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What's Next for the Anti-War Movement? The War and Empire Landscape in Obama's 2nd Year

Only a distanced study of what has changed since the Bush years can provide an accurate assessment of the US empire's new posture--and the correct way to respond to it.

In assessing how our position has changed one year into the Barack Obama administration, the anti-war movement must avoid twin errors: that of relaxing our vigilance and opposition to the continuing permanent war, and that of denying the de-escalations in the global and domestic situation that have in fact taken place. The prior error will defeat the very purpose of our movements, while the latter will relegate us to further marginalization. Only a distanced consideration of exactly what has changed since the Bush years can provide an accurate assessment of the empire’s new posture -- and the correct way to respond to it.

Orwellian Nobel Peace Prize

Obama’s election was a repudiation of the “neocons” -- and their hubristic program of endless “regime change” throughout the Middle East (and eventually the rest of the world) -- by both the US electorate and political elite.

Citing a more “hopeful state of world affairs” brought about in part by the new administration in Washington, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in January announced that it was moving the minute hand of its famous Doomsday Clock one minute back -- to six minutes of midnight. The decision echoes the findings of the Nobel Peace Prize committee that Obama has significantly ratcheted down global tensions.

Yet Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech was an open defense of the two wars that he is waging -- the one in Iraq winding down but still involving some 130,000 US troops (and many more private contractors); the one in Afghanistan rapidly escalating, with the 100,000 US troops there slated to rise this year to higher than Iraq levels (in addition to private contractors and a 30,000-strong international force).

According to a Jan. 13 Associated Press report, Obama will ask Congress for an additional $33 billion for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars -- on top of what promises to be a record-breaking $708 billion for the Pentagon next year. It is a grim comment on our times that a president elected on an anti-war platform, and still perceived as a peace-maker, will be the first to boost the Defense Department budget over $700 billion.

Obama’s Pentagon is now viewing Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single “Af-Pak” theater. Obama has actually escalated US drone strikes against presumed al-Qaeda targets in Pakistani territory -- over the open objections of the Islamabad government, Washington’s supposed ally. The drone strikes -- now coming every few days -- reportedly killed some 700 in 2009, overwhelmingly noncombatants. This counter-productive strategy only fuels the Taliban insurgency that now threatens to destabilize Pakistan entirely.

Dismantling the Torture Regime -- Maybe

Obama has not met his deadline, announced in an executive order last January, to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay within a year, and officials admit the camp may remain open until 2011 to allow an Illinois prison time to prepare for the arrival of the detainees. Even at the Thomson Correctional Center, the detainees will still remain under Pentagon administrative control, not that of the civilian authorities.

Of the 775 detainees that have passed through Guantánamo since it was opened in the aftermath of 9-11, less than 200 remain -- but their fate is uncertain. The Obama administration has decided to try some in the civilian courts -- the five charged in the 9-11 conspiracy -- but has gone ahead with military tribunals for others. The tribunals are ostensibly proceeding with greater standards for due process, following a reform of the Military Commissions Act. Of course, the right adamantly opposes any transfer of the Guantánamo detainees to US soil.

The administration has also taken measures to dismantle the secret network of clandestine prisons launched by the Pentagon and CIA under the Bush administration, which held many thousands around the world. The most significant hub in this global gulag, the prison at Afghanistan’s Bagram air base, has been moved off the base in preparation for its transfer to Afghan authorities. This will not necessarily mean an improvement in the human rights situation faced by the detainees there, but hopefully it will at least become a traditional prison rather than an extra-legal one. Obama has continued the Bush policy of denying any recognition of the habeas corpus rights of detainees held by the US overseas.

The passing of Obama’s deadline for the closure of Guantánamo means that now there is no longer any firm timeline for shutting the prison camp. And disturbingly, the Obama administration is calling for dismissal of the pending suit against Bush administration attorney John Yoo, author of the notorious “torture memos” that authorized human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo.

