A version of this article appeared at The Nation on November 4, 2010.
The November election was a setback for the peace movement, not only because of the defeat of Sen. Russ Feingold but for deeper reasons.
Both parties collaborated in keeping Afghanistan out of the national election debate and media coverage – while during the period June-November alone, 274 American soldiers were killed and 2,911 were wounded on the battlefield.
[The official American toll under Obama in Afghanistan has reached 732 deaths and 6,480 wounded; monthly projections for taxpayer costs are currently $12.5 billion per month, while the President estimates $113 billion in direct costs for this year at current U.S. troop levels of 100,000.]
Democratic candidates this year chose not to use Afghanistan-Iraq as an issue perhaps because they have become Obama’s wars. According to the New York Times, the US even plans to orchestrate an invitation to remain in Iraq after the current 2011 deadline, but desperately wanted to keep the controversy out of the election debates. [NYT, Aug. 18]
With Republican control of the House, antiwar Democrats will have little room to hold hearings or maneuver against the wars. There were 162 House members, nearly all Democrats, who voted against funding the war or in favor of an exit strategy earlier this year, over one-third of the House. In the Senate, Feingold authored similar legislation that obtained 18 votes, a number not likely to increase either.
The notion among some that ultra-right fiscally conservative Republicans will vote with the peace Democrats is largely a fantasy. Republicans like Karl Rove did not want to advertise their support for Obama’s troop escalation this fall while they prepare to blast him for drawing down short of “victory” next July. For example, Sen. John McCain, who is planning a trip to Afghanistan, told Reuters that “this date for withdrawal that the president announced without any military advice or counsel has caused us enormous problems in our operations in Afghanistan, because our enemies are encouraged and our friends are confused over there.” [Reuters, Nov. 3]
McCain’s comment was a huge lie, an indicator of the campaign rhetoric to come. As McCain well knows, Obama has not given a “date for withdrawal”, only a date to “begin” a phase-out. Obama had months of military advice and counsel, as reported in Bob Woodward’s most recent book. In fact, according to Woodward and Jonathan Alter, Obama had Petraeus’ word that they would have no complaints about the July 2011 deadline. In August, however, Petraeus declared, “the president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit.”
Obama’s pledge to begin a July withdrawal may draw little or no peace movement support unless he includes a timeline and substantial numbers, and shows progress in diplomacy and talks with the Taliban. The president’s situation is similar to his problems with health care when he appeared to over-promise and under-deliver, leaving his base dispirited once again. [It should be noted that Obama took the strongest exit strategy position among his internal advisers, according to Woodward, with Hillary Clinton immediately supporting whatever troop escalation Petraeus wanted.]
The next test for Obama will be whether his December review of Afghanistan policy results in only another ratification of Afghanistan status quo. Then comes another budget battle, with antiwar forces in Congress at a greater tactical disadvantage than last year. By then Obama’s actual Afghan drawdown numbers will be publicly known, with Republicans, the military and most of the media opposed or skeptical.
The 2012 national election predictably will be fought over Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the Long War favored by the Republicans and the generals, with Obama positioned as favoring gradual troop drawdowns in order to invest in his domestic agenda.
The wars will continue in any event, with increasing risks of terrorist attacks on the US, bloody quagmires on the battlefields, and the US propping up unpopular regimes in Kabul, Baghdad, Islamabad and Yemen. The wars are unwinnable and unaffordable, but no one in power dares say it.
The peace bloc – activist groups, anti-war Congress members, writers and artists, here and across the NATO – can exercise a massive drag against the war-making machine through 2012 as long as the wars remain deeply unpopular. But in the absence of political statesmanship, Petraeus need not worry, because the final stage will be anything but graceful.