This article appeared at The Nation on November 1, 2011.
On October 21, when President Obama announced that all American troops would be withdrawing from Iraq, I learned that I needed surgery on a blocked carotid artery, and soon. Ten years earlier, between the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Iraq, I was having quintuple bypass surgery. The Cedars-Sinai doctors even delayed the operation in case Los Angeles was struck that day.
For ten years, though, my heart kept its faithful beat. For 3,500 straight days and nights, I researched, wrote, spoke, taught and lobbied against the Iraq War. I tried to avoid pepper-spray and being stomped, but for everything else the beat was steady. When Obama made the withdrawal announcement last week, it was as if my heart was saying take me back to the repair shop. And so I will go once more, hopefully able to come out battling against the wars and injustices of the next decade.
On Saturday, the day after Obama’s statement, my heart felt good as I introduced Representative Barbara Lee at a Los Angeles fund-raiser. In the lightness of her mood I sensed a burden had been lifted from her heart as well.
Some of the hundred people in the room were baffled by the Obama withdrawal decision, understandably so after a decade of several wars, a stolen election that led directly to Bush’s Iraq invasion, and now a Great Recession caused in large part by trillions of tax dollars spent on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, instead of Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A certain jadedness has affected our consciousness after this very bad decade. Some people in the room didn’t believe Obama actually was going to pull out of Iraq. He would sneak in 5,000 manipulative mercenaries to take over from the last of 150,000 American troops. And what about those other wars? Wasn’t he worse than Bush? Yada yada yada ad nauseum.
I think the American troops will leave Iraq. The Iraqi people, who are regaining their sovereignty, will welcome their departure. So, too, will the American people who made the peace necessary through ten years of struggle on many fronts, including the election of Barack Obama, welcome the war’s end. Yes, the other wars will continue, corporate power will continue, global warming will continue, but the lessons of Iraq may be helpful to understand as we face these other challenges.
Ending the war in Iraq was not inevitable. Angered by 9/11, ignorantly indifferent to Muslim lives, and arrogantly filled with superpower delusions, the American people could have backed an all-out and permanent invasion with one million troops and saturation bombing. The Iraqi people, liberated from Saddam Hussein, could have submitted to American dominance, or been conquered through internal divisions, instead of resisting.
But the feverish neo-cons and the myopic political establishment were deluded in two ways: they were blinded to the strength of militant Iraqi nationalism and the potential of a peace movement in the United States. Winning the war and ushering in the world of their dreams, they thought, would be a cakewalk.
Iraq became the focal point of many contradictions in the world: between Third World nationalism and Western imperial designs; between the capacity of the US/NATO forces and imperial overreach; between oil imperialism and sovereignty; and between budgeting for a Long War versus budgeting for American needs.
In their smugness, our would-be rulers thought we could be panicked into a permanent state of war. They underestimated our consciousness, including a healthy skepticism toward the claims of power, bred deeply in us since the Sixties. The New York Times and NPR even failed to observe the first demonstration of 100,000 protesters in DC in October 2002. Like the characters in Jose Saramago’s Blind, they were unable to see the marchers before their eyes.
My history of the peace movement is detailed in Ending the War in Iraq (Akashic, 2007). I won’t repeat it here. But I would argue that there is a science to the strategy and tactics of winning a focused effort like the campaign against the Iraq War. A few lessons of strategy and tactics, borrowed from the experience of community organizing, might be helpful to summarize here.
There seems to be little science, strategy or tactics in our developing culture of activism. When, for example, I hold an organizing workshop and ask the question, “What are your goals?” the answers are all over the place. Few people say, to end the Iraq War. Instead, they say their goals are to expose the 9/11 conspiracy (although that one has significantly faded), to achieve world peace, to oppose the two-party system, to win self-determination for Palestine, to implement solar energy, to spread nonviolence and the message of the Dalai Lama, or to free all political prisoners, and so on.
For most activists, ending the war in Iraq has been only one of many goals. The longer the war went on, the more goals were added—for example, the impeachment of Bush. It’s only natural to juggle multiple goals, but it also results in a spreading thin, entropy, dissipation, call it what you will, an inability to concentrate all possible force on the weakest link in a system you are trying to oppose. Frustrated at the problems of achieving one demand, we often think the solution is to escalate.
A single-issue approach is necessary in order to concentrate force. This doesn’t mean other causes are unimportant in the least. It means prioritizing time and energy, making other important causes secondary in one’s personal priorities, trusting that other people caught up in those other causes will lend a hand in yours, and vice-versa.
