Obama still leads in the race for the nomination but has been damaged on core issues of character and message. Clinton still can win but only by alienating many voters the Democrats need. The peace and justice movement should be cheered by the attention to Iraq and NAFTA, and keep on pressing the candidates.
Obama must get tougher without contradicting the high standards he is setting for himself. There are two lines he can pursue:
His campaign can demand immediate disclosure of the Clinton tax returns, White House and Library documents that will show where Hillary Clinton's $5 million donation came from, and whether Bill Clinton has used his influence in cases like the uranium contract with Kazakhstan for a Clinton donor who gave at least $31 million to the ex-president's charitable foundation [NYT, Jan. 31, 2008]. It is imperative for Obama to parry the Clintons on these issues while the ugly Chicago trial of Obama supporter Tony Rezko is unfolding in Chicago.
Second, those same White House records will reveal whether Clinton has lied about having lobbied internally against NAFTA as First Lady. Only biographer Carl Bernstein claims she did, but he may be referring to her concerns about the timing of the NAFTA initiative, not NAFTA itself. Obama needs to parry on this issue to offset the story out of Canada that his representative gave secret assurances to Ottawa about Obama's NAFTA proposal.
Finally, in terms of policy, it is becoming increasingly questionable whether Obama can succeed at his lofty visionary level without sharpening a principled policy difference with Clinton that really matters to voters. It is too late to dream up a new issue. The only policy difference favoring Obama that goes straight to the issue of "experience" is Iraq. It no longer is enough that Obama opposed the war five years ago, especially if it appears that there are no differences between the candidates now. For whatever reason, Obama has allowed Clinton to appear to take an identical stand on the war. Is that true? Or is it time for Obama to issue a further clarification of his position separating him from both Clinton and McCain? The peace movement and media can play a role here.
The key questions are these:
- Does Clinton propose a timetable for withdrawing combat troops, like Obama does?
- Does either Democratic candidate plan to withdraw all troops, or leave tens of thousands of Americans behind fighting a counterinsurgency war like Afghanistan today or Central America in the 1970s?
Are these questions too complicated for the media and the candidates to ask themselves? Or is it true once again that the issues which are hidden in campaigns turn out to be the most important in the end?
The peace movement can help force the issue, especially in Pennsylvania, if it is galvanized. Iraq, it is said, is the pivotal issue in the Philadelphia suburbs. The message from the peace movement delivered on blogs, leaflets and in rallies could be something like this:
We oppose Sen. McCain because he wants to continue President Bush's war in Iraq for years ahead at a cost of X lives and X dollars to the people of Pennsylvania and this country. But we have an urgent question for the Democratic candidates: which of you really will end the Iraq war, on what deadline, and not leave behind tens of thousands of US counter-terrorism units and advisers in a bloody counterinsurgency quagmire like Afghanistan today or Central America in the 1970s?
Assuming Obama says nothing new, which is likely at this point, the way is open for Clinton, believe it or not, to become the preferred anti-war candidate. All she needs to do is listen to John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff for her husband, who strongly favors the withdrawal of all American troops in one year. Podesta argues that leaving thousands of troops behind would sink them further in a quagmire. Or she could listen to her husband's former CIA director, John Deutch, who publicly says the US should broker a deal with Iran and get out of Iraq. She could seize on Obama's apparent policy of planning to continue contracts with Blackwater security forces.
Or Obama could stop relying on his five-year old speech and say the time has come to clarify who really wants to leave Iraq. In this scenario, he would say that Clinton has avoided saying whether she would set an actual deadline to withdraw all combat troops, whether troops will be gone by 2013, or whether she would leave tens of thousands of American troops still in Iraq after two terms of her presidency. The evidence is clear that she plans to keep behind trainers, advisers, counter-terrorism units and sufficient forces to "deter Iran."
The math is simple, starting with the Baker-Hamilton assumption of 10-20,000 American troops left behind after combat units withdraw. For 15,000 adviser/trainers there would be a back-up force three times that number, for a total of 60,000. If 50,000 private contractors also remained, the total would run to 110,000 while the current combat brigades were being withdrawn. This could be the greatest false promise since Richard Nixon's secret plan for peace in 1972, which was followed by his carpet bombing of Hanoi with B-52s.
For further on this false promise, see "Many Troops Would Stay in Iraq If a Democrat Wins", Wall Street Journal, Feb. 29, 2008, and "Peace, Or Counterinsurgency Without End", Tom Hayden, SF Chronicle, Jan. 24, 2008.
So what is a sensible alternative to this nightmare scenario? Any serious alternative would begin with the assertion that counterinsurgency in Iraq can't turn around a war that 160,000 combat troops have failed to win. The US units will be caught in a sectarian crossfire. Only a political/diplomatic settlement can contain the damage caused by the Bush policies, and a diplomatic offensive will have to include a pledge that American troops will withdraw before the neighboring countries will become engaged in the issues of refugees, reconciliation and reconstruction.
Beyond Iraq, it is crucial that the US not fall into the Bush-McCain-Neo-conservative scenario, stated by Bush in 2005, of a new Cold War against "Islamo-fascism." Not that American military power shouldn't be available for deterrent purposes against anyone who has attacked this country. But military approaches in the absence of a primary emphasis on diplomacy and political/economic/energy solutions will only sink the next generation in permanent, bloody, costly, and destabilizing quagmires without an exit strategy in sight. It will be like burning down haystacks in search of needles. It is exactly the US policy that Osama Bin Ladin hopes for. [see Marching Toward Hell, by Michael Scheuer, the man who tracked Bin Ladin and carried out renditions for the CIA]
This scenario, if pursued by any of the candidates, will also bury the possibilities of funding universal health care or alternatives to our oil dependency for the next generation, just as Lyndon Johnson's delusional promise of "guns and butter" destabilized the American economy and made us vulnerable to oil boycotts in the wake of Vietnam.
It would create a worsening national security crisis by further inflaming the Muslim world, isolating the US from its allies, and creating the pretexts for multiplying insurgencies, including the possibility of another 9/11-style attack.
Anyone with the brain of a plant can see the US heading right into these traps and quagmires. Read Barbara Tuchman's March to Folly and it will become clear that only a stunning jolt might force a reversal of course. That "jolt", hopefully, will come from a popular and unavoidable demand for peace rather than another military fiasco.
Obama, if he truly aspires to audacity, now is the time to point out that this is the disastrous and predictable future that will result from the policies proposed by those who claim to have superior "experience" and "expertise" in foreign policy. For precedent, he could stand in Springfield, Illinois, and remind the nation that it was another political novice from Illinois, young Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the Mexican-American war and went on to become quite a commander-in-chief. #
TOM HAYDEN is the author of Ending the War in Iraq  and Writing for a Democratic Society, The Tom Hayden Reader .