The Obama administration is on the verge of decisions that will permanently define the Afghanistan and Iraq wars through the 2012 election.
Obama will decide, first, how many US troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan starting this July and running through 2012 and, second, whether to comply with the current plan to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by this December, or leave troops and bases behind.
At stake politically is whether the president will choose to campaign through 2012 on a platform of ending two quagmires costing trillions of tax dollars and thousands of lives, or whether he will portray himself as staying the course in the “war on terrorism,” building on the death of Osama bin Laden.
Once these decisions are made in the weeks ahead, there are likely to be no further changes in US policy toward Afghanistan and Iraq until 2013, unless unexpected events intervene. The electoral cycle will be in full gear, and politicians are unlikely to change their rhetoric under voter and media scrutiny.
Many progressive activists may feel powerless in this situation, when large-scale peace demonstrations are unlikely and Congressional opposition is limited. Unlike in labor or civil rights politics, there is no large-scale Peace Lobby to bargain with the White House. But the very decentralized and amorphous nature of peace sentiment means that Obama will have to constantly address the feelings and criticisms of millions of voters unhappy with the slow pace of military withdrawals in the context of economic crisis. Polls consistently show that 75–85 percent of Democratic voters, and a smaller majority of independents, want a more rapid withdrawal than currently planned.
Peace voters will want to hear a clear message: that Obama intends to phase out of two wars and transfer billions to our needs at home. Absent that message, Obama risks a serious falloff in 2012 support, votes, door-knocking and grassroots mobilization.
Here are some important developments in this fast-moving situation:
First, important elements of Obama’s base are lining up to support a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) passed a resolution in late February supporting significant and substantial troop reductions. Obama himself used almost identical language in an interview with the Associated Press on April 15. Shortly after, MoveOn, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and the Campaign for America’s Future launched petition drives. The liberal coalition Win Without War activated its e-mails. The substantive policy work was completed last December when the Campaign for American Progress (CAP), originally supportive of the Afghanistan escalation, switched to a phaseout proposal blandly titled “Realignment: Managing a Stable Transition to Afghan Responsibility.”