Friday, March 28, 2008

Getting Out of Iraq

Pressing Obama
On The War:
An Exchange

Photo: Steelworkers vs War

Phyllis Bennis
and Tom Hayden

[Following are two letters, a supportive query from Phyllis Bennis, a long-time astute source of analysis and information on Iraq and the Middle East, and a detailed reply by Tom Hayden, who also knows the politics of the region well, and is a founder of Progressives for Obama. The exchange shows, most of all, the independence, solidarity and open critical spirit at the core of what we’re trying to build here. --CarlD]


A Letter from
Phyllis Bennis

Dear Friends,

This is an incredibly important and powerful call. I write as an individual, without connection to IPS or any organization. I think you have hit most of the right issues, particularly on the key questions of race and social justice (though at some point to win progressive support it will probably be necessary to state specifically that given the current balance of forces we cannot expect to see significant differences between candidates on Palestine-Israel, and that that issue cannot be allowed to be determinative in election campaigns.)

However, there is one point I hope you would consider reframing - having to do with Obama's position on Iraq.

Your letter states: "She now promises to "end the war" but will not set a timeline for combat troop withdrawal, and remains committed to leaving tens of thousands of counter-terrorism troops and trainers in Iraq amidst a sectarian conflict. While Obama needs to clarify his own position on counterinsurgency, Clinton's "end the war" rhetoric conceals an open commitment to keep American troops in Iraq until all our ill-defined enemies are defeated--a treadmill that guarantees only the spawning of more enemies."

Unfortunately I think what is needed is not for Obama to "clarify" his own position on counter-insurgency or troop withdrawal, but to CHANGE his position.

Like Clinton, Obama clearly calls for a withdrawal only of "combat troops." Just like Clinton, Obama has been all too clear that he too is committed to "leaving tens of thousands of counter-terrorism troops and trainers in Iraq." Obama, like Clinton, has stated clearly he believes U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for a host of tasks -- including counter-insurgency, training, force protection, protection of the bloated 5,000-person U.S. embassy, and more.

Unlike Clinton, Obama has set a timetable for "combat troop" withdrawal. That's important, but his proposal, like Clinton's, would still leave in place somewhere between 35,000 and 75,000 U.S. troops in Iraq -- and presumably all or most of the 180,000 mercenaries now being paid by the U.S. to support the military, about whom Obama has said nothing. He has said little about closing the 15 permanent bases the pentagon has constructed in Iraq (including one less than 2 miles from the Iranian border).

Withdrawing half the troops, but leaving in place up to 75,000 soldiers, 180,000 mercenaries and 15 active permanent bases is not a definition of ending the occupation and the war. Obama must also be urged to distinguish himself from the other candidates by rejecting the "military option" against Iran -- his important assertion that he would begin immediate negotiations is undermined by his continued willingness to "keep all options on the table" and by his active sponsorship of the current senate bill calling for new sanctions against Iran.

The four of you have a potentially huge role to play in influencing the obama campaign, and especially in influencing other progressives to work in and on the campaign. We're certainly going to need a nuanced blend of inside and outside pressures. Obama has brought not only new energy and new constituencies into political life, but is bringing new hope to a newly-rising community emerging out of profound despair.

I hope progressives can push some of these important changes to fruition, so we do not face too many broken hearts and too much new despair after a victory that could still prove hollow.

Thank you all for your optimism, for your strength, for your hope.

All Best
Phyllis Bennis


A Reply by
Tom Hayden

Dear Phyllis,

Thanks for your support and thoughtful criticism.

While Obama's position on Iraq is better than Clinton's and of course McCain's, our statement says it remains a key point of difference progressives still have with him. His 2002 anti-war speech, his 16 month combat troop withdrawal plan, his refusal to support Bush on Iran's Revolutionary Guard, all are in his favor. His repeated stump statements that he will "end the war in 2009" is building a climate of great expectations, and all these gestures are in response to a public antiwar mood that the anti-war movement has helped to build.

However, Obama remains stuck in the outdated Baker-Hamilton mode of withdrawing combat troops, shifting the US mission to counterinsurgency, and leaving an unspecified number of advisers/trainers/counter-terrorism units behind in the conflict. The anti-war movement must demand a full withdrawal, and the media must ask tougher questions of the candidates on these issues. We all are opposed to a "peace plan" that turns Iraq into another Central America or Afghanistan.

We also should oppose Obama's plans to transfer two divisions of combat troops from the quagmire of Iraq to the quagmire of Afghanistan, and his endorsement of attacking al -Qaeda in Pakistan if there is "actionable intelligence."

