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Saving Obama, Saving Ourselves

By       Message Tom Hayden     Permalink
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Obama was the first presidential candidate to succeed on a platform of pulling US troops out of an ongoing war (unless you count Richard Nixon's secret plan for peace in 1969 and "peace is at hand" promise of 1972). By any rational standard, Obama fulfilled that pledge when the last American troops departed Iraq last year.

Many in the peace movement did not believe it then and dismiss it now. To the extent this is a rational objection -- and not blindness -- it rests on two arguments. First, some claim that Obama was only following the withdrawal plan already agreed to by George Bush. It is an interesting question for future historians to uncover what shadow entity orchestrated the Iraq-US pact between the end of Bush and the coming of Obama. That aside, it is logical to conclude that the immanence of Obama's victory pushed the Bush administration to wrap up the best withdrawal agreement possible before the unpredictable newcomer took office. 

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In addition, Obama increased his previous withdrawal commitment in February 2009 to include virtually all American forces instead of leaving behind a "residual" force of 20-30,000. It is true that as the end game neared, Obama left open the possibility of a residual force after American ground troops departed, saying he would be responsive to the request of the Baghdad regime. Here, some on the left seized on these remarks to later claim that Obama had to be forced by the Iraqis to finally leave. There is no evidence for this claim, however. It is equally possible - and I believe more credible - that Obama was simply being Obama, knowing that the Iraqis could not possibly request the Americans to stay.

Dissecting diplomacy, like legislation, is like making sausage, in the old saying. Obama certainly knew that he would gain political cover if he could say with credibility that he was only following Bush's withdrawal plan and Iraq's request.

A more bizarre left criticism of Obama on Iraq is that the war itself never ended but instead morphed into a secret war with tens of thousands of Americans fighting as Special Ops or private contractors. Why it would be more effective to continue a losing war with fewer troops has never been asked. After all the talk of tens or hundreds of thousands of US personnel being left behind, the most recent numbers are these: in June of this year there were 1,235 US government civilian employees in Baghdad (down 10% since last quarter) along with 12,477 employees of U.S.-funded contractors and grantees (not all Americans; down 26% since last quarter). (Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, "Quarterly Report  and Semiannual Report to the  United States Congress." July 30, 2012) The personnel are for intelligence, embassy security and customary logistical support; not an extraordinary number in a country seething with anti-Americanism. South Korea allows up to 28,500 US military personnel, and Japan some 34,000, not including thousands more dependents and civilian employees -- that is what a post-war occupation looks like. (Chanlett-Avery, Emma and Ian E. Rinehart, "The U.S. Military Presence in Okinawa and the Futenma Base Controversy." Congressional Research Service. August 3, 2012)


Like many who campaigned for Obama in 2008, I opposed the continuing US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the military doctrine of the "Long War" against Islamic fundamentalism. Obama has proven true to his word, the critics have been proven right in our warnings.

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According to Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, Obama granted his generals an increase of 33,000 troops for an Afghan surge, but drew the line there and insisted that those troops would start coming home in 2011, a pledge he has kept. The 33,000 figure was disappointing to those of us, including Rep. Barbara Lee, who demanded that at least 50,000 be pulled out by the end of this year. Instead, Obama has promised the pullout of US ground troops and an "Afghan lead" by 2014. In doing so, Obama has triggered a dynamic towards the exits favored by overwhelming numbers of Americans and NATO citizens (Mitt Romney has opposed deadlines while at the same time accepting the 2014 framework).

While it will take years to know the truth, I believe there is a strategic and political reason for Obama's 2014 timetable. He knows that Afghanistan is a lost cause, though this cannot be acknowledged and dealt with during the election season. Between 2013 and 2014, Obama will have a narrow window to replace Hamid Karzai with a power-sharing arrangement, and make enough deals with the Taliban, the Haqqanis, Pakistan, China and yes, Iran -- to salvage and perhaps partition Afghanistan. At present, the neo-cons running Romney's foreign policy team will not permit any diplomatic contacts with the insurgency even if it means leaving an American soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bigdahl, in Taliban captivity. An ultimate political agreement to try stabilizing Afghanistan will require diplomacy with several countries at the top of the neo-cons enemies' list. Even then, implosion and defeat are Afghan possibilities which Obama dares not mention.

Others in the peace movement, along with civil libertarians, rage against Obama because of his secret escalating drone attacks. They are right morally to keep making righteous noise, especially about the official cover-up of casualty rates. But it will take a political-diplomatic strategy of ending the Afghan war in order to stop the drones. Civil liberties and human rights groups who are vociferous against the drones still refuse to oppose the Afghan war itself, which is the primary cause of the drone killings. Such groups also oppose the assassinations of Al Qaeda leaders and the prosecution of whistleblowers without opposing the underlying wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

In summary, Obama's withdrawal from Iraq has been clouded in left disbelief and overshadowed by criticism of his policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and beyond. On the merits, these criticisms are entirely justified. When they lead to opposing Obama's re-election, they help Romney and the return of the neo-cons. 


The white liberal-left, however modest in numbers, is hugely important in a close presidential election, where the margin of difference may be one percent or less in states with large progressive constituencies. If Obama loses, it will be unfair to blame the left, but they will be blamed nonetheless. As a consequence they will become more marginal, far less able to connect with the progressive constituencies and mass movements with vital stakes in Obama's re-election.

The potential toll can be glimpsed already in the current decline of the radical left amidst the greatest economic meltdown in seven decades. Of course radical movements will rise again, but more likely from the activist networks who tried to stop Romney and re-elect Obama, not from those who sat on their hands and believed it was all another circus.

There is plenty of time to still make a difference. First, some people on the left will have to become used to the idea that partial power only brings partial results. While we can establish enclaves for dreamers from Mendocino to Brooklyn, from Madison to Austin, we have to win support from the center in battleground states or risk losing decades.

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The second lesson is for self-defined radicals to be immersed in the everyday problems of the mass constituencies that depend on presidents to make a small margin of difference in their lives.

One small example of how it works: there would be no federal consent decrees over brutal police departments were in not for Al Sharpton hammering at Bill Clinton to include lawsuits for unconstitutional "patterns and practices" in his otherwise draconian Omnibus Crime legislation in 1994.

Third, election seasons are perfect organizing moments when large numbers of people are open to persuasion on public issues. It may be springtime before the next cycle of activism comes around again. Now is the time to build local lists and structures for voter turnout in November and street turnouts thereafter.

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After fifty years of activism, politics and writing, Tom Hayden still is a leading voice for ending the war in Iraq, erasing sweatshops, saving the environment, and reforming politics through greater citizen participation.

Currently he is writing and advocating for US exiting Afghanistan. (more...)

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