Will Obama stop the war?

June 4, 2008

With the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, bringing him a step closer to becoming the first African American president in a nation founded on slavery.

One of the most important reasons for his success is the belief among millions of supporters that he alone among the major candidates is committed to stopping the war on Iraq and charting a radically different course for U.S. foreign policy. But is Obama really the anti-warrior he is made out to be?

Anthony Arnove is the author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, an essential book for all antiwar activists, and coauthor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People’s History of the United States. He answered SocialistWorker.org's questions about Obama's stands on war, imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.

BARACK OBAMA presents himself as a candidate who will end the U.S. war on Iraq. Knowing the details of what he proposes, is it accurate to say that he'll end the war?

PEOPLE WHO believe Barack Obama will end the occupation of Iraq are likely in for a rude awakening. Despite talking about withdrawal from Iraq, his plan would keep troops in the country for years to come, likely well beyond his potential first term.

Obama has also left open the possibility that if he reduces the overall troop levels in Iraq--something that from a military standpoint is very likely, given how overstretched the United States is now--he would increase the number of mercenaries in Iraq.

Writing in the Nation magazine, journalist Jeremy Scahill reported, "A senior foreign policy adviser to leading Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has told the Nation that if elected Obama will not 'rule out' using private security companies like Blackwater Worldwide in Iraq."

Obama says that he will "have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months." But "combat brigades" only make up about half the troops in Iraq.

Barack Obama at a campaign appearance

In addition to the mercenaries and private contractors, that would leave tens of thousands of troops involved in so-called counterinsurgency operations. That's the same rationale the Bush administration uses for keeping troops in Iraq. Other troops would stay for "training" operations. This, too, is the Bush argument: we'll stand down as the Iraqis stand up.

But there's no way the Iraqi police or security forces will ever have any legitimacy as long as they are seen as collaborating with an unwanted foreign occupation. That's why "Iraqization" of the conflict is leading in the same direction that "Vietnamization" led during the U.S. war against Vietnam: prolonging the disaster.

Other troops will remain for "force protection." That's a complete oxymoron. If the U.S. wasn't in Iraq as an occupying power, if it didn't have military bases, if it wasn't building in Baghdad the largest embassy of any government in the world, there would be no need for such troops.

This is also the reasoning given for why we need so many mercenaries in Iraq--and may need more. As Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, told James Risen of the New York Times, "If the contractors were removed, we would have to leave Iraq."

What else to read

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, now published in an updated edition with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.

For an extended analysis of Obama and the 2008 elections, see Lance Selfa's "Election 2008: Beginning of a new era?" in the International Socialist Review. Sherry Wolf's "The Democrats and war: Not a real lesser evil," in the ISR, recounts the history of a party that claims to be peace, but is committed to U.S. imperial power.

Other troops are likely to be involved in air operations over Iraq, whether or not they are based formally in Iraq, or are based regionally.

The Washington Post reported May 23 that "pilots have dramatically increased their use of helicopter-fired missiles against enemy fighters, often in densely populated areas. Since late March, the military has fired more than 200 Hellfire missiles in the capital, compared with just six missiles fired in the previous three months."

Obama also talks about the need to "refocus our attention on the broader Middle East" and "finishing the fight in Afghanistan." So we are likely to see some troops now in Iraq shifted toward the occupation of Afghanistan, and also toward possible new interventions in the region.

That is, we are likely to see an adjustment in the tactics of the war, perhaps even the strategy, but not an end to the war. Not an end to the politics of seeking to dominate and control the Middle East and Western and Central Asia, its people and its resources.

WHAT DO you say to people who want the war to end, but think that Obama's plan is acceptable?

I THINK that many people who hold this belief think that Obama, once elected, will move to the left--that he's not talking about a complete withdrawal because he can't do that and get elected (even though public opinion polls point in the other direction).

I think many of Obama's supporters would be surprised to learn that he's not for a complete withdrawal, and that he hasn't ruled out using more mercenaries in Iraq.

Either way, I think there's a degree of wishful thinking here. It's understandable. After eight years of Bush and eight years of Clinton, people are rightly desperate for some alternative--and hopeful that Obama will bring about a significant turn in U.S. foreign policy.

But in the absence of a large, independent antiwar movement putting pressure on Obama and the Democrats, I think we're likely to see the opposite: that Obama will govern to the right of the positions of his supporters.

That to me is the key question: Will there be that pressure on Obama if he's elected? Or will people in the antiwar movement succumb to the pressure to "give him time" and not to "rock the boat."

The experience after the 2006 mid-term elections is not encouraging. Democrats took over the House and Senate, yet continued to fund and prolong the occupation of Iraq. Many groups in the antiwar movement, rather than build large demonstrations to challenge the Democrats, have started to campaign for them for 2008. This is leading to an infinitely receding horizon of when the troops will ever leave.

OBAMA ARGUES that Iraq has been a distraction from the war the U.S. should be fighting. He supports a surge of U.S. troops to Afghanistan similar to what the Bush administration stands for. Should we look at the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan differently?

THE IDEA that Afghanistan is the "good" occupation or the "right fight" is completely misguided, in my view.

