Is Obama an “Anti-War” Candidate?

by Joe Auciello

Credit Senator Barack Obama and his staff for running an enormously successful primary campaign. Shrugging off a disappointing defeat in New Hampshire, he has, by late February, beaten former frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 11 straight primary and caucus elections and is poised to capture his party’s nomination for president.

Within a short time, Obama has accomplished more than anyone would have guessed, but he has done so by trafficking in wishes, dreams, and myths. He has punctured the myth of the Clintons’ invincibility; he has exploited the myth of the Democratic Party; he has spun the myth of the antiwar hero; above all, he has fashioned the myth of the transformational candidate, the catalyst of progress and reform.

Across the country, the desire, the need, for change is powerfully felt. A sense of urgency is palpable. More than anyone, Obama appeals to that yearning, especially among youthful voters. His amorphous rhetoric, strong on promise but weak on program, speaks to the frustrated, fearful, even desperate mood of the times.

Nonetheless, the candidate and his platform do not withstand careful examination. Should he win the nomination and ultimately the presidency, he will inevitably disappoint—even betray—the hopes he has raised, the hopes that have thus far lifted him to prominence.

Consider what Obama makes as his defining issue: the war in Iraq. Obama presents himself as the antiwar candidate, and it is his opposition to the Iraq War that has won him popular support.

A cover story in The Nation magazine, for instance, cites the war as the issue “where Obama compares most favorably to Clinton. … Hillary Clinton voted for and supported the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since Vietnam, and Barack Obama (at a time when it was deeply courageous to do so) spoke out against it” (Feb. 18, 2008).

One week later, a Nation editorial supporting Obama for president praised him for his “humane and wise approach to foreign policy, opposing the Iraq war while Clinton voted for it” (Feb. 25, 2008).

Despite the claims of the candidate and his supporters, the idea of Obama as the antiwar candidate is not quite what it appears to be. His opposition to the Iraq war is strictly tactical, not strategic or principled. He agrees with Bush, McCain, and Clinton that it is the legitimate business of the United States to interfere in that country and to create a government there favorable to the interests of the United States—favorable, that is, to the interests of U.S. oil companies.

Ultimately, Obama opposes the war in Iraq, not because it is wrong, but because it is not successful. Like all major party politicians, Obama’s speeches are crafted to be misleading and to allow the candidate to shift with the prevailing winds. Obama speaks about withdrawing from Iraq immediately, but he opposes immediate withdrawal of American troops.

The difference is far more than semantic. In fact, Obama only proposes reducing combat troops at the rate of a brigade a month, for more than a year and a half—unless al-Qaeda remains strong in Iraq. If so, U.S. troops will stay put.

Since the “terrorist threat” is unlikely to up and disappear anytime soon, Obama’s promise of a phased withdrawal of American combat forces, though inadequate, is only verbal, a lure for voters disenchanted with and opposed to the war. A President Obama would need to implement policies that contradict the promises of candidate Obama.

Further, since Obama (and Hillary Clinton) call for an enlarged military by some 90,000 soldiers, it is not unlikely that this “antiwar” candidate would actually continue and increase the number of U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq, or Afghanistan. Part of this “deeply courageous” antiwar candidate’s platform is a commitment to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, where a successful surge—by the Taliban—is actually taking place.

Obama has cleverly crafted a policy that appears to be for peace but actually will guarantee a U.S. military and combat presence in Iraq and the Middle East for years to come. This is the policy that The Nation calls “courageous,” “humane,” and “wise.” It’s a sign, rather, of how little the two major parties have to offer.

In fact, Obama lacks the courage and clarity of even a Ron Paul, the most reactionary Republican candidate. Debating with his GOP rivals, Paul would try in vain to point out America’s disastrous, imperial role in the world. He would ask the other candidates to consider how they would feel if another country treated the United States as the U.S. treats other countries. Imagine being bombed, invaded, and occupied, Paul would say.

