Anti-War Lessons From New Hampshire

Anti-War Lessons From New Hampshire

How will Democratic candidates end the war? None of the scenarios offered to New Hampshire voters really addressed the issue.


Thousands of idealists marched door-to-door through the snows and delivered a decisive message that the times were changing. From that moment forward, the establishment and its war policies began disintegrating from within.

The year was 1968. The insurgent campaign was on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy.

I am wondering if anyone in New Hampshire even remembered the McCarthy campaign in the blur that was last week in New Hampshire.

Did Senator Hillary Clinton remind voters that she was one of those volunteers who took on President Johnson and his war? Did Senator Barack Obama invoke the memory of that last great youth crusade? Did Senator John Edwards remember that it was principally the Vietnam War, not domestic issues, that aroused those populist passions?

While the Democratic contenders rushed through their ambiguous rhetoric about "ending the war," the actual Iraq War continued as a bleeding reality, safely unchallenged. Clinton promised to end the war "in the right way," not explaining that ominous phrase. Obama and Edwards, when given the chance, noticed no differences from her on Iraq. The mainstream media supported General David Petraeus's rosy depiction of the surge. The bloggers kept up their jihad to exorcize Hillary, leaving the war as background. The anti-war movement never had a voice, marginalized as electoral amateurs in the blizzard of sound bites and soap opera drama.

The war went on, however. As noted in a pro-war op-ed piece in the New York Times, the number of Iraqis in prison doubled in 2007, the number of US air strikes increased seven-fold, and the segregation of Iraqis into sectarian fiefs increased. The number of Americans killed last year was nearly 1,000, but that news went largely unreported.

If either John McCain or Rudolph Guiliani become the Republican nominee, the Iraq War will return to presidential politics full-force, with the Democrats placed on the defensive. Then the independent political committees will need to enter the Iraq debate with a strong counter-message representing the tens of millions of anti-war voters in November. What the counter-message will be is unknown, especially since the Democrats seem to be lessening and blurring their emphasis on Iraq and national security.

Heading into Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton is gaining momentum and Barack Obama suddenly finds himself imperiled. The reason is that the primaries ahead are largely confined to Democratic voters, where Clinton holds the margin. Obama's edge has come from independents. He can and must win South Carolina, or face huge odds on February 5. Obama desperately needs the John Edwards voters, but Edwards shows no sign of abandoning the race, despite the fact that he is unlikely to win a single primary. The math is simple: Clinton wins if the anti-Clinton vote is split between Obama and Edwards.

Someone needs to restore Iraq to the center of the Democratic debate rather than waiting for McCain and media to exploit the surge. As I wrote nearly one year ago, the military surge in Iraq would bolster the possibilities of a McCain (and Joe Lieberman) ticket in 2008; and it has. Gen. Petraeus has succeeded in his strategic goal of "setting back the clock" in Washington and buying time for the US occupation to survive the political debates of 2008.

If Obama wants to win, he needs to sharpen his differences with Clinton immediately, going beyond style to substance, especially on Iraq. He needs to point out the differences that everyone in the political and media worlds, and therefore the voters, are missing. Under the five-year Clinton plan, while the good news is that US combat troops would be withdrawn gradually, tens of thousands of "advisers" and counter-terrorism forces would stay in Iraq to fight a counterinsurgency war like Central America in the 1970s. That is a plan to lessen American casualties and wind down the war on television, while still authorizing a nasty low-visibility one. It is impossible to criticize the CIA's secret torture methods and turn a blind eye to what happens every day in Iraq's detention centers complete with their US trainers and funding. With the Clinton plan, American advisers and special forces are likely to be filling those detention centers through 2013. As one expert says, "Detain thousands more Iraqis as security threats, and the potential for violence inevitably declines."

Obama could, if he wished, say that a plan to have Americans fighting in Iraq through the next President's first term is not a peace plan but a five-year war plan filled with risk for American soldiers. He could make the comparisons to Central America. He could point out the impossibility of funding Iraq, Afghanistan and national health care.

There is a solid basis for making these assertions. John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff and a close associate of Hillary Clinton, has been arguing for the withdrawal of all US troops, including advisers, on a one-year schedule. Podesta, alone within the Beltway establishment, has complained of "strategic drift" among Democratic national security advisers who are avoiding the public mandate for peace. Obama could simply cite President Clinton's former chief of staff in calling for a more rapid peace timetable.

Taking this position could gain traction for Obama among the voters he needs, anti-war Democrats, who currently see little if any difference between himself and Clinton over Iraq.

But chances are Obama won't take this course, not because he is timid, but because he himself believes in leaving an ample role for continued counterinsurgency and advisers as American combat troops are withdrawn. His chief difference with Clinton over Iraq is over the specific pace of withdrawing combat troops–Obama promises a sixteen-to-eighteen- month timetable–but he has not sharpened whatever differences he has over the role of the advisers, counter-terrorism units, and Halliburton-type contractors.

Obviously, Clinton herself could adopt the recommendations of her husband's former chief of staff. But she has not done so for many months, and is unlikely to change her game plan now.

The possibility of Edwards using the Iraq issue was very real only two weeks ago when he told the New York Times he favored withdrawing all troops within one year. But when asked in the national debates days later whether there were any differences over Iraq, Edwards failed to respond, for whatever reason, passing on the very opportunity he had created. It would not have saved him, as it might now help Obama climb back.

Clinton therefore may be safely beyond Democratic pressures on Iraq, but the issue will haunt her campaign if she succeeds in maintaining the momentum towards November. How will she distinguish herself from McCain, if the former POW is the nominee? Will she choose Wesley Clark as her vice-presidential nominee, in an effort to narrow the differences with McCain (or another Republican nominee)? How will she respond to the Republican attack machine on Iraq while seeking to strengthen her national security image?

By 2009, under either administration, US military forces will be bogged down in quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan and probably Pakistan. The McCarthy-era Democrats, born in the snows of New Hampshire, will be wandering the deserts of Mesopotamia. A hopeful new generation at home could become bogged down in a political quagmire of their own depression. Who then will be calling for peace if this worst of all worlds comes to pass?

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