Withdrawing Withdrawal Comment, and the Unpeaceful Peace Movement

By David Swanson

The peace movement, and the progressive blogosphere, can be very unpeaceful places, and it seems like I’ve spent the past day or two arguing with more people than I’ve communicated with pleasantly. This is not totally new, of course, but in this case I deserve a good share of the blame for it, so there may be an opportunity to learn a lesson.

The first thing I did was use a reckless headline. I titled an article “Obama Scraps Iraq Withdrawal.” Maybe I wanted people to read it. Maybe I was used to the overwhelming indifference to articles about Afghanistan and didn’t realize that Iraq was still a hot topic. Maybe I’d grown used to people accepting imprecise headlines when they were about Bush. Primarily, however, I recklessly picked a headline related to stories I linked to in my first paragraph in order to write on a related theme. In any case, I got literally hundreds of angry complaints, all of which were correct. Obama has not announced that there will never be any withdrawal from Iraq.

I doubt very much that there will ever be a complete withdrawal from Iraq unless intense pressure is applied in Iraq or here or in both places. And I think we are being gradually prepared for just how slow and incomplete the withdrawal will be. But I should have made the headline accurate. My article was accurate. And Obama has scrapped his most recent plan for withdrawal, replacing it with a slower one.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) requires complete withdrawal of all forces by the end of next year, and withdrawal from all towns by last summer. We have not complied in full with the withdrawal from towns or other aspects of the agreement (which is essentially a treaty by another name), and our generals have made statements indicating that they don’t view the SOFA as binding. The SOFA has a number of other problems, in that it was approved by the Iraqi parliament only on condition that the Iraqi people get to vote it up or down. They’ve been denied that vote, a story that has not been reported. And the SOFA was never ratified by the US Senate, as is required by the Constitution if it is — as I believe — a treaty given a different name. The constitutionality of legislating three years of war without Congress is also dubious. So is the legalization of the continuation of an illegal war by means of a treaty made with an occupied government.

Many people have misunderstood my concern here. They believe that by questioning the validity of the SOFA I am making it easier for Obama to violate it. But my position is that the occupation should end today. I believe we’re violating the UN Charter and any code of human decency every instant we remain in Iraq. And if the occupation has to last another 19 months, and if the SOFA can then help to end it, I’m all for using that lever. But it is a fair point that I have not made that clear and that there is a conflict between questioning and employing the SOFA.

The point I’ve been trying to make is a different one, namely that because the Congress played no role in creating the SOFA it will, in fact, find it more difficult to object if the president chooses to violate or renegotiate it. Congress has since affirmed its support for this treaty that it was never asked about, but because the power of the purse has been pretty well taken off the table, it’s not clear what teeth that affirmation has. Some will recall that Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced a bill rejecting the SOFA as unconstitutional, and not because she hoped to prolong the war. Rather, because she hoped to keep war powers in Congress, given the centuries old knowledge that war powers in the hands of a lone individual will guarantee lots of war.

Of course, President Obama “scrapping” his withdrawal plan is not even strictly new news. He campaigned on a promise to begin withdrawal immediately, pulling out one or two brigades a month for the first sixteen months. He hedged about “non combat troops” and listening to generals, but I don’t recall hearing a satisfactory explanation for why that plan was scrapped. Instead there was to be a withdrawal by August 31st leaving 50,000 troops and who knows what other personnel behind. What has been repeatedly delayed and has now been delayed anew is the start of that massive withdrawal. We are now supposed to believe that some 40,000 troops will be withdrawn in the space of two months. I’m sure this can be done, but it is noteworthy that we’ve been told for almost a decade that any such withdrawal would require many months to accomplish. And, of course, this is all subject to “conditions on the ground” which appear to favor further delays.

When and if those delays are announced, Congress will simply be counted on to pick up the tab. Congress will not be asked. We will not be asked. The Iraqi people will not be asked. It is this situation, in which we are all simply relying on the good will of a president who seems easily swayed by his generals, that I have tried to highlight. This and the presence of major permanent military bases and a so-called embassy the size of the Vatican. Those and the ongoing military and oil interests of our industrial-congressional-presidential complex.

