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March 11, 2009

Holding Obama to His Promises

by Phyllis Bennis

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 Herbert described 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 concluding them."

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 his intentions.

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," etc.?).

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 them both.

Reprinted courtesy of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Phyllis Bennis's Bio

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of both the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. A frequent commentator on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the CBS Morning Show, she specializes in U.S. relations with the United Nations and Middle East politics.

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