By Eugene J. Patron
More than 160 city and county councils in the US have passed resolutions opposing a preemptive or unilateral war in Iraq. This groundswell of local civic expression runs directly counter to claims by the Bush administration and members of Congress that they continue to have the support of the great majority of American people for a war to “liberate Iraq.” After the successful push to get her fellow council members to adopt a resolution calling for diplomacy instead of unilateral military action, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn told The Nation, “We are debating this issue because those we have elected to debate this issue [in Congress] have abdicated.”
It is not surprising that long-standing bastions of progressive thought like Berkeley and Amherst came out against war. But, when the city councils of places like Chicago, Providence and Cleveland also spoke out against it, you knew something was afoot. It is not easy to write off local governing bodies such as these as rubberstamps for a “liberal” anti-war agenda.
The Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the National Priorities Project (NPP) in Northampton, Massachusetts recognized the significance of this grassroots, local democratic movement and helped launch a coordinated Cities for Peace Campaign. Working with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, and some American Friends Service Committee chapters, the IPS and NPP have been educating grassroots groups such as Neighbors for Peace, students, the faith-based community and others on the process of lobbying their city and county councils to pass resolutions opposing war with Iraq.
Cities Pay the Price for War
The Cities for Peace movement started during the countdown to war and continues today. When considering the prospect of spending several hundred billion dollars to invade and occupy Iraq, it is hard to ignore the equally huge sums of money in the form of monstrous deficits that state and local governments face today. Thanks to a declining economy, Bushís tax cuts for the wealthy, and cutbacks in federal aid, states and municipalities are facing dire times. Local governments are struggling with the increased cost of homeland security amid indications that this first preemptive war against an Arab country is only heightening the risks Americans face from terrorism. Furthermore, the federal deficit is expected to balloon over the next decade to almost $2 trillion, diverting scarce funds from critical community needs in the US.
The Cities for Peace resolutions reflect how the American public has, despite Washingtonís rhetoric, understood the real cause and effect relationship between global issues and local security. Most resolutions call for the US to work for the disarmament of Iraq through the UN and warn of the dangers of unilateral action. The Chicago resolution states:
US military actions would risk the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians without guaranteeing the safety and security of US citizens, a preemptive and unilateral US military attack would violate international law and our commitments under the UN Charter and further isolate the US from the rest of the world.
Common to all of the resolutions is the way they address the local implications and costs of war. The Los Angeles resolution acknowledges that veterans make up 20 percent of the homeless on Skid Row and calls upon the government to fight homelessness and increase funding to aid existing veterans. The resolution goes on to warn that the real cost of war will “be borne by the people of the City of Los Angeles, who rely on federal funds for anti-poverty programs, for workforce assistance, for housing, for education programs, for infrastructure and for the increased demands of homeland security.”
The Gary, Indiana resolution speaks to the issue of who will fight this war: “The City of Garyís 18-25 year-old population is likely to be a primary source of conscription and recruitment for military personnel to fight a war from which there is no just cause or result.” The New London, Connecticut resolution goes even further: “Committing American troops to Iraq will put in harmís way citizens of New London, a disproportionate number of them racial and ethnic minorities from our cityís most economically deprived neighborhoods.”
Marriage of Global and Local
An argument in many council debates has been that local government has no business making statements on foreign policy. In fact, many local governments are quite adept at mixing local and global and have a long history of doing so. New York has named streets for Soviet dissidents and local politicians routinely court the cityís ethnic voter base by visiting places like Ireland and the Dominican Republic. Miami forbids the city to sign contracts with firms or their subsidiaries that have any business dealings with Cuba. (Some say you canít run for dog catcher in Dade County without opposing Fidel.) And after spending millions of dollars to attract the world to Salt Lake City for the most recent Winter Olympics, it is strange that some members of the Salt Lake City City Council felt they had no place in addressing issues that reach beyond the cityís boundaries. The mayor of Salt Lake City, to his credit, issued an anti-war proclamation.
