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Turning (and Disarming) the Ship

Max Elbaum
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

Responding to a questioner saying that there seemed to be little change in Washington policies, President Obama replied: "The ship of state is an ocean liner, it's not a speedboat… if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, we may not see all the consequences a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now, or 20 years from now."


Obama is right that the "big battleship" of US imperial militarism can't be easily turned, much less quickly stopped altogether. But Obama's remark also impels us to examine the nature of the turn he is trying to make, and to analyze where it does and doesn't overlap with, or open doors for, an antiwar agenda.

Bush's unilateralism and total reliance on military force over-stretched the empire and ended up undermining US global power. Obama's foreign policy team, representing the now-dominant anti-Neo-Con wing of the US elite, aims to change that. Like their predecessors, Obama's team wants to maximize US clout in the world. But unlike Bush and the Neo-Cons, Obama's team believes that doing so requires adapting skillfully to, rather than trying to bludgeon away, new realities of global power. 

This means a different mix of diplomacy and military force, and includes willingness to the degree they are pressed to make concessions to other countries and movements. Every such accommodation is fiercely resisted by powerful forces within the national security state and the racist right-wing populists now leading the Republican opposition. Sharp fights over whether or not a particular concession is or isn't necessary go on within the Administration itself.

The significance of Obama's shift has been noted by struggling people and popular movements worldwide. They know that this readjustment was forced on Washington through hard struggle and many sacrifices; they believe it offers better terrain on which to struggle further. Simultaneously, antiwar and progressive movements should be clear that Obama's agenda of "turning the battleship" is not our agenda of disarming it altogether. Disarming it would mean ending US interventionism and bullying of all sorts, and initiating an era of peaceful global cooperation to tackle poverty, disease, global warming, and resource depletion which threaten all humanity.

The inter-play of these contending forces plays out differently on different battlefronts, with dynamics determined mainly by the real-world balance of forces. In the end, it is that balance that a clear-eyed, long-haul peace movement must fight to change.

“Responsible” withdrawal from Iraq

The place to start is, of course, Iraq, the central site of the Middle East defeat that has driven Washington's foreign policy retrenchment. Antiwar activism and the economic crisis have been contributing factors, but US failure to subdue the Iraqi people is the main reason unilateral militarism is no longer in vogue. The Obama team, with its reality-based approach, believes that extricating the US from this Bush-created "quagmire" offers better prospects for preserving US regional influence than staying a lost course. But they also think a "responsible" (that is, drawn-out) process gives Washington the most leverage. Even this is not enough for the majority of US generals—including Iraq Commander Ray Odierno—who still fantasize about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat if only they can stay McCain's 100 years. Hence the running battle—visible in media leaks, congressional flare-ups, and elsewhere—about whether or not "conditions will allow the US to get out" by the 2011 target date.

It's instructive to see how Obama is working that one. As is his pattern, he relies on rhetorical skills and capacity to "change the discourse" in key constituencies. So he made a surprise visit to Iraq and gave a speech to US troops praising them and promising they would be coming home. The response was wild applause. This limited Odierno's maneuvering room, squeezing him between let's-go-home sentiment among the soldiers below him and pronouncements about withdrawal from his Commander-in-Chief above. So when asked after Obama's visit what the chances were that US withdrawal would actually occur on December 31, 2011, this hard-line opponent of getting out gritted his teeth and replied "on a scale of one to ten, ten."

Good as far as it goes. Compared to the Neo-Con stay-forever agenda, that's far indeed. But compared to the antiwar agenda? Not so much. Every day the US occupies Iraq means more death, destruction, and violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Every day leaves the door open for a Neo-Con/Odierno comeback and to the kind of blackmail that drove Obama's torture photo flip-flop: "Well, Mr. President, if you release those photos we probably won't be able to leave Iraq on your timetable, so…"

What's especially sobering is that Iraq is the battlefront most favorable for the antiwar side. It is here that US defeat has been clearest and where US public opinion has shifted most strongly to the "gotta get out" position.

