Thursday, April 1, 2010

Getting Organized to Oppose 'the Long War'

How To Rebuild

The Peace Movement

From the Bottom Up

By Tom Hayden
Peace and Justice Resource Center
Here at the PJRC we are exploring ways to implement communications with peace activist at local or regional levels, including a series of conference calls. In the meantime, let me share some specific thoughts about building the peace and justice movement from the bottom up.

Social movements always depend on leadership, a commitment by a single individual or small group to continue their work in the face of all odds. Then there's the question of a strategy for being effective. We always have to measure our capacity against the goals we set.

The bottom-up strategy which I propose is building the pressure of people power against the pillars of policy that prop up the Long War.

The key pillars for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan include, first, the pillar of public opinion; second, the pillar of budgetary support; and third, the pillar of our military resources. Other pillars include the mainstream media, religious institutions and, of course, the required stability of America's ally Kabul.
In the end, it's about public opinion. We have to argue that the American people are not any safer for having fought these wars, and we cannot afford the cost in casualties and tax dollars.

After the death of 5,000 American soldiers and the expenditure of one trillion dollars in tax money, on November 5, thirteen US soldiers were killed inside Fort Hood by an American-born Muslim military psychiatrist of Palestinian descent; and on Christmas Day, 300 Americans were nearly killed in Detroit's airport by a Nigerian man whose own father warned us against. The "war on terrorism" only spreads the terror and inflames future terrorists.

Our policies do not make us safer, but play into the "plan to bleed America to the point of bankruptcy" as described by Osama Bin Laden. [Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World, Verso, 2005, p. 243.]

The fear of terrorism and partisan loyalties keep American public opinion divided. In a January CNN poll, 55 percent ranked terrorism as "extremely important", just behind the 61 percent who named the economy and 58 percent unemployment. Our messaging should be guided towards persuading the undecided and, in particular, solidifying the Democratic base against the growing escalation.

Obama is having a hard time winning his own Democratic Party's support for Afghanistan, which is why he linked the escalation with a pledge to begin withdrawing in 2011. He is in danger of relying mainly on the Republicans as his pillar of support. According to the NBC/WSJ poll last month, 55 percent favored Obama's troop escalation while 49 percent were opposed. The margin between those who think the President is right or wrong was a tight 44-41.

Meanwhile support for any further involvement in Iraq is waning, with a CNN poll recently showed 60 percent in favor withdrawal while 39 percent were opposed. As US troops leave, it will be more difficult to re-escalate in the future. 

It should be startling that at least 334 members of the American military services committed suicide in 2009, compared to 297 in Afghanistan and 144 in Iraq during the same period, according to a Congressional Quarterly research project of Nov. 24, 2009.  In addition, reported cases of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder doubled among American troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009. [Sacramento Bee, Nov. 13, 2009]

This suggests that counter-recruitment campaigns among parents and school board members should continue to be a high priority, especially in communities with high rates of military enlistment. Films like "The Hurt Locker" should be widely screened.

The White House is requesting $159 billion for Iraq-Afghanistan plus $33 billion for the recent troop escalation. The Congressional Budget Office says that the overall cost now reaches $1.08 trillion, including $748 billion for Iraq, $340 billion for Afghanistan and $29 billion for "enhanced security."

The Obama budget leaves "virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors" and could see the "country's influence around the world eroded." [NYT, Feb. 2, 2010] More data on budget trade-offs is available at

This suggests that an imperative for the peace movement is coalition-building with groups like seniors and labor affected by these budget priorities. An example has been the year-long "Healthcare Not Warfare" campaign by the Progressive Democrats of America with the California Nurses Association. There currently are no similar links with environmental or inner-city organizations.

The foundational pillar of the whole Afghanistan occupation is the discredited regime of Hamid Karzai, officially accused of having stolen the recent presidential election and presently unable to stage parliamentary elections. Neither Western public opinion nor the 140,000 American, Canadian and European soldiers can justify - or seriously reform - the Karzai regime. The paradox is that Karzai, for his own reasons, has been pushing against US pressure to initiate talks with the Taliban, a proposal for which he recently received $500 million at the London conference on Afghanistan. In this case, the pillar [read: client] may actually be shifting its own center of gravity in response to Afghan opinion, and American dismay.

There are other pillars that require our pressure, too. For example, many religious, human rights and lawyers' organizations have taken a strong stand against torture, but have focused on Guantanamo rather than Bagram, and generally avoided opposing the wars themselves. For another example, the movement should rely on the blogosphere but also engage editors and reporters from the mainstream media in critical discussion of their coverage. There are few, if any, op-ed pieces against the wars by peace movement advocates.

It will be up to the peace movement to "ripen" other important issues that have been kept from public attention. The most notable are the rapid escalations of night-raids by US Special Ops teams and the CIA's drone attacks which arouse massive hatred among the Muslim population. ["CIA Expanding Presence in Afghanistan", LA Times, Sept. 20, 2009; Jane Mayer, "The Predator War", The New Yorker]

It takes leadership to break out of our zones of comfort and engage people who may be undecided or even hostile. But that is how a base of power is built. There are no shortcuts. It takes practice until outreach is an everyday habit.

Online organizing is a vital part of the process. I salute groups who succeed online by savvy mass marketing techniques, but I have found the most effective way to gather email addresses is one-by-one, on yellow tablets. It's best to build an online grass-roots network through the canvassing and recruitment of a local organization. A small committed group can use mass messaging as an effective tactic, not a substitute for a core group.

A list of likeminded teachers from the same public school and PTA is the best way to build a counter-recruitment movement. Anyone who can build a committed online network of political activists and voters in a Congressional district will gain leverage with politicians. Anyone who can stir up anti-war petitions among rank-and-file activists at Democratic state conventions will have an effect on the party power elites. Anyone able to make the difference with targeted mail in a close legislative race can be a game-changer.

