Obama’s two-front war isn’t over, and neither is ours
As if we needed to be reminded, the war on terrorism is not over. More than a hundred and fifty British soldiers wounded in action, and at least seventeen military deaths in a month. Which means the deaths of who knows how many others, including non-combatants. Well-informed commentators are quick to point out that casualties are this low only because we’ve effectively purchased the support of local women-hating warlords who are just as bad if not worse than their Taliban equivalents in Afghanistan. Some brave new world.
That’s not the war I’m talking about, however. Barack Obama won the US Presidency on a platform which promised to end the war in Iraq and focus on Afghanistan, but amidst his supporters and activists were hundreds of thousands who wanted all US soldiers to be brought home immediately. Many of whom, even from the outset, felt let down by Obama’s ‘pragmatism’ in announcing delays to troop withdrawals. When funding for Obama’s strategy came up for vote through supplemental appropriations, Democratic Congressmen were browbeaten into supporting it – though some thirty Democratic Congressmen voted against it.
In the video linked to above, Jane Hamsher (author of Firedoglake) discusses how anti-war activism is falling down the priority list of many people in the USA. While attention is drawn to healthcare, however, conservative grassroots sentiment in the USA has not gone away – and is still as simplistic as ever. I experienced some of this myself yesterday on Facebook. The status of a friend demanding the shutting down of a group which is titled “Soldiers are not heroes” – and the sentiments which followed such a status were jingoistic rubbish reminiscent of Tony Blair’s response to a heckler that he wouldn’t get away with heckling in Iraq. As if that justifies absolutely anything.
Why is a non-event on Facebook important? Have a look at the two groups: ‘Soldiers are not heroes’ (hardly a revolutionary contention about men and women paid to kill people) has a mere 3,710 members. Yet it engenders a frothing hatred in denizens of the group “Petition to remove ‘Soldiers are not heroes’ from Facebook“. Which, wait for it, has 473,721 members at the time of writing. People who are saying not that they hate soldiers but that they think hero-worship should be controlled are compared to racist groups, denounced as terrorists and so on. “Our soldiers are the only reason you can say that, they’re fighting for our freedom!” is a pretty regular refrain.
If culture is ‘shared attitudes, values, goals and practices’ then such a vociferous Facebook group definitely counts. It is a clear sign that we have a long way to go to convince people that attacking nations like Iraq and Afghanistan – regardless of what it will do to their internal situation – has zero positive effect upon the ‘freedom’ in the UK and US. In fact, in respect of something Prof. Geras was criticizing yesterday, I’d maintain the war had a negative effect. There were any number of people who felt that they were being pressured and bullied to keep their mouths shut.
Support for the war, critical or uncritical, was also support for the social and political pressures mounted by the ruling class as it geared up for war. You couldn’t, for example, be for the war and against the nationalistic fervour co-opted to it. One constituted the other; jingoism and racism are always and forever factors in war between capitalist nation-states. In America, this effect was much worse than in the UK just as (I gather from speaking to American friends) everything from the media, peer and even institutional pressure was brought to bear against dissent.
My point is that the victory of even an ostensibly anti-war candidate in a Presidential election has not altered the basic landscape in the US. The same hegemonic practices continue to exist. The anti-war movement hasn’t completed its victory, and whatever gestures Obama makes to demonstrate a united America, America is not united. The fault lines that divide America on the war are going to come back and bite the Obama administration on plans for social health care – because though dispersed in different ways through the Washington political elite, on the ground the fault lines seem to be the same, or at least substantially similar.
Considered on their own merits, the ‘birther’ argument or the idea that Obama is a communist preparing an unconstitutional Marxist takeover of the US might seem pretty fringe. If we dismiss them at that, we err. A Republican Senator from Oklahoma publicly backed the birther argument only a few days ago (before admitting Obama to be an American) and members of the McCain campaign, US media not to mention Melanie Phillips were all at the same thing during the elections. Comments about how bailing out the US auto industry is backdoor communism has also been voiced on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Like the ultra-nationalism and petty jingoism during the war, all of this is ammunition and smokescreen to be used as a sideshow by the seriously powerful corporate muscle lining up against President Obama’s healthcare reform package. Although, and this needs to be said, with pharmacorporations already having secured their barrels of pork and lining up to support the plan, corporate muscle is fighting on both sides of the debate and the loser may be the public: the idea of a single-payer, or NHS-style public health system has been relentlessly crushed and many Democrats are afraid to bring it up.
How Obama and the Democratic leadership responds to this, and whether or not they make the choice to fire up their campaign activists to launch a street-by-street campaign, could potentially determine the future course of the Presidency. Right now things look shockingly familiar to 1993; confronted by conservative Democrats holding the balance of power in Congress, the Democratic leadership blinked on healthcare and a the Republicans scored a slam-dunk in the 1994 mid-terms, which became a referendum on big government.
Obama buying out the auto-industry, passing a massive subsidy to the IMF, floating American banks and proposing (something that isn’t, but will be spun into) socialized healthcare will likely give the Republicans a similar angle by which to win the debate. I see three possible results. One, the current malaise continues, energising the Republicans with the result of trouble in 2010. Two, Obama’s bill is so watered down (and it already is substantially watered) that it passes and activists lose faith, stoking up New Labour-style trouble ahead. Three: the Obama administration pushes for the nuclear option and street by street Obama activists run local campaigns to support universal socialised healthcare.
Already, the President’s favourables versus unfavourables are looking dicey – and that is accompanied by a complete collapse in his favourables in the southern states – arguably an area where the Democrats need more momentum, not less. They simply can’t rely on relatively stable support from the north-east and mid-west: it will not last forever. This is one reason why I’m for Option 3. Another is that ff Labour can undergo a transformation in its first few years of opposition, this may be what Labour activists demand of their own leadership upon a return to government. Like Obama and the Democrats, our war for hearts and minds is not over. It hasn’t even begun.