Thoughts for the Weary on Ending the War

Thoughts for the Weary on Ending the War

Thoughts for the Weary on Ending the War

Press Democratic front-runners on the tough questions and prepare for a real fight with whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be.


There are sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats about Iraq and Iran, both in rhetoric and commitments to troop levels. The Giuliani/Podhoretz axis of the Republican Party, for example, demands military “victory” and, in the case of the neoconservative godfather who advises Giuliani, “prays” for war with Iran. With their close ties to Cheney, they will be a factor no matter who the Republican nominee turns out to be.

But Democratic front-runners shouldn’t get away with five-year troop withdrawal plans. Peace activists and the media need to ask tough questions of them in the next month, during the window for democratic questioning that is relatively open in the early small-state primaries.

The questions that should be put are these: Are the top Democratic candidates pledging to withdraw all American troops by a date certain? Or do they intend to draw down only American combat troops, lessening American casualties while turning to a counterinsurgency strategy, as in South Vietnam in the 1960s, Central America in the ’70s or Afghanistan today?

As I recently wrote in The Nation, none of the front-runners plan to withdraw all American troops in fewer than five years. Responding to incessant pressures from the grassroots, they have various plans to withdraw combat troops (Barack Obama recently said it would take sixteen months from the date of his inauguration, which would mean July 2010). But all of them would leave thousands of American trainers in place, as well as Special Forces units to combat Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia (which the media keep hypnotically describing as a group of Iraqi terrorists under unnamed foreign leadership). Hillary Clinton adds the role of combating terrorism more generically, and John Edwards would keep US troops on the ground to stave off “genocide.”

In addition, all the front-runners insist on the passage of an Iraqi petroleum law, which is described benignly as a revenue-sharing measure, but never as one that permits the re-entry of American and British oil companies into Iraq with sweetheart contracts.

The impact of these policies will be to draw a defining partisan difference with the Republicans during the 2008 election, then drastically reduce public interest and press coverage of the ongoing war during the term of the next President.

But there are serious differences within the Democratic establishment over these policies, differences rarely noted in the media or public discussions. The most mainstream liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, headed by Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, John Podesta, strongly advocates for a one-year withdrawal of all American troops. CAP warns against the strategic problems of leaving American advisers in the cross-fire of sectarian strife, and of the moral quagmire of aiding and abetting a Baghdad regime that, by any measure, is a chronic human rights abuser. CAP asserts that funding and arming the Baghdad regime, in particular its Interior Ministry, is in violation of the 1997 Leahy Amendment. In taking these strong positions, Podesta has defined himself as a far stronger and more progressive peace advocate than even the former President and would-be President he once served. On October 11, Podesta’s team issued a memo critical of what they called “strategic drift” among the front-running Democrats and their national security advisers.

On the other hand, centrist and hawkish Democratic think tanks are promoting a longer military occupation, including the shift from combat troops to counterinsurgency advisers. These hawks include Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution, who supported the present “surge,” and strategists at the Center for a New American Security, which issued a July 2007 paper calling for an increase in American advisers over several years before winding down the war.

The presidential candidates currently are following the gradual path of the more hawkish think tanks. Even the Baker-Hamilton Study Group recommended the full pullout of combat troops by April 2008, a timetable three years shorter than Obama’s. Thus the White House, with assistance from General David Petraeus, has succeeded in its strategic goal of “setting back the American clock” toward Iraq after a brief period of panic last summer that the new Congressional majority might shut down the occupation. Now on the Hill, Democratic leaders are abandoning plans to link war funding to a withdrawal timetable, leaving them without a strategy, aside from winning the presidential election.

Why establishment critics of the war cannot bring themselves to favor withdrawal remains a matter of debate. Some argue that there is a hidden premise of imperialism that makes both parties insist on a Middle Eastern military outpost astride the oil fields. Others will emphasize the inability of a superpower to accept the damage to its reputation that comes with failure, especially after 9/11. As in the Vietnam War, as described by Daniel Ellsberg, the Americans fight simply not to lose. Whatever the case, as a practical matter there is not enough antiwar pressure on the political elite at this point to force a more rapid timeline for withdrawal of all troops. At present, the vague generalities about “ending the war” may be enough to satisfy voters, and even some activists, bent on achieving the broader agenda of ending the reign of Bush after eight terrible years.

But in an election year, public opinion matters more to politicians seeking office than it does during off-years. The maximum application of antiwar pressure in selected contests might accelerate the process of ending the war through a complete troop withdrawal. The reason the front-running presidential candidates are significantly better on Iraq than their Congressional colleagues is that they are forced to compete for voters in daily encounters. Iraq dominates the issues in Iowa and is significant in New Hampshire, which makes these primaries a last opportunity for grassroots confrontations with the candidates. That is why getting the candidates on the record about whether they really favor ending the war, or only a shift to lower-visibility counterinsurgency, is so important. How could a Democratic presidential candidate answer “yes” to the question of whether they favor keeping American troops in Iraq until at least 2014 while shifting to a counterinsurgency war like the one in Central America? Why has no one in the media or at grassroots events asked the question?

