Obama, the Anti-War Movement and the Neo-Cons: Turning the Ship Around

“Warship 53.” Photo from sailsarana.com

Obama’s agenda of ‘turning the battleship’ is not our agenda of disarming it altogether: ending U.S. interventionism and bullying of all sorts, initiating an era of peaceful global cooperation to tackle poverty, disease, global warming and other threats to all humanity.

By Max Elbaum / May 29, 2009

Turning the ship — toward what?

Responding to a questioner saying that there seemed to be little change in Washington policies, President Obama replied: “The ship of state is an ocean liner, it’s not a speedboat… if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now.”

Obama is right that the “big battleship” of U.S. imperial militarism can’t be easily turned, much less quickly stopped altogether. But Obama’s remark also impels us to examine the nature of the turn he is trying to make, and to analyze where it does and doesn’t overlap with, or open doors for, an antiwar agenda.

Bush’s unilateralism and total reliance on military force over-stretched the empire and ended up undermining U.S. global power. Obama’s team, representing the now-dominant anti-Neo-Con wing of the U.S. elite, aims to change that. Like their predecessors, Obama’s team wants to maximize U.S. clout in the world. But unlike Bush and the Neo-Cons, Obama’s team believes that doing so requires adapting skillfully to, rather than trying to bludgeon away, new realities of global power.

This means a different mix of diplomacy and military force, and includes willingness to the degree they are pressed to make concessions to other countries and movements. Every such accommodation is fiercely resisted by powerful forces within the national security state and the racist right-wing populists now leading the Republican opposition. Sharp fights over whether or not a particular concession is necessary are ongoing within the administration itself.

The significance of Obama’s shift has been noted by popular movements worldwide. They know that this readjustment was forced on Washington through hard struggle and many sacrifices. They believe it offers better terrain on which to struggle further. Simultaneously, antiwar and progressive movements are clear (or should be) that Obama’s agenda of “turning the battleship” is not our agenda of disarming it altogether: ending U.S. interventionism and bullying of all sorts, initiating an era of peaceful global cooperation to tackle poverty, disease, global warming and other threats to all humanity.

The inter-play of these contending strategies unfolds differently on different battlefronts, with dynamics determined mainly by the real-world balance of forces. It is that balance that a clear-eyed, long-haul peace movement must fight to change.

‘Responsible’ withdrawal from Iraq

Start with Iraq, central site of the Middle East defeat which has driven Washington’s foreign policy retrenchment. (Antiwar activism and the economic crisis have been contributing factors, but U.S. failure to subdue the Iraqi people is the main reason unilateral militarism is no longer in vogue.) The Obama team, reality-based, believes that extricating the U.S. from this Bush-created “quagmire” offers better prospects for preserving U.S. regional influence than staying a lost course. But they also think a “responsible” (that is, drawn-out) process gives Washington the most leverage.

Even this is not enough for most U.S. generals, including Iraq Commander Ray Odierno. They still fantasize about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat if only they can stay McCain’s 100 years. Hence the running battle – visible in media leaks from infighting behind closed doors – about whether “conditions will allow the U.S. to get out” by the 2011 target date.

It’s instructive to see how Obama is working that one. As is his pattern, he relies on rhetorical skills and capacity to “change the discourse” in key constituencies. So he made a surprise visit to Iraq and gave a speech to U.S. troops praising them and promising they would be coming home. The response was wild applause. This limited Odierno’s maneuvering room, squeezing him between let’s-go-home sentiment among the soldiers below him and pronouncements about withdrawal from his Commander-in-Chief above. So when asked after Obama’s visit what the chances were that U.S. withdrawal would actually occur on December 31, 2011, this hard-line opponent of getting out gritted his teeth and replied: “On a scale of one to ten, ten.”

Good as far as it goes. Compared to the Neo-Con stay-forever agenda, that’s far indeed. But compared to the antiwar agenda? Not so much. Every day the U.S. occupies Iraq means more death, destruction and violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Every day leaves the door open for a Neo-Con/Odierno comeback, and for the kind of blackmail that drove Obama’s torture photo flip-flop, “Well, Mr. President, if you release those photos we probably won’t be able to leave Iraq on your timetable, so…”

What’s especially sobering is that Iraq is the battlefront most favorable for the antiwar side. It is here that U.S. defeat has been clearest and where U.S. public opinion has shifted most strongly to the “gotta get out” position.

Bigger danger in Afghanistan

That’s why, though similar dynamics are at work, we face even greater dangers and difficulties regarding Afghanistan. U.S. defeat there is not yet as thorough, and U.S. public opinion is not yet as antiwar. So the administration’s actions are worse, and the logic of escalation means they threaten to get even more so.

Obama’s “adapt to reality” approach here has so far yielded only a few glimmers of change. The goals of intervention have been defined down to defeating Al-Qaeda rather than building a stable U.S. client state. There is the beginning of a serious diplomatic effort to involve all countries in the region – crucially, Iran is included – in seeking some kind of negotiated settlement. Negotiations of a sort are underway with leaders of the Taliban, and it at least gets reported in the U.S. press that “the enemy” has put forward a peace plan of its own (hinging on U.S. commitment to get out).

But the administration has not yet been forced to accept the basic point that the U.S. military presence is part of the problem in ending the war (and isolating Al-Qaeda), not part of the solution. So instead of any kind of timetable or even vague promise of withdrawal, Washington is sending more troops, expanding the use of drone bombings, and putting a hawk with a record of war crimes and cover-ups, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in charge of the theater.

