Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Exorcising Demons of the 'War on Terror'

Photo: Obama in Afghanistan

Obama Notes #1

By Tom Hayden
Progressives for Obama
January 26, 2009

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, I boarded a red-eye flight to Washington to make a morning workshop on a juvenile justice bill. I hadn't bothered to take a red-eye for eight years, but now it seemed to matter. Something progressive actually might happen in public policy and, if so, it was worth the jet-lag and back pain.

For the first time in years, activists will need an inside strategy to complement the familiar tactics of fighting from the margins. The new president will have to reach out to progressives as well, with the same energy he invests in the religious and Republican right.

At the very least, success in the Obama era can be imagined as something more than slowing down the rate at which things get worse. Hope and heartbreak will rhyme. Wins and defeats can be expected, not simply the monotony of loss.

In that spirit I am beginning a new blog, Obama Notes, a regular analysis from the perspective of a progressive who strongly supported Obama in 2008. Where possible I will be suggesting steps to take.

#1. Torture

Obama's executive order was a tremendous breakthrough after eight years of Bush-Cheney. It will require close monitoring, of course, but it was hugely significant that it came so rapidly, with the stroke of a pen. The immediate question for the peace movement and human rights advocates is whether the Order applies to thousands of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan who are being held in violation of human rights norms and, if not, why not. Congress should send letters of inquiry and follow up with hearings on the horrors for those detainees rounded up in preventive detention.

#2. The Predator Attack

The night after Obama's torture order, I was at dinner with a human rights lawyer who worried that the right-wing would launch political attacks on Obama for "letting our guard down." With that in mind, I became certain that the following day's Predator attack in Pakistan, which killed at least 10-18 people, was as much political as military, a message that the Pentagon will keep on launching strikes against a sovereign country in keeping with "war on terrorism" objectives. The cold truth may be that those people died in Pakistan to make closing Guantanamo more politically palatable. Many more will die as America tries to exorcise and replace the war on terror mentality.

Obama has good reason to worry about counter-pressures from the right and the intelligence community. One day after the executive order banning torture was signed, an odd article appeared on the New York Times' front page about a former detainee who has joined al Qaeda in Yemen. There was no apparent reason for the article's timing except the Obama announcement. The detainee in question was released by President Bush, and is suspected of involvement in car bombings in September 2007.

# 3. Afghanistan-Pakistan

The outlook in Afghanistan-Pakistan is cloudy and grim. The president's latest goal of a "hard-won peace" is a realistic retreat from rhetorical belligerence. But one gets the feeling that no one knows what to do. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke suggests a Dayton-like accord but without the ingredients of Dayton. Where the Balkans consisted of ethnic blocs and competing nation states, Afghanistan resembles the Stone Age without stable tribal structures.

Another 20,000 American troops shortly will become twenty thousand new targets, one of whom certainly will be the last to die for a mistake. And every Afghan the Americans kill will give birth to more insurgents.

The traditional anti-war liberal bloc in Congress has no current plans for opposition to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unwilling to oppose the new president, afraid of being accused of losing, unable to conceive an exit strategy, they are presently without direction or leverage.

But this is not 2002-2003. There is a rank-and-file peace movement and a significant skepticism in public opinion that will not go away. There are few US resources for escalation in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Impatience will grow. "Obama's War" has an an unpleasant sound. The urgency of a diplomatic solution will grow by the day. The content of that solution is far from agreed upon.

Demands for Congressional hearings on an Afghanistan-Pakistan exit strategy in both House and Senate should be the point of departure.
The hearings should occur, and be widely broadcast, no later than the spring, when the Washington weather will be more favorable to protests. In the run-up, teach-ins and other activist forums might begin studying books like Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos, for a preview of the nightmare scenario. Also contact Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films office where a campaign is planned to "get Afghanistan right."

#4. Iraq

Look for Obama to order his promised combat troop withdrawals but with all sorts of escape and delay clauses. The fog of diplomacy can be as bad as the fog of war in this case. Does the 16-month timetable still leave a reserve force in the tens of thousands and, if so, under what guidelines? Or does the recent US-Iraq pact mean in plain words that all US troops will be out by 2011? Again, questions from Congress will be imperative in clarifying the situation ahead. In the meantime, the public base of the peace movement will decline as peace appears to be "on the horizon."

#5. Gaza and the Middle East.

As I argued in the Huffington Post, the timing of Israel's assault was entirely political. First, it was a "consolation prize" after the US refused any assistance in launching a war against Iran. Second, the attack began on the day Obama was elected, and ended by the inauguration. Obama, who in 2007 said words to the effect that "no one has suffered like the Palestinians", observed a subsequent silent through the campaign and all during the Gaza battle. Once ended, Obama twice indicated a concern for Palestinian suffering two times, once in the words of Bono at the Lincoln Memorial, and later in the president's own formulation. More importantly, he appointed George Mitchell as a peace envoy, the best possible choice for those concerned about a just and reasonable settlement. Look for input from civil society, including delegations from Northern Ireland and South Africa, in the conflict resolution process ahead.

#6. Venezuela, Cuba, Latin America.
Obama's statements on Latin America during the campaign reflected a Cold War approach to the region rather than a positive embrace of progressive democratic elections. On the eve of the inauguration, in a Univision interview, he criticized Venezuela for being a "negative" factor in development and an ally of FARC terrorists in Colombia. Both statements were false and inflammatory, and some Administration sources now admit they were mistaken. The time for a new Obama platform on Latin America, in the tradition of FDR's good neighbor policies, will be in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. The president will have to decide whether to shake hands with Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales [the Cubans are excluded] and, more important, offer a more positive vision than continuing the war on drugs and "armoring NAFTA" [ in the words of the State Department's Thomas Shannon].

Once again, Congressional hearings on new directions in Latin America are sorely needed. And Obama needs a Latino emissary with a deeper empathy and more progressive policy mandate than the failed ones of the Bush era.

#7. The Economic Crisis.

ever in my lifetime have so many businessmen been pleading with the government to save them from capitalism. Never has there been such a demand for economic reform. Never has the left been weaker and more left out. Obama has invited many of the Mad Men [or, if you will, the Best and Brightest] who ruined the system to take charge of restoring it, not a good sign. These are people who generally believe that unemployment is a good and necessary thing, as well as the shedding of regulations, on the road to greater profits and growth. If Ralph Nader hadn't run so often for president, we might have a progressive voice in this debate, but...Obama's promise to deliver is threatened both by Republicans with faith-based illusions about tax credits, and traditional Democratic liberals who focus mainly on how much money the government gets to spend. Lost in the debate so far is whether financial and corporate institutions will be re-regulated, how, and by whom? Also at risk are the promises made for major public investments in the green economy.

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