Another element of strategy and tactics is emphasizing outreach to the undecided and building the base of one’s organization. Wherever I have spoken in the last decade I have carried a yellow pad and asked people to sign-up for future communications and analysis about Iraq. The list is well over 40,000 local peace, justice, environmental, and Democratic activists—working in more than fifty cities—plus activist networks in NATO countries. They are the beating heart of community activism in our country, the planters of the harvest of public opinion, and absolutely critical in our typically close elections.
The message “Out Now” was suitable as a persistent expression of anger, but in my experience it did not change the minds of many undecided. Nor did it effectively engage insiders in the world of power who were looking for ways to disengage from catastrophe. Nor did it work for politicians trying to reverse a policy without sounding, well, nutty. Some say taking an absolute stance like “Out Now” led to the rise of more moderate stances, like setting withdrawal deadlines. It only meant the strongest opponents of intervention left a vacuum for moderate latecomers to fill.
Over time, many activists extrapolated upon slogans like “Out Now” to more elaborate versions: All troops out. All advisers out. All mercenaries out. All CIA outposts closed. Being absolute on these demands, however, also complicated the process of reaching many of the undecided—for example those in feminist organizations who hated the Taliban fundamentalists and leaned for a time towards “humanitarian” military intervention, or those who believed there was a genuine terrorist threat that the peace movement simply was ignoring.
The most effective demands of the anti-Iraq movement turned out to be a pragmatic blend:
- The moral dimension, especially the clergy opposition to America’s descent into secret and tax-subsidized torture, which also tarnished the government’s global reputation;
- The casualties suffered in a stalemated, seemingly endless war, which allowed growing outreach to military families;
- The budgetary costs, which amounted to many trillions for decades to come.
An overall demand for the truth emerged as well, as Americans found that the administration was lying about its intentions, the casualty numbers and the true taxpayer reckoning.
Yet another element of strategy and tactics is the ability to employ an “inside-outside” strategy, as groups like Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) has attempted. I believe it is true that social change always begins at the margins, unexpectedly. But to the extent a social movement grows, it enters and blends with the mainstream of opinion and institutions. Some people in the prophetic spiritual or revolutionary political traditions believe in the sanctity of the margin. They resist entering the mainstream dens to avoid the snake beds of power. We do need the prophetic minority. But they are seers, not strategists. As an idea like ending the war gains support—which, lest we forget, is the point—it inevitably becomes debated, co-opted, diluted, re-branded, and morphs into an issue with politicians, the mainstream media and other powerful forces. It is much too simple—and worse, disempowering—to dismiss and deride this inevitable process as merely “selling out” for “watered-down” goals.
Think, for example, of the importance of the Radical Republicans in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, or the role of politicians like Bella Abzug, Mike Gravel, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern during the Vietnam conflict. They were not the catalysts, the visionaries or the prophetic radicals, but did they not have a profound role to play? They were the insiders, awakened and given purpose, by the outsiders, and who used their parliamentary skills to enact profound policy changes.
Over time, social movements divide into more militant (radical) or more moderate (pragmatic) wings, often mired in serious disputes between themselves. Concurrently, the power elites divide along similar lines, between the hard-core establishment fundamentalists and those moderates who have either been won over to the sensibility of radical reform or want to protect their incumbent power through that reform. We have seen these patterns in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, and now Afghanistan, establishment figures emerging to embrace various exit strategies, but only when the costs of the wars exceed any measurable worth.
Does this mean that the ending of a particular war will restore the structures of empire? In a sense, yes, but in a weakened state. And if the original peace movement demand had been the “end of empire” or “the seventh war from now”, that would be an important educational project but with little significance for ending this particular war. It would be better to end the war and engage in an educational campaign to teach the lessons of Iraq than the other way around.
"Step by Step" is the name of my friend Richard Flacks’ blog, invoking another core aspect of strategy and tactics. These days there is a lot of talk about “toppling the corporate state”, as if that could be accomplished with enough broad-based passion and insurgent direct action. Maybe. The United States has faced mortal threats to our stability before, most obviously in the Civil War. But other eras of destabilizing confrontations, during the Thirties and the Sixties for example, ended neither in revolution nor repression, but in a medley of reforms that were regarded as radical in their time and still hold lasting significance. There was no “toppling” of basic institutions, as in the Soviet Union, but there was democratic restructuring. One of the reasons for the rise of Occupy Wall Street today is the steady erosion of past New Deal and 1960s reforms coupled with the complete inability of the government, so far, to prevent the grinding assault on the poor, working class, and middle class Americans. History suggests that significant reforms can last a few decades before their defenders tire and a threatened counter-movement like the Tea Party arises.
