Sunday, July 06, 2008

Battleground Choice: Lesser Evil or Positive Good?

Photo: Antiwar Action in Chicago

Obama on
the War and
National Security

By Carl Davidson
Progressives for Obama

The broad base of Obama supporters, particularly its insurgent antiwar and youth contingents, are both mobilizing and being mobilized to create a firewall between their candidate and all the forces of 'rightward drift' that could sabotage Obama's candidacy.

Parts of the 'forces of rightward drift' are the attack ads of the GOP and the right that have little to do with Obama's platform. Part comes from the DLC 'Blue Dogs' and the corporate lobbyists who have compromised the party into defeat time and again. But still another part resides in some flawed and conflicted thinking within the positions of the candidate himself.

Nowhere is this more evident than around the question of Iraq and national security. To his everlasting credit, Obama opposed this war before it began. As he has often said, it was an 'unnecessary' war and a 'dumb' war.

But it was also an unjust war, meaning it can only be prolonged with greater injustice. And that also means there is no painless way to bring it to an end, even as we must end it. That illusion is best set aside. Obama has yet to grapple with this in a clear and decisive way.

Most Americans at the grass roots understand, to one degree or another, the need to decisively stop the war, from activists at the left end of the political spectrum to the ordinary voters at the center and center-right. All the complex 'triangulated' caveats are meant for the beltway national security wonks and pundits, not for them. When Obama campaigned in Western Pennsylvania, he drew his longest, loudest standing ovations from working-class crowds-economically progressive, socially conservative--when he asserted, with an authentic voice, that he would end this war in 2009.

That's how Obama will continue to win voters, and how he will win the election. If he does otherwise, he's in trouble.

Here in Western Pennsylvania where I am, the race is very tight. But the key to winning it is expanding the electorate, organizing and mobilizing large numbers of new younger voters, a task which requires the high energy and commitment for a youthful, antiwar base and core of organizers. The DLC option has been to distance Obama, and other candidates, from this core, to 'diss' it and thus demobilize it, at least substantially-all for the sake of appeasing smaller and smaller numbers of 'undecideds' on the center right.

If the DLC option wins out, Obama becomes simply one more in a long historical string of negative 'lesser evils' that stir much less enthusiasm. If they don't, then Obama remains a positive good for peace voters, and many more besides.

That's what's 'at risk' here. Tom Hayden spelled this danger out clearly in his July 4 article, 'Barack, Iraq and Risk,' which, with his permission, I quote considerably here:

"From the beginning, Obama's symbolic 2002 position on Iraq has been very promising, reinforced again and again by his campaign pledge to "end the war" in 2009.

"But that pledge also has been laced with loopholes all along, caveats that the mainstream media and his opponents [excepting Bill Richardson] have ignored or avoided until now. As I pointed out in Ending the War in Iraq [2007], Obama's 2002 speech opposed the coming war with Iraq as "dumb", while avoiding what position he would take once the war was underway. Then he wrote of almost changing his position from anti- to pro-war after a trip to Iraq. He never took as forthright a position as Senator Russ Feingold, among others. Then he adopted the safe, nonpartisan formula of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group, which advocated the withdrawal of combat troops while leaving thousands of American counter-terrorism units, advisers and trainers behind.

"That would mean at least 50,000 Americans, including back up forces, engaged in counter-insurgency after the withdrawal of combat troops, a contradiction the media and Hillary Clinton failed to explore in the primary debates. To his credit, Obama said that these American units would not become caught up in a lengthy sectarian civil war, leaving the question of their role unanswered….
Finally, it has taken the pressure of the general election to raise questions about whether his parsed and lawyerly language is empty of credible meaning. Consider carefully his July 4 statements:

"The first one, promising a "thorough reassessment" of his Iraq position later this summer:

"I've always said that the pace of our withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability" - two conditions that could justify leaving American troops in combat indefinitely. "And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies" - another loophole which could allow the war to drag on.

"Then there came the later "clarification":

"Let me be as clear as I can be" [not, "let me be absolutely clear"].

"I intend to end this war." [intention only].

"My first day in office I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war - responsibly, deliberately, but decisively." [ Sounds positive, but "decisively" can mean by military threat in the worst case. And it's pure theatre, borrowed from Clinton, since the plans most likely will be drafted and finalized immediately after the November election.]

"And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one or two brigades a month..." [but what if the military commanders on the ground assert that it is too dangerous to pull out those troops?]

