The quagmire in Afghanistan is worse than it has ever been. But the US anti-war movement finds itself in a desperately floundering situation, unable to adequately mobilise protest activity around Barack Obama’s Vietnam.
The anti-war movement’s Achilles Heel was its hope in the Democratic Party. This began with its over-simplified targeting of Republican president George W Bush as the problem and moved to a largely uncritical support of Obama’s election campaign.
Now the problem has reached the stage where some of the movement’s most visible figures have recently questioned the need for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.
During last year’s election the anti-war movement couldn’t avoid relating to working class people’s revulsion against Bush. But we should have made it clear that the movement was supporting Obama because he was the candidate who was most likely to be held accountable to its demands.
During his campaign Obama said that if he was elected he would increase troop numbers in Afghanistan. This is not someone the movement should ever have called the “anti-war candidate”.
Adding to the confusion are institutions like the committee that awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize for his perceived potential – in the face of his actual support of war.
Or there is film maker and cultural icon Michael Moore, who constantly lambasts capitalism, yet still uncritically backs Obama.
In the face of such contradictions, in a time when the working class in the US is paying close attention to the economy and political policy on issues like health care, the nation’s largest anti-war coalition, United for Peace and Justice, finds itself on the brink of collapse.
In part it dug its own grave by claiming Obama’s victory as an anti-war victory. It offered ordinary people little reason to believe the anti-war movement would still be needed once he was in the White House.
But what is the “anti-war” president overseeing? The prison camp at Guantanamo remains open. Secret detention centres in Afghanistan still exist.
“Extraordinary renditions” keep sending suspects to be tortured by US “allies”. The Obama administration refuses to go after Bush and his cronies for war crimes in Iraq. There are troops and permanent bases in Iraq along with military and multi-national contractors.
Given this glum overview, are we to assume that all of the talk about “change” and “hope” and “belief” was just a passing fancy of the US working class? Have Americans gone back to their sofas and televisions and tuned out?
The answer is a resounding “no”. During the mortgage crisis, the bank bailouts, the General Motors takeover, the job cuts – workers, students, and activists were out in the streets protesting against the gross inequities, chanting anti-capitalist slogans and building working class solidarity.
Last month over 200,000 people marched in Washington DC for gay, lesbian, and bisexual equality – expressing frustration and anger over Obama’s unfulfilled promise for change and demanding their civil liberties.
In town after town and city after city, the working class has come out in droves and spoken up about the need for healthcare reform.
Touching all but the very few at the top, the need for access to affordable and quality healthcare has been resonating with Americans. It is where the working class is most vocal and active – and it is where the Obama administration is going to disappoint.
The way to hit back at Obama’s Afghanistan policy and regenerate a robust anti-war movement will not be direct. Instead, the movements around economic and public policy healthcare reform have got the ball rolling.
These movements have empowered people to be able to criticise what’s not working and to criticise Obama – instead of adopting a “wait and see” policy as many in the anti-war movement felt compelled to do around Obama and Afghanistan.
Given the strength of the healthcare reform and economic reform movements in the US, and their connection to military spending, and the deepening crisis in the Middle East – the anti-war movement in the US – still has potential to grow.
It will be bolstered by existing working class movements that are directly attacking capitalism for its inequities and injustice.
When anti-war activists straddle these movements, even more ordinary Americans will be brought into a sharper anti-Afghanistan war movement. Hopefully that will happen in the near future.
Virginia Rodino is a US anti-war activist