Call him slippery or nuanced, Barack Obama's core position on Iraq has always been more ambiguous than audacious. Now it is catching up with him as his latest remarks are questioned by the Republicans, the mainstream media, and the antiwar movement. He could put his candidacy at risk if his audacity continues to shrivel.
I first endorsed Obama because of the nature of the movement supporting him, not his particular stands on issues. The excitement among African-Americans and young people, the audacity of their hope, still holds the promise of a new era of social activism. The force of their rising expectations, I believe, could pressure a President Obama in a progressive direction and also energize a new wave of social movements.
And of course, there is the need to end the Republican reign that began with a stolen election followed by eight years of war and torture, corporate gouging, environmental decay, domestic spying and right-wing court appointments, just in case we forget who Obama is running against.
Besides the transforming nature of an African-American presidency, the issue that matters most to me is achieving a peaceful settlement of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and preventing American escalations in Iran and Latin America. From the beginning, Obama's symbolic 2002 position on Iraq has been very promising, reinforced again and again by his campaign pledge to "end the war" in 2009.
But that pledge also has been laced with loopholes all along, caveats that the mainstream media and his opponents [excepting Bill Richardson] have ignored or avoided until now. As I pointed out in Ending the War in Iraq , Obama's 2002 speech opposed the coming war with Iraq as "dumb", while avoiding what position he would take once the war was underway. Then he wrote of almost changing his position from anti- to pro-war after a trip to Iraq. He never took as forthright a position as Senator Russ Feingold, among others. Then he adopted the safe, nonpartisan formula of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group, which advocated the withdrawal of combat troops while leaving thousands of American counter-terrorism units, advisers and trainers behind.
That would mean at least 50,000 Americans, including back up forces, engaged in counter-insurgency after the withdrawal of combat troops, a contradiction the media and Hillary Clinton failed to explore in the primary debates. To his credit, Obama said that these American units would not become caught up in a lengthy sectarian civil war, leaving the question of their role unanswered.
The most shocking aspect of Samantha Powers' forced resignation earlier this year was not that she called Hillary Clinton a "monster" off-camera, but that she flatly stated that Obama would review his whole position on Iraq once becoming president. Again, no one in the media or rival campaigns questioned whether this assertion by Powers was true. Since Obama credited Powers with helping for months in writing his book, The Audacity of Hope, her comments on his inner thinking should have been pounced upon by the pundits.
Finally, it has taken the pressure of the general election to raise questions about whether his parsed and lawyerly language is empty of credible meaning. Consider carefully his July 4 statements:
The first one, promising a "thorough reassessment" of his Iraq position later this summer:
"I've always said that the pace of our withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability" -- two conditions that could justify leaving American troops in combat indefinitely. "And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies" -- another loophole which could allow the war to drag on.
Then there came the later "clarification":
"Let me be as clear as I can be" [not, "let me be absolutely clear"].
"I intend to end this war." [intention only].
"My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war -- responsibly, deliberately, but decisively." [ Sounds positive, but "decisively" can mean by military threat in the worst case. And it's pure theatre, borrowed from Clinton, since the plans most likely will be drafted and finalized immediately after the November election.]
"And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one or two brigades a month..." [but what if the military commanders on the ground assert that it is too dangerous to pull out those troops?]
Obama's position, which always left a trail of unasked questions, now plants a seed of doubt, justifiably, among the peace bloc of American voters who harbor a legacy of betrayals beginning with Lyndon Johnson's 1064 pledge of "no wider war" through Richard Nixon's "secret plan for peace" to Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal and the deep complicity of Democrats in the evolution of the Iraq War.
It is difficult to understand Obama's motivation. Perhaps it is his lifetime success at straddling positions and disarming potential opponents. Perhaps it is a lawyer's training. Perhaps being surrounded by national security advisers who oppose what they call "precipitous withdrawal", and pragmatic Democrats distinctly uncomfortable with their antiwar roots.
What is clear is that Obama is responsive to pressures from the grass-roots base of a party that is overwhelmingly in favor of a shorter timetable for withdrawal than his, and favoring diplomatic rather than military solutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At a time that public interest in the war is receeding before economic concerns, it is time for the strongest possible reassertion of voter demands for peace.
The challenge for the peace and justice movement is to avoid falling into Republican divide-and-conquer traps while maintaining a powerful and independent presence in key electoral states, including Congressional battlegrounds, between now and November. There should be at the least:
- A demand that Obama talk to legitimate representatives of the peace movement, not simply hawkish national security advisers.
- A Democratic platform debate and plank that is unequivocal in pledging to end the war and avoid military escalation elsewhere.
- An energized antiwar voter education campaign that builds towards a clear November peace mandate to end the military occupation and shifr to political and diplomatic approraches.
- An organizational strategy to widen the base of the antiwar movement through the presidential campaign in preparation for a massive peace mobilization in early 2009.
Grass-roots people power is the only force that can keep alive the astute sense of pragmatism that led Obama to criticize the coming war in 2002. The stakes are higher now, and the enemies far more shrewd, wishing to rip asunder the Obama coalition. The peace movement assumption should be that there is no one in Obama's inner circle of advisers to be counted on, no mainstream columnist to catch his eye with a persuasive column favoring withdrawal. They never have. Only the voice of the peace voters - and the countless activists who have volunteered on his behalf - can command his attention now.
For more developments and analysis, see 'Progressives for Obama' at progressivesforobama.blogspot.com
Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.
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