This is a “big muddy” path, as former CIA Station Chief in Kabul Graham Fuller stresses: “Military force will not win the day in either Afghanistan or Pakistan; crises have only grown worse under the U.S. military footprint.” Not only does escalation, with its day-in, day-out killing of Afghan civilians, block reconciliation between different sectors of the Afghan population. It inflames tensions in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the population – in its vast majority opposed to theocratic reactionaries like the Taliban – is simultaneously opposed to doing the bidding of a foreign power which for decades has supported corrupt military dictators against Pakistani democratic aspirations.

The challenges are formidable in reversing this disastrous course. Every regional actor (except the Pakistani secret service) and the majority of Afghans are opposed to a return to Taliban rule. This leads to vacillation in opposing the U.S. military presence. Matters are especially tough in terms of U.S. public opinion, which has been fed decades of demonization of all (non-Israeli) peoples in the region and is only beginning to hear any kind of non-hate-filled rhetoric coming from a President’s bully pulpit.

The strongest factor in the antiwar movement’s favor here is growing public recognition that military action in the Middle East/West Asia produces no good results while bleeding precious lives and scarce resources. Turning that sentiment into a loud, active, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer antiwar surge will be no easy task. There are no shortcuts, and multi-leveled tactics, including cooperation with forces who oppose escalation but are not yet for total withdrawal, will have to be part of the mix.

Israeli settlements; ‘Halting Iran’

We face a similarly difficult challenge when it comes to the new administration’s stance toward the Israel/Palestine conflict. Observers across the spectrum parsed every word uttered by Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu following their meeting May 19. The analysts who focused mainly on words and language mostly shared Middle East expert Juan Cole’s view that “the talks were pretty clearly a train wreck for Israel’s far rightwing Likud Party… [Obama and Netanyahu] clearly did not agree on virtually anything important. Both finessed the disagreement by appealing to vague generalities and invoking the long term.”

That assessment is based on a number of Obama statements that contrast with the kind of fawning rhetoric that characterized George Bush’s comments during or after meeting with Israeli leaders. Talking about the “peace process” Obama said that “[Israeli] Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” Directly challenging Netanyahu’s insistence that Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program had to be ended before Israel could address Palestinian demands, Obama bluntly said that any linkage between Iran and Israel-Palestine “actually runs the other way.”

Netanyahu kept insisting that he and Obama “saw eye-to-eye” on “halting Iran” but Obama conspicuously refused to agree and, pointedly, did not repeat the “all options are on the table” phrase that is U.S. code for the threat of an attack on Iran that Israeli leaders so desperately desire. Obama’s comments on Israeli settlements were underscored a few days later by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “He wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.”

Those are the kinds of signals that have set off big alarm bells in the Israel Lobby and within the Israeli right. Keith Weissman, Iran expert formerly at AIPAC (espionage charges against him were dropped earlier this month) now tells the Jerusalem Post that “there is no viable military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.” The Post accompanied its report with an analytic article under the headline “Has Obama given up on halting Iran?” Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery reports that Obama “has warned the Israeli government unequivocally [against launching such an attack}. Just to make sure, he sent the CIA chief to Israel to deliver the message personally to every Israeli leader.”

Bottom line: Obama believes a deal with Iran is necessary if Washington is going to manage its Iraq and Afghanistan crises in ways the minimize the damage Bush has done to U.S. regional influence; and he is not going to let Israeli bombast set the agenda on what he deems a matter vital to U.S. interests.

Again, good as far as it goes, and in terms of reducing the danger of a military attack on Iran, that’s pretty far. But for winning Palestinian freedom and even a minimally just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is not yet far at all. Presidential words on that one have to be matched by some deeds if Israeli policies of grinding colonization are going to be halted or reversed. Phyllis Bennis of IPS makes the key point here:

“This first Obama-Netanyahu meeting included no public acknowledgement of any U.S. pressure brought to bear to insure real implementation of Israel’s existing treaties or other international (or U.S.) law obligations…. What happens next, privately and publicly, will be determined largely by the level of pressure that is brought to bear on Obama. We know the capacity of Israel’s U.S. supporters to raise that pressure. The question for us is how to challenge it, for diplomacy instead of threats towards Iran, and an end to U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid… There’s a lot of work ahead.” Full text here.

Torture and civil liberties

We face a similarly complicated landscape on the torture/civil liberties front. Dick Cheney’s “we tortured and we’re proud of it” speech May 21 was a wake-up-call for those who have gotten complacent about the far right. There’s a permanent war/executive-power-uber-alles crowd that still has an audience of millions and is banking on fear-mongering to make a comeback. But Obama’s speech the same day was hardly a total repudiation of Cheney-like policies. Constitutional law expert Glenn Greenwald points out:

“The speech was fairly representative of what Obama typically does: effectively defend some important ideals in a uniquely persuasive way and advocating some policies that promote those ideals (closing Guantanamo, banning torture tactics, limiting the state secrets privilege) while committing to many which plainly violate them (indefinite preventive detention schemes, military commissions, denial of habeas rights to Bagram abductees, concealing torture evidence, blocking judicial review on secrecy grounds).”

Here again the public has not yet been won to the kind of outrage about torture and human rights violations that would force Obama to match his phrases with deeds.

While critiquing Obama’s backward actions, Greenwald also wrote: “his well-crafted speech can have a positive impact on our debate and contained some welcome and rare arguments from a high-level political leader – changes in the terms of the debate are prerequisites to changes in policy and the value of rhetoric shouldn’t be understated.”

So Obama’s words open a door. But in action his administration both conciliates and contains forces who want to keep that opening as narrow as possible. Only a movement that fights — and fights smart — while digging in for a long haul, can catalyze the power required to push it wide open. That means finding the mix of patient, respectful persuasion and make-trouble urgent action that it takes to win the support of millions without compromising away the principle that “power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and it never will.”

Source / War Times/Tiempo de Guerras / Progressives for Obama

Thanks to Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog

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