A version of this article appeared at The Nation on January 14, 2011.
We are now entering the time frame pointing to the 2012 presidential election, when anti-war networks and peace voters, as Rep. Barbara Lee says, can become a factor in the President’s calculus and convince him to campaign for re-election against the wars.
For background, the Bob Woodward book, Obama’s Wars, is worth reading carefully for clues to a peace strategy. Woodward tells the inside story of the executive review regarding Afghanistan last year. He reports that:
“[Obama] repeated that he wasn’t buying into a $1 trillion, 10-year counterinsurgency strategy. 'I want an exit strategy,' the president said.[p. 253]
“Obama was almost fretting. ‘A six-to-eight-year war at $50 billion a year is not in the national interest of the United States.’ That was what was before him.” [p.278]
"'I can't lose all the Democratic Party. And people at home don’t want to hear we’re going to be there for ten years.’”[p.336]
“What was unsaid, what everyone knew, was that a president could not lose – or be seen to be losing – a war.” [p.167]
Obama was the commander-in-chief, but there were other voices in the room. Vice-president Joe Biden led questioning of the war’s costs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported whatever the generals wanted. Gen. David Petraeus opposed timelines and argued for a military surge, saying, “All we have to do to is begin to show progress, and that’ll be sufficient to add time to the clock and we’ll get what we need.” [p. 339]
What has changed since that time is the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, dimming the President’s stated expectation that a timetable would come from the Hill. [p. 232]. If only for political reasons, the Republicans are not going to give the president that cover. It remains to be seen if a majority of Democrats will stand up as they did last year. In addition, with the loss of Sen. Russ Feingold, there is no sign of anti-war opposition coming from the Senate for now.
But public opinion remains stubborn, with 60 percent saying the war is not worth fighting. About 75 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independent voters are opposed as well.
One task for peace advocates is public education, in targeted congressional districs, about the costs of the war, the existence of diplomatic alternatives, and outreach to other political constituencies concerned about the economy and budget crises.
At this point, no one beyond the Barbara Lee bloc is calling for a termination of the funding. But significant voices within the establishment are moving towards the exits.
The New York Times published an excellent piece on talks with the Taliban by Scott Atran on Oct. 26. Atran makes the point that the time for introducing a diplomatic offensive is now, instead of waiting until the U.S. begins drawing down. Instead, the current strategy is, as top White House adviser Bruce Riedel phrases it, “until we kill them, they’re going to keep trying to kill us.” [p.106] But the rising slaughter of so-called mid-level Taliban insurgents and their local supporters, Atran warns, “may create a whirlwind that no one will be able to control.”
On Dec. 20, the Wall Street Journal printed an anti-Afghanistan article by the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, proposing that Obama’s next policy review this spring “should call for reducing US forces to 30,000 by mid-2012, a reduction of 70,000 from present levels starting this July." Haass even called Afghanistan “a strategic distraction,” arguing that, “the greatest threat to US national security stems from our own fiscal crisis.”
Inside the White House, Biden appears to be holding his own, saying on NBC's Meet the Press in December that America will be "totally out of [Afghanistan], come hell or high water, by 2014." No doubt that is an exaggeration, but it reinforces the sense that U.S. combat operations will decline radically. So does the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that 47,000 troops will be cut from the overall Pentagon payroll by 2015.
These signs come in the wake of the Afghanistan Study Group report last year that argued for the same withdrawal schedule now endorsed by Haass.
If a majority of House Democrats issued a letter to the president supporting the same goal – withdrawing 70,000 troops at a $75 billion saving by mid-2012 – that could conceivably give Obama the political cover to do what he apparently is willing to do anyway. At least it would be a powerful test of where everyone stands heading into 2012.
Even if that level of withdrawal can be achieved, it would not be a perfect solution. Frankly, there is no perfect solution in divided and bleeding Afghanistan, nor in Pakistan, and few besides Lee have the willingness to end our malign military presence. A recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Plan B in Afghanistan,” suggests what establishment critics reluctantly have in mind: a de facto partition as the “least bad option.” The author, Robert Blackwill, is a former Bush era diplomat now at the Council on Foreign Relations as well. In his view, the United States has to accept Taliban control of the south and east while militarily protecting the same tribal forces that constituted the Northern Alliance a decade ago. His approach is described as “withdraw in order to stay,” and as “the best alternative to strategic defeat.” [Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2001]
The only “good news” in all this ghastly reasoning is the appearance of the dawn of rationality among a foreign policy class too accustomed to carving up the world. A realism learned in a decade of maiming, killing, wounding, and displacing countless people in one of the world’s poorest countries. A realism, the article admits, that has grown from “dying for a mistake.”
So we come to three options:
- The Lee option, most desirable from the peace movement’s viewpoint, is a full-withdrawal of all U.S. troops with a peace blueprint not yet agreed to.
- The New Realist option, which would withdraw most American troops, lessen the suffering, save $70 billion per year, and still deploy 30,000 U.S. troops on bases.
- And the John McCain/Karl Rove option: “there’s only one option the president should consider, and that’s the winning option,” McCain says. [p. 155]
There remains another set of questions for committed peace activists, having to do with goals and the capacity to achieve them. The peace movement acquires a mass character when clearly-unpopular wars impose heavy American casualties [Vietnam: 58,000 dead, 153,303 wounded; Iraq: 4,435 dead, 32,012 wounded; Afghanistan: 1,445 dead, 9,971 wounded]. There sometimes are exceptions, for example, the huge solidarity and sanctuary movements during the Central American civil wars, possibly a continuation of the anti-Vietnam surge shortly before; or the Cold War threats to Europe which provoked hundreds of thousands to demand a nuclear freeze.
That is why while public opposition to the Afghanistan war is very high, the streets have been relatively quiet. It also is why the peace movement loses leverage when American casualties sharply decline, as in Iraq since 2008.
There are two other problems facing committed peace activists. As long as President Obama appears to be managing a transition to peace, his supporters will grant him time. That may change if he enters 2012 with one or more war zones on fire. The other problem is the reasonable choice of many American progressives to take up the issues that touch American lives more directly, unemployment, budget disasters, and Wall Street scandal. The time to hit the streets for peace is deferred.
That doesn’t mean there is no reason for small, principled protests including civil disobedience – like Code Pink’s appearances in Congressional hearings, or shows of outrage over Wikileaks’ repression by Big Brother.
Nor does it mean the White House and the national security crowd are immune to the unexpected, unscripted event like the implosion of a client state, Vietnam-style, or assassinations like those from Pakistan to Tucson this past week. Or another 9/11 attack, which could plunge the nation further to the right.
But there must be a plan for a long peace movement to oppose the Long War, beginning with study of the Long War doctrine itself, and carried out by coalition-building with allies wherever they can be found. Plenty of Americans are tired of these wars, and tired of protesting as well. But they can be counted on to stand up when issues touch their everyday lives. That’s the job of organizers.