What the Antiwar Movement Should -- and Shouldn't -- Do Now
The dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq over the past 18 months, along with the victory of President-elect Barack Obama, has left many in the antiwar movement wondering what will become of its momentum and potential power to effect a more fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy. Will its largely Democratic popular support base drift away in complacency, assuming that Obama will fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw combat troops within 16 months of taking office, or will it be prepared to hold the incoming administration's feet to the fire?
President-elect Obama will undoubtedly face serious pressure from political allies and opponents alike to stay the course despite the expectations he raised during his campaign. U.S. military field commanders will be loathe to squander hard-won security gains by withdrawing before Iraqi forces are able to defend the authority of the central government against possible flare-ups of violence generated by disaffected Sunnis, dissident Shi'a factions, and autonomy-minded Kurds, among other obstacles to stability.
For these reasons, the antiwar movement must remain vigilant and not allow campaign rhetoric to take the wind out of its sails. It must adapt to change and identify new pressure points or risk losing credibility and relevance. Above all, it must avoid making two serious mistakes: 1) taking a cookie-cutter approach to Afghanistan if it chooses to address "the good war", and 2) shifting focus to Afghanistan at the expense of Iraq simply because violence has flared up in the former and died down in the latter.
So what should be the antiwar movement's new approach as the Obama administration transitions into office? First and foremost, it is critical to identify popular undercurrents and learn to harness the energy generated by them. The global financial crisis has eclipsed both Iraq and Afghanistan as matters of public concern but is part of a more systemic accountability deficit which encompasses U.S. foreign policy. Dependence upon foreign oil has been widely cited as a major national security concern, making it an issue that has the potential to unite Americans across the political spectrum. By linking these issues together it is possible to build momentum against more specific destabilizing factors in Iraq as an intermediate goal and a way to generate greater public demand for full withdrawal.
The pressure of multinational oil corporations on the Iraqi government to sign exploitive oil contracts is a major destabilizing factor that undermines the ostensible mission of our troops and comes at the expense of long-term regional stability, U.S. national security, and the welfare of the Iraqi people. The antiwar movement must understand and articulate this contradiction and emphasize that American interests are truly served when the root causes of terrorism and insurgency have been eliminated. Among them, the denial of economic sovereignty is a fundamental grievance, just as it was for American colonialists in the 18th century.
It is in the interest of the occupiers to maintain control largely outside of the public spotlight, which means pulling the strings through economic, legal and financial mechanisms rather than by primarily military means. This is how the British Empire ruled Iraq for decades and this is what the currently dominant U.S. foreign policy establishment is attempting to do. Preventing it will require the antiwar movement to delve into the nuances of the ongoing oil negotiations and other matters of political economy rather than simply reacting to major flare-ups of violence, which are only symptoms of a more complex problem that requires precise knowledge to effectively attack.