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      Obama Begins to De-Escalate in Face of Public Opinion and Pressure for Peace

      This article appeared at The Nation on June 23, 2011.

      Two years ago I was on a Chicago panel with a just-retired military officer, Charles Tucker, a former top adviser to the U.S. 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 voter pressure 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 upswell of public opinion against Iraq and now Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that virtually no 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, one 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, now 12 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 The conclusion we should draw is that we should push forward for more than 33,000 troops withdrawn with an expectation that we will be successful.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 Clauswitz 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.

      Based on interviews and research, the Peace and Justice Resource Center prediction of 30-33,000 has turned out to be accurate. The PJRC supported more than 33,000, however. Fifty thousand troops out by 2012 would have de-escalated the American occupation by half, would have gone beyond ending the present surge, and would have broken the back of those who believe in the endless war. Of course, a rapid withdrawal of all troops and bases was the preferred position of nearly all peace groups and networks across the country, and should continue to be the goal. In addition, the peace movement should demand all troops out of Iraq, check Obama’s executive ambitions towards Libya, oppose the secret war in Pakistan and Yemen, and choke off all resources for the Long War of 50-80 years. The trillions wasted on these wars should be reinvested primarily in our domestic needs, as America’s mayors have recently insisted.

      For me, the criterion for success in social movements is whether the participants feel they are [1] gaining mastery of ideas, approaches, strategies and tactics, [2] having a tangible impact on the powers-that-be and public opinion [3] making measurable gains towards their goals, based on a growing organizational capacity, [4], making everyday life better or more bearable, and [4] developing a sustaining movement culture and heritage. Part of [1], I should clarify, is learning the arts of conflict resolution, which some call political jiu-jitsu, including the ability to understand what an adversary needs to exit an untenable situation. I learned much in the “school” of the Northern Ireland peace process.

      Finally, it is important that activists not acquire the habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Already the voices of negativity and alienation are out there, infecting the discourse with unwarranted cynicism and undermining any sense of achievement. Some said the speech was a “disappointment” and “heartbreaking” before it was delivered, mistakenly claiming that Obama was only withdrawing five or ten thousand troops. The 33,000? That would be another broken promise, would never happen. One blogger called the speech “outrageous”, while another opined that Obama would draw down troops only to escalate the wars with drones, which I believe she called the worst weapons in the history of the world. And on and on.

      Friends and, may I say, comrades: do not disparage what your efforts have achieved. Do not be surprised that gains we achieve are always less than we demand. Do not forget that we are up against the institutional might of a superpower. Instead, dwell on this simple fact: we the people pushed them back. Then study and discuss where we go from here. If you say 33,000 is not enough, remember it is ten times more than the generals wanted. Learn from our experience and set to work pushing 33,000 to 50,000 or more by the end of next year.

      This de-escalation, and the further de-escalation down the road, is attributable to peace activism and public opinion. Our economic woes are a prime reason as well. But think about it, if public opinion was otherwise, was warlike, if peace groups were demonized and isolated, clearly American imperialism could soldier on, justifying terrible losses and budgetary costs as a price worth paying for empire. But public opinion has not been superheated with martial desire, though that desire is there. Instead, 85 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Independents, and 45 percent of Republicans seem to want a more rapid withdrawal that anyone in established leadership. Despite being marginalized by interest groups and the mainstream media, democracy is coming to the USA (Thank you, Leonard Cohen.)

      Social change is very slow – until it speeds up. Even revolutionaries have to fight step by step, until revolutions come by surprise. Institutions remain impermeable, until falling apart. We could be approaching such a moment, but only if we push, if we organize and prepare, if we light candles instead of cursing the darkness.

      No one up there will credit the peace movement for anything, until someday in the future we learn they were scared to death of us. We alone have the power to take heart from our impact, or fall into further despair. And despair never organized anyone. As a historian and former Freedom Rider, I suggest we all learn from the African American experience. Perhaps no people have been so cast out, so abused, so absolutely hopeless, and yet a community of resistance was formed out of sorrow which marched stage by stage towards dignity and equality. Frederick Douglas, for one, condemned Abraham Lincoln as a hopeless sellout, a racist, but slowly the struggle proceeded until Lincoln learned from Douglas, and Douglas appreciated Lincoln, while neither believed that black people could be redeemed by politicians. It was the North Star that mattered, and the transformation of suffering into soul power, movement-building, and strategic alliances.

