Home > General Politics, News from Abroad, US Politics > Obama’s two-front war isn’t over, and neither is ours

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.

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  1. July 28, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Hey this is the US, it’s labor there!

  2. Paul
    July 29, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    I’m not convinced by your thesis connecting Afghanistan and domestic healthcare reforms, but that’s unimportant: I agree on the issue of healthcare reform and how important it is for the Obama presidency.

    Incidentally, this article:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/26/us-healthcare-obama-barack-change

    actually made me so angry I had to take 10 minutes to calm down.

  3. Andrew Baker
    August 1, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Context is everything particularly on Facebook. The quick precis line of ‘Soldiers, are not heroes’ given without contextual explanation is bound to create reaction.

    There is a difference between the individual drama of British soldiers and the tragedies of families torn apart and bereaved by this conflict and the war issues themselves. Indeed one can argue that the working class people with the remit of having a job and status are as much victims in this as individuals and families in Afghanistan who have been dis empowered and killed.

    Your quick dismissal of this reaction even if there was small print rationale on the Facebook group is I believe in error. It is a thought which needs much more digestion.

  4. August 1, 2009 at 10:51 am

    The bare fact that reaction is created doesn’t mean the reaction is right, or the initial sentiment wrong. Frankly I don’t see what’s wrong with saying “Soldiers are not heroes” – they aren’t. Moreover, it’s leagues away from saying “Victory to the insurgency” or “I prefer the Taliban to the British Army”. So I’m sorry but this is a clear example of majority opinion being brought to bear to crush an expression of dissent.

    I agree with the idea that soldiers are working class, and should be won to our cause. My point is that the reaction which I dismiss, and the patriotic aura that colours perceptions of the actions of our army in war, is harmful to winning soldiers to our cause. If you read any accounts of the Iraq War by soldiers, you realise that this aura is what maintains their discipline and service to an ideology not their own.

    It needs broken. We can start by standing up for a measly four thousand people who are being calumnied and harassed for voicing an opinion which is not wrong.

  5. Andrew Baker
    August 1, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    David the statement “Soldiers are not heroes” is oppositional not inclusive. Oppositional to individual soldiers in an emotional climate.
    My point is another perspective to be communicated has been stymied at birth by a personalization which provokes a non issue based reaction. A reaction which comes as no surprise.

  6. August 1, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Oh do give it a rest. Oppositional, not inclusive? All demands are oppositional, not inclusive. Next you’ll be telling me that the slogan “Troops Out Now”, which was chosen by any number of anti-war groups in any number of conflicts hurts the feelings of soldiers. Diddums. What bullshit.

  7. Andrew Baker
    August 2, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Why should any differing view be given a rest David. Do you always react like this when you fail to answer the point raised?
    David the fact of advocating a view of the war has been allowed to be personalized and that an opportunity to look at the issues and have them exposed has been lost is more important than your vanity of being ‘right’.

  8. August 2, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    I didn’t say that any differing view should be given a rest: I said this one should. I have answered the point raised several times.

    I don’t claim to know how much experience you have with the sort of mentalities expressing the view that this particular Facebook group should be banned, so in this I am operating from ignorance. My experience of it, however, is quite wide – I’ve grown to know a great number of Americans and conservatives and the subject at stake here is not the ‘oppositional’ nature of the demand, nor the ‘personalization’ of the issue.

    When the war first broke out, a great deal of opinion that I came across – both written, verbal and online – was to the effect that liberals are traitors, that war should be waged unconditionally and so on. Echoes of that are easily evident in the attitude of those who deign to write on the Facebook group calling for the ban. It wouldn’t matter what we said about the soldiers, this sort of opinion would persist.

    It won’t be challenged on foreign policy directly, because the aura of patriotism that clings to the soldiers is all-pervasive. It shouldn’t be. The point of this article was to suggest a grassroots based assault on the material conditions of the hegemony which provides the basis such an aura (capitalist media, immense poverty, working class disorganisation etc). Insofar as that is true, the Facebook group which is under threat of a ban is challenging the symptoms not the cause of the problem.

    That said, and however you might criticize the “Soldiers are not heroes” group for being impolitic, a higher degree of criticism should be reserved for the other group – which has patently departed from any degree of reality, not to mention proportion. I have yet to hear you voice such a criticism. Additionally, it would be a gross error to assume that even by recanting such an impolitic slogan such aggressive nationalism would disappear: it would simply find something else to rally around.

    As I said before, however, all demands are oppositional, not inclusive. There’s a wide body of working class opinion in the USA which seems to think that nationalising auto-makers is communism, and that healthcare is fascist big government run amok. The demand for universal healthcare can therefore be construed as oppositional, not inclusive. So I reject the terms of your analysis and the way in which you have phrased it – and it is you who have not answered the various points I have raised.

  9. Jeff
    August 3, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    What I don’t get about the birther argument is simple: Obama’s parents were clever enough to engineer a birth certificate so he could be elected President, but stupid enough to think in 1961 when a man named “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” had a lot of trouble getting elected because of his religion, that “Barach Husein Obama” would fly?

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