Friday, March 21, 2008

The "Anti-War" Obama (and Clinton too)

Six years ago, Barack Obama, as a legislator in Illinois, delivered a speech opposing Cheney’s and Bush’s war plans for Iraq. Around the same time, Hillary Clinton voted in the U.S. Senate to authorize Cheney’s and Bush’s war. As Obama insists, this shows his “judgment” is better than hers. But since he became a U.S. Senator, Obama has voted with Clinton every time to fund the war or, what amounts to the same thing, to “support the troops.” Clinton has never apologized for her pro-war vote. But, as public opinion has turned, the Great Triangulator has come increasingly to present herself as an anti-war candidate. If Obama is the measure, she has succeeded. The two of them oppose the war in words; they agree it was a “mistake.” They agree that its economic consequences have been disastrous. They agree that it has wreaked havoc on military preparedness. They agree that too many lives, American and Iraqi, have been ruined by it. Nevertheless, the two of them say they would keep American troops and mercenaries in Iraq for an indefinite period -- ostensibly to maintain “order.” The two of them seem to think that this is America’s obligation: that we broke it, so we have to fix it. I have no quarrel with that, but I strongly disagree that the way to fix it is to break it some more. That is plainly their view. That’s why both of them concede that, after the “draw down” begins (within some large number of days after one or the other of them takes office), tens of thousands of personnel will have to remain in or near Iraq for indefinitely many (but fewer than a hundred!) years. Meanwhile, both of them would increase the American military presence in Afghanistan as part of the so-called War on Terror.

The Obama/Clinton position on Iraq resembles Obama’s position on health care. Obama has said that if we were “starting from scratch,” whatever that means, he would favor a single-payer, not for profit, Canadian-style system. But since we’re where we are – we’ll have to make do with something like Hillary-care but without mandates. In other words, we can’t do what’s obviously right because of where we are. And where would that be? Neither Obama nor Clinton will dare utter the obvious answer: we’re in a world where Democrats and Republicans are in the pocket of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. What they will say is that some people like the insurance they have in the present system, and that it would be too disruptive to force them to change. It’s true, of course, that some people do have decent health insurance. But who wouldn’t prefer a cheaper, more rational, more just system? Who, that is, other than the insurance and pharmaceutical companies? They’re the only reason why we can’t have what people living in civilized countries expect as a matter of course.

To say that we can’t leave Iraq immediately and entirely because it would be bad for Iraqis is of a piece with saying we can’t have single-payer health insurance because it would be bad for people (and employers) content with the status quo. Not only is this contention false; it’s meretricious. It deliberately misrepresents the real reason. We can’t have single-payer insurance because the Democrats’ and Republicans’ paymasters won’t hear of it. We can’t leave Iraq, really leave it, because our economic elites and their political operatives in the Democratic and Republican Parties agree that abject defeat is out of the question. Yes, we should never have gone into Iraq, and we shouldn’t stay there a day longer than “necessary.” But we can’t leave with our tails between our legs.

Never mind that, in the real world, we’ve already lost. It’s the appearance, stupid. The “Vietnam Syndrome” tied our masters’ hands for years; we can’t have that again. The problem is not that an Iraq Syndrome would disable the United States in the War on Terror. As John Edwards pointed out in a moment of lucidity, the War on Terror is a “bumper sticker war.” There is and can be no such thing; the idea is absurd. This is not to say that there isn’t much the United States can do to diminish the threat of terrorism. For example, it could get out of Iraq. But that would militate against the real fear: that an abjectly defeated United States would be less able to project its power in the oil-rich Middle East, less able to control strategic resources generally, and ultimately less able to sustain its position as the world’s one and only “superpower,” along with the economic benefits that follow from that role.

Our anti-War Democrats like Obama and Clinton can’t abide that any more than the neo-con advisors of Cheney and Bush and John McCain (Bush Three) can. In this sense, the anti-War Democrats, Obama and Clinton, are of one mind with the warmonger McCain. Where they differ is on how much harm they are willing to do to achieve their shared objective. Because they draw their votes, in part, from genuinely progressive constituencies, the “anti-War” Democrats Obama and Clinton want to do as little harm as possible (and to seem to be doing even less). Because they are accountable to the Darker Angels of our Nature, McCain and Company are less constrained.

McCain and his sidekick, Joe Lieberman, may even think the Iraq War can still be “won.” Obama and Clinton would like victory there too; they just don’t think it’s possible – not at a cost the country or at least the part of it likely to vote for them can bear. The punditocracy may see a deep divide here; and indeed the Obama/Clinton position, because it is less bellicose at a practical level, is the lesser evil. But at the level of underlying political conviction, these differences, though important in practice, effectively disappear. What remains is nothing but wrong-headed, degraded and dangerous “bipartisanship.”

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