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Pressuring the Democrats on Peace: A Commentary on the Fifth Anniversary of the War

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The 4,000th American soldier will die in Iraq sometime this week, the fifth anniversary of the war. Hundreds of "winter soldiers" -- veterans of the war -- confess the shameful abuse inflicted on the Iraqi people during those years. Yet the presidential candidates have passed up the chance to say something new or hopeful that might end the killing.

Any possibility of ending the war this year is long over. The panic that gripped the national security elites last year that peace sentiment might end the war in 2008 is safely past. [The hawkish Democratic-leaning think tank, the Center for a New American Security, fretted last fall that "if no bipartisan consensus is reached before the Democratic and Republican primaries, the next president will likely be elected principally on a "get out of Iraq now" platform." James Miller, Shawn Brimley, "Phased Transition", June 4, 2007, Not for Outside Circulation. ]

Those of us in the peace movement are all winter soldiers now, as the war grinds on, perhaps for years, while our leaders drift. Gen. Petraeus is getting his way with "setting back the American clock" and his hope for "eight years and eight divisions." [Washington Post interview, Mar. 7, 2004]

We can count on two developments, however. A spirited, well-funded educational campaign linking Iraq to the economic recession will be waged between now and November. And like it or not, the November election will be interpreted either as a voter mandate for peace or for the status quo. That offers the opportunity for an anti-war campaign linked to the economy and oil issues, while de-linked from devotion to any single presidential candidate.

John McCain is linked with Gen. Petraeus and the "surge" in their rosy campaign to gain time for the brutal occupation to wear out the Iraqi people. The Petraeus plan, as advocated by his top counterinsurgency advisers, includes carrots-and-sticks for Sunnis and Shi'a, and a "global Phoenix program" against all insurgencies, meaning a low-visibility program of population control, detention, divide-and-conquer tactics, repression and torture in the shadows conducted by client armies with discreet American advisers. [The first approach is by Stephen Biddle in Foreign Affairs [2006]. As for the Phoenix recommendation, readers should rush to read Lt. Col. David Kilkullen, here. Kilkullen already has scrubbed the call for a Phoenix program from a later print version of the article, substituting the Pentagon's "revolutionary development" formulation that replaced the discredited Phoenix program.]

The Democratic candidates are more complicated, and perhaps more disappointing, since 80 percent of Democratic voters favor a one-year withdrawal.

Hillary Clinton repeats the phrases that these voters want to hear, "end the war", and "bring the troops home." But she must know that she doesn't mean it. Her slippery pledge is to "begin" troop withdrawals within 60 days of being sworn in, but she refuses to set a timeline for completing that withdrawal. She wants to shift the American role from combat to counterinsurgency, leaving trainers and advisers, counter-insurgency units, sufficient troops to "deter" Iran, in short; set in motion a warfighting strategy similar to Afghanistan for an unknown number of years.

Clinton's top foreign policy thinkers are Lee Feinstein at the Council on Foreign Relations and Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, who wrote in 2004 that "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough." Enough said. [See "A Duty to Prevent", Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2004]

Barack Obama's claims on Iraq seem to rest on what he said in October 2002, a solid difference between himself and Clinton to be sure. But as Clinton repeatedly notes, hers and Obama's positions have been mainly the same since Obama entered the Senate. This isn't fully correct, since he has shown a more flexible diplomatic approach towards Iran, while Clinton supported Bush's designation of Iran's revolutionary guard as terrorist. But the public and the media seem to accept the closeness between the two candidate's positions since Obama's anti-war speech five years ago.

Obama also was the first to issue a timetable for withdrawal of combat troops, in 16-18 months. But his credibility was undermined by the remarks of a close adviser, Samantha Power, who helped write and edit his book The Audacity of Hope, and presumably must know every nuance of his thinking. When she told a British interviewer recently that, if elected, Obama would consult the generals, review the situation in Iraq, and only then decide what to do, he became for many people another candidate whose word cannot be trusted, eerily echoing the false peace promises of Sixties presidents Johnson and Nixon.

Obama has tried to clarify his stance by loudly declaring that he will "end the war in 2009", a remarkable statement which so far contains no explanation.

There are many reasons to support Obama, but a genuine peace plan isn't one of them at this point. Obama appears trapped in the quagmire of disagreeing advisors. While more open-minded than the Clinton security coterie, they share the fear -- partly professional, partly ideological -- of advising a superpower withdrawal. Worse, they share the insider dread of following the populist instincts of the voters in foreign policy.

On the record, Obama favors a "residual force" after pulling out combat troops by 2010. This innocuous wording, which sounds like a clean-up crew, would still be in the crossfire of sectarian combat until all of Iraq's insurgents finally weary of battle. His position is more nuanced that Clinton's, limiting the counterinsurgency forces to fighting al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and not providing training for Iraqi troops unless the Baghdad government reconciled its factions.

For both Clinton and Obama, the number of Americans left in the war zone would be staggering, even after the withdrawal of most or all combat troops. Including the backup forces and private contractors necessary to support the residual role, the numbers could be 50-100.000. That would make Iraq look like Afghanistan, or Central America in the late 1970s.

Only the pressure of the peace movement, bloggers and the mainstream media might make Clinton or Obama break with their advisers and issue an actual plan for ending the war rather than merely shifting from combat to counterinsurgency. Since the next six months are the only time the candidates can be forced to respond to voters' questions, the mission of the peace movement is becoming clear. While rejecting McCain as the neoconservative candidate of war, peace advocates can loudly refuse to support the Iraq platform of either Democratic candidate until they display more candor and commitment towards the voters. With enough voices pressuring them, inside and outside the Democratic Party, it will be difficult to silently support counterinsurgency in the name of peace.

Tom Hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq, and the forthcoming Writing for a Democratic Society, The Tom Hayden Reader.

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