"Obama's position, which always left a trail of unasked questions, now plants a seed of doubt, justifiably, among the peace bloc of American voters who harbor a legacy of betrayals beginning with Lyndon Johnson's 1064 pledge of "no wider war" through Richard Nixon's "secret plan for peace" to Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal and the deep complicity of Democrats in the evolution of the Iraq War.

"It is difficult to understand Obama's motivation. Perhaps it is his lifetime success at straddling positions and disarming potential opponents. Perhaps it is a lawyer's training. Perhaps being surrounded by national security advisers who oppose what they call "precipitous withdrawal", and pragmatic Democrats distinctly uncomfortable with their antiwar roots.

"What is clear is that Obama is responsive to pressures from the grass-roots base of a party that is overwhelmingly in favor of a shorter timetable for withdrawal than his, and favoring diplomatic rather than military solutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At a time that public interest in the war is receding before economic concerns, it is time for the strongest possible reassertion of voter demands for peace.

"The challenge for the peace and justice movement is to avoid falling into Republican divide-and-conquer traps while maintaining a powerful and independent presence in key electoral states, including Congressional battlegrounds, between now and November. There should be at the least:

"- A demand that Obama talk to legitimate representatives of the peace movement, not simply hawkish national security advisers.

"- A Democratic platform debate and plank that is unequivocal in pledging to end the war and avoid military escalation elsewhere.

"- An energized antiwar voter education campaign that builds towards a clear November peace mandate to end the military occupation and shifr to political and diplomatic approraches.

"- An organizational strategy to widen the base of the antiwar movement through the presidential campaign in preparation for a massive peace mobilization in early 2009.

"Grass-roots people power is the only force that can keep alive the astute sense of pragmatism that led Obama to criticize the coming war in 2002. The stakes are higher now, and the enemies far shrewder, wishing to rip asunder the Obama coalition. The peace movement assumption should be that there is no one in Obama's inner circle of advisers to be counted on, no mainstream columnist to catch his eye with a persuasive column favoring withdrawal. They never have. Only the voice of the peace voters - and the countless activists who have volunteered on his behalf - can command his attention now."

It is important to be clear about what Hayden is saying here. 'Progressives for Obama', of which Hayden is a founder, has understood from the beginning that Obama would be speaking to and from the center of American political life. Obama is not a leftist, anti-imperialist, or even a consistent progressive, a point we have made since the beginning of this project, when we said the upcoming problem of 'rightward drift' was why we were forming this independent pole and network of forces.

That is now being played out. Both the far left and the right, for their own reasons, are doing all they can to drive a wedge between progressive Obama voters and moderate-center Obama voters. How much some in the campaign itself capitulate remains to be seen. In our view, the task of organizing and energizing new and younger voters, expanding the electorate, is more important than making energy-sapping concessions to unlikely breakaways from the conservative camp.

But the fact remains is that it will take both blocs voting for Obama to defeat McCain, and we will work to expand and maintain that broad and necessary unity.

It's well known the Obama has some points of agreement with McCain, such as support for the death penalty. There are more where that one came from. It's also well known that they have sharp differences, such as Roe v Wade and a woman's right to chose. There are also many others. After all, McCain is a Republican conservative and Obama has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, which is notable, but from a left and progressive perspective, still leaves a lot to be desired.

Keeping a scorecard of either serious matters or less serious 'gotcha' points from statements by the two candidates is fine. But far more important is making an assessment of the deep divisions in our ruling establishment over Iraq, and Iran as well. Then assess how these forces have grouped and regrouped themselves, and finally, what conflicting outcomes they are working for in this election.

Next comes making an assessment of the forces at the base in motion in this campaign, both the new progressive insurgencies and the retrograde trends of racial and religious bigotry. Then you decide who are your friends and who are your adversaries, and you deploy what limited forces you have to strike at the main danger while helping the more progressive forces, as best as you can, prepare for battles beyond the elections and in the streets and all the institutions of civil society.

There is some turmoil right now, but it's not too hard to figure this out and sty on course. You need a clear head, a clear idea of the main task today, and a clear idea of the main danger today. But if you don't, you get tangled up in demobilizing cul-de-sacs. Our slogan to keep a laser-like focus between now and November: Stop McCain, stop the War, Vote Obama 2008. Let's give Obama some heat, and prepare for more in Denver and beyond.

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