Thanks to peace advocates and the sheer cost of the undertaking, the fifty-year Long War is being successfully challenged already. This is the doctrine which arose among many defense intellectuals around 2004, notably David Kilcullen and especially the neo-conservatives. They project at least a fifty-year continuous war against Islamic revolutionaries across the globe.

The concept was implicitly rejected by President Obama at his December 1, 2009 West Point speech when he said, "That's why our troop commitment cannot be open-ended, because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."

The neo-cons and many Republicans will fiercely oppose ending the Long War before achieving the mirage they call "victory." They may try to block Obama's plan to withdraw all troops from Iraq by 2012, and his current plan to "begin" withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011.

The peace movement can be an important factor in shaping a climate pushing Obama to exit two wars - Iraq and Afghan-Pakistan - by 2012. If the peace movement is splintered and weak, there will be no pressure on Congress or the president to withdraw, only pressure to continue with endless wars. Even Obama's own appointees, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, immediately began qualifying the president's pledge the week after he announced it.

With Afghanistan, activists in local Congressional Districts, should be building widespread support now for Rep. Barbara Lee's HR 3699, cutting $33 billion in funding for the troop escalation. There also may be a Congressional action on Rep. Dennis Kucinich's "privileged resolution" forcing a vote on Afghanistan and Pakistan, as required under the War Powers Act.

The Congressional vote on funding the escalation presumably will fail, turning it into an exercise in learning how many Democrats will stand up. It will be revealing, for example, whether the escalation funding will depend primarily on Republicans. More important is whether and when the Democrats will offer significant peace amendments to the funding authorization, or back down and surrender the initiative to the White House and Pentagon.

Congressional progressives have to play a role in helping the peace movement grow at district levels.
For starters, the progressives in Congress could initiate hearings on Rep. Jim McGovern's HR 2404, a non-binding resolution requiring that the Pentagon report on its exit strategy. It's time for clear debate and discussion about a negotiated settlement. Just as the President has decided to televise discussions on health care, he should be made to encourage open discussion on getting out of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, with voices of the peace movement present.

Amendments to the appropriations bill that would make a real difference, if introduced soon enough to draw public support, should include, in order of priority:

[1] a requirement of a diplomatic surge in negotiations leading to an Afghanistan power-sharing plan, including the Taliban;
[2] inclusion of a definite timeline for withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan as part of the settlement package;
[3] enforceable guarantees that Afghan detainees will have lawyers and human rights protection in both the new Kabul facility and local detention facilities funded or operated by the US.

Separate hearings and legislation should be organized to draw attention to the counter-productive effects of drone strikes [antagonizing civilian populations, destabilizing Pakistan, blowback on CIA personnel]. It is a disaster that both parties in Washington are fostering the illusion that the strikes are cost-free.

Additionally, members of Congress can be of great service to their peace constituencies by sending out informational mailings to voters and making floor speeches on such issues as detention policies, demanding independent statistics about Afghanistan civilian casualties, opposing the secret pre-emptive war now underway in Pakistan, and revealing the occasional eye-popping story [the CIA has provided Viagra to warlords, for example - LA Times, Sept. 20, 2009, 31st paragraph, one line].

Obama has tried to narrow the US military objective to "destroying" and "derailing" al Qaeda, a goal that has strong popular support, but may be heading into a cul-de-sac of his own making. Serious think tanks, joined perhaps with members of the armed services committees, need to generate a strategic rethinking of terrorism. If "Al Qaeda" has spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan, to Yemen and Somalia, to the cities of Europe, and if suicide bombers arise not from psychosis but from US occupation of Muslim lands [as Robert Pape shows], isn't the military "solution" making the problem worse? And if the terrorist agenda is a political one, as argued by the CIA's top Bin Laden tracker, Michael Scheuer, shouldn't America explore alternatives to dogmatic support of the Israeli occupation and the police states in Saudia Arabia and Egypt?  And Even Kilcullen writes that "our too-willing and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called War on Terrorism to date have largely played into the hands of the AQ [Al Qaeda] exhaustion strategy." But who will do the heavy lifting to cause the paradigm shift? Since the political will doesn't exist, the change will come either from future avoidable catastrophes or from generating alternative approaches on the outside.

The Obama plan - escalate for 18 months, then begin to de-escalate - gives the peace movement a virtual calendar for the battles ahead. The Afghanistan funding debate will continue for the next few months, with members of Congress looking over their shoulders at constituents while the November election nears. The US military surge will peak this summer, leading to an unpredictable outcome for the generals and politicians. The neo-con and Republican lobbies will oppose virulently any Obama beginning of withdrawal in 2011, perhaps with counter-pressure in the wings from a Senator like Russ Feingold who supports a withdrawal timetable if Obama delays. The outcome of these events will be central to the next presidential election, which realistically begins in 2011.

The politics could be 2008 all over again, with a brutal military escalation ["surge"] followed by an election debate over whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006 and 2008, the peace movement and public opinion were huge factors in dumping the Republican Congress and electing Barack Obama. 
History rarely repeats. By now the President and the Democratic majority have disenchanted much of the peace and justice constituency, while the conservative counter-movement is riding high. If Obama and the Democrats cannot bring back the peace vote in great numbers, the presidency and Congress are in serious jeopardy. Mere verbal promises of peace will ring hollow unless coupled with action.

I was speaking on a Chicago panel with a former US general recently, an intelligent man who predicted gloomily [from his viewpoint] that the US has only three years to "fix" Afghanistan "before Obama surrenders to the peace movement."

I told the general that was the best prediction I'd heard all evening, but it remained to be seen if it was accurate.

No comments:

Post a Comment