[Marxism] Obama and the antiwar movement
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Apr 22 08:25:22 MDT 2009
Counterpunch April 22, 2009
Fracturing the Antiwar Movement
Obama's Afghan Plan
By VIJAY PRASHAD
President Barack Obama inherited two seemingly intractable wars, in Iraq
and in Afghanistan, alongside a financial crisis that continues to
escalate. Obama positioned himself against the unpopular Iraq war, but
he did not place himself in the anti-war camp. It had become
strategically important for his electoral success to make the claim that
President George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq had reduced the pressure on
Al Qaeda and that it therefore increased the insecurity of the United
From the very first, then, the Afghanistan war was to be the good war,
while Iraq was the bad war. The anti-war movement’s Left flank went
along with the Obama tidal wave because it enabled part of its goal to
be met: it brought the criticism of the Iraq war to the mainstream and
it rejected the view that U.S. security could only be purchased from the
barrel of a gun. The anti-war movement’s liberal section was never
against war itself but only against the Iraq war. It is this unstable
union of those who opposed the Iraq war only and those who opposed U.S.
war-mongering in general that has now come apart.
On February 27, Obama made a cautious statement about drawdown from
Iraq, promising to remove 142,000 troops and to end all combat
operations by August 31, 2010. This appeased the liberal anti-Iraq war
wing, who were broadly pleased with the “responsible” and “thoughtful”
exit strategy, even as some of them wanted the timetable to be shortened.
The Left anti-war bloc was disappointed by the vagueness of the
statement, which did not touch on the question of a permanent military
presence (through bases). “The good news is that he has a plan,” said
Leslie Cagan of United for Peace & Justice (a Left anti-war coalition),
“and that obviously his election in no small measure was the result of
the massive anti-war sentiment in the country, and he understands that.”
The bad news is that U.S. militarism continues, and “our work as an
anti-war movement is far from over,” said Leslie Cagan.
In early April, Obama earned the approval of two-thirds of the U.S.
population, much higher than that of Bush and Bill Clinton at this point
in their presidencies. Two wars, a complex financial crisis, and a major
national debate on his stimulus spending have not dented his enormous
popularity. The typical mood is to give Obama time to try out his
policies. Republican grumbles sound like bitterness. In fact, the
Republican Party has now dissolved into irrelevance, being caught up in
an internecine debate over its future (much the same happened to the
Conservatives when Tony Blair first took office in 1997). The Democrats
are loath to criticise Obama, and Democrat-leaning groups are equally wary.
The 77-member Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) in the U.S. House
of Representatives has been very quiet, offering suggestions that are
couched in reverence. Representative Jose Serrano of the Bronx, New
York, was an outspoken critic of the Bush wars. After Obama’s speech in
which he spoke about the plan to withdraw by 2010, Serrano offered his
support and then carefully tried to say more: “Do I wish [the withdrawal
date] was nine months [from now]? Absolutely. Do I wish [the U.S. would
leave] zero troops? Absolutely.” The tone of both Serrano and Leslie
Cagan’s comments is also indicative of how far one can go with
criticism; the good news comes first, and then, gently, the bad.
Obama’s February 27 statement seems to have removed Iraq from the table.
Over the past four months, the U.S. economy has shed an average of
684,000 jobs. Attention within the U.S. is now on the precariousness of
one’s livelihood. Over the past five years, the U.S. military had a hard
time filling its ranks. Now things have changed. The military says that
the upsurge in recruitment has to do with the good news coming out of
Iraq, but the surveys they have conducted show that the spur is the poor
civilian job market (and a reduction in the military’s standards for who
it recruits). Military spokesperson Eileen Lainez told the CNN:
“Recruiting is always a challenge, but a tighter job market provides
many opportunities to make our case to young men and women.”
The regular news of bomb blasts have now been moved to the centre pages
of the newspapers, and they have all but disappeared from the television
news. Such disturbances are no longer news, having become what the U.S.
population assumes is the normal condition of life in Iraq. Only 42 U.S.
troops died in the first three months of this year compared with 108 in
the first three months of 2008 and 245 in 2007 during the same period.
A new book by The Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks, The Gamble:
General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq,
2006-2008, claims that the great victory in Iraq is not far and that the
credit for it should go to the Surge that began in 2007. This sort of
account provides comfort that Obama’s gradual withdrawal will now end
what should never have begun in the first place.
