As the United States completes its withdrawal from Iraq, it is worth pausing to remember the determined peace activists who opposed the war from the start, including one who embraced their cause and became president.
On Friday, some of them will gather in Chicago at the Federal Plaza, where in October 2002 Barack Obama, then a member of the Illinois Senate, stepped onto the stage to oppose the looming Iraq war. The plaza should be remembered as the place where the long march to peace began.
At the time, neoconservatives were riding high. Not only had the president, George W. Bush, embraced many of their ideas; powerful figures in the Democratic Party were echoing them as well. Obama was not among them.
“I don’t oppose all wars,” he said that day, noting that he would take up arms himself to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
Obama expressed outrage at “the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” The saber-rattling, he said, represented an “attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market which has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.”
It was a brave stance to take for an ambitious politician at a time when American support for war with Iraq was building. He went on to become the first president to campaign on a promise to end an ongoing American war, and the peace movement helped put him into office.
In the years leading up to the 2008 election, there were at least 10 national antiwar demonstrations that drew more than 100,000 participants each. The movement helped Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) to rise from a lone war opponent in Congress to the leader of a bloc of as many as 200 representatives calling for an end to the wars in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Those combined forces -- the peace movement and lawmakers who opposed continuing the Iraq war -- created a political climate that enabled Obama to end the Iraq war over the objections of many in the Pentagon and most of his Republican presidential rivals.
Obama’s position on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shifted occasionally during the decade, illustrating the powerful conflict of forces in play. In 2008, he seemed ready to accept the advice of the establishment-oriented Iraq Study Group, which recommended leaving a residual force of 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Iraq. After being elected, though, he surprised everyone by announcing in early 2009 that all U.S. forces would be pulled out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
In recent months, the administration seemed to be considering leaving behind a few thousand troops to continue training Iraqi forces, but it abandoned the idea after failing to reach a deal with the Iraqi government on legal immunity for the American troops.
Some peace activists view the fact that thousands of advisors and contractors will remain in Iraq on the U.S. Embassy payroll as evidence of a secret plan to continue the war by other means. But the war is as over as a war can be, and the peace movement should celebrate. Removing troops from Iraq will save tens of billions of dollars a year, and it will also save lives.
Now the challenge will be to bring the war in Afghanistan and the drone strikes over the border in Pakistan to an end as quickly as possible. Obama may have convinced himself that these are not “dumb wars” carried out by mindless conservatives, but the PhDs at the Pentagon and the State Department cannot prevent a deepening calamity.
This year, Lee orchestrated a Democratic National Committee resolution calling for a more rapid Afghanistan withdrawal, but so far the president has committed only to handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces by 2014. The peace movement should push for a faster pace.
And if the president finds himself nostalgic for battle, I’d remind him of some largely forgotten -- and prophetic -- words from his 2002 speech: “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East -- the Saudis and the Egyptians -- stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.
“You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves of Middle East oil through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon or Mobil.”
Those are the kinds of battles even a peace movement could embrace.