Pressing Obama On The War: An Exchange

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.


Best, Tom Hayden

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