The second thing I’ve done is criticize the direction that some in the peace movement have taken. I try to do this in a constructive way, but am not always very good at that. OK, I suck at it. We’re all passionate about this, which doesn’t help. And the result is a lack of trust and additional misunderstandings. Many peace groups, which — yes — contrary to many questions I received today, actually do exist, have been lobbying congress members to cosponsor a bill to create a nonbinding requirement that the president create a timeline (any timeline) for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, I would support this if it weren’t at the same time as a vote to fund an escalation of the war and weren’t being proposed as an amendment to that bill (the amendment may or may not happen, in the end). My first objection is one of limited resources. Groups have focused on that bill instead of on opposing the funding. My second objection is that congress members may use their cosponsorship of an antiwar bill as an excuse to vote the wrong way on the funding. My own congressman has already tried a similar excuse, letting us know this week that he voted for a similar measure last year, but refusing to say he’ll oppose the funding.

Now, some activists have already persuaded their representative to oppose the funding and are asking him to sign onto the nonbinding timetable as well. That I enthusiastically applaud and admire. And when I stop and think carefully I realize that I would much rather have people pushing the timetable bill than doing nothing to try to end the wars. It may provide an excuse for some members, but most of them would find some other excuse if they had to — they’re pros at that. And any anti-war activism is good anti-war activism. So, I’m going to scale back my attempts to sway people away from pushing bills. But I do want to clear up some misunderstandings.

Here’s an article by a peace blogger Josh Mull devoted entirely to disagreeing with me on all kinds of things. This is the result of my own failings to communicate amicably with him and others, leading him to blog about points of confusion that would have been straightened out if he had felt inclined to ask me about them, as well as points of legitimate disagreement.

Mull begins by disagreeing, as most people do, with my proposal that we tell congress members that we will vote against them in November if they keep voting to fund wars. This is so unpopular a position that when a group of us local activists recently met with our congressman, one gentleman assured our representative that we would vote to reelect him no matter what he did, and then asked how we could persuade him to not fund an escalation. The problem is that there are not too many other ways to do it. We can organize, educate, shame, or harass him. We can promise to reward and praise him. But we lack a decent communications system, and he will do what the Democratic Party tells him to do as long as the million dollars they give him for advertisements can be expected to win our votes. I agree with Josh and favor using all tools of persuasion, and I agree that a congress member who’s retiring can’t be threatened with votes, but I strongly disagree with Mull’s notion that threatening to vote for someone who doesn’t fund wars is “extremist.” Even an official who agrees with us on some domestic issue will not have the funds to pay for it if he’s funding wars. Nor will our world be safe to live in. We could fail to persuade with our threats, be forced to follow through, and elect someone worse. But we have no other leverage with which to turn an incumbent into someone good. If they knew we were willing to replace them with someone worse, they’d treat us very differently.

Josh goes on to argue that the nonbinding timetable bill is the way to go because of what it would impose on the president. But that’s to imagine it passing the House and Senate and the president himself, and to forget that it’s not binding. Most proponents of maximizing the Yes votes for it do not imagine it passing and treat it as a form of rhetorical pressure — which is essentially all it is even if passed. And I support it, except for thinking that maximizing the No votes on the funding is a stronger message. And Mull suggests that if I object to the SOFA I should approve of the nonbinding timetable bill. There he’s right, and I do prefer that legislative actions be taken by our legislature.

And yet I’m confused as to what argument we’re having and why, and realize that I probably started it. So, I’m going to continue the mad push for peace with a little more care. I’m thrilled that people actually care whether Obama is withdrawing from Iraq or not. I appreciate them correcting anything I get wrong. I’m glad people are lobbying against the war in Afghanistan, and I’m glad they’re passionate about the approach they’re taking. And as we’ve all told each other endlessly for years, but don’t always learn: if we could focus on persuading the people outside the movement to join it, our internal disputes would fade away along with all the goddamned militarism.