The American electorate spoke out in no uncertain terms, saying that they do not want permanent war. Nor will they accept the Bush administration’s mantra of terrorism that has cavalierly torn at the very fabric of the Bill of Rights and the rule of law.

But while power in Congress shifted to the Democrats, it’s premature to breathe a sigh of relief that our fundamental freedoms will now be preserved. That’s because of the deep, widespread and willful attempt of Bush II Conservatives to flout the laws of the United States.

They have degraded or perverted every policy from civil rights to military law, from laws concerning conflict of interest to misuse of intelligence. A long overdue correction, which can’t be undertaken without the full support and sustained participation of an aware citizenry, is needed. At the same time, cautious political leaders must now catch up with the citizenry. We must all learn the lessons of war again.

In 1968, six years after President John F. Kennedy sent several thousand “advisers” to Vietnam, some 21,000 American troops were killed in what had become a full-scale war. Eventually, President Lyndon Johnson sent some 500,000 troops.

Yet even in 1968, many sober analysts understood that Johnson had unleashed a terrible hurricane of errors. By then, the Americans were seen not as liberators but as occupiers. That war, handed over to President Richard Nixon, dragged on to 1975, leaving some 58,000 American soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions of Indochinese killed, with all nations involved traumatized.

Again we see similar elements in Iraq: A confused American leadership lost in their fanciful intentions as they set the stage for the tearing up of a nation.

But Americans who do the fighting learn that the U.S. has no coherent military strategy. Iraqis, except for Kurds, have made clear that they want the United States to leave. The thousands of dead and wounded Americans, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, are a grim testimony that the United States will not be able to train an independent military and police constabulary–just as it was unable to do in South Vietnam. Clearly, the war has not made Iraq more secure, despite all of Washington’s propaganda, blasphemous talk of God’s mission, and errors from hubris and ignorance. For example, after the invasion, the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army and police. Then Bush wanted to restore the army and police, but it was too late. Now they are riddled with dissent, turned against each other and against us. Net effect: we are arming the Iraqi civil war we helped foment and now can’t control. We have failed in helping the Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure, an obligation under the U.N. mandate as the occupying power.

Another mistake was the decision, under orders from the U.S. administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, to recklessly privatize the Iraqi economy putting tens of thousands out of jobs.

Congress is congenitally willing to go along with such foolish errors if it does not hear otherwise from an aroused citizenry. Here, American history can be a master teacher. It was not the Democratic Party alone that brought changes as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal, or the Democratic Party alone that brought forth the domestic program of Johnson’s Great Society. It was inspired by peaceful demonstrations, which Jesse Jackson and others called “street heat” when they led the civil rights revolution.

Street heat can be as powerful now as it was in the 1960s. But it alone can’t do the job. Now as then there has to be an “insider-outsider” strategy built around a critical mass. In this case we need progressives in Congress (some 70 members of the Progressive Caucus), even state and local officials, and continuous, sustained action among individual citizens and citizen groups. Progressives must produce: drumbeats of calls and letters supporting or disagreeing with elected representatives; joining organizations supporting one’s views on ending the war and restoring our freedoms; posting those views on blogs; and noting where those freedoms have suffered since September 11.

The new bottom line of voting–especially given the mistakes made in vote counting and manipulation of franchise–can no longer be a civic duty exercised every few years. In a sense, we must now vote 365 days a year, telling our leaders that they won’t wait another election cycle to sink the country further into the quagmire.

Unless we, the people, lay it on the line and stay focused as citizens, the hopes of November 7 will be overwhelmed by the labyrinth of bad laws, an entrenched national security bureaucracy, and an executive that declares his omnipotent policy over national security and foreign policy. Indeed, making war on his own whim.

Finally, Congress must be made to understand that the nation’s budget allocations require wholly different assumptions. We must repair the decay of our health and education systems and our environment, and reconstruct the economy to help Americans in need.

If we do not rise to this new level of citizen participation and political pressure, we will continue to be passive witnesses to the destruction of our constitutional democracy in the 21st century.

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