You may turn out to be right, but I don't believe there yet is evidence for your worst-case scenario, that he would leave 35,000-75,000 [combat?] troops, 180,000 private Blackwater-type contractors, and 15 permanent bases. The evidence which already exists is bad enough. He himself has not spoken specifically, except to tell the NY Times that he will not leave advisers behind unless the factionalized Baghdad government is reconciled. But his staff has used the figure of 35,000 left behind, and suggested to Jeremy Scahill that some private contractors would have to be used.

So we have to press really hard to get answers to our questions, from all the candidates. Baker-Hamilton recommends 10-20,000 advisers/trainers be left behind. Using the number 15,000 for the sake of the discussion, plus a force multiplier of 3:1, that would mean 60,000. If you throw in another 50,000 private contractors, you are over 100,000, a totally absurd definition of "ending the war", which I am not sure even Obama could defend under serious questioning.

He reminds me of John F. Kennedy, who ran against Nixon in 1960 on the exaggerated claim of a "missile crisis" and fantasies about Green Berets competing against Cuban guerrillas. Then Kennedy was deceived and manipulated into the Bay of Pigs. Only after the Cuban missile crisis, he began deepening his questioning of the Cold War and nuclear arms race, and embraced the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice. Then he was murdered.

Worst case, it's possible that Obama will win the presidency by promoting his commander-in-chief credentials and meet his Bay of Pigs in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That's what we - the anti-war movement and public opinion - have to prevent.

So there are ample reasons to keep the pressure on, from every direction, inside and outside the Obama campaign. But that's no reason to be neutral on who wins the nomination.

Some of us believe in the greater possibilities of the Obama campaign as a vast social movement - the unprecedented rise of a new activist generation linked together with a unified African-American community - and in the qualities of the candidate himself, as demonstrated in his speech last week.
Some of us are angered that FOX and the Clintons to going to such unsavory lengths to smear and undermine this movement and candidacy. Some of believe that progressives should become fully involved in stopping the Clintons, McCain and the Republicans from achieving their agendas.

The other day I was talking to a friend, a Sixties revolutionary, about the Obama movement, who laughed and recalled that at the beginning of the Southern Civil Rights era there were progressives sitting around arguing that demanding a hamburger and a cup of coffee wasn't radical enough. Meanwhile a whole generation was in its moment of transformation. The New Left and SDS owed their existence and achievements to the spirit of those young people who had the audacity to risk so much.

Tom Hayden


Anonymous said...

since there is hardly any difference between clinton and obama on major policy issues, the only conclusion one can make from aborad is that misogyny is stronger in the states at present than racism.

Anonymous said...

Hillary has yet to declare she'll end the war in 2009, but no matter. Minus the cynical subtext here, I could agree with your point, to a degree. but with a different emphasis.

Here in Western PA the 800-pound gorilla in the room is white male identity politics, especially among voters over 50, which is a lot of voters.

Most people here hate the war, but more than a few still consider McCain rather than either Democrat for the reason above. Then to make matters worse, we had our governor (and fan of Clinton) remind us a few weeks ago that blue-collar PA whites didn't like voting for Blacks--just in case any of us forgot, I suppose.

There's no good future in the 'rival oppressions' contest. Best to set it aside.

Chris Lowe said...

Phyllis Bennis did not cite another troubling sentence in your original call:

"Progressives should support Obama’s 16-month combat troop withdrawal plan in comparison to Clinton’s open-ended one, and demand that both candidates avoid a slide into four more years of low-visibility counterinsurgency."

What is troubling is the idea that the anti-war movement should "support Obama's 16-month combat troop withdrawal plan" in any manner whatever, alone or in comparison. This line of thinking is what carries the risk of your laudable orientation to independence turning into electoral cooptation.

Tom Hayden's reply to Phyllis Bennis and a number of other posts and comments on this blog suggest that more ideas than "supporting Obama's sixteen month combat troop withdrawal plan" are at work in this project. The weight might even suggest that the original was an unfortunate misstatement.

But at present the contradictory statements remain.

Progressives who choose to support Obama should explicitly refuse to support his sixteen month plan and his plans for "residual" forces.

The anti-war movement should call upon Obama to adopt the position of Iraq Veterans Against the War: 1) immediate, complete and unconditional U.S. withdrawal; 2) reparations for reconstruction by Iraqis, not U.S. war-profiteering companies; 3) full support for U.S. veterans harmed by this war of aggression and occupation.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on this one, Chris, although the antiwar movement does best to stick to a simple 'Out Now' rather than even IVAW's position.

But it's more of a political demand than a timetable. StarTrek notwithstanding, everyone knows we don't have a transporter to bring them instantly home. Once 'Out Now' is made at the top, the way Richardson did, the generals and diplomats can work out the modalities lickedty-split.

