Obama and the New Terrain of Battle, Part 2: The Roadblock

This is the part 2 of a longish piece I finished right before the the inauguration. You can catch Part 1 here or the whole thing over at Fire on the Mountain, where there are a couple interesting comments. Part 3, up here tomorrow, will address the economic meltdown.

A Roadblock for the Anti-War Movement

The exception to this generally very favorable climate for struggle is unfortunately a crucial one: the wars of aggression the US government is locked into in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The anti-war movement has been the single most powerful opposition force in this country during the last six and a half years. The fact that 70% plus of the American people want the war over with, and pronto, owes much to the tireless and thankless work of tens of thousands of anti-war activists. In fact, the coalescing of broad popular sentiment against the war was perhaps the single most important factor in the Democratic Party’s 2006 victories and 2008 landslide.

The problem facing the anti-war movement now is a grimly ironic one. Despite its enormous contributions to the changed political atmosphere in this country, the movement’s demands –Stop the War! Bring The Troops Home Now!–seem today most unlikely to be met by the Obama administration.

The brutal underlying contradiction remains what it has been since the invasion of Iraq–the US ruling class cannot afford to stay in Iraq and they cannot afford to leave. To stay is to extend an insanely costly occupation indefinitely, in the face of popular hatred, with chaos always around the corner and the sketchiest prospects for a stable hegemony. To leave is to give up the prospect of a US hand on the world’s second largest oil spigot and to accept a drastic defeat for US military power and geostrategy.

We are left with two unknowns about Obama’s intentions regarding these wars, and one known.

Unknown #1 is how far he will go toward pulling out of Iraq. Obama’s goal, in practice, appears to be to finesse the contradiction, by pulling out a majority of the US troops and reducing the combat role of the tens of thousands who will remain. This risks further undercutting US ability to dictate what happens in Iraq, while leaving US troops, bases and other assets more vulnerable to insurgent attack or the re-eruption of civil war between Iraqi forces.

Unknown #2 is how far he will go in honoring his pledge to win in Afghanistan. The pledge was made, and repeated incessantly, to make Obama look tough and highlight the Bush administration’s failure to hunt down al-Qaeda’s leadership. Still, Afghanistan doesn’t have the same strategic importance to the US as Iraq and there are excuses aplenty to step back–corruption in Kabul, NATO allies pulling out, the need to conserve funds and rebuild the military.

The thing which we do know is a simple fact of political life: whatever his intentions, inside of six months, these wars will be Obama’s wars, not Bush’s wars.

It is remotely possible that he will actively try to end them both, but there has been no sign of this since Election Day. Appointees of his in the State Department,the national security apparatus and the military are all publicly saying that a too-rapid withdrawal from Iraq is risky and impractical. Continuing the occupation of Iraq or even dragging out its end will continue the bleeding, actual and economic, there and here.

Moving to double down in Afghanistan threatens major catastrophe. There are reasons that Afghanistan is called the Graveyard of Empires–25 centuries worth of reasons.

All of this leaves the anti-war movement off balance, with hard choices before it.

Should the anti-war movement attack Obama now, or not? There are some in the liberal wing of the movement who, in a touching combination of wishful thinking and denial, want to give him a long honeymoon as a chance to follow through on his promises. Most activists are far more skeptical.

Very sensibly, though, most are also reluctant to launch an all-out assault on him and risk alienating the great swaths of his ardent supporters who so far still believe that he will bring the occupation of Iraq to a close, who will keep believing it so long as troop levels are falling, and who don’t know much about Afghanistan.

With Iraq less and less visible on the country’s radar–none of the Big Three teevee networks even has a Baghdad correspondent any more–some argue that we should seek to end the war indirectly by directing our main attack on the bloated military budget. I think this is a mistake and plays into the hands of those, including those in the new administration, who want Iraq off the radar. People need reminding that there are still 142,000 US troops in Iraq, not help forgetting it.

In my view, the best option is to keep on keepin’ on–continue to protest, step up outreach to our friends and neighbors and rattle the cages of elected officials, especially when appropriation-for-occupation time rolls around again. As Iraq becomes Obama’s war, Obama will increasingly be the one the people hold responsible for its continuation. Even if he should actually begin substantial troop reductions, as promised, that doesn’t oblige the movement to drop the demand that all the troops be brought home. Now.

Should we raise the profile of Afghanistan in anti-war work? The anti-war movement is playing catch-up, in a sense, after keeping its focus rather strictly on Iraq. But with the situation changing rapidly, the occupation’s outlook “grim” (according to the latest national Security estimate) and the promise of the US force there being doubled, to 60,000+ this year, we have no choice. And any step by Obama to escalate the US occupation of Afghanistan or to maintain the deadly status quo there should be opposed directly, with all the vigor possible, as education around that occupation is stepped up.


Skip to comment form

    • dennis on January 22, 2009 at 20:16

    More tomorrow.

    Apologies for the length.

    • OPOL on January 22, 2009 at 22:05

    I think Afghanistan is going to be our next big battle (getting out of it that is).

  1. Bill Moyers interviewed Sasha Chayes about Afghanistan. Here’s a little about her background.

    Sarah Chayes went to Afghanistan to report for National Public Radio just a few weeks after 9/11. She reported from some of the most dangerous areas and then decided to stay on as a private citizen. She’s been running a co-op, employing Afghan men and women to produce skincare products. She also wrote this book, THE PUNISHMENT OF VIRTUE: INSIDE AFGHANISTAN AFTER THE TALIBAN.”

    If you’d like a more in-depth and nuanced look at this issue from someone “on the ground,” I highly recommend watching the video or reading the transcript at the link above.  

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