Month in Review #55
By Max Elbaum
War Times/Tiempo de Guerras
Nov. 30, 2009 - No one can predict the specifics. But Washington's current course in the Middle East is all but certain to produce one or more disastrous explosions of violence in the coming years. And way too much blood is going to be uselessly shed even before the next big bang crisis arrives.
For obvious reasons, Afghanistan is the front-page candidate right now for the next explosion. But conditions are also ripe or ripening for a throw-everything-up-in-the-air crisis in the Israel-Palestine conflict; in Pakistan; in the Iran vs. the West/Israel stand-off; and - despite the assumption that "this one is over" - in Iraq.
As peace activists we need to look this painful reality right in the face. And then strategize and act accordingly. That's the only way to make an effective contribution to minimizing the day-to-day horrors ahead. Likewise, only if we find ways to amass far more clout than we have now can we get in position to make a major difference when future crises expose the futility of "the military option" and create new possibilities for forcing a change in the imperial course.
NO "AFGHAN PARTNER"
& NO PROSPECTS FOR SUCCESS
We don't yet know precisely what President Obama will announce tomorrow regarding Afghanistan. But it is apparent he is going to dispatch more troops, albeit with phrases about goals and "off-ramps" that leave him some wiggle room down the road. He'll need it. This escalation simply will not work.
Washington's election-stealing Afghan "partner" has no legitimacy with the majority of Afghans. Corruption and drug-dealing are not aberrations in Hamid Karzai's government; they are the lifeblood of the regime at every level. The Afghan Army to which the U.S. will supposedly "turn over security" down the road is a travesty, with a 25% annual turnover rate and soldiers as inclined to shoot at their U.S. "trainers" as at their insurgent countrymen. U.S. killing of Afghan civilians means Washington has already lost its fight for "hearts and minds." Sending more troops means civilian deaths - like U.S. casualties - will only go up. The trajectory of the last seven years, in which an initially small insurgency slowly transformed into a broad-based anti-foreign resistance anchored in Afghanistan's Pushtun majority, will only accelerate.
Only death and destruction lie down this road. The extent of the horror and the futility of military occupation can be hidden for awhile from the majority of U.S. people - though not from Afghans or people throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. But sooner or later the bubble will be punctured even more dramatically than it was by the recent blatant election fraud: perhaps a "forward base" will be over-run with large-scale U.S. casualties, or a deliberate massacre on the scale of My Lai in 1968 will get covered instead of covered up. Or a set of "top Afghan officials" will defect to the insurgency leaving the Karzai regime teetering on collapse. When some incident like this lays bare the utter failure of Washington's occupation - and provokes wider layers of U.S. people to reconsider its moral bankruptcy as well - another moment comes when whoever is in the White House has to again "consider their options."
OF CAIRO SPEECH SHATTERED
Meanwhile in the ever-volatile Israel-Palestine conflict Israel's land-grab grinds on. The day-to-day reality of occupation here is even more hidden from most of the U.S. public than the realities of Afghanistan. But hardly a week passes that doesn't see Israeli settlers uprooting a Palestinian farmer's olive trees or attacking Palestinian children walking to school, while the Israeli government seizes a Palestinian's home in East Jerusalem or expands settlements in the West Bank. Every single day hundreds of Palestinians face humiliation and abuse at checkpoints that observers from South Africa have called more brutal than those that existed under that country's apartheid regime.
How can anyone think this colonial pattern will not result in resistance, wars and explosions? Hopes of averting worst-case-scenarios were raised among Palestinians and human rights advocates throughout the world by Obama's words about Palestinian suffering and dislocation in his Cairo speech last June, and even more by his demand that Israel halt all settlement-building. But even in the eyes of those Palestinian leaders who had been most inclined to give Washington the benefit of the doubt, Obama's retreat from that demand has now left matters worse than before. Fatah veteran and so-called "moderate" Nabil Shaath, for instance, declared:
"There was high expectation when he arrived on the scene. Now there is a total retreat, which has destroyed trust instead of building trust."
Official Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat went further: "If the U.S. administration cannot compel Israel to halt the construction of settlements, who will believe that it will be able to compel Israel to withdraw to the borders of 4 June 1967, to withdraw from Eastern Jerusalem, and to resolve the issue of the refugees according to the U.N. resolutions, with Resolution No. 194 at their forefront? The U.S. has 230,000 soldiers in the region. If it thinks that it can solve the problems through the use of Marines and wars, then it is completely mistaken."
INSTABILITY FROM PAKISTAN TO IRAQ
Matters are also touch and go on other fronts of the region's many conflicts.
