they tried to define an exit strategy for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
"We need a plan while we are there and a strategy for leaving," said Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., who last year defeated an eight-term incumbent Democrat who backed the Iraq war. "We don't have it."
They weren't even allowed a vote on a plan. It was a setback because for years, anti-war lawmakers lacked the votes they needed to impose restrictions on former President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. Now, the president is a Democrat, and the Democrats have a 79-seat majority in the House of Representatives and 59 Senate seats, including two independents, which gives them their biggest margins since the early 1990s.
Nevertheless, the anti-war crowd remains as impotent as it was during the Bush years amid widespread support for President Barack Obama and a public that's preoccupied with economic issues and largely unperturbed by the escalating war in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan simply doesn't arouse the same kind of broad opposition that Iraq did," said John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
While the reasons for invading Iraq proved to be questionable, there's far less controversy about Afghanistan, Pitney said, because, "That's where the bad guys are."
Obama has said that U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq by August 2010, so the congressional anti-war effort is now turning largely to Afghanistan.
House Democratic leaders urged members to trust Obama, and they quickly debated and passed the $96.7 billion emergency spending bill that will fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate will consider its version next week.
The experience of Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., was typical. The veteran lawmaker held a "telephone town hall" meeting earlier this week, and heard from thousands of people in his district, an economically and racially diverse area that includes the city of St. Louis and some of its suburbs.
"We have a lot of anti-war sentiment in the district, and I thought people would provide me cover to vote against the bill," Clay said.
Instead, he found, "It was just the opposite. Lots of callers told me they trust the president, and we should give him a chance." Clay voted for the bill.
Anti-war liberals are frustrated by the lack of a clear strategy to end the war in Afghanistan, by supporting a government there that's widely thought to be corrupt and allied with opium traffickers and by the reluctance of U.S. allies to lend any military help.
"I worry about mission creep," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.
They tried to band together. About 30 met on the eve of the Thursday House vote, but they couldn't come up with a united strategy.
"We realized this came up so fast we didn't have the time," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., the co-chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus.
Many members vow to keep pushing for a more clearly defined strategy.
"I'm not advocating for an immediate withdrawal of our military forces from Afghanistan. All I'm asking for is a plan," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "If there is no military solution for Afghanistan, then, please, just tell me how we will know when our military contribution to the political solution has concluded."
McGovern is leading a group of 73 members who are sponsoring legislation to require Defense Secretary Robert Gates to outline a military exit strategy from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
"My bill doesn't withdraw our forces. It doesn't set a definite timeline. It simply asks the Secretary of Defense to outline what our exit strategy is," he said.
Other members are urging the U.S. to put more emphasis on diplomacy and humanitarian aid.
The war funding the House passed would spend about nine times as much on military help for Afghanistan as it would on diplomatic and humanitarian aid.
"Winning requires a long term sustained commitment to turn 90 percent illiteracy to literacy and grow food products instead of producing heroin and opium, build a civil society and rule of law," Edwards said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., was sympathetic to the anti-war crowd's concerns, and he likened the mood to the one in Congress when he arrived in 1969.
Richard Nixon had just been elected president, and people urged Obey to give Nixon a chance to end the Vietnam War. By the spring of 1970, however, the Nixon administration was expanding the war into Cambodia, and Obey began speaking out.
"I'm pretty much in the same situation today," Obey said.
He included in the House spending bill this week a requirement that Obama give Congress by early next year a detailed report on the status of the Afghanistan effort.
"So there are no deadlines, no conditions, no timelines," Obey said. "But there are clear measurements against which we should be able to judge the performance of the Afghanistan and Pakistani governments."
Even Obey was uneasy, however.
"It's clear to me that there is a consensus to try to do something to stabilize the situation," he said. "If we're going to go down that road, I want the president to get everything that he asked for and then some to maximize his chances for success, and that is what this bill does."
But, he added, "I frankly have very little faith that it will work."
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