The antiwar movement and Obama

THE U.S. antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), held its national convention in Chicago on December 12 through 14. While the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and is planning a major escalation of forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the conference drew only 248 attendees, fewer than at its convention last year. Such a low turnout should come as no surprise; UFPJ has not called a major national antiwar demonstration in close to two years and has invested the bulk of its resources either directly or indirectly into campaigning for the Democratic Party.

Ally in the White House?
The key question facing UFPJ and indeed the entire antiwar movement is how to deal with the new challenges and opportunities under the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama. At the convention, a majority of UFPJ’s leadership and featured speakers argued forcefully that the antiwar movement should credit itself for helping get Obama elected and should be encouraged that the peace/antiwar movement had—finally—an ally in the White House.

“We have elected the most progressive mainstream politician imaginable,” declared William McNary, president of USAction/TrueMajority, at the opening plenary. McNary went on to describe Obama as our “quarterback” and that the movement’s task is to “block for” him. On the same panel, Antonia Juhasz, an activist and author of The Bush Agenda, argued, “Barack Obama has a fundamentally different approach to Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. He has a fundamentally different approach to imperialism.”

Several attendees noted talk of Obama appointing a “liaison” to the progressive community as an encouraging sign that the antiwar movement will likely enjoy increased “access” to the corridors of political power. Only Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, who spoke on the Saturday evening plenary, dissented from the chorus of praise for the incoming administration.

No one can deny the enormous impact that Obama’s election has had, raising expectations for change, inspiring workers, and bringing hope to African American and other minority communities. But the antiwar movement must come to grips with the reality that Obama’s cabinet appointees and explicit foreign policy proposals are far from antiwar. Obama has promised to retain tens of thousands of U.S. troops and private mercenaries after “withdrawal” from Iraq as a residual force to provide security. He has also repeatedly promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan and continue supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine. He may conduct U.S. policy with more diplomacy and humanitarian aid, but Obama’s goals do not represent a break with decades of U.S. imperial policy.

Afghanistan and spring actions
An ad hoc caucus within UFPJ presented two amendments to UFPJ’s program document for the coming year, one on Afghanistan and another on spring actions, which ultimately attracted support from a quarter to a third of delegates. The caucus’s position emphasized different reasons to be hopeful about the incoming Obama administration, chiefly that voters expect change and thus can be mobilized on the basis of such raised expectations. “I don’t want to wait for the next Republican administration to complain about the problems with the war,” as Meredith Reese, a member of the PDX Peace Coalition (Portland, Ore.), put it. The agenda was structured in such a way that UFPJ spent far too much time on procedural questions and secondary issues in their discussion of the program, giving short shrift to the most important debate about what the organization would say about Afghanistan and anniversary actions.

In the end, the minority’s proposal to incorporate opposition to the war in Afghanistan was approved. “UFPJ demands immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying forces from Afghanistan,” reads the amendment. “We will make this demand along with immediate withdrawal from Iraq the central focus of our organizing and actions.”

UFPJ’s leadership did not want to come out for immediate withdrawal, but sensed that this was broadly popular among the delegates. The program committee decided to accept the ad hoc grouping’s language as a friendly amendment and thus avoid a vote on the issue directly.

Next followed the other critical debate at the assembly—spring action plans around the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War. Two other antiwar formations, the National Assembly that met in Cleveland this past summer and International ANSWER, had already put out a call for an ad hoc coalition of all antiwar groups to organize a national demonstration on March 21 in Washington, D.C.

UFPJ’s leadership did not respond to this call and instead proposed local actions on Thursday, March 19, and a spring national mobilization in New York City on April 4. Asserting that the antiwar movement alone is not capable of mobilizing sufficient forces and would risk alienating the Black community if it directly confronted Obama. The New York City march would have a slogan “Yes we can…End the war,” but will emphasize a broad range of issues, such as the corporate criminals on Wall Street and the financial crisis, health care, and environmental justice, among others. The minority argued for the two calls not to be counterposed and instead be viewed as complementary, but UFPJ’s leadership insisted on voting on the proposals in a way that forced delegates to choose one or the other.

In the debate, two Iraqis rose to speak in favor of a united anniversary action in Washington but were met with lukewarm support from the audience. “Local actions are not loud enough,” said Zaineb Alani, an Iraqi antiwar activist now living in Ohio. “With all this talk of change in Washington, the Iraqi people do not see any change…The SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] is full of loopholes…. All the Iraqi people can hear is silence in Washington.”

In arguing against this view, supporters of UFPJ’s leadership spoke to the importance of broadening the constituency and agenda of UFPJ. But the logic of their position was to insist that no antiwar demonstration take place in Washington. This is a distortion of Martin Luther King’s legacy, which they used to justify their position. UFPJ’s timing of the April 4 march to coincide with the anniversary of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech likewise turns the meaning of King’s speech on its head. In April 1967, King’s speech broke his silence on the U.S. war on Vietnam and called for protest against the administration of Democrat Lyndon Johnson. King was making the case for directly taking on the questions of war and militarism, but UFPJ’s leadership is using King as a vehicle to do the exact opposite—deflect attention from the Democratic Party’s plan for endless occupation in Iraq and escalation in Afghanistan.

In the vote, UFPJ’s leadership prevailed, 148 delegates to 50. But this crucial debate was given far too little time, with each side given three speakers for ninety seconds each before attendees were asked to make their decision.

Thus many questions about the future of the antiwar movement remain. Now that UFPJ’s leaders, in our view, unnecessarily juxtaposed two proposed actions—the March 21 action and the April 4 action, what should be done?

Joe Lombardo of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace in Albany, N.Y., summarized the feelings of many as the convention drew to a close. “Antiwar sentiment is very strong, but the leadership seems to be moving away from antiwar positions,” said Lombardo. “They are going to be losing a lot of people who are interested in building an antiwar movement. We need to build an antiwar movement even in the difficulty of a honeymoon period. In the long run, it’s the right thing to do, and it will lay the foundation for a much larger movement in the future.”


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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