The meaning of President Obama's Iraq withdrawal
speech, and its influence on real U.S. policy in Iraq, will not be determined
solely by his actual words. The import of the speech – and whether its promises
become real – will be determined by a fluid combination of what Obama says,
his own definitions of what he says, and the disparate ways his speech is heard,
perceived, described, and contested by others – the mainstream media, Congress,
the military, other centers of elite power, and crucially, the peace movement.
The words of the speech were quite amazing: "And under the status of forces
agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from
Iraq by the end of 2011. We will complete this transition to Iraqi responsibility,
and we will bring our troops home."
After eight years of reckless slaughter proudly justified in the name of a
"global war on terror," it was stunning to hear the president of the United
States announce what he called "a new strategy to end the war in Iraq." That
moment was something we should celebrate. It was ours. The statement was a
recognition of the powerful antiwar consensus in this country, a consensus
that helped define the powerful constituency so key to Obama's election. Obama
may not acknowledge, even to himself, that it was the organized antiwar movement
that helped create and build and strengthen that consensus – but still his
speech reflected the new political reality that requires him to speak to the
demands of that antiwar community.
Ending the War: A Definition
From the vantage point of the peace movement,
the speech was and remains insufficient, and shot through with wiggle room
and loopholes. We know that President Obama's definition of "ending the war"
is not ours. Our definition has not changed:
- Withdraw all the troops and bring them home (don't redeploy them to another
illegal and unwinnable war in Afghanistan).
- Pull out all the U.S.-paid foreign mercenaries and contractors and cancel
the remaining contracts.
- Close all U.S. military bases and turn them over to Iraq.
- Give up all efforts to control Iraq's oil.
While he laid out partial versions of some of these issues (withdrawal and
oil), others (mercenaries and bases) were left out entirely. And at the end
of the day, President Obama did not make a single real commitment to meeting
our definition of ending the war. As the New York Times columnist Bob
Obama's plan for Iraq and Afghanistan, "we're committed to these two conflicts
for a good while yet, and there is nothing like an etched-in-stone plan for
Understanding all the problems, limitations, and dangers of President Obama's
speech is crucial. (For a fuller analysis of the dangers in Obama's speech,
see my Feb. 26 talking points.)
But understanding those limitations does not tell us how to respond to this
new moment, a moment when the president of the United States is telling Americans
that he is ending the war, that he intends to withdraw all U.S. troops from
Iraq, telling Iraqis that the U.S. "pursues no claim on your territory or your
resources," and telling the world that the U.S. plans to engage with everybody
in the region, including Iran and Syria.
We may – we must – understand all the reasons that those words don't constitute
a firm commitment. But the reality is that the vast majority of people hearing
those words, who already believe in what those words should mean, will assume
President Obama means the same thing they do. That perception provides a huge
opportunity for the peace movement. And it is for that reason that the assertions
in his speech remain contested terrain.
Who Opposes, Who Supports?
Leading Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid, criticized Obama's plan for leaving 50,000
or more U.S. troops in Iraq after the withdrawal of "combat brigades." Their
critique was powerful, public, and their first substantive break with the president
– breaking to his left. Although they will likely back down, indeed they have
already gone silent on this issue, their initial response opens the possibility
for their greater engagement with more progressive members of Congress whom
they had consistently dissed throughout the Bush years, and perhaps ultimately
with the peace movement directly. The "speak with one voice" posture of the
Democratic Party may be eroding with a Democrat in the White House.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, it was key Republicans – including Sen. John
McCain – who voiced immediate support for Obama's withdrawal plan. Clearly
they understand the huge loopholes inherent in the "withdrawal" strategy. They
recognize the limited character of Obama's pledges. But what they have officially
endorsed, on the record, is a strategy that includes the language of "remove
all U.S. troops from Iraq," "our combat mission will end," etc. They will never
be our allies – but they are stuck with those words. Certainly they can – and
surely will – reverse themselves if partial withdrawal moves threaten to turn
into a real end of U.S. occupation. But they will pay a high political price
when they do – and risk being dubbed flip-floppers on the Iraq War.
Military leaders, including top U.S. generals in Iraq and the region, heads
of the joint chiefs of staff, and the Republican secretary of defense, have
also expressed support. Of course they are the most familiar with all the wiggle
room in the plan. They know the likelihood of renegotiating with a compliant
Iraqi government virtually any or all of the terms in the U.S.-Iraq agreement
– on which Obama based his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq.
But whatever their understanding, the fact that the military brass is standing
publicly behind what is being touted as a complete withdrawal plan strips an
important weapon away from those who oppose any withdrawal at all.
