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How the Antiwar Was Won


It’s a fascinating scenario: Knowing that the war will be a huge liability in ’06, he will slowly withdraw troops without announcing that he is retreating, and within a year, we will simply be out of there. In that sense, the antiwar movement may have already won. Of course, not many on the left accept this scenario. They insist that Bush has a long-term interest in occupying Iraq.

After the Woolsey hearing, I waited for Dan Ellsberg to finish talking to various bloggers, then accompanied him to a basement cafeteria. Relentlessly cerebral and oddly egoless at 74, Ellsberg seems undiminished from the Vietnam days. Apart from a suitcase on rollers (full of documents, no doubt), he shows little sign of fatigue.

We got egg-salad sandwiches, and he offered me a grim scenario. It’s 1968 again. The war will go on, as Vietnam did, for many more years. Bush is building bases in Iraq so that an air war in the Mideast can be carried out even after Iraq’s civil war has been Iraqified.

“Public opinion doesn’t do it by itself. It just doesn’t do it. A president can ignore the public or fool it. By early 1968, 20,000 Americans had been killed. Well, another 15,000 were killed in ’68. The people were against the war before we lost them, but we went ahead and lost them. Nixon got in and told people he was getting out. He had no intention of getting out.”

Ellsberg believes that the Bush administration is holding out for another 9/11. “I think they’re counting on a 9/11 to change opinion. Then he gets whatever he wants, and the chances of thwarting the president are very negligible.”

What does Bush want? A draft, a civil-liberties clampdown “that will make the Patriot Act look like the Bill of Rights—the public will ask for detention camps.” And an invasion of Iran, with tactical nuclear weapons to get at the underground facilities.

His sandwich lay untouched amid the torrent of words, and I remembered a phrase from the Watergate era—“Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.”

I said, “You’re nuts, Dan.”

He shrugged, unoffended. “Okay, tell me where I’m wrong.”

“You’re like a general fighting the last war; you’re a prisoner of the Vietnam experience. They’ll never invade Iran; they got a bellyful in Iraq. Bush isn’t Nixon. He’s not a paranoid introvert. He doesn’t want this.”

“I hope you’re right,” Ellsberg said. “If you know Vietnam from the inside, the harder it is to explain that Johnson could have gone ahead in the face of the secret reports of how hopeless it was. But he did. And Iran actually is preparing weapons of mass destruction. I think an attack on Iran is in our future. That likelihood is only increased with Bush’s popularity going down.”

Ellsberg rushed off, but not before offering one ray of hope. He’s beating the bushes (or the Internet) for the next Ellsberg, a brainy whistle-blower who will show up at the New York Times with the next big box of Xeroxes, this one to show the crime in Iraq-war planning.

“Before the war began, the [former] Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki said that it would take 500,000 troops to stabilize the country, and [Paul] Wolfowitz told him, ‘I think that’s wildly off the mark.’ I never heard a chief of staff reproved in that way by a civilian. But he didn’t pull that figure out of the air. I am sure that Shinseki had a six-foot-high stack of Army estimates. We still haven’t seen those studies.”

A few minutes after saying good-bye to Ellsberg, I ran into Tom Hayden at a Senate office building.

“Ellsberg bummed me out,” I said. “He says this war is going to go on for seven years. Give me a more optimistic scenario.”

He stood leaning on a banister to talk.

“There’s no optimistic scenario. It’s all tragic. We won’t end the war without people seeing all kinds of dead bodies on television.” He sighed. “But okay—here you go. Bush comes in in January wanting $200 billion for Katrina, $100 billion for Iraq. Republicans face a revolt from their base—they say, ‘Big spenders in a losing war.’ Behind the scenes, they say to Bush, ‘We need you to get out of Iraq.’ He gets out, it’s removed as an election issue in 2006.

“On the other hand, it drags on. Hillary will run in 2008 as a hawk [who changed her mind]. Politicians can do that. She’s got to say, ‘Look, I gave them time. Look, I was raised to believe, when you make a mistake, you learn from it.’ ”

This is the next big goal for the antiwar movement: pressuring the leaders who got us into this to admit they made a mistake. The word on the left is that French Fry’s epiphany came because he had made a commitment to write personal condolence letters to all the families of the dead in his district. You can imagine that. “I want you to know that your son died for freedom . . . ” “I want you to know that your son died for—”

Late that afternoon, the antiwar leaders had a demonstration in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. The demonstration showed just how far the movement has to go. Fifty people in the unmoving late-afternoon heat, a lot of shouting into the microphone, rehearsing for the next demo. I found a spot of shade and fell asleep on the ground.

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