Slowing the Trajectory Towards a Police State -- Tentatively

On the domestic front, Obama has called a halt to the Bush administration’s aggressive and brutal coast-to-coast raids on factories, workplaces and neighborhoods by the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Instead, ICE is sending employers written notice that they may face civil fines if they are found to be using unauthorized workers. Obama’s Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona's Maricopa County, who has run a local anti-immigrant police state complete with detainment camps, and ICE has revoked his authority to enforce federal immigration law. (Arpaio has vowed to defy the federal order, but so far hasn’t.)

But a New York Times report of Jan. 9 (based on data procured through the Freedom of Information Act) revealed that the Obama administration has continued to conceal the facts of concerning more than 100 deaths in ICE detention facilities since 2003. And while Obama has thus far resisted calls to mobilize army troops to the Mexican border, he has not halted construction of the border wall launched by the Bush administration.

Following the attempted Christmas Day jetliner terror attack, Homeland Security has instated new airline passenger screening measures based on country of origin that rights groups are assailing as unconstitutional.

New Quagmires Beckon

Since the attempted Christmas attack, Yemen has emerged as the next country to be targeted for a US-directed counter-insurgency -- although even before the attempt, there were reports of US warplanes carrying out bombing raids in Yemeni territory. The multiple insurgencies in Yemen (waged by both Sunni and Shi’ite militants) could draw the US into yet a third military quagmire.

With the change of administration in Washington, the likelihood of US aggression against Iran has greatly diminished. So too have the odds of the CIA and State Department attempting to groom the opposition there as proxies, following the neocon playbook -- which is the last thing Iran’s pro-democracy movement needs. However, if Israel launches air-strikes against Iran, Obama will be faced with the choice of whether to back Tel Aviv up, either politically or militarily.

Obama has not removed the Special Forces troops sent by Bush as military advisors to West Africa, with little public notice. The growing presence of the self-declared “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” means greater risk of US troops being drawn into combat in Mali, Niger or Mauritania.

US Special Forces and Marines continue to hold joint manoeuvres with Philippine troops in the southern island of Mindanao, wracked by a Muslim insurgency. Under Bush, US Special Forces were briefly drawn into combat in Mindanao, and there are reports that there have been such incidents under the new administration as well.

There are other opportunities for Washington to be sucked into military adventures by circumstance. The Pentagon rescue mission to earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince appears as a moral necessity, but could be the beginning of a new US occupation of Haiti -- especially if the situation in the destroyed city turns violent.

Hemispheric Militarization Advances

There is little evidence that Obama’s CIA was involved in last summer’s coup d’etat in Honduras, but Washington’s supposed isolation of the de facto regime has in fact been full of loopholes -- even Pentagon training of Honduran military officers apparently continued. Washington’s intent to normalize relations with Honduras after the transfer of power to a new government on Jan. 27 -- following an election rejected as illegitimate by the popular resistance movement -- will place Obama at odds with much of the rest of the hemisphere.

Although the US media have barely noted it, Obama is going ahead with plans launched under Bush to establish permanent military bases in Colombia -- which remains both the top US aid recipient and worst human rights abuser in the western hemisphere. The leftist government of Hugo Chávez in neighboring Venezuela openly views establishment of the bases as a springboard for intervention, and the issue has greatly escalated tensions along the already militarized border.

Obama is also replicating the “Plan Colombia” model in Mexico, where drug-related violence is escalating to nearly the level of a civil war. The $1.4 billion “Merida Initiative” of military aid packages to Mexico and the Central American republics is directly modeled on the Colombian experience, although it stops short of actually committing US military advisors (which would be deemed an affront to Mexican nationalism).