In Afghanistan, Washington claimed to be targeting terrorists who had attacked the United States, but instead, it targeted the civilian population of the country. The idea behind the U.S. invasion in 2001 was to make the people of Afghanistan suffer, hoping that would help bring down the Taliban regime, make an example of Afghanistan and pave the way for attacking Iraq.

Of course, there was also an element of seeking revenge--no matter that the people being killed by U.S. attacks had nothing to do with planning or carrying out the attacks of 9/11.

All of this has nothing to do with fighting terrorism, making the world safer or protecting people in the United States from attack. In fact, we have destabilized the region, made it more violent, killed thousands of civilians, escalated tensions between Afghanistan and its neighbors, and made the United States more isolated and hated, and therefore more likely to be the target of attacks.

DO YOU think Obama differs on the aims of U.S. foreign policy, or on the tactics and strategies needed to achieve those aims?

I THINK he differs on the tactics and strategies, not the aims or principles. After eight years of inept and counterproductive foreign policy decision-making, which has led even top generals and Republican advisers to defect from the Bush camp, we're bound to see a readjustment in U.S. policy, regardless of who becomes president.

Aggressive unilateralism is likely to be replaced with a slightly more collaborative approach to foreign policy decisions, with the understanding that, at the end of the day, Washington will always reserve the right to go it alone. What that means is not a renunciation of the Bush doctrine of preventive war, but an adjustment in how it is applied.

But the goal remains the same for Obama: preserve and extend what's called "American leadership" in the world. What that means is preserve and extend American empire. And in turn, that means using military force and the blunt instruments of economic control in Washington's hands.

Sure, we may see more so-called soft power. A little better packaging and advertising of our policies. Less needless alienation of "allies." But not a reversal of decades of bipartisan support for the U.S. imperial project, with all the disastrous consequences that have flowed from that.

As two British conservatives, Timothy Lynch and Robert Singh, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "Regardless of who wins in November, the current foreign policy will live on in the next White House. None of the main candidates has disavowed the war on terror. Each has called Mr. Bush tactically deficient. But the debate over the war on terror is over how, where and when. The candidates have all argued that they would do a better job of fighting it."

OBAMA ADVISERS like Samantha Powers are associated with talk about "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. Is that an idea the antiwar movement should support?

IT WAS interesting when Powers was kicked to the curb (or "thrown under the bus," as it's been called) for having a few fairly uncontroversial harsh words for Hillary Clinton.

Over the same period, Powers was at pains to explain that Obama would not pull out of Iraq completely, and that he would have to evaluate even his position about withdrawing combat troops within 16 months, based on developments on the ground that he couldn't foresee as a candidate.

But that wasn't an issue. The issue was whether or not Powers had trashed Clinton.

Still, the influence of Powers and a group of like-minded advisers to Obama does seem to signal that we are likely to see more rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, especially in the Darfur region of Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.

On the one hand, this may feel a bit like a return to Bill Clinton-era policies. But we should keep two things in mind: the first is that Bill Clinton's rhetoric about humanitarian intervention helped lay the basis for the overwhelmingly bipartisan support for invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The other is that U.S. imperialism has always cloaked itself in humanitarian justifications. This didn't start with Clinton.

So our challenge is to make the case that the issue is not the "mismanagement" of the Iraq occupation or that the U.S. focused on Iraq, instead of Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iran or North Korea.

The issue is that U.S. foreign policy is driven by interests, especially corporate interests, that are destroying the planet, that are destroying the lives of people around the globe and at home.

Take the issue of troop levels. Obama's Web site says, "Obama will increase the size of ground forces, adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines." What do we imagine the purpose of those troops will be? To provide housing for homeless people? To teach children who are illiterate? To wipe out malaria and easy preventable diseases that kill millions of children ever year?

No, those troops will be charged with protecting U.S. corporate interests globally, preserving "stability," protecting and training dictators aligned with the United States, and suppressing any struggles that threaten the interests of U.S. rulers and elites.

THE DEMOCRATS are generally considered less likely to get the U.S. into wars, and less brutal in carrying them out, than Republicans. Is that a fair reading of the Democrats' record in office?

VIETNAM WAS started by Democrats and ended by a Republican. The First and Second World War began under Democrats.

John F. Kennedy, who is idealized today, was a Democrat who presided over the massive expansion of U.S. covert and overt aggression in Latin America--and beyond--supporting coups, funding death squads and backing dictatorships in pursuit of a vicious Cold War anticommunism.

The policy we now see being vigorously pursued in Iraq and the Middle East is the Carter Doctrine, named after Democrat Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Carter explained, "Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

"The last great liberal hope to win the White House--Bill Clinton--committed more troops to more parts of the globe than any president since World War II," Lynch and Singh wrote in the Journal. "Since the end of the Cold War, America has undertaken at least nine military interventions overseas, under three presidents of both parties in two distinct historical eras (pre- and post-9/11). This history suggests that the next great liberal hope--Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton--would probably continue the trend."

So the key question is not whether or not we have a Democrat in office. It's whether we have any opposition, any struggle in the streets, any movements for change that work outside the narrow channels of electoral politics.

It is a question not of waiting for elected officials to give us reforms, but of fighting for them, against all the forces in our society that want to preserve the power and privilege of the few against the needs and interests of the many. Our job today is to build the opposition, whoever is in power in 2009, and to build an independent antiwar movement that can fight for its own demands--including, crucially, immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq.

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