The war in Iraq is ending in a step-by-step process. So, too, will the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, if the proper lessons are applied. The anti-war cause movement grew from the streets, where there were at least ten demonstrations greater than 100,000 in number, to the communities and political precincts where millions of Americans still remain a complicating factor in the minds of candidates and incumbents.
An early step was the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean. Along came the 2006 Congressional elections—which ended Republican dominance—followed by the primaries and presidential campaign of 2008, centered on the rise of a candidate, Barack Obama, who promised to end “the dumb war” in Iraq. Perhaps fearing the rise of Obama, our secretive intelligence and military establishment brokered a “Status of Forces Agreement” (SOFA) even before President Bush left office, outlining a withdrawal process which the hawks felt would guarantee them more time than a precipitous withdrawal. The experts at one hawkish Democratic think tank, the Center for New American Security, worried that the Iraq War would be forced to an end by our democratic elections, not by the appropriate maneuvers of the foreign policy elite.
Barbara Lee was the first California elected official to endorse Barack Obama, and did so with her eyes wide open. Representing an Oakland-Berkeley district, Lee was a perfect blend of the outside and inside cultures. Her place in history was achieved through the bold act of being the only Congressional opponent of the authorization leading to the Iraq War. She never quit or slowed down. When Obama became president, Lee began introducing annual bills to curb funding for the war, then both wars, then to cut off all funding except for that needed to “redeploy” the troops. She also tried to force hearings on the SOFA agreement. She offered amendments to prevent any permanent bases. She collaborated with more moderate efforts by Rep. Jim McGovern to maximize the number of House members to support non-binding resolutions calling for timetables and exit strategies. One of her smartest moves was to introduce a resolution at the Democratic National Committee last February calling for a “rapid withdrawal” of troops from Afghanistan.
The inside part of the inside-outside strategy was effective. The White House waived any objections to the DNC resolution on Afghanistan. The AFL-CIO, which in 2005 had opposed the Iraq conflict, took a position against Afghanistan shortly after the DNC resolution passed. Lee’s amendment to end Afghanistan funding achieved over 100 votes this year. McGovern’s resolution reached 205. Lee’s amendment banning permanent bases became law. When rumors began flying that Obama or the Pentagon wanted to break the Iraq agreement and keep tens of thousands of troops in Baghdad, Lee sent another letter, signaling that such a compromise would go too far. Ninety-one House members quickly agreed to sign the letter to the president.
Anyone paying attention (which, it turned out, was not too many) could see that Obama was "leading from behind", in a political sense, on both Iraq and Afghanistan. In Bob Woodward’s history, Obama’s Wars, the president is quoted as saying in private, "I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party." (p. 336)
It is never a great idea for an organizer to rely on the words of a decision-maker, especially a president, without the most careful scrutiny. This is especially true in the case of a president who also is a writer, like Barack Obama, but it goes with the nature of the institution. More than anyone else, a president always is speaking to multiple and contradictory audiences, from wavering political constituencies to the suspicious intelligence agencies of rival countries to jittery investors in the stock market. Often a president will try to sound hawkish when his intent is to disguise a dovish maneuver. A Machiavellian cannot even appear to lessen the reputation of a super-power.
For a candid explication of this reality, one can read "What Would Nixon Do?" (New York Times, June 25, 2011), by Gideon Rose, editor of the major organ of the foreign policy elite, Foreign Affairs, especially the following rules:
- "The first rule of withdrawal is you do not talk about withdrawal."
- "The second rule of withdrawal is to lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind."
- "The third rule of withdrawal is to remain engaged, providing enough support to beleaguered local partners so they can fend off collapse for a long as possible."
I suggest that this is what Obama is doing in Iraq and will most likely do in Afghanistan and Pakistan these next three years. The peace movement, and figures like Barbara Lee, can speed up the timetable, impose a political price for backtracking, and ensure the maximum withdrawal number. But in opposing a president’s policies, as the peace movement should, we must be aware that we are helping compel him to act and providing him cover at the same time.
We will never know, cannot know, and perhaps should not know, what is in a president’s mind—a kind of computer storing, retrieving, sending and deleting all at the same time, delivering outcomes which are a mixture of desire, intent, presentation and necessity, all with an inaccessible hard drive.
Let’s consider the exhausting insider debate over whether Obama was going to leave a "residual" force behind in Iraq. In February 2009, one month after his inauguration, he called for all American troops out of Iraq by the end of this year, December 31, 2011. In 2008, however, Obama had advocated a residual force in Iraq after a phased withdrawal, keeping with the Baker-Hamilton Report of late 2007. That he included the word "all" in February 2009 was noticed by few people, but it certainly was noticed by the Pentagon and CIA. Those who wanted to stay beyond 2011 started a pressure campaign against the fixed deadline. One of them was General Stanley McChrystal, who was given the boot allegedly for his insubordinate remarks to Rolling Stone. Another was General David Petraeus, who found himself "promoted" to CIA director, where he could continue his many secret operations but without an ability to voice his disagreements with the president.
