Two years ago I was on a Chicago panel with a just-retired military officer, Charles Tucker, a former top adviser to the US embassy in Iraq, general counsel to the Pentagon and a major general in the Air National Guard. During our debate, he made a statement worth remembering on this night of Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan. His words were these:
“The only relevant debate in the next two years will be counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism. After that, Obama will begin surrendering to the peace movement.”
I wasn’t sure whether he liked the scenario he was describing, but I applauded for providing me a ray of hope. His prophecy is coming true. Obama, of course, is not “surrendering” to anyone, least of all the peace activists across the country, but he is responding to massive public pressure for rapid troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. We have crossed the line into de-escalation. The withdrawals will continue as the pressure, especially from voters during the 2012 election cycle, continues to build.
Peace advocates should feel a sense of gratification, not about the numbers involved but about contributing to the vast upswelling of public opinion against Iraq and now Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that not a single network or mainstream newspaper has called for bringing our troops home. There is a magic about public opinion, which still matters despite the shadows of authoritarianism all around.
Let’s be clear about what Obama said, since so many seem utterly unable to grasp the facts before issuing their condemnations. I write here as an organizer who believes a proper analysis of the situation and opportunities is critical in making any progress against the Leviathan we are up against.
First, Obama said he would withdraw 33,000 troops by next summer, twelve months away, which is a new clarification. And he added that he would continue withdrawing troops after that. He said he is hosting NATO for a diplomatic conference in Chicago next summer – a big opportunity for the Chicago and national peace movement. The conclusion we should reach is that we should push forward for more than 33,000 troops withdrawn with an expectation that we will be successful. There is a strategic opportunity, if the peace movement does its job, to demand more withdrawals during the key period of Democratic and Republican conventions next year and during the presidential campaign itself. The period 2011–12 is not over. The political fight is still on.
There will be stages involved, because getting out of a military mess of your own making is one of the most difficult challenges confronting any Machiavellian. (Read Clausewitz on redeployment). Obama will be trying to sell himself to peace voters while watching out for the military, as well as unpredictable pressures from Republicans, and facing military families who wonder just what this was all about. The context between now and November 2012 will be “kinetic,” or fluid, a concept in warfare that can be applied to political battlefields as well.