Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

If Obama Becomes President: Realistic Hopes & Obstacles for Peace & Justice

I have already sent an email similar to this blog post to several email lists of peace groups. I have been a “peace and justice activist” since my conversion to Christian pacifism and subsequent discharge from the U.S. Army (1983) as a conscientious objector to all war and preparation for war. In that time, I have found that peace activists in the U.S. (maybe also elsewhere) tend to be purists about political candidates. This leads to 2 patterns that I want to discourage: Type 1 says (sometimes for theological reasons) that all presidents or prime ministers or politicians are alike–or too close to worry about. The differences are shades of gray. Peace activists should not waste their time trying to get any particular candidate elected. Type 2 tends to think a particular candidate can become a cure-all or peace messiah: If we just this person elected, we can put away our signs and civil disobedience and war tax resistance and strategies for mediation, etc., etc. because all will be well.

I have strong arguments against both attitudes. No politician is anywhere near perfect. All are at times hypocritical or pander for votes or, at the least, are inconsistent. But sometimes the choice between candidates and/or parties is clear. I think this is one of those times. I think a President Obama would mostly be an ally to peacemakers–but would have to be pushed in some areas. I think that a President McCain would have peacemakers mostly on the defensive as Bush has–trying to cushion or prevent the worst of his policies. A President Obama will disappoint us as a candidate Obama already has, at times. But I do think it worthwhile for peace activists, including Christian peace activists, to work hard to get him elected, staffing phone banks, contributing money, knocking on doors, registering voters, etc. But not because he will be anything close to a pacifist.

Should Sen. Obama become President Obama, what realistic hopes and what obstacles to peace and justice can we expect?

  • He will end the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This is, by itself, a huge reason to work for his election rather than John 100 Years McCain’s. Ending the occupation will be messy. The troops will probably only be pulled back to Kuwait or Qatar and some will be redeployed to Afghanistan. We must work to insist on rebuilding Iraq and we peacemakers must push for an international UN peacekeeping force (and/or work with groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams or Nonviolence International, Peace Brigades International, etc. to for 3rd party non-violent intervention and work at reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’ia and Kurd). The temporary reduction of violence from the troop “surge” seems to have ended and violence is once more on the upswing. But if more chaos follows the exit of our troops, the Right will clamor for their return. Obama is committed to ending the occupation, but he has repeatedly stated that it won’t be easy. We can be hopeful, but want to give all the help we can to ensuring the building of a peaceful, prosperous, free and secure Iraq in the aftermath of the war and occupation.
  • Afghanistan. I think we have to brace ourselves for the fact that Obama will increase troops and other resources to Afghanistan. Besides the pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, this will be mostly in a support capacity. Our task as citizen peacemakers from around the globe will be to seek nonviolent alternatives in nation-building, hoping that an exit from Afghanistan without leaving it a failed state will be possible in the near future.
  • Pakistan. I think Obama will be guided by those like Joe Biden who want to support the Pakistani democracy by building schools and other development projects. His willingness to bomb the tribal territories along the Afghan border in pursuit of Al-Qaeda is a real concern and we need to see what we can do to provide alternatives. I do think an Obama presidency will help more than McCain for the U.S. to become an even handed broker between Pakistan and India over both Kashmir and nukes, instead of the one-sided support for India on these matters that has been our policy.
  • I have now heard 3 Obama speeches to the American Israeli Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and all of them showed me that he has no real empathy for Palestinian suffering. He tilts toward the Right where Israel is concerned–and not just to win Jewish votes, I think, although the tone of his most recent rhetoric is probably a response to McCain’s attacks. He HAS committed himself to a 2 state peace settlement within the 1967 borders. He has said nothing about the WALL and his most recent remarks about Jerusalem as the capitol, instead of a shared city, were very unfortunate. We will have to work hard here for a true just peace–and part of that will include working to change the shape of the debate in our society. We will have to give him the political climate that can make work to heal BOTH Israel AND Palestine something he can advocate without ushering in a new Right in Congress or the White House. Obama did promise to work throughout his presidency, not just at the end, for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Although I am always against demonizing folk, I am glad that Hamas renounced its “endorsement” of his candidacy–something that just played into the hands of the Right here and in Israel.
  • Latin America. This is one of the most under-reported, but truly progressive, dimensions to Obama’s foreign policy. Go to his website and check it out–and hear his speech before the Cuban-Americans in Miami. He is against NAFTA and voted against CAFTA because of lack of protections for unions and for the environment–and he knows that the weaknesses of those agreements have led directly to the increase in illegal immigration here. But he knows that global trade will play a part in all U.S.-Latin American relations and supported the pact with Peru as having the necessary protections–whether he was right or wrong, it shows his willingness to make distinctions and find common ground. He is not quite a member of the Fair Trade movement, but he is closer to that than to the Free Trade fundamentalists. He is committed to ending the civil war in Columbia and he sees Venezuala’s Hugo Chavez as a possibly dangerous adversary, but not as a demon. He wants step-by-step normalization with Cuba, but will leave the embargo on, at first, as a lever to help encourage more democratic reforms. (I think the embargo is a complete waste, but I like the fact that Obama is thinking in step-by-step fashion and focusing on behavior change, rather than regime change.)
  • I think his speeches and actions can lead us to expect reasonably hard-nosed diplomatic engagement with Iran (he is pushing for disinvestment of Iran if it does not renounce its nuclear energy program), Syria, North Korea, Russia and China. His approach is classic “carrot or stick” politics, but seems to work for more carrