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Thursday, December 4, 2008

The First Challenge

With over a month to go before the Presidential inauguration, a measure of the new administration's direction is emerging. While skepticism about Cabinet appointments has been brushed aside as negativism, policy positions are not so easily dismissed. This past week, Obama has shared specifics on his Iraq policy. In a New York Times article entitled "Reality mutes campaign promises on Iraq"(12-04-08), author Thom Shanker gathers Obama's current statements on the occupation to piece together a picture of a position somewhat at odds with the position advertised in the primaries and the Presidential campaign.

The current position might be summarized as follows:

  • The promised troop withdrawal by May of 2010 only applies to combat troops. Obama iterated "I said that I would remove combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with the understanding that it might be necessary - likely be necessary - to maintain a residual force..." An Obama security adviser ventured that there might be 30,000 to 55,000 remaining troops, down from a total of 146,000 today.

  • Obama emphasizes the necessity of basing withdrawals on the recommendation of national security advisers and field commanders: "I believe that 16 months is the right time frame, but, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders". This position mirrors the consistent stance of Bush since the invasion of Iraq, scoffed at by his critics.

  • The Pentagon, as the next administration no doubt knows, can and would willingly "remission" troops now counted as combat troops. Currently only 15 out of 50 brigades serving in Iraq are labeled "combat troops". As Shanker comments, "At the Pentagon and the military headquarters in Iraq, response to the statements this week from Mr. Obama and his national security team has been akin to the senior officer corp' letting out its collective breath..." Planners see as many as 70,000 troops remaining in Iraq indefinitely.

Shanker observes that "To date there has been no significant criticism from the Democratic Party's anti-war left of the prospect that Mr. Obama will keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for at least several years to come".

For the anti-war movement this is a serious challenge. Clearly, the Obama position of the moment is at odds with a complete withdrawal from the imperial mission. There is nothing in this stance to indicate a break with US neo-colonial policies of establishing Iraq as a forward base for US interests in the Middle-East. As things stand, Iraq would remain a dominated country with a client government serving the US.

As Shanker notes, there has been little response from the left to these "clarifications" of President-elect Obama.

To a great extent, the leadership of the anti-war left has adopted three tactical positions:

  • A Presidential and legislative victory of the Democratic Party was essential to the conclusion of the war. Anti-war activity was largely replaced by an all out effort to secure a Democratic victory in the election cycle. Candidates were seldom pressed on their position and, as a result, the occupation was seldom mentioned in the campaign.
  • An anti-imperialist approach to organizing was too narrow to secure peace in the region. With the exception of the ANSWER coalition, every effort was made to exclude an anti-imperialist message. Connections were not sought nor made with US predations in Cuba, Venezuela, Eastern Europe or other targets of aggression. Nor were they welcoming to solidarity with Palestinians or other oppressed peoples.
  • The anti-war movement needed to make every effort to appear patriotic. The US occupiers were in all cases characterized as equally victimized by the Bush administration and the anti-war movement sought to cast the effort as one of supporting those troops.

There were, of course, some compelling reasons for embracing these tactics. The tide of xenophobia and hyper-patriotism after the September 11th attack were seen as requiring the broadest possible approach to ending the war. Nonetheless, events suggest that these tactics both underestimated the US people and the US ruling class. By uncritically aligning with the Democratic Party, the anti-war movement misjudged the commitment of the party to restore Iraq to the Iraqis. Like all of us, the Democratic leadership saw that the occupation was untenable with a public appalled at rising US casualties. On the other hand, the Democrats never renounced either the US occupation nor domination of Iraq. Thus a draw down of US combat troops is today perfectly consistent with the goals of US imperialism.

In addition, the anti-war leadership misread the Bush victory in 2004. Despite slippage in the popularity of the war, Bush's victory was taken as a public commitment to his occupation policies. No one saw the election as less a Bush victory than a Kerry defeat. The Obama win demonstrates, in retrospect, the many weaknesses of the Kerry campaign. Certainly Obama benefited from a collapsing economy, but he also proved much more resilient to the charges of "liberal" elitism while offering a clear, though unspecific, message of change. Memory will serve to remind us that the Howard Dean campaign, before it was subverted early in 2004, exhibited much of the youth, energy, and vigor that Obama captured in 2008. As Bush's second term progressed, we all saw clearly that the US populace was in no ways endorsing the Bush aggression with its votes.

As a new Iraq policy emerges, the anti-war movement faces the challenge of tackling an occupation looking less and less like a war. It would seem unavoidable today that the idea of imperialist domination should be brought into the movement. Resistance to continued US presence in Iraq, manipulation of the government, and exploitation of the country's resources cannot be couched in language that sidesteps the charge of imperialism. Moreover, that understanding can only be strengthened by stressing the involvement of the US ruling class in other imperialist adventures. In short, the anti-war movement must become more and more an anti-imperialist movement. As such, it will find a growing chasm between the movement and the foreign policy elites that now and in the future administration shape US foreign policy.

Thus, rekindling the fire of anti-war activism requires a re-examination of all three elements of previous tactics. The reality of a Democratic administration committed to a more benign occupation through "peace keepers" and mercenaries may mask the injustice and alter the appearances, but never erase the stain of imperialist domination.

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