Nothing New in Obama's Iraq Speech
Posted March 19, 2008
by Tom Hayden
Sen. Barack Obama marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War with a
speech that will disappoint the peace movement while burnishing his
hawkish credentials with the national security establishment and media.
He failed to point out that Hillary Clinton's plan may keep U.S.
troops fighting in Iraq for five to eight more years.
He failed to dissociate from the grim counterinsurgency war
envisioned by Gen. Petraeus.
He failed to connect the war with the economic devastation and energy
quandaries facing the United States.
Instead, he simply repeated his plan to remove all U.S. combat
divisions in 16 months. But he will "leave enough troops in Iraq to
guard our embassy and diplomats, and a counter-terrorism force to
strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy."
He will dispatch two of those withdrawn American combat brigades to
Afghanistan, "to leverage greater assistance .- with fewer
restrictions .- from our NATO allies." And he will unilaterally
attack Pakistan's border region if there is "actionable intelligence"
about high-level al Qaeda leadership there, a policy deeply unpopular
Under these proposals, Americans may be burdened with three quagmires
-- Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. There is no mention of the
simmering war and failed diplomacy surrounding Gaza and the West
Bank. And Iran will face "deeper isolation and steeper sanctions"
unless it abandons its nuclear program and threats against Israel.
In addition, under Obama America's massive military capacity will
increase by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 marines, as well as an
expanded Special Forces. NATO will become "a larger and more nimble alliance."
In fairness, Obama also promises to expand America's "soft power" by
doubling foreign assistance and cutting "extreme poverty" by half
[worthy goals if they are met, but which would fall still fall short
of John Kennedy's foreign aid levels measured as a percentage of
gross domestic product].
This is not a peace plan, as much as it is a withdrawal-from-combat
plan. More dying will be done by Iraqis. Obama offers a hawkish
posture meant to reassure elites and voters who may be worried about
Obama's credentials to be commander-in-chief. The plan may not work
even in its own terms. The core issue in Iraq is the proposed
Baker-Hamilton mission shift from an American combat role to
Americans advising Iraqis to take over the combat role, which has
failed so far. The number of Americans deployed in this
counter-insurgency role would be greater than the number now in
Afghanistan, including back-up forces.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, two more American brigades would
be a down-payment on the full cost of a massive occupation war. And
it is an extremely high risk venture, though not impossible, to
attack al-Qaeda from the air in Pakistan's tribal areas without using
American ground forces. Obama is offering a best-case scenario for
the number and costs of troops that would be involved, even leaving
out a future confrontation with Iran.
There is little peace dividend or domestic economic recovery implied
by this security strategy.
Some of us have seen this before. In 1960, John F. Kennedy, accused
variously of being too "youthful" or "Catholic," ran to the right of
Richard Nixon on national security issues. He deliberately fabricated
a "missile gap" to use against Nixon. He dreamed up the Green Berets
as America's answer to Third World guerrillas. He appointed a
conservative, technocratic Cold War cabinet and military leadership,
including the certifiably-mad Curtis Le May who became chairman of
the Joint Chiefs. Perhaps all this was necessary to win the
presidency by less than one percent. We'll never know, but the civil
rights and student movements supported him because he called the wife
of Martin Luther King, and promised a Peace Corps, both in October.
Then Kennedy was manipulated straight into the Bay of Pigs in April
1961. One hundred U.S.-backed Cubans were killed and a thousand more
were rounded up. Kennedy was humiliated, completely blind-sided by
his own advisers. A fateful chain reaction was unleashed, with
violent and hysterical Cuban exiles holding political sway over U.S.
politics for a generation. (And as it turned out, after JFK was
murdered, spending for Vietnam doomed the Great Society, America's
cities went up in smoke, and 400,000 soldiers came home with bad
papers or strung out.)
A new John Kennedy was born of this 1961 disaster, a Kennedy more
suspicious of the CIA and the Pentagon, more interested in changing
the Cold War relationship with the Soviets with its peril of nuclear
war. Had he lived, things would have been different.
Will it take a disaster similar to the Bay of Pigs for Barack Obama
to learn the lessons of John F. Kennedy?
Of course, Obama could get lucky. After somehow winning the
presidency, Iraq might stabilize as Obama withdraws combat troops.
Iran might collaborate. Osama Bin Ladin might be uncovered and
killed, rendering al Qaeda ineffective and splintered. Afghanistan
could unite under NATO banners. But there is little evidence that
these scenarios will come to pass. The further pursuit of military
strategies is more likely to bog America down in unsustainable commitments.