Town and city councils first got into the foreign policy business before the nation was founded. The burdensome taxation polices of British colonial rule made for heated discussion and debates in town halls throughout the country. The predecessors of todayís locally elected officials had much to say in response to their constituentsí concerns about the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the World Wars of the twentieth century. If eighteenth century Americans living in small towns and newly burgeoning cities could discern how world events had an effect on their day-to-day lives, it is pure myopia for local elected officials of twenty-first century America to deny how inextricably the local is tied to the global.
The Local Costs of Global War
Almost all Cities for Peace resolutions raise serious questions about how the cost of war will hurt local government. Conservative economic analysts like to point out that even if the war costs $100-200 billion, this is a trivial figure for a multi-trillion dollar economy. These assurances, however, are misleading. The “cost of war” doesnít include the cost of occupation and rebuilding, which could last for a number of years and exceed the cost of the war itself.
And these estimated costs come on top of the costs of the Bush administrationís proposed tax code revisions and budget cuts. Elimination of the corporate dividend tax is expected to force cities to pay higher interest rates on municipal bonds because they will have to compete with newly tax-exempt corporate issues. Ending the dividend tax would also remove the current incentive the commercial market has to buy low-income housing tax credits. An Ernst and Young analysis prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agencies estimates that this could reduce by 35 percent the number of new low-income apartments to be developed.
The Bush administrationís budget also calls for direct cuts to a long list of social service programs, not to mention reduced funding for politically sacrosanct services like education and, despite patriotic cries to support our troops, even veterans benefits! At a time when the recession and the impact of 9/11 have brought fiscal pain to local and state governments, the majority of whom face current and near-future budget deficits, the Bush administrationís zeal to cut taxes is hardly seen in city councils and state houses as the solution.
Using a figure of $100 billion as the cost of a war with Iraq, the NPP calculated what taxpayers of each state and selected cities will pay out of their federal income taxes for the war. Atlanta can expect $80.5 million of its tax dollars to pay for the war. Milwaukee will pay $114 million and New York City $2.4 billion. While the Bush administration has tried to sell the public on the idea that the cost of the war with Iraq is an investment that will make the American people more secure from terrorism, local officials doubt the sincerity of the President and Congress when it comes to shouldering the cost of homeland security. More than $3 billion designated to help pay for the fiscal year ë02 security costs borne by local governments was delayed for months, while extra security precautions necessitated by the war are sapping local government of precious funds. Regardless of whether the Homeland Security Advisory System is at code yellow or orange, most cities have budgets colored in red ink. Furthermore, while federal support for local security may grow in absolute terms, it is accompanied by continuing federal retrenchment in the areas of housing, community development and social services.
Disenchantment with Democrats
Smart politicians should be considering the political repercussions if the outpouring of local democratic expression embodied in the Cities for Peace movement continues. This is more of an issue for the Democrats than Republicans. At anti-war demonstrations in New York protesters carried signs chiding the stateís two Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, for voting to back the Presidentís position on Iraq. The same holds true in other cities and states, where national Democratic officeholders have been seen as failing to speak out aggressively enough, if at all, against the war. While these protestors are not likely to become a bumper crop of potential turncoat votes for Republican candidates in upcoming elections, a third party or independent candidate could split the Democratic vote in many local races for national office. Or, local voters could display their disenchantment with Democrats by staying away from the polls entirely.
On the other hand, both local Democratic and Republican officeholders in cities that have passed peace resolutions are keeping their ears close to the ground and are heeding what their constituents are telling them. Yvette D. Clark, a councilwoman from New York who voted for the resolution, knows it is not war per se the voters in her Brooklyn district are against. The issue is, What type of war are people willing to get embroiled in? To that question sheís heard the answer from her constituents loud and clear: “If weíre going to be looking for a fight,” Clark says, “letís fight poverty and letís fight firehouse closures.”
Eugene Patron (ejpatron(at)earthlink(dot)net) is a student at City University of New York and editorial assistant for Planners Network. Cities for Peace may be contacted atwww.citiesforpeace.org.