The real war, Obama suggests, is the Afghan one: Bush should have
prosecuted that conflict with all the resources of the U.S. government
rather than shifting talent and firepower to Iraq. The imputed success
of the Surge led to a section of the Obama administration making the
case for more military force and greater concentration of power to clamp
down on the insurgency, to repeat, in other words, the Iraq game plan.
The army, it said, should not concentrate on the interdiction of the
enemy, but on the protection of the population. That is the basis of the
Surge. But another camp in the administration called for an alternative
Writing in The Guardian (March 30), Representative Mike Honda of
California captured the tenor of this second approach: “This
administration recognises the benefits of a more comprehensive security
strategy and that we must help the tribal Pashtun-Pathans feel secure by
making sure they have a crop that won’t be sprayed, a school that
functions, a hospital that is stocked with basic supplies, and a job
that pays more than $3 a week. That is a definition of security that is
likely to provide more long-term security, given what we know about
increased income, employment and educational enrolment correlating
directly with decreased risks of violent conflict.”
The Obama plan on Afghanistan draws from both sections of his
administration, with a commitment to troop increase to try out the Surge
and an increased commitment to social spending to bolster the well-being
of Afghans. The plan makes no mention of an exit strategy, and neither
does it promote the start of a genuine political arena within
Afghanistan. For instance, the creation of political parties to harness
the opinions in the country into a democratic process.
The split in the Obama position (many more guns, some more butter)
disabled unity within both the CPC and the anti-war movement in general.
The two co-chairs of the CPC disagreed, with Representative Lynn Woolsey
of California taking a strong anti-war position and Representative Ray
Grijalva of Arizona adopting the Obama strategy. Representative Dennis
Kucinich of Ohio, like Lynn Woolsey, came out against the Obama plan,
saying, “I simply cannot endorse a budget or a plan that sends more of
our brave men and women to Afghanistan, a conflict which has the
potential to become this generation’s Vietnam.”
The Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus is also split on Afghanistan, here
between Lynn Woolsey and Representative Barbara Lee of California.
Barbara Lee is the only one in the U. S. Congress who voted against the
authorisation of the war against Afghanistan in 2001, but she is as yet
silent. (Her office says that she will offer only a joint statement with
Lynn Woolsey, and that they are working on this.) The CPC held a vibrant
forum on March 25 on “Afghanistan: A Road Map for Progress”, and has
planned to hold five more such forums. The CPC is using these forums as
a way to study the issues and to derive a policy based on their own
discussions. It is not clear when it will be ready to have a single
policy framework to offer as an alternative to the Obama plan.
The anti-war movement that is outside the Congress is much more
fractured. Sections of the liberal wing that opposed the Iraq war are
now closely aligned with the Obama administration. The Centre for
American Progress, MoveOn, the Service Employees International Union,
and Win Without War were the core elements of the Americans Against
Escalation in Iraq (AAEI). This group spent millions of dollars to stop
the Bush agenda and, later, to elect Obama to the presidency.
The Centre for American Progress became the main conduit for those who
entered Obama’s administration (its head, John Podesta, ran the Obama
transition team). During the debate within the administration, the
Centre set up the Sustainable Security in Afghanistan team, whose
report, authored by Lawrence Korb and others, was released in March
2009. The report warned the administration not to mimic the Iraq Surge,
but yet it did not offer any plan for de-escalation or withdrawal. It
called for more military commitment, as well as more economic
commitment, the same tonic that would eventually find its way into the
The AAEI was run by three men, all of whom are now in the Obama
administration: Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes are political aides to
Obama, while Brad Woodhouse is Obama’s Director of Communications and
Research. MoveOn, meanwhile, has abandoned its anti-war activism for a
new grassroots campaign on clean energy and health care. The liberals,
in other words, have abandoned the anti-war terrain. A demonstration
held in Washington, D.C., on March 21 failed to draw the kind of crowds
that came to anti-war protests before the past election. A few thousand
people gathered, as Jerry Young of the National Assembly to End the Iraq
and Afghanistan Wars asked, “How can we ensure that our next
demonstration is larger than this one?”
Groups such as Code Pink, World to Win, PeaceAction, American Friends
Service Committee, the United for Peace & Justice coalition, and ANSWER
have begun to test the waters, to see whether they can galvanise people
into action against the build-up in Afghanistan and the continuation of
warfare in Iraq. A recent poll shows that 42 per cent of the U.S.
population opposes the Afghan escalation. The anti-war movement will try
to speak for this sizable number, as will the CPC. But first it will
have to figure out how to move the population around Obama.
Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian
History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College,
Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People's History of
the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:
vijay.prashad at trincoll.edu
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