Of course, Ron Paul was practically laughed off the podium for his foolishness. After all, the willingness, and even eagerness, to attack other countries with little thought of the consequences, much less the feelings, of the victims is a prerequisite for becoming the president of the United States. It’s what politicians and pundits call “a test of character.”

Barack Obama has already passed this test. On Aug. 1, 2007, Obama delivered a speech in which he called for “a redeployment of troops into Afghanistan and even Pakistan with or without the permission of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.” Obama claimed, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

Moreover, Obama continued, “Beyond Pakistan, there is a core of terrorists—probably in the tens of thousands—who have made their choice to attack America. So the second step in my strategy will be to build our capacity and our partnerships to track down, capture, or kill terrorists around the world, and to deny them the world’s most dangerous weapons. … I will ensure that our military becomes more stealth[y], agile, and lethal in its ability to capture or kill terrorists.”

ABC News concluded at the time that Obama “is proposing a geopolitical posture that is more aggressive than that of President Bush.”

This threat to extend war to a sovereign nation—a U.S. ally at that—and to other nations as well, was no misstatement or slip of the tongue. The speech was written with the assistance of “foreign policy experts,” including former key officials from the Clinton administration. Senator Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor, Samantha Power of Harvard University, reaffirmed these statements in a Feb. 25 interview on “Democracy Now!”

Through this speech, Obama signaled to the ruling class of the United States that, for all the antiwar rhetoric, he will make war as readily as a President Clinton or Bush, that he is ready and fit to become the commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower.

Of course, neither Obama nor his experts gave much thought to the likely results of armed intervention into an allied nation. Should the U.S. send its troops, planes, and bombs, the people of Pakistan, and of the region in general, would respond with outrage. An attack by the U.S. military would increase anger and hatred against the United States and would swell the ranks of terrorists. This would be the thoroughly predictable result in Pakistan if a President Obama applied the Bush Doctrine.

It is entirely fitting that Obama gave this speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Wilson narrowly won a presidential election in 1916 by pledging to keep America neutral in a war fought to determine which European country would dominate the rest. In addition, his speeches on behalf of workers and farmers condemning “economic serfdom” misled a considerable number of American socialists to support his bid for the presidency, though the Socialist Party itself had received almost one million votes only four years earlier.

Before long, as, in fact, most socialists at the time had expected, the “antiwar” candidate became the pro-war president, and Wilson sent soldiers into the imperialist slaughter he had previously denounced. President Wilson also created the Espionage Act, which was used to arrest and imprison Socialist Party leader and outspoken antiwar voice, Eugene V. Debs.

The history of the Democratic Party is a litany of promises betrayed. Since the First World War, the Democrats, no less than the Republicans, have been the party of war. It was Democrats who dropped atomic bombs on Japan and presided over the Bay of Pigs attack on Cuba; it was Democrats who escalated the war in Vietnam and supported wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Democrats are not and have never been the “party of the common people,” or the “party of reform.” They are a party of the corporate elite. They are more similar to the Republicans than they are different.

While the Democrats and Republicans are open to anyone to join, neither party is controlled by its membership—though both parties can pass reform legislation when powerful mass-action protest movements compel them to do so. Most importantly, both the Democrats and Republicans are capitalist parties that represent the interests of the ruling rich who control them.

Senator Barack Obama appeals to the hopes that flourish when people forget, deny, or do not yet know that the speeches and statements of the candidates, no matter how promising or inspiring they appear, mean far less than the interests of the party and social class that they truly serve.

The way forward—the way to peace, prosperity, and progress—does not rest on the shoulders of any Democrat. A society without war, racism, and poverty can only be built by massive social movements—by the power of millions acting against, not with, the corporate elites and against, not with, the status quo.

When men and women who count for so little today join together to fight for their own interests to count for something, then real change will occur; then America will finally create the kind of change “we can believe in.”

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