President Obama has surprised the national security establishment, and not a few in the peace movement, with his Friday commitment to pull all American troops out of Iraq by 2011.
The Washington Post‘s Thomas Ricks predicted in his recent authoritative history, The Gamble, that Obama would keep 25,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq as a “residual” force indefinitely. Ricks reports that generals like David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno were expecting at least that many troops, and predicts that the fighting will continue for decades.
Obama’s announced new policy must shock Ricks and the military leaders he extensively interviewed. Obama’s official stance comes after many months of appearing to support the notion of residual forces, which many in the peace movement correctly believed could lead to low-visibility counterinsurgency and a permanent military occupation. Obama said nothing to dissuade the critics until Friday’s speech at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
In debates within the Obama camp, only John Podesta, transition adviser and head of the Center for American Progress (CAP) was publicly advocating that all troops, including trainers and advisers, be withdrawn within one year.
Ricks’ book is wrong on another related matter, the role of the antiwar movement in this process. Ricks celebrates Petraeus for having pacified Iraq in the face of considerable Democratic doubt, and for winning the political war at home in 2007-2008. Petraeus’s stated goal was to speed up the Iraqi clock (the surge) while slowing down the American one (the electoral calendar). Ricks says he pulled it off. After Petraeus’s appearance before Congress in September 2007, Rick says, domestic criticism faded away. News coverage of Iraq sharply declined, as networks began to withdraw from Iraq. The March 2008 antiwar demonstrations were “tiny,” he writes, with fewer than 1,000 in Washington and 500 in San Francisco.
Ricks is partly right. Democratic party leaders and big donors pulled back from the issue of Iraq after Petraeus’s testimony, and after a MoveOn advertisement accusing the general of betrayal. The resulting crisis in the DC hub of antiwar advocates was never resolved, but the grassroots peace bloc in the Democratic primaries mushroomed anyway, giving Obama a needed edge in Iowa and a string of wins against Hillary Clinton.
When there was 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. What appeared to Ricks to be a failed antiwar rally in Washington was only evidence that the movement was moving on, becoming a voting force in and around the Obama campaign.
That turned out to be the right strategy for the peace movement when John McCain was defeated in November, but many continued to wonder–with good reason–whether Obama was promising nothing more than partial peace under a new form of military occupation. Now it is clear that somewhere along the way Obama became persuaded that it made little sense to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq when the Pentagon couldn’t win with 150,000, the American economy was collapsing and his hands were full in Afghanistan and Pakistan.