Pakistan seethes with anti-U.S. sentiment. The country's majority is opposed to the reactionary-theocratic factions who use terrorism against Pakistani civilians and try to forcibly impose their repressive social/cultural agenda in areas of the country. But that same majority does not think the country's problems will be solved by launching a war on sections of their own people. And - as the reception Hillary Clinton received from Pakistani students and journalists demonstrated - they regard Washington's drone attacks within Pakistan as terrorism just as morally bankrupt as jihadi bombings of civilian marketplaces. Washington's constant pressure on Pakistan's government to use military force to address what are fundamentally political problems (many of which are a direct result of U.S. policies in the first place!) has so far been met with evasion and compromise. But that kind of pressure - especially combined with U.S. escalation in Afghanistan - could cause something to snap in unpredictable but terrible ways.
On the West vs. Iran front, it's promising that the U.S. and Iran are engaged in direct talks. But it is not going to be easy to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program that both sides can tout as a victory, especially since Israel and the U.S. right wing are using every fear-mongering weapon they have to paint acceptance of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program as a betrayal of the West, the Jewish people and the world to Islamic terrorism. And if negotiations break down (the last few days news has been all bad), grave dangers right up to the prospect of an Israeli military strike and regional war immediately get catapulted center stage.
Iraq too remains a powder keg. Right now there is considerable momentum toward (long overdue) U.S. withdrawal. But because the "surge" did not solve a single one of the country's problems (despite the Neocon Big Lie), the level of violence and potential for new outbreaks of sectarian fighting remains high. That's bad enough in itself, but what makes the prospect even worse is that much of the U.S. military brass, not to mention the McCain/Palin crowd, still itches for an excuse to stop the withdrawal and stay forever.
NOT THE WAY TO A SOFT LANDING
The bottom line is that in every one of these conflicts, the impulse in Washington toward reliance on military force, bullying, and colonial dispossession remains powerful. In some cases it clearly dominates policy, while in others it manifests itself more subtly while remaining a constant threat.
The practical mix - and especially today's rhetoric - is different from the Bush years. The Obama administration came into office hoping to halt the rapid slide toward utter defeat and loss of global influence that Bush-era unilateral militarism and blatant torture was bringing about. The new team's preferred approach was, and is, to dispense with doomed adventurism, give diplomacy more play, and act more prudently given the changed power balance in today's multipolar world. Very sensible from an imperial point of view. At the same time, since such imperial retrenchment likely meant accepting withdrawal from Iraq, a measure of compromise with Iran, scaled down goals in Afghanistan, and putting at least a little distance between Washington and Tel Aviv, it overlapped to a certain extent with the antiwar agenda.
But the overlap is inherently unstable since, for instance, the antiwar movement believes the U.S. should get out of Iraq because it had no right to be there in the first place, while for Obama's team withdrawal is a matter of a cost-benefit calculation which could be recalculated at any time. Even beyond that, actually carrying out even a limited imperial retrenchment is not fundamentally a matter of any President's intent. Neither the power-balance in the affected countries nor in U.S. domestic politics are under administration control – and in the end it is the balance of power that determines what happens.
So we can and should appreciate the openings created by certain shifts in rhetoric and policy since Obama took office. But like the Israeli government, the Palin/Beck/Limbaugh fear-mongers, and the highly politicized Petraeus/McChrystal military brass – all of whom started gearing up for a big fight five minutes after the polls closed November 4, 2008 - we would do well to recognize that it's muscle that matters.
It is extremely difficult to orchestrate a soft landing for an empire that has suffered a big defeat even if all sections of its ruling elite recognize that defeat and believe it is urgent to adapt to it. When major sectors of that elite still believe in victory through arms and can fire up a large reactionary grassroots base; when nuclear armed zealots who believe God gave them the right to another people's land have one of the most powerful lobbies in that empire's capital; and when the chief executive trying for a soft landing is politically vulnerable and inclined toward conciliation even on issues where he personally desires change - then no soft landing is in the cards. The changing balance of power in the world and the Middle East means that the empire can be pushed back. But the harsh truth of the moment is there is going to be more bloodshed, more defeats and more crises before that comes to pass.
ANTIWAR MOVEMENT: REBUILDING FOR A LONG HAUL
The antiwar movement gears up for this next round of battle in difficult shape. Many of its organizations have shrunk in terms of numbers and resources. The attention of many activists and much of the movement's 2003-2008 base has turned to other issues. The political complexities of battling the war policies of an administration that is under constant reactionary and racist attack from the far right, and which retains the general support of most key constituencies for progressive social change, have proven extremely daunting.