      So I say congratulations to the crazy rainbow of peace networks out there who have fought the last two years to cut funding or force an exit strategy from Afghanistan. The quilt works. There is no single thread. The fiery women of Code Pink have been relentless on every front. Progressive Democrats of America have fostered networks on the left of the Democratic Party and linked the war to health care. Labor Against the War coordinated 700 locals. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch, while not opposing the wars directly, have fought brilliantly against secret prisons, torture and detention. United for Peace and Justice led the mass mobilizations against Iraq and continue to battle on grass roots levels. Peace Action, Win Without War, the AFSC, the Institute for Policy Studies, and recently the Afghanistan Study Group and New America Foundation have battled inside the Beltway. The National Priorities Project provides invaluable and usable information on the costs of war. Thanks to the Center for American Progress for finally coming around, and John Kerry, too. Praise to Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, Dennis Kucinich, and the stalwart Russ Feingold. Pacifica, Amy Goodman and The Nation editors always made sure that information remained free and circulating. WikiLeaks has blown away the walls of secrecy. Brave New Foundation has forced a rethink of Afghanistan with countless videos. Sojourners, Pax Christi, the Tikkun community, the pastors and congregation of All Saints survived the intimidation and stood tall. The military families and Veterans for Peace lent moral credibility and urgency. Afghan women and Afghans for Peace reached out to the American people. Even the most sectarian and difficult groups have to be credited with putting people in the streets year after year. And my favorites are the small groups who have demonstrated on their neighborhood street corners every Friday for a decade, whatever the weather, knowing the sun also rises and night is never permanent.

      Anybody I forgot, forgive me. Please send in the omission, and I will add. As Bobby Sands once said, everyone has a role to play. Peace. 

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      Reader Comments (10)

      The need for instant gratification and impatience get the best of me/us at times...I needed this pep talk...thanks Tom.

      June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlue Page

      Well said.

      June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter McNamee

      Just got off the phone with the White House thanking them for withdrawing troops but asking for more. Then I read this. PDAers will celebrate their accomplishments this weekend and we can add this to the list. But please don't dismiss Lila's comments on the drones. They are certainly terrorist tools raised to the highest level.

      June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy Reik

      Tom Hayden ~ THANK YOU.
      Your vision and strategic analysis is deeply needed ~
      and appreciated!

      June 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermary bernier

      To any Peace and Justice activists in the D.C. area: please help us get our
      yard signs -- "No War in Afghanistan" -- out! These signs are Free to a
      Good Yard, and hundreds in the D.C. area have taken them. If we had a
      few more people willing to go door to door inviting people to take the
      signs, we'd have signs all over the D.C. area.

      We could also use some help selling our "No Afghan War" buttons. I
      bring in between $25 and $40 an hour selling. That's why we can
      give away our signs!

      For more information, visit .

      Alan McConnell, in Silver Spring MD

      June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan McConnell

      Thank you for your wisdom, Tom. I'm concerned about those seeking instant gratification. That isn't going to happen, folks. Once again, Tom has effectively reminded of this.

      June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Rich

      There is a certain symmetry about Tom Hayden calling us back to Chicago- and in a presidential election year as well. I missed out 43 years ago (I was getting married that week) but perhaps next year! Keep us informed Tom- Abby's spirit lives on!!!

      June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Lucero- Topeka KS

      Real change is slow--we need to detach from expectations and just continue to do the right thing, knowing results may come down the road. We stand on so many shoulders--those who stood for peace the last few hundred years with even less hope for change.

      Thanks for reminding us to be patient while retaining our passion, without losing our focus and commitment, without compromising our values.

      War is one of the oldest of human stories--glorified for soooo many years by so many voices. You'd think, from the writers of history, that it is the only story worth telling. I wonder if we would be moving at all towards peace if there were not so many economic issues domestically. Of course, war is a lucrative business for some, which is why it persists. Now that people here are scared for their own economic futures, they are less willing to blindly associate patriotism with the killing machines of war.

      June 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPam Blunt

      I don't think we've been impatient. This is the longest war in the history of our country. So many lives have been taken and so many of our soldiers are disabled. What have we to show for it? It's a repeat of Vietnam. When Eisenhower warned us about the involvement of the Military Complex, obviously no one took heed. If allowed, they will keep us at war for the rest of our lives and who has the tenacity to stop them?

      I've heard Obama say, "make me do it". One man cannot accomplish everything. The people have to get behind what they believe in.
      Going back to the depression in the 30's, Alfred W. Lawson wrote a book called Direct Credits for Everybody. (copyrighted in 1931) Which was an economic plan for the country that asked for, "Justice for Everybody that Harmed Nobody." He developed a following of thousands who marched in parades, passed out his newpaper called "The Benefactor. He lectured to thousands upon thouands. This may have been the reason that Roosevelt enacted Social Security. When things got better the people became complacient, and the financiers began to destroy the movement just as they did with the peace movement of the 60's. f change is to happen, it will have to be a large following that gains momentum to force change. The good thing is that there is always change. It's the one constant in our physical universe. The only question is whether the change will be positivve and that's where the people of this country come in.

      What are out guys coming back to? A horrible economy, no jobs, immigration problems, political corruption, etc.. It will no longer seem like the country they knew and they will fade into the fabric of this country just as the Vietnam Vets did. I wouldn't blame them for feeling angry when they actually see what they've been fighting for.

      June 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Chase

      Excellent article. But:

      > not a single network or mainstream newspaper has called for bringing our troops home.

      Actually, the Seattle Times has several times called for bringing the troops home, most recently on its editorial page June 24, 2011.

      June 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoger Lippman
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