I still see many with positions short of this, however, as still allies within an antiwar movement, and that we need to keep pressing them on the wisdom of the matter.

But given Hayden's astute critique of Obama's positions of Iraq, especially his warning around the counterinsurgency delusion, I can work with what we got.

Anonymous said...

I came to these comments hoping to find some response to Tom Hayden's final paragraph, but it looks like I'll just have to take the cudgels up my own self.

Tom writes: "The other day I was talking to a friend, a Sixties revolutionary, about the Obama movement, who laughed and recalled that at the beginning of the Southern Civil Rights era there were progressives sitting around arguing that demanding a hamburger and a cup of coffee wasn't radical enough. Meanwhile a whole generation was in its moment of transformation. The New Left and SDS owed their existence and achievements to the spirit of those young people who had the audacity to risk so much."

Certainly there's a lot to be said about the importance of working among the young people who have rallied to the Obama campaign in large numbers and about the best approaches to doing so.

But today is the day before we observe the 40th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I cannot let this comparison pass without comment.

Door-knocking or envelope-stuffing for a leading Democratic Party presidential candidate in 2008 is in no conceivable way comparable to the activities that really gave rise to the upsurge of the "60s.

The New Left and SDS did not "owe their existence and achievements" to the young'ns whose first taste of politics came when they were jazzed in 1960 by a charismatic young Senator from Massachusetts and his stylish wife.

The New Left and SDS owed their existence and achievements, above all, to the four Black college freshman who sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, NC on Monday, February 1, 1960, and to the 19 who joined them on Tuesday, and to the 85 who showed up Wednesday, and to the tens of thousands who were to accept that challenge in the months thereafter.

Today, perhaps we should all, young and old, draw inspiration from those who have had "the audacity to risk so much" in the present day:

The IVAW members who testified at the Winter Soldier hearings to war crimes they saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The SDSers and others who blocked the shipment of Stryker vehicles headed for the port of Tacoma, WAen route to the Big Sandbox.

The students in White Plains who lie down in the hall outside their HS cafeteria in Third Friday observations of the monthly Iraq Moratorium.

And the countless others, fighting to end an unjust war, to free the Jena 6, to defend their immigrant communities, to preserve an environment humanity can survive in. It is from these young people that the existence and achievements of what some are calling the Next Left will grow.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, I think your age betrays you a little here. You were in the second or third wave of SDSers, not the first.

I assure you, the first generation were positively inspired by the Greensboro sit-in, as well as negatively aroused by a sense of dashed hopes from the JFK assassination, the MLK and RFK. It's both/and, not either/or. Hayden, as someone who paid his dues in the Deep South and knew the Kennedys, is a case in point.

But I'd like to correct you on something.

All the campaigns have young volunteers--nothing new there--but Obama's is several orders of magnitude apart, to the point where some Clintonistas even criticized him for 'heading a movement, not a campaign.'

Truth be told, he hardly heads it--it's out there doing things with a mind and projects of its own, without asking him, you or me if they're doing things the correct way.

So that's why it's odd to talk about this as 'stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors' under the tutelage of some ward boss. Social Nets, Swarming and You Tube is more like it. You're in a time warp here, and I'm sure you know better, once you mull it over.

So again, it's both/and, not either/or. It's both a campaign, as well as a broader insurgent movement.

I appreciate the direct action efforts against the war by SDSers, and I'm well aware that IVAW is part of the youth movement.

But you have to appreciate that there's ten times more young folks out there at the moment, newly emerged as activists, that are saying, rightly or wrongly, that all your big mobilizations and small direct actions don't mean much to a White House that says 'So What?' when queried about two-third of the population being against them. They've decided to throw the bums out as step one, again whether you and I think it correct tactics or not, and Obama is their chosen instrument for doing this, more than they are his.

I'm sure there's lots of criticisms to be made of our effort here, as well as Obama--and everyone is encouraged to make them.

But I'll offer one back.

It's time to lend a hand, to lead, follow or get out of the way, and popping the little balloon of the ultraleft 'Depress the Progressive Vote 2008' effort, which only serves one candidate, is a good place to start.

Duane Campbell said...

I agree that this is a nuanced position and a tough call. I have been working for Obama since July. But, I am getting increasingly concerned.
We need a response to this kind of information:

"If Clinton or Obama is elected, he or she will maintain a cheaper, smaller
and wholly bipartisan occupation of Iraq, and that will essentially render the

conflict out of sight and out of mind."


Obama and Hillary Spin a 'Big Lie' About Iraq

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet. Posted April 5, 2008.

I am looking for ideas.

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