There are significant pluses the movement has to work with. Public opinion has shifted substantially since 2001-2005, with opposition to or at least skepticism about U.S. wars in the Middle East far more widespread. And those parts of the antiwar movement who focus on getting antiwar messages in front of members of Congress, the think-tank/foreign policy "community," key media figures and the like are quite active and have made some substantial gains. But in terms of grassroots mobilization – the ability to turn antiwar sentiment into forms of activity that force policy-makers to react and respond – the peace movement's capacity is probably lower now than it has been at any time since early 2002, before the momentum and mobilizations of 2003.
Building/rebuilding capacity on that level is a long haul task, different from the "emergency mode" of functioning much of the movement felt obligated to take on during the Bush years. There are no quick fixes and even the best strategies are no guarantee of success since much depends on what happens with events and political forces beyond the movement's control. That said, what movement activists can do is take a long range view, work patiently, work hard, work smart, and maximize our chances to make a difference. In that framework, a few ideas strike us at War Times as worthwhile to consider.
First, nurturing, expanding and eventually galvanizing-into-action the currently passive but widespread antiwar sentiment in communities most impacted by war and militarism is a key strategic task, a route to political clout. When the Black community, the Latino and Asian communities, immigrant communities, Arab and Muslim communities, working class and poor people weigh in aggressively on the war-vs.-peace scales, those scales tip. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, these constituencies are most focused on issues other than war vs. peace as such: the economy, jobs, health care, immigrant rights and others. The way ending U.S. wars can help gain victories on these issues – indeed, is crucial for doing so – needs to be a focus for antiwar activism. We are dubious that much progress will be achieved by adding "linkage demands" to antiwar-focused actions. The process will have to be more the other way around: integrating the antiwar perspective, and antiwar movement support, into ongoing struggles already being waged by these key constituencies. There is much to learn in this regard from the work of U.S. Labor against the War, which has worked from its inception from the perspective of targeting a key constituency and over time making that constituency a bastion of antiwar sentiment and action. Likewise much to learn from Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans against the War, who have taken on the extremely important work of bringing the antiwar message to military personnel, their families and veterans. We hope that in the next period similar projects targeting other key constituencies for this kind of long haul work can be developed, while recognizing that tactics, approaches and organizational forms will vary a great deal.
Second, in a parallel vein, there are clear links "on paper" between stopping global warming, protecting the environment generally and stopping these oil-gobbling and toxic wars. But in terms of ongoing practical campaigns and development of political muscle, the antiwar movement has not found effective, sustained ways of integrating the demand for peace into the environmental and climate justice movements. Given the prominence and urgency these movements will have in the coming years, and in particular the extensive involvement of young people, this is another important area of attention.
Third, even as we shift gears to this kind of long range, base building and movement-linking work, there is a need to keep the antiwar message in the public eye. Every vigil, every letter and email to an elected official, every civil disobedience action, every article and op-ed in the local or national media makes a difference. Not all will have the exact same message. Different groups and activists will disagree on what to emphasize, exactly what demand to make, exactly what tactic is most productive at a given moment. Solidarity and cooperation across these differences is necessary for a pluralist, long haul movement.
Fourth, we could benefit from new kinds of flexibility – and experimentation – in working on many levels of politics simultaneously. For a long time ahead we will be working under conditions where the extreme racist/militarist right is a major danger, and where the complexities of Middle East politics (including the fact that U.S. imperialism is not the only reactionary force operating there) combined with media disinformation causes large-scale confusion among even progressive sectors of the U.S. population. These and other factors mandate approaches that look to finding every possible way of working with the broadest possible forces on specific issues – "meeting people where they are at" as the jargon puts it. At the same time, without a steadily expanding layer of the population that has and acts on a critique of the depth of militarism in society, and the nature of empire, we will have to keep reinventing the wheel, and have tremendous difficulty sustaining a durable antiwar movement between exceptional moments of protest. For addressing these two challenges, which sometimes pull in different directions, either/or approaches won't work. We need both/and.
Last, though achieving breakthroughs for peace is fundamentally a matter of gaining political muscle, this project is inseparable from taking a firm moral stand and gaining the moral high ground. Militarism can advance politically without a moral anchor. But anti-militarism cannot. In this or that situation an antiwar movement may appeal to one or another practical political calculation as part of its message. But if we surrender to "real politick" in the drive for political clout, we are headed down a slippery slope. We are far from a morally pure movement and each of us has the same moral failings and confronts the same moral dilemmas as other human beings. Some of us are complete pacifists and others believe resort to force is justified in some situations. All that said, only a movement that strives to keep the moral dimension integral to its message to others and to its internal workings; a movement that appeals to people's "better angels" and is infused with respect for all other human beings; a movement that that rejects of the domination of one country or group or person over another - only that kind of movement can become a force with enough support and strength to end the wars being waged by the most powerful empire the world has ever seen.
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