States begin criticizing Iraq policy, too

The Vermont legislature wants Congress to bring American troops home from Iraq. The Iowa Senate is on record against President Bush's plan to send more troops into combat there. Democratic legislators in Maine sent a letter to their congressional delegation asking them to vote against any kind of escalation of the war. Even the Boston City Council weighed in to ask for a withdrawal of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are among some two dozen resolutions criticizing the Iraq war and the president's strategy for a troop "surge." Although state and local pronouncements on foreign policy carry little weight – even less than the nonbinding resolution that cleared the US House of Representatives Friday – they illustrate the war's unpopularity among elected officials at all levels. They also show how activists are using the Internet to tap that discontent.

The current push at the state level was spurred largely by a mid-January initiative by liberal advocacy groups, including the Progressive States Network and, with support from US Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Launched as Congress wrangled over whether to debate Mr. Bush's new Iraq strategy, the online campaign urged war critics to bombard their local as well as national elected representatives with calls for action.

"The Internet is making the 50-state campaigns easier and cheaper," says Christopher Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. "This has led to an increasing nationalization of state politics."

Nearly half the states weigh war criticism

More than 20 states are working on resolutions or letters that oppose the "surge" plan or ask for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

In Vermont, the resolution approved by both chambers last week calls on the "president and Congress to commence immediately the orderly withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq." State Rep. Michael Fisher, the Democrat who introduced the measure for the second consecutive year, said the language of the resolution debated in Washington was not strong enough.

"I felt Vermonters wanted a stronger message than 'Don't escalate,' " he says. Mr. Fisher says he doesn't know what the impact of the resolution will be, but hopes that state lawmakers around the country will recognize the Iraq war as a states' issue, because it drains funding for local projects, adds to the burden on taxpayers, and puts a strain on the National Guard.

"This act might create a little ripple, or it might be part of a larger wave," Fisher says.

The current campaign won't relent until it stops any escalation of the war, says Joel Barkin, executive director of the Progressive States Network. "States are the ones that ultimately have to deal with the repercussions."

Aside from Vermont, resolutions passed last week in the California and Iowa senates, while state lawmakers in Maine and Maryland opted to send letters voicing opposition to the troop buildup to their congressional delegates. US Rep. Tom Allen (D) of Maine praised his state's legislators for listening to their constituents, while Maine's Republican lawmakers said they were pleased their Democratic colleagues didn't take the issue to the floor.

"State legislatures are the representative bodies that are closest to the people, and they have been hearing from constituents who are frustrated with the war," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, in an e-mail. "As more state legislatures take up resolutions on Iraq, it will add to the mounting pressure for the president and Congress to change strategies."

Votes and debates in state legislatures break along party lines, with Republicans saying lawmakers should not waste energy on actions that carry little weight. They also contend that these types of resolutions send the wrong message to US troops. But their clout has waned since last fall's elections, when the GOP lost majorities in five state legislatures. They now control 15 legislatures to the Democrats' 23.

While the politics remain contentious, the technological take-away is simpler: Online activism is pushing national issues to the states.

"The Internet helps decentralize political activism," says John Horrigan of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "You no longer have to organize a protest in Washington, D.C." to get your point across.

Online, activists gain more visibility

The growth in Internet-based grass-roots groups doesn't mean more activists are out there, but it does mean people have found a faster way to reach large number of supporters, Mr. Horrigan says. So far, liberal Democrats have the edge. A Pew study has shown them to be the most likely online activists. "At least [for] now, the Internet is a space where Democrats are slightly busier with online tools," he adds.

In the case of the Iraq resolutions in the states, activism helped give a national debate some local flavor, Mr. Barkin says. The aim remains to make Washington pay attention, but the means of doing so are changing.

"You put in 500 calls to a [legislator in Washington] and you will send a message," says Barkin. "But you put 500 calls to a state legislator and it shakes the whole building."

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