The “Podesta factor” will become increasingly important as 2008 unfolds. Podesta now heads an independent consortium that will spend $100 million–or much more–on independent voter education campaigns throughout the coming year. Tom Mattzie, former political director of MoveOn, will play a key role in related endeavors, perhaps through several committees. Mattzie raised and spent $12 million last summer on an antiwar campaign targeting Republican incumbents in their states and Congressional districts. While the campaign failed to convert any Republicans to an antiwar commitment, it stirred the waters in districts far beyond the blue strongholds of peace sentiment. The pro-war right quickly organized a $15 million counterattack under the direction of former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Their goals were to promote the military surge and wound MoveOn for its ad attacking General Petraeus. The strategy may have worked. Now the question is whether Podesta, Mattzie and others will launch a new wave of antiwar expenditures on media messages and voter mobilization.

That question continues to be discussed quietly in Washington among major donors and interest groups. There is a remote possibility that the elites of both parties will agree to lower the temperature of their disagreements over the war, preferring to lessen its salience in a heated election year. But it is much more likely that the $27 million poured into the fight between Republicans and Mattzie’s “Iraq Summer” project was only the opening round in a spending match ahead.

In 2004 the liberal-oriented independent expenditure committees spent little if anything on opposing the Iraq War, reflecting the Democratic leadership’s decision to avoid a pro-withdrawal posture. This season is different, however. The Democrats have defined themselves as favoring the “end of the war,” and the right-wing attack groups are poised to proclaim that “the surge has worked” and “stay the course against terrorism.” The Democrats will be forced to respond, or open a vast chasm between themselves and peace voters. A candidate like Ralph Nader would be provided an understandable reason, at least to some, to launch a third-party campaign, especially if he concentrates on states not likely to affect the Electoral College outcome.

The peace movement could strike a grand bargain with the Podesta- and Mattzie-led consortia and emerge with more resources than ever before for firing up antiwar sentiment in close elections. The questions to be discussed are whether there is a plan by the 527 and 501[c][4] committees, or MoveOn, to use Iraq as a 2008 issue; whether the funding will go only to paid media or also to grassroots volunteers; and what exactly the message will be. In 2006, Iraq made the difference in upending many Republicans from seats presumed to be safe. In 2008, Iraq could be decisive in close Congressional races but also in building up public pressure on the next President to do the right thing, end the occupation and bring the troops home by an earlier date.

What this means for peace forces on the ground is hard to say. Interestingly, a large number of peace demonstrators say in surveys that they are “members” of the Democratic Party and that they “usually agree” with the Democrats. A 2007 interview survey with peace marchers in Washington revealed that 54.1 percent at the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) rally and 46.9 percent at the ANSWER rally called themselves Democrats who usually agreed with their party. Thirty-nine percent classified themselves as independents and 20 percent as third-party adherents. Taken together with the much larger netroots networks, this represents a huge number of pragmatic and very disgruntled Democrats and independents who intend to vote in 2008. They certainly represent a force that the Democratic leadership takes for granted at their own risk.

But not all antiwar activists are suited–ideologically, politically or even temperamentally–for electoral politics or operating within a movement that has majority support. Rather than engaging in energy-burning arguments over “working within the system,” the many who distrust politics (and could be proven right!) may well conclude that there are plenty of useful missions for them. First, they can complicate the prosecution of the war by supporting GI resistance, joining community groups against military recruiters, attempting to block shipments of military goods from American ports (as is occurring in Olympia, Washington), and so forth. Second, they can weave coalitions against the 2008-09 military budget for Iraq with non-peace movement groups, including seniors, labor, environmentalists and inner city residents. These actions will weaken the pillars of the war policy while widening the base of the peace movement through coalition-building.

Perhaps most important is studying, distilling and initiating wide public discussion of the lessons of Iraq, to strengthen the foundations of the peace constituency and to cement a new postwar cultural norm like “Vietnam syndrome,” which followed the earlier war. This is a challenge that can be shared by all progressives regardless of their views of electoral politics. It is vitally important to weaken and discredit the neoconservatives, neoliberals and so-called humanitarian hawks who manipulated public opinion with fear and easy promises of victory in Iraq. Many officials have at least been purged in recent months–Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales among them–but many remain resilient and unrepentant in their institutional niches, polishing their credentials and promoting their doctrines of “the long war” while waiting for the next opportunity. To avoid war with Iran or intervention in Venezuela (among other hot spots), a skeptical public opinion will have to oppose their return to high office as this war ends. More important, their doctrines will have to be deeply discredited in the war of ideas and values.

The new culture of criticism that has arisen, with little blessing from the media or political establishments, during the current Iraq War needs to knit together a political vision and new set of alliances based on the concrete experience of this decade. This would include an integrated criticism of military intervention, corporate neoliberalism, oil dependency and crusading religious fundamentalism, along with alternative proposals for avoiding future Iraqs, trade policies based on the Good Neighbor model, a radical shift to conservation and renewable resources, and an insistence on pluralism and coexistence. There is a vital need for the peace, justice, environmental and civil liberties movements to see their common fates and come together. Based on experience more than dusted-off theories, such a politics could resonate with millions of people exhausted and depressed by the prospect of nothing but more Iraqs, Katrinas, Plague Years and Florida elections ahead. A vision of planetary realism is needed more than ever.

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