How US progressives are reining in Trump's warmongering with Iran

How US progressives are reining in Trump's warmongering with Iran
Comment: Where Congress is limited in its ability to curtail Trump's actions, progressives and leftist grassroots are stepping in, writes Marcus Montgomery.
5 min read
14 Jan, 2020
Anti-war protests broke out after the US assassination of Iranian general Soleimani [Getty]
After President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, much of the world feared war between the United States and Iran was imminent. 

In the United States, distinct lines were drawn between those who absolutely refused to see Washington wage another disastrous war in the Middle East, and those who were content to stand by idly as the administration took actions that could precipitate a direct conflict. 

This dichotomy was perhaps most clear on Capitol Hill, where Democrats of all stripes criticised Suleimani's assassination for the unknown dangers it was sure to unleash, while Republicans were largely unified behind what many view as President Trump's reckless march to war.

But the most progressive members of Congress - and their constituents and grassroots supporters - have been the most vocal opponents of the administration's escalating tensions with Tehran.

Rhetorically, there was an immediate and clear distinction between progressives and the more moderate and centrist bloc of the Democratic Party.

While presidential candidates and establishment Congressional Democrats strove hard to criticise the administration's operation only in terms of the  process and procedures of the decision-making process, progressives skipped the institutional critiques of the national security process and simply 
noted that the attack was an assassination - the extrajudicial slaying of a member of a sovereign state apparatus - and that it risked drawing the United States into war with Iran. 

Progressives will play a critical role in consolidating and maintaining a strong and forceful anti-war bloc

The progressive argument, while mocked by Republicans as "mourning" General Suleimani, clearly holds sway among many a portion of the American public. It is notable that longtime Democratic hawks like Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) took the initiative to call the assassination "unconstitutional" - echoing Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), one of the foremost advocates for progressive defense policy - at the same time that he is facing progressive challengers in his congressional primary. 

While progressives understood that the framing of this issue is important, it was clear that they also grasped the need to take concrete action at the same time.

Across the US, they coordinated a two-pronged strategy to fight against further conflict with Iran. In Congress, Reps. Khanna, Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Barbara Lee (D-California), and Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) took immediate steps to rein in President Trump's ability to lead Washington to war with Tehran. 

Senator Kaine and Reps. Omar and Lee introduced resolutions under the War Powers Act that would force the United States military to withdraw from any hostilities with Iran in 30 days.

Though Republicans largely refused to reclaim Congress' constitutional authority to determine when and where the United States goes to war, there was appetite in the Democratic Party to trigger the War Powers Resolution process to challenge the White House.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) clearly understood this and, instead of challenging the progressive bloc's position, she commissioned more moderate Democrats to introduce a different, nonbinding war powers resolution that nonetheless passed with progressive support.

Rep. Khanna, for his part, teamed up with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) to introduce legislation to weaponize what is colloquially referred to as the "power of the purse". Congress, and only Congress, has the constitutional authority to allocate money for federal spending - including for the US military - so Khanna and Sanders introduced a bill that would simply prohibit the United States government from using any money to wage war against Iran.

Wars are expensive and, if there are no available funds, it is impossible to fight. Ironically, progressives almost muscled this very provision into law only months ago, before Pelosi and her centrist leadership team capitulated to GOP demands and stripped the language from the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.

Khanna has argued that, if Democrats had stood strong, the administration likely would not have taken the extraordinary step of assassinating Suleimani in Iraq since the law would have clearly stated that no funds could be used for the purpose of attacking Iran - including a member of its military.

Finally, Rep. Barbara Lee has introduced a resolution to repeal the 2002 authorisation for the use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq. Though Suleimani was Iranian, the 2002 AUMF was cited by the Trump administration as the authority under which it justified its strike.

Lee has long been a critic of what she views as open-ended AUMFs - the United States still has authorisations on the books for the first Gulf war and the global "War on Terror" - and her fellow progressives find it time to limit what the United States can do in Iraq.

Grassroots mobilisation is a critical way to lean on lawmakers to be more vocal and aggressive

But, as others have pointed out, Congress is limited in what it can, or will, do to challenge Trump as tensions with Iran heighten.

Here is where the progressives and leftist grassroots have stepped in.

Over the last week, thousands have organised across the United States to protest war with Iran. The progressive group "MoveOn" 
held a conference call last week to gin up support for mobilising against a war and, according to some estimates, protests took place in over 350 places around the country.

Grassroots mobilisation is a critical way to lean on lawmakers to be more vocal and aggressive in ensuring that the current administration does not continue on the precarious path to conflict in the Middle East.
 In the immediate future, progressives will play a critical role in consolidating and maintaining a strong and forceful anti-war bloc. 

Republicans are marching in lockstep with President Trump, so the most liberal wing of Democratic Party will be responsible for keeping their moderate and centrist colleagues - many of whom have supported disastrous Middle East interventions and general militarism in the past - in line.

These early moments have proven that progressives are prepared to lead the fight against any war with Iran.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.