Advocates for peace in Iraq and Afghanistan have worked hard to get Barack Obama into the White House, and our instinct is to take a rest, to trust him now and give him space to work as he sees fit before rushing to judgment. This would be a big mistake. There is enormous pressure for continued occupation of Iraq, and Obama is very sensitive to the political winds, both because he is in a fragile and vulnerable political position, and because he has built his career on listening and building consensus. Obama needs us especially at this point in time to create a show of mass support for doing the right thing: ending the war promptly, bringing the troops back home, renouncing any claim to permanent bases or a military presence in Iraq.
If Obama does not make a clean break with the disastrous policies of the Bush Administration, he will soon become identified with those policies and their failures. He will have an investment in Iraq and an incentive to vindicate that investment by pressing for a military resolution. But a slow withdrawal will not be politically easier than a rapid withdrawal – quite the contrary, it will provide time for mounting criticism and pressure to remain engaged.
There are other good reasons to march in the streets for peace, and to do it very soon. The Bush Administration has stifled dissent with every means at their disposal:
they have deployed police and national guard units to intimidate and arrest protesters click here
they have infiltrated peace groups of all sorts with undercover CIA agents. click here
they have even sabotaged transit and train systems. When a large peace rally was scheduled in Washington on September 24, 2005, the metro system in Washingon ‘coincidentally’ had an outage all morning, and Amtrak canceled all its southbound trains from Boston and New York and Philadelphia because of acts of sabotage that were never investigated. click here
We have good reason to hope that the Obama administration will not continue these covert operations suppressing our First Amendment expression. But as long as we leave those rights unasserted, Bush’s encroachment on the Constitution continues to stand.
A protest march now will help to consolidate the anti-war movement as a voice within the Democratic party. In fact, it was antiwar sentiment that gave the Democrats their 2002 victory, and antiwar sentiment that tipped the nomination toward Obama rather than Clinton. After the convention, in competition only with the pathologically hawkish John McCain, there was no motivation for Obama to make a firm commitment to peace, and he continued to hedge his position on Iraq in the general election campaign. Obama’s decisive victory over McCain removed a force that was tugging him in the direction of increased militarism. The peace movement is an essential part of the coalition that swept Obama into power, and we have earned the influence that we now assert as a constituency.
Obama’s choice to retain Robert Gates as Defense Secretary is enigmatic. We have reason to fear that it signals his intention to maintain a smooth continuity with the militarism of the Bush years. But there is a more optimistic interpretation: If Obama intended a decisive retreat from military engagement in Iraq, he is wise to engage Gates to sell that policy to the public. Gates has the credentials to make announcements about troop withdrawals without his courage or his commitment to US security being questioned. (By analogy, Bush was smart enough to rely on Colin Powell’s image as a moderate military skeptic in order to sell the myth of Iraqi WMD back in 2003.)
It will not become easier to organize a peace march if we wait. The festering wounds of war will offer no articulation points at which to say, ‘Now this has gone on too long.’ The arguments will only become more intricate and more divisive with passing time. If we wait three months and demonstrate for peace, it will reported as a rebuke; if we demonstrate now as Obama takes office, it can only be interpreted as a mandate.
For those of us who think that every change that Bush engendered in his eight years needs to be undone, Obama has held out no such promise. What he has promised us is an administration that is more open and more responsive to constituent voices. Now is the time for us to vote with our feet!