The Obama administration has taken some measures to de-escalate the War on Drugs, which has been a disaster for civil and human rights both at home and abroad. Obama’s Justice Department has pledged to respect California’s medical marijuana law, and call off the raids that were standard practice under Bush (and continued through Obama’s first year). But federal prosecutors will, in fact, still have autonomy to enforce the US drug laws even where they clash with state law. And this retreat is but a small step towards the general decriminalization that will be needed to undercut the ultra-violent cartels, to break the trajectory towards a domestic police state north of the border and entropic war in Mexico.

The Thunder on the Right

Of course, the most organized and angry opposition to Obama is coming from the right, and it is imperative to recognize that many of the grievances fueling this opposition are absolutely legitimate. The “Tea-baggers” are foremost furious at the massive tax-payer rip-off represented by last year’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) -- the notorious $700 billion Wall Street bail-out. Unfortunately, this rage has become mixed up with racism and xenophobia, paranoid opposition to a public health care system, and the anti-choice position on reproductive freedom.

This movement employs paradoxical anti-fascist rhetoric. Even the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg has launched a blog baiting Obama with the oxymoron of “Liberal Fascism.” But fascism in its incipient phases always exploits populism -- only to utterly betray it once power has been achieved. If more radical and openly racist elements consolidate leadership, the potential is real for the anti-Obama backlash to bring about a genuine fascist movement. Armed resistance on the right, or the taking of the White House by a right-wing populist such as Sarah Palin in 2012 are ominous possibilities.

On the other hand, a principled alliance with grassroots conservatives is possible around issues of civil liberties, economic justice and perhaps even the war(s). The prerequisites for such an alliance are, first of all, knowing our own politics and being explicit about where they differ from those of the grassroots right. We can openly disagree with Libertarians on economic issues and still make a tactical alliance with them around protecting constitutional rights, for instance. We can even coalesce with those we disagree with on abortion and immigration -- if there is absolute clarity about those disagreements, and if they are not the ones actually leading the charge against reproductive freedom and immigrants’ rights.

Such alliances can not only raise the effectiveness of our demands, but hold the potential to spark a much-needed cross-grassroots dialogue and woo elements of the populist conservative opposition away from the hardcore racists -- although if leftists attempt to impose their leadership, it will surely backfire.

There are, however, lines that cannot be crossed in alliance-building or even in dialogue. Embracing racists (even of the veiled variety today typical), or failing to make clear our differences with coalition partners, can play into the hands of the building fascist backlash -- and help make a rope for our own necks. This grave error has already been displayed in Ralph Nader’s uncritical embrace of Pat Buchanan, and the growing popularity of right-wing conspiracy theory on the ostensible “left.”

The Post-GWOT Era?

Although the US military remains massively overstretched, there are indications that since Obama’s election, we have entered the post-GWOT era. The nomenclature, at least, has changed. The Obama administration has formally abandoned the Bush-era phrase “Global War on Terrorism.” The new term is the dryly clinical and antiseptic “Overseas Contingency Operation.” Is this an improvement -- or a switch from a hubristic and bellicose rallying cry to an Orwellian euphemism? A normalization of permanent war?

In either case, the anti-war forces need to rethink the errors that have led to the decline of our movement even as the US escalates the unpopular Afghanistan war. Those who have relaxed their vigilance, failing to protest the Afghan “surge” because it is now a liberal Democrat’s war, represent one such erroneous tendency. And those who deny the de-escalations that have in fact taken place in other spheres paradoxically fuel this tendency.

Linked to this error is the hard left’s growing embrace of some of the ugliest exponents of global reaction. Supposed Marxists bizarrely look to the deeply reactionary forces of political Islam as the heroic “resistance” in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called “9-11 Truth” movement similarly denies the realities of al-Qaeda and its allied forces, and increasingly embraces professional conspiracy hucksters of the right-wing and xenophobic variety (e.g. Alex Jones).

The Challenge of Solidarity

The secular civil resistance in the countries under imperial assault -- groups such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, the Iraq Freedom Congress, and Iraq’s independent trade unions -- have no such illusions about political Islam. They view political Islam and US imperialism as “twin poles of terrorism.”