The only way for peace advocates to really commit themselves to Obama
after this speech -- as I do -- is by clinging, first, to the
importance he brings to our racial crisis; second, crediting him for
an Iraq speech given five years ago, and third, assuming that he's
just doing now what he has to do and is open to changing direction
later. By the logic underlying Machiavellian politics, even McCain
could withdraw from Iraq. We vote our hopes and illusions, and wait.
By inflating his military credentials, however, Obama may be
deflating his greatest single qualification for leadership in a
violent and uncertain time of globalization. By continuing to tell
the lessons of his remarkable biracial, bicontinental life, Barack
Obama could radically reduce the potential "terrorist base" among
alienated young people the world over. By a willingness to commence
diplomacy with our adversaries, he could buy time and open the space
to reduce global violence, temporarily at least, in exchange for a
dialogue about new beginnings between America and the Middle East,
the Muslim world, and Latin America. But if he squanders all that
"soft" power, he could fail to find political solutions and even
become a target of Islamic hate like Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak,
Pervez Mussharef and Benezir Bhutto.
In thinking further about Iraq in this unfinished campaign, the
questions Obama needs to ask include these:
1. By what mechanisms will Iraq be "stabilized" while he withdraws
all US combat divisions? In an unexplained throwaway line, he simply
says "we will help Iraq reach a meaningful accord on national reconciliation."
2. How will fewer American troops, even Special Forces, successfully
combat al Qaeda as the combat troops withdraw?
3. How many American troops will be left behind? A reasonable
estimate is 50-100,000, including force protection.
4. Does he actually know who "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" is? Our media
faithfully repeat that it is both "homegrown" and "led by foreign
terrorists according to American intelligence." All sources report
that it is a small fraction of the overall insurgency. To what extent
will this al Qaeda decline in popular support as US combat forces
withdraw, or will the continued presence of US Special Forces give
them inviting targets for jihad?
5. Doesn't his hard line on Iran tend to preclude assistance from
Iran in helping stabilizing Iraq for the withdrawal of American forces?
6. Isn't there a need for a Dayton-style diplomatic process on Iraq
including all parties with stakes in a more stable Iraq, jump-started
by an American pledge to withdraw all our troops in a reasonable time
period? Unless there is a real likelihood of a power vacuum, why will
any other parties collaborate in what appears to be a continued
U.S.-occupation? What Obama says is vaguely promising "we will engage
with every country in the region -- and the UN -- to support the
stability and territorial integrity of Iraq...and launch a major
humanitarian initiative to support Iraq's refugees."
After his brilliant breakthrough speech on racism Monday, one of the
finest in American political history, the best that can be said of
his speech on Iraq is that it's protection against the cut-and-run
policies the Republicans will accuse him of. It's more like cut-and-paste.
TOM HAYDEN is the author of Ending the War in Iraq and The Tom Hayden Reader.
Pressuring the Democrats on Peace:
A Commentary on the Fifth Anniversary of the War
Posted March 18, 2008
by Tom Hayden
The 4,000th American soldier will die in Iraq sometime this week, the
fifth anniversary of the war. Hundreds of "winter soldiers" --
veterans of the war -- confess the shameful abuse inflicted on the
Iraqi people during those years. Yet the presidential candidates have
passed up the chance to say something new or hopeful that might end
Any possibility of ending the war this year is long over. The panic
that gripped the national security elites last year that peace
sentiment might end the war in 2008 is safely past. [The hawkish
Democratic-leaning think tank, the Center for a New American
Security, fretted last fall that "if no bipartisan consensus is
reached before the Democratic and Republican primaries, the next
president will likely be elected principally on a "get out of Iraq
now" platform." James Miller, Shawn Brimley, "Phased Transition",
June 4, 2007, Not for Outside Circulation. ]
Those of us in the peace movement are all winter soldiers now, as the
war grinds on, perhaps for years, while our leaders drift. Gen.
Petraeus is getting his way with "setting back the American clock"
and his hope for "eight years and eight divisions." [Washington Post
interview, Mar. 7, 2004]
We can count on two developments, however. A spirited, well-funded
educational campaign linking Iraq to the economic recession will be
waged between now and November. And like it or not, the November
election will be interpreted either as a voter mandate for peace or
for the status quo. That offers the opportunity for an anti-war
campaign linked to the economy and oil issues, while de-linked from
devotion to any single presidential candidate.
John McCain is linked with Gen. Petraeus and the "surge" in their
rosy campaign to gain time for the brutal occupation to wear out the
Iraqi people. The Petraeus plan, as advocated by his top
counterinsurgency advisers, includes carrots-and-sticks for Sunnis
and Shi'a, and a "global Phoenix program" against all insurgencies,
meaning a low-visibility program of population control, detention,
divide-and-conquer tactics, repression and torture in the shadows
conducted by client armies with discreet American advisers. [The
first approach is by Stephen Biddle in Foreign Affairs . As for
the Phoenix recommendation, readers should rush to read Lt. Col.
David Kilkullen, here. Kilkullen already has scrubbed the call for a
Phoenix program from a later print version of the article,
substituting the Pentagon's "revolutionary development" formulation
that replaced the discredited Phoenix program.]
The Democratic candidates are more complicated, and perhaps more
disappointing, since 80 percent of Democratic voters favor a one-year
Hillary Clinton repeats the phrases that these voters want to hear,
"end the war", and "bring the troops home." But she must know that
she doesn't mean it. Her slippery pledge is to "begin" troop
withdrawals within 60 days of being sworn in, but she refuses to set
a timeline for completing that withdrawal. She wants to shift the
American role from combat to counterinsurgency, leaving trainers and
advisers, counter-insurgency units, sufficient troops to "deter"
Iran, in short; set in motion a warfighting strategy similar to
Afghanistan for an unknown number of years.
Clinton's top foreign policy thinkers are Lee Feinstein at the
Council on Foreign Relations and Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton's
Woodrow Wilson School, who wrote in 2004 that "the biggest problem
with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far
enough." Enough said. [See "A Duty to Prevent", Foreign Affairs,
Barack Obama's claims on Iraq seem to rest on what he said in October
2002, a solid difference between himself and Clinton to be sure. But
as Clinton repeatedly notes, hers and Obama's positions have been
mainly the same since Obama entered the Senate. This isn't fully
correct, since he has shown a more flexible diplomatic approach
towards Iran, while Clinton supported Bush's designation of Iran's
revolutionary guard as terrorist. But the public and the media seem
to accept the closeness between the two candidate's positions since
Obama's anti-war speech five years ago.
Obama also was the first to issue a timetable for withdrawal of
combat troops, in 16-18 months. But his credibility was undermined by
the remarks of a close adviser, Samantha Power, who helped write and
edit his book The Audacity of Hope, and presumably must know every
nuance of his thinking. When she told a British interviewer recently
that, if elected, Obama would consult the generals, review the
situation in Iraq, and only then decide what to do, he became for
many people another candidate whose word cannot be trusted, eerily
echoing the false peace promises of Sixties presidents Johnson and Nixon.
Obama has tried to clarify his stance by loudly declaring that he
will "end the war in 2009", a remarkable statement which so far
contains no explanation.
There are many reasons to support Obama, but a genuine peace plan
isn't one of them at this point. Obama appears trapped in the
quagmire of disagreeing advisors. While more open-minded than the
Clinton security coterie, they share the fear -- partly professional,
partly ideological -- of advising a superpower withdrawal. Worse,
they share the insider dread of following the populist instincts of
the voters in foreign policy.
On the record, Obama favors a "residual force" after pulling out
combat troops by 2010. This innocuous wording, which sounds like a
clean-up crew, would still be in the crossfire of sectarian combat
until all of Iraq's insurgents finally weary of battle. His position
is more nuanced that Clinton's, limiting the counterinsurgency forces
to fighting al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and not providing training for
Iraqi troops unless the Baghdad government reconciled its factions.
For both Clinton and Obama, the number of Americans left in the war
zone would be staggering, even after the withdrawal of most or all
combat troops. Including the backup forces and private contractors
necessary to support the residual role, the numbers could be
50-100.000. That would make Iraq look like Afghanistan, or Central
America in the late 1970s.
Only the pressure of the peace movement, bloggers and the mainstream
media might make Clinton or Obama break with their advisers and issue
an actual plan for ending the war rather than merely shifting from
combat to counterinsurgency. Since the next six months are the only
time the candidates can be forced to respond to voters' questions,
the mission of the peace movement is becoming clear. While rejecting
McCain as the neoconservative candidate of war, peace advocates can
loudly refuse to support the Iraq platform of either Democratic
candidate until they display more candor and commitment towards the
voters. With enough voices pressuring them, inside and outside the
Democratic Party, it will be difficult to silently support
counterinsurgency in the name of peace.
Tom Hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq, and the
forthcoming Writing for a Democratic Society, The Tom Hayden Reader.