On its Feb. 28 front page, the New York Times referred
to the speech as "the beginning of the end of one of the longest and most divisive
wars in American history." The Times went on to describe how Obama "announced
that he would withdraw combat forces from Iraq by August 2010 and all remaining
troops by December 2011." Not that he "intended," but that he "would" withdraw
all troops. The San Francisco Chronicle headline was "Obama Makes it
Plain: Troops Out by End of 2011." The Washington Post headlined "Obama
Sets Timetable for Iraq."
We have to recognize that even reports accurately depicting the too-limited
withdrawals, the too-long timelines, the continuing occupation by U.S. troops,
etc., will still be widely understood as consistent with what President Obama
called "a new strategy to end the war." And while it's vital that as a movement
we harbor no illusions, and recognize all the loopholes and wiggle room and
pitfalls, our most important job is not to convince the people of this country
that there is no way President Obama will end the occupation of Iraq. Our job
will be to convince people that the only way President Obama will be able to
overcome the powerful pro-war opposition inside and outside his administration
and among his congressional allies, the only way he will be willing to even
try to accomplish what he has promised, is if we all mobilize to demand it,
to hold him accountable to his pledges, his promises, his speeches, and even
Our Job: Make Him Do It
It's the story of FDR who, at the height of popular
mobilization by trade unionists, communists, community activists, and a host
of others, finally told his demanding supporters, "Okay, I get it. I know what
we have to do. Now get out there in the streets and make me do it!" Our job
is to constantly hold President Obama and his administration accountable to
what appear to be promises: withdraw all the troops, respect Iraqi sovereignty,
give up Iraqi oil… even as we ratchet up our push for a faster, fuller troop
withdrawal, closure of bases, and more.
At the same time our movement must take on other challenges as well.
We need to oppose Obama's call for expanding the military. If he were really
worried about the stress on military, the best solution is to bring them home
– not ship them from Iraq to another illegal and unwinnable war two borders
away. And at this moment of economic devastation across the U.S. and around
the world, the issue of the financial costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan
must be addressed directly; those hundreds of billions represent perhaps the
largest single pot of money to pay for the health care/environment/energy priorities
of the new administration. If things continue as they are, Stiglitz's Three
Trillion Dollar War in Iraq will turn into a $4 trillion dollar set of
wars, as Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to swallow more troops, more bombs,
more lives. We need to demand replacement of the war budget with a people's
budget that cuts the military budget by eliminating the Pentagon's network
of foreign bases that cost billions and destroy lives and environments around
the world, getting rid of all our nuclear weapons, and eliminating all the
giant weapons systems that have been obsolete for years.
Afghanistan: Not a "Good" War
And, perhaps most urgently, we must mobilize
powerfully to oppose and reverse Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
That war was never a "good war," and it turns out that most Americans no longer
think it is. Military leaders from NATO to the Pentagon have already acknowledged
that there is no military solution; escalating the war with 17,000 new U.S.
troops, with plans for a strategy discussion after their deployment, is completely
backward. We must reclaim Congresswoman Barbara Lee's lonely, brave, and prophetic
opposition to authorizing force in response to the terror attacks of 9/11.
The problem in Afghanistan, then and now, was never insufficient troops. It
was the creation of the so-called "global war on terror," which shaped a militarized
framework for responding to every problem in the world (as well as here at
home – remember the "war on poverty," the "war on drugs," the "war on crime,"
Obama gave us hope that a new foreign policy, based on negotiations and diplomacy,
not military force, was possible. He said he would talk to everyone. Our job
now is to mobilize stronger than ever – no post-inauguration vacations! – to
demand that this new administration make good on the promises people heard.
If the perception of tens of millions of people in this country is that President
Obama promised to withdraw all troops, it doesn't matter that we know his "intention"
is not a commitment. That perception is a starting point. If everyone assumes
complete U.S. troop withdrawal is already official U.S. policy, it will make
renegotiating terms of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement much harder for the Pentagon
– because people will believe they're trying to reverse a promise. It makes
our job easier.
After the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our movement began immediately
to mobilize against the war we knew was coming. Organizations like the Center
for Constitutional Rights moved quickly to challenge the "global war on terror"
framework as illegal, and to demand that the attacks be dealt with as international
crimes, rather than war. The first national demonstration was held Oct. 7,
led by the people who would soon form 9/11
Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, those who had lost loved ones three weeks
before, and by those who would soon create United
for Peace and Justice. The war began the same day, with the bombing of
Kabul launched just as the antiwar rally began in the streets of New York.
We have been working ever since. But most of our movement left Afghanistan
more or less in the background as we tried to stop the U.S. invasion and then
mobilized to end the war and occupation in Iraq.
It's time to come back. We hear accusations that the war in Iraq was a "distraction"
from the "real war," the "just war," the "good war" in Afghanistan. Not everyone
believes it was a "good war" anymore. But we have a lot of work to do to stop
Reprinted courtesy of the Institute for