Last Friday, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would complete the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq by Christmas, a development that you might have thought the anti-war Left would cheer.
But that’s not been the case for some activists, at least based on a sampling of the writings that I’ve been sent. Instead of celebrating the success of the anti-war movement in bringing this war to an end, I’ve been reading commentaries either insisting that it’s all a trick or giving the credit to President George W. Bush.
It appears that some don’t want to accept that the anti-war movement has won a hard-fought victory and that Obama’s election was a factor. It’s almost as if the fact that something has been achieved through the deeply flawed U.S. political system threatens a preferred political analysis, which holds that nothing good can happen.
So, instead of giving credit to the many Americans who protested the war or who found ways to explain its injustice to the public, some activists are stressing the negative, noting that security contractors will remain to protect the U.S. Embassy or that U.S. corporations will still try to sell weapons systems and exploit Iraq’s oil reserves.
Others observe that the Iraqi government negotiated the “status of forces agreement” setting the timetable for a drawdown of U.S. troops with President Bush in late 2008 – and thus President Obama should get no credit. He should just be denounced for not ending the war sooner.
But these arguments largely miss the point. This final withdrawal of U.S. troops at the insistence of the Iraqi government – and with Obama’s acquiescence – is a very big deal. Oddly, it is being acknowledged more by the Right than the Left, with prominent Republicans condemning Obama’s announcement as an admission of U.S. defeat.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared, “The president has announced what will be seen by historians as a decisive defeat for the U.S. in Iraq.”
The neocons are furious because they saw Bush’s SOFA as only a holding action and expected that the U.S. government would twist the arms of the Iraqis to get them to accept a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. The neocons are now condemning Obama for not doing so.
After all, Bush would not have made the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad the largest in the world, along with over-sized consulates in other Iraqi cities, if the neocons did not expect to turn Iraq into something of an American colony, a home for U.S. military bases to threaten other countries in the region, such as Iran and Syria.
Now, with the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, the neocon dream of U.S.-controlled bases in Iraq has been dashed and the diplomatic outposts are already being downsized. The gargantuan embassy complex in Baghdad may well be viewed in the future as more a monument to American hubris than a hub of U.S. intervention.
When the last U.S. convoys rush to the Kuwaiti border in December, the world will see the event for what it is, a stunning reversal for America’s imperial overreach, a $1 trillion neocon folly that killed nearly 4,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Yet, instead of driving home that important lesson, some on the Left seem to prefer insisting that this historic defeat is just an illusion or that the anti-war movement (including Obama’s election) had nothing to do with the outcome.
Perhaps that’s because it’s fashionable these days to say that elections don’t matter. Yet, one only has to think about what the U.S. approach toward Iraq would have been under a President John McCain or even a President Hillary Clinton.
Because Obama had built his political career largely on his opposition to the Iraq War – while McCain and Clinton were eager war supporters – Obama had a lot to lose if he reneged on his campaign promise and left behind a sizeable contingent of U.S. troops. In the end, he didn’t push very hard to maintain a U.S. troop footprint in Iraq.
Obama’s election, therefore, marked a significant turning point in the difficult struggle to bring this ill-begotten war to a close. It shows how anti-war dissent and electoral politics can combine – however imperfectly – to get results. Achieving an outcome may take time and surely is frustrating, but victories can be won.
So, this could be a time to cheer the many people who stood up against the ugly pro-war pressures of 2002-03, the likes of weapons inspector Scott Ritter, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, members of Code Pink, the many bloggers who spoke truth to power, the young people who marched in the streets, and many more.
However, some activists prefer to see the U.S. government as all-powerful and thus certain to find some way to transform this ignominious defeat into permanent political control of Iraq. But history has shown us that sometimes imperial powers simply lose.
The Vietnam Precedent
I witnessed something similar after the Vietnam War, when it became conventional wisdom inside much of the Left that the many years of anti-war marches, teach-ins and reaching out to the public via media had failed to make much of a difference.
Many progressives bought into the Nixon administration’s insistence that the powers-that-be paid little heed to the “bums” as President Richard Nixon once called the anti-war protesters. So, when the war was finally brought to an end in the 1970s, the Left denied itself much sense of success.
It would take many more years before documents and books – from Nixon’s White House tapes to The Haldeman Diaries – would reveal how big a concern the anti-war movement was to the nation’s leaders, including the thin-skinned Nixon who undid his own presidency by overreacting to anti-war whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and setting the stage for the Watergate scandal.
Yet, the American Left not only failed to appreciate its success, but many progressives – especially those with money – absorbed the false lesson that the anti-war movement had been largely unsuccessful.
