At the start of last Saturday's antiwar demonstration in San Francisco it looked like about half the crowd had shown up to give the other half a leaflet or sell them a newspaper. I don't know what the attendance finally amounted to - maybe 1,500; maybe 3,000; some might think more. But I know it wasn't 10,000. And the irony of the situation is that I'm pretty sure it would have been a lot more impressive if John McCain were in the White House.
There's some interesting things bubbling up in the US these days, to be sure.
It took a major economic crisis to get here, of course, but all of a sudden it's no longer okay for people to just take as much as they can in salary or profit. The financier or investment manager is no longer necessarily your best friend and making it easier for people to join unions doesn't seem like an idea out of the nineteenth century or even the twentieth century - it's become downright relevant. Unfortunately, this new clarity does not yet seem to extend beyond our borders.
Take, for instance, the recent comments of Bush-holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the effect that his Department's Quadrennial Defense Review would cast a critical eye on the supposition that the US need be prepared to fight "only" two major wars simultaneously. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the thinking goes, have been harder than they should have been - we've been at them longer than we were in World War II. Now, there is a genuine logic to this consideration because a country first of all obviously has to be prepared to fight as many wars as it starts. And then what if, on top of that, another country should actually attack us? This eventuality is, after all, the historical justification for maintaining armies and fighting wars and you arguably increase the likelihood of making more enemies the more countries you attack. But have we heard any response out of Washington to the effect that what we really need to do is stop starting wars?
The Republicans rose up as one to oppose President Obama's economic plan, but not surprisingly his foreign policy has aroused no comparable outrage among them. In fact, John McCain may be downright envious. He knows he couldn't have gotten away with ordering 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan while claiming it was part of his search for an "exit policy," as Obama has done, and not faced a revived antiwar movement.
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No, in addition to having their man still in the Defense Department, Republicans have little to complain about regarding Iraq policy either. Yes, President Obama promises to withdraw all American troops from Iraq, while candidate Obama spoke of leaving tens of thousands of them there indefinitely, but then all he's doing is reiterating the troop withdrawal policy negotiated by George Bush. And his withdrawal timetable is sufficiently slow that it has drawn criticism not from congressional Republicans but from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not generally known for going out of her way to criticize a Democratic president.
The most sympathetic apologist argument for Obama maintains that he is in some sense a captive of the White House who must give on these foreign policy matters in order to accomplish anything domestically. But even if we were to ignore for the moment the moral question of trading the lives of American soldiers and foreign nationals for more acceptable rates of interest or unemployment, the rest of us are not captives of the White House.
A recent article by long time antiwar activist Tom Hayden explained away last year's decline in attendance at antiwar rallies, arguing that given "a choice between supporting Barack Obama and attending rallies organized by various Maoists, Trotskyists and neo-anarchists opposed to Obama and electoral politics, the grassroots peace movement headed for the precincts by the thousands." But this, I think, is too generous. Yes, there were certainly Monty Python-like moments of obscurity at Saturday's San Francisco rally when it seemed as if the speaker from the Revolutionary Brotherhood of Brothers would turn the mike over to the representative of the Associated Federation of Organizations, and so forth. And yet when the war(s) seemed a pressing issue, it did not much matter who the rallies' organizers were - their identities and politics were subsumed in the larger throngs. Nor would it now, were there consensus on the need to put serious pressure on the White House.
The dominant rhetorical chestnut of the still young Obama era has been the one about FDR telling his supporters to make him do some of the things he already wanted to do but on which he perceived the need for visibly broad public support. Good enough, yet the telling and retelling of this tale comes in an environment where most of Obama's supporters seem to be waiting for a signal from the White House to tell them what issue to push Congress on - precisely what the Democratic National Committee's Organizing for America website proposes to provide.
Now the Internet is a wonderful thing but it only does what people make it do. And if you're waiting for an email from the White House asking you to head out to that rally to tell Congress to get our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible, well you could be in for a pretty long wait.