Then there were the Iraqis. Some who supported the insurgency against the US now wanted the Americans to stay as a bulwark against the Shiites and Iran. Others who were recipients of US largesse in the past now wanted the Americans to leave. The longtime CIA asset Iyad Allawi called on the Americans to go. Public opinion was a huge factor on the Iraqi government’s mind, as an overwhelming majority supported a total withdrawal.
Never making a definitive statement, Obama, like the Sphinx, supported the Pentagon’s intense efforts to persuade the Iraqis to ask us to stay. Obama allowed that he was "open" to a residual force, but only if the Iraqis themselves insisted. Didn’t he know the Iraqis would never make such a request, especially since the Pentagon was insisting on immunity for any American troops left behind? I think Obama knew, but what do I know? It’s an intuition. When it became clear that the Iraqi parliament was not going to make the request, Obama seized the moment to announce the total withdrawal on October 21.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden on May 2 may be related to these events as well. Why George Bush dropped the pursuit of bin Laden is a mystery for historians to pursue. But Obama, the black candidate, the liberal candidate, the anti-war candidate, the candidate with not a moment of military experience, certainly saw a strategic opportunity to focus laser-like on bin Laden, from the 2008 primaries right through the first two years of his presidency.
Sometime in late 2010, Obama’s closest advisers began the countdown to taking out the Al Qaeda leader. Was this high-risk raid planned on a parallel track with the strategy for withdrawing from Iraq and beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan? Just because there is no way of knowing doesn’t mean the dots were unconnected. In any event, Obama knew his preference for Iraq by May-June, and made his announcement of withdrawing 33,000 Americans from Afghanistan on June 22, just weeks after the death of bin Laden. Obama since has been on track to campaign in 2012 on a platform of ending or trying to end two wars, immunized by the killings of bin Laden and other iconic enemies. In an unusually gross advertisement of the campaign rhetoric to come, Obama’s adviser David Axelrod said last week "when you say he wasn’t prepared, maybe you should go ask Osama bin Laden if he thought he was prepared." (MSNBC, October 18, 2011)
When social movements seem to succeed, the victory is a muddy one. Lyndon Johnson chose the Vietnam escalation to offset Barry Goldwater. Then he signed the historic Medicare legislation (July 30, 1965) and the Voting Rights Act (August 6, 1965)—the latter the same week as the Gulf of Tonkin raid, which led to the fiscal ruin of the Great Society in Vietnam.
Regarding the Iraq withdrawal, some questions still remain unanswered, but behind-the-scenes discussions are rarely reflected in public anyway. Hillary Clinton is busy issuing warnings to Iran that the US intends to stay committed to Iraq, words that will be viewed in Teheran as a face-saving bluff. Rumor has it that Baghdad officials and the Pentagon are still discussing joint training missions in the future. Paranoids, who sometimes are proven right, are convinced that several thousand mercenaries and the world’s largest embassy are further evidence that the US plans to secretly run Iraq for years to come. There is nothing new, however, about governments deploying as many spies and informants as they possible can, especially in a center of Middle Eastern intrigue like Baghdad. Half the Iraqi government has been on a US payroll at one time or another, for heaven’s sake, and still the very government we bought and paid for wants us to leave. ("Iraqis Are Eager to See US Troops Exit Quickly," Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2011)
For the record, there will be 5,000 security contractors in Iraq when the troops leave, plus 4,500 supporting aides. That compares to 15,200 American Pentagon contractors in June 2009, and 9,500 currently in Iraq. In addition, there will be 1,400 Americans on the State Department payroll in Iraq (AID, Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture and Homeland Security). That doesn’t seem to count foreign contract labor, but the official number is roughly the same for US complexes in India, China, Mexico or Egypt today. (ABC News, October 21, 2011) The latest word is that the US is cutting back funding for Iraq anyway, "amidst fiscal and security concerns." US consulates planned for Mosul and Kirkuk have been shelved, and the US branch office in Diyala Province abandoned. A projected 350 US contractors for police training has been slashed to 100. (New York Times, October 22, 2011)
Barbara Lee is elated but still suspicious. She plans a trip to Iraq this winter to monitor the US withdrawal policy, particularly her ban on permanent bases. "You know these people," she said, laughing, "They might build a base and call it a shopping center." She made my heart feel good.