Thus, it became a relatively easy sell to persuade progressives to dismantle the infrastructure that had brought millions of Americans into the anti-war fold.
The “underground press,” including promising outlets such as Ramparts magazine and the Dispatch News wire service, were shut down for lack of funding. Other outlets were sold off either to profit-oriented corporations, as happened to Boston’s WBCN, or handed off to neoconservatives, like The New Republic.
Largely abandoning a national media structure, the Left turned to “local organizing” as the key to the future, under the slogan “think globally, act locally.”
Meanwhile, the Right observed the actual success of the Left during the civil rights and anti-war eras and modeled a movement that copied the Left’s strategies, focusing heavily on building media outreach to the American people and constructing a political movement with national messages.
The result was that these two ideological ships passed in the night, the Left throwing its media advantage overboard and the Right loading on as much media power as possible. The consequences should now be apparent.
Over the past several decades, the Right has achieved a political dominance that the inherent quality of its positions wouldn’t justify, while the Left largely lost touch with the broad American population and drifted toward irrelevance.
It turned out that local organizing – while admirable – doesn’t match the value of framing a way of understanding the world and aggressively pushing those ideas to the public. Only recently – relying mostly on underfunded Web sites and unorthodox protests like Occupy Wall Street – has the Left begun to recreate its approach of the 1960s.
The danger to the Left now from misinterpreting its anti-war success once more – this time regarding Iraq – is that the faulty analysis will again drive future actions.
By refusing to recognize the value of Obama’s election as, in part, an expression of the nation’s anti-war sentiments, the Left could veer off into a rejection of electoral politics altogether – arguing there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Obama and, say, Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, either of whom would restore the neocons to their place of preeminence in U.S. foreign policy.
Yes, I know Obama’s numerous missteps. Indeed, I have written critically about them. For instance, he kept on too many Bush holdovers, appointed too many Democratic neocon-lites, failed to conduct investigations into the Bush administration’s war crimes, and escalated the war in Afghanistan (although he has begun to reverse that course).
I’m also aware of the deep flaws in the U.S. political process, especially since the right-wing-controlled Supreme Court opened the floodgates to secret corporate financing of the political process.
The national news media is also skewed heavily to the right, with CNN seeing nothing wrong in collaborating with Tea Party extremists, while NPR can’t tolerate an anchor for an opera show participating in pro-democracy protests in Washington.
Nevertheless, as distorted as it by money, the electoral system is how the United States apportions power and – especially through the office of the presidency – that power can do enormous harm through actions such as war or inaction on issues like global warming.
If nothing else, the American people have a responsibility to mitigate that damage by voting for the candidate likely to do the least damage. That may not sound inspiring but millions of innocent lives – and conceivably the future of the planet – can be lost if the wrong choice is made.
However, some on the American Left operate under what might be called “the vanity of perfectionism,” the notion that what’s most important is to have the “perfect” analysis even if its consequences are destructive to mankind.
Thus, flawed political leaders who compromise are judged as no better than extremely dangerous ones who would initiate wars like the bloody mess in Iraq – or who would ignore long-term threats like global warming.
In Campaign 2000, Al Gore had shortcomings, but he was not the same as George W. Bush. To pretend otherwise was not only wrongheaded, it was reckless. It kept the race close enough for Bush to steal the White House.
The result was that many people died unnecessarily and the future of the planet was put at greater risk by Bush’s hostility to warnings about global warming.
The JFK Model
Campaign 2012 and Obama’s reelection bid will also have some historical parallels to the expected reelection race of John F. Kennedy in 1964.
Many Vietnam War scholars have argued that Kennedy, who made his own hawkish blunders with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and an early escalation in Vietnam, had learned his lessons and would have withdrawn U.S. troops from Vietnam if he’d won a second term.
Instead, Kennedy was gunned down by an assassin in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, and his troop withdrawal never occurred. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, dispatched hundreds of thousands of more soldiers to Vietnam, making the human catastrophe in Indochina much worse.
Like Kennedy, Obama has faced a steep learning curve as president and has made his share of mistakes. But his completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and his timetable for phasing out a U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by 2014 suggest that he is following a JFK-like trajectory.
Except this time, what might reverse the course of history would be Obama’s electoral defeat in 2012. Republican front-runners, including Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, have made clear that they would again pursue a muscular neocon agenda with higher military spending and insistence on U.S. global dominance.
Romney has turned to prominent neocons to write his foreign policy manifesto, entitled “An American Century,” a tribute to the neocon Project for a New American Century, which provided the ideological framework for the invasion of Iraq.
So, the question now is whether the American Left will learn from these past experiences and recognize that – as difficult and as imperfect as it was – the movement to get the United States out of Iraq succeeded.