Bigger danger in Afghanistan

That's why, though similar forces are in play, we face even greater dangers and difficulties regarding Afghanistan. US defeat there is not yet as thorough, and US public opinion is not yet as antiwar. The Administration's actions are worse—and the logic of escalation means they threaten to get even more so. 

Obama's "adapt to reality" approach here has so far yielded only a few glimmers of change. The goals of intervention have been defined down to defeating Al-Qaeda rather than building a stable US client state. There is the beginning of a serious diplomatic effort to involve all countries in the region—crucially, including Iran—in seeking some kind of negotiated settlement. Negotiations of a sort are underway with leaders of the Taliban, and it at least gets reported in the US press that "the enemy" has put forward a peace plan of its own (hinging on US commitment to get out).

But the Administration has not yet been forced to accept the whole truth that the US military presence in Afghanistan is part of the problem in ending the war (and isolating Al-Qaeda), not part of the solution. So instead of any kind of timetable or even vague promise of withdrawal, Washington is sending more troops, expanding the use of drone bombings, and putting a hawk with a record of war crimes and cover-ups, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in charge of the theater.  

This is a "big muddy" path, as former CIA Station Chief in Kabul Graham Fuller acknowledges: "Military force will not win the day in either Afghanistan or Pakistan; crises have only grown worse under the US military footprint." Not only does escalation, with its day-in, day-out killing of Afghan civilians, and block reconciliation between different sectors of the Afghan population, but it inflames tensions in nuclear-armed Pakistan. There, the population - in its vast majority opposed to theocratic reactionaries like the Taliban - is simultaneously opposed to doing the bidding of a foreign power which for decades has supported corrupt military dictators against Pakistani democratic aspirations. 

The challenges are formidable in reversing this disastrous course. Every regional actor (except the Pakistani secret service) and the majority of Afghans are opposed to a return to Taliban rule. This leads to vacillation in opposing the US military presence. Matters are especially tough in terms of US public opinion, which has been fed decades of demonization of all (non-Israeli) peoples in the region and is only beginning to hear any kind of non-hate-filled rhetoric coming from a president's bully pulpit.

The strongest factor in the antiwar movement's favor here is growing public recognition that military action in the Middle East/West Asia produces no good results while bleeding precious lives and scarce resources. Turning that sentiment into a loud, active, won't-take-no-for-an-answer antiwar surge will be no easy task. There are no shortcuts, and multi-leveled tactics, including cooperation with forces who oppose escalation but are not yet for total withdrawal, will have to be part of the mix.

Torture and civil liberties

We face a similarly complicated landscape on the torture/civil liberties front. Dick Cheney's "we tortured and we're proud of it" speech May 21 was a wake-up-call for those who have gotten complacent about the Far Right: there's a permanent warcrowd that still has an audience of millions and is banking on fear-mongering to make a comeback. But Barack Obama's speech the same day was hardly a total repudiation of Cheney-like policies. Constitutional law expert Glenn Greenwald points out:

"The speech was fairly representative of what Obama typically does: effectively defend some important ideals in a uniquely persuasive way and advocating some policies that promote those ideals (closing Guantanamo, banning torture tactics, limiting the state secrets privilege) while committing to many which plainly violate them (indefinite preventive detention schemes, military commissions, denial of habeas rights to Bagram abductees, concealing torture evidence, blocking judicial review on secrecy grounds)."

Here again the public has not yet been won to the kind of outrage about torture and human rights violations that would force Obama to match his phrases with his deeds.

While critiquing Obama's backward actions, Greenwald also wrote, "his well-crafted speech can have a positive impact on our debate and contained some welcome and rare arguments from a high-level political leader—changes in the terms of the debate are prerequisites to changes in policy and the value of rhetoric shouldn't be understated."

So Obama's words open a door. But in action his administration both conciliates and contains forces who want to keep that opening as narrow as possible. Only a movement that fights—and fights smart—and digs in for a long haul, can catalyze the power required to push it wide open. That means finding the mix of patient, respectful persuasion and make-trouble urgent action that it takes to win the support of millions without compromising away the principle that "power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and never will."