The besieged civil opposition in Iraq -- under threat of repression and assassination from the collaborationist and insurgent forces alike -- is fighting to keep alive elementary freedoms for women, leading labor struggles against Halliburton and other US contractors, opposing privatization of the country’s oil and resources, and demanding a secular future for their nation. These -- not the jihadists who seek to exterminate them -- are our natural allies in Iraq.

It is from these voices that we must seek leadership. Building active human-to-human solidarity with these forces -- and giving them a vocal role in our own organizing efforts -- will both keen our own analysis, and undercut the false perception that secular and democratic forces in Afghanistan and Iraq support the occupations.

Back to the Grassroots

The greatest challenge is to understand that no anti-war opposition is now likely to be successful unless it recognizes the inexorable implications of an anti-war position for a far greater process of social change. Neither the fact that Obama is a liberal Democrat nor the fact that the insurgents the US faces in Afghanistan and Iraq are deeply reactionary alter the fundamental political economy of the global military crusade. This remains a struggle, both with rival powers and insurgent movements, to assure continued US global primacy through control of oil.

The architects of this global crusade in the Bush administration were an alliance of ideological neocons and figures such as Bush and Cheney who themselves emerged from the oil industry, and afforded its captains unprecedented access to policy-making. Obama has repudiated neocon strategies, and his administration lacks such organic ties to the oil industry. But he has inherited the crusade, and is propelled by its dynamics.

US global hegemony protects the uniquely privileged position of the US ruling class, which is predicated on the grossly disproportionate consumption of the planet’s hydrocarbon resources. Despite the conventional wisdom of the “national security” paradigm, which holds that US access to global oil is good for consumers on the lower levels of the social pyramid, in fact the tax-payers have borne the burdens of imperial overreach just as the sons and daughters of the working class bear its grim human costs on the battlefields. The effort to bring the Earth’s most critical oil resources under imperial control -- especially via the Iraq adventure, although the Afghan campaign is also linked to encirclement of the Caspian Basin -- has meant a hemorrhage of the national wealth of the world’s biggest economy, and contributed to the financial cataclysm. An effective anti-war opposition therefore necessarily involves issues of economic justice and the planetary ecological crisis.

A year ago, when it seemed global capitalism really teetered at the brink of collapse, there may have been a moment of possibility for Obama to rise to greatness in spite of his limitations in the manner of his role models Lincoln and FDR -- to take the kinds of dramatic measures at home that would permit the military leviathan to withdraw its tentacles abroad. While Lincoln and FDR were war presidents, a marshalling of public power such as they effected could have been mustered in the interests of peace -- a harnessing or even seizure of Detroit’s industrial apparatus and Wall Street’s financial machinery to instate a “Green New Deal” based on a crash conversion from the fossil fuel economy, concomitant with at least a degree of social leveling.

This opportunity is almost certainly lost. Obama has taken limited measures to impose discipline on the corporate petro-oligarchy -- conditioning the Detroit bailout on retooling the industry, tightening auto emissions and smog standards, instating more restrictive rules for drilling leases on public lands and offshore waters. But his policy on the climate crisis centers on the technocratic pseudo-solution of carbon-trading. Ironically, it was TARP’s success in stabilizing the system (at tax-payer expense) that has removed any imperatives on Obama for systemic reform.

This lost opportunity shifts the responsibilities for addressing the global crisis even more firmly to the grassroots. Obama still represents, at least, an imperial adjustment to a new world situation that includes some hopeful signs -- the shift to the left nearly throughout Latin America, the past year’s strikes and uprisings in Europe, growing planet-wide struggles by indigenous peoples to protect their lands from corporate plunder. If we are to regain lost ground, our challenge is to remain intransigently oppositional in this period of adjustment -- but in a more intelligent way, which recognizes what has changed, and to what degree.

Bill Weinberg is editor of the electronic monthly World War 4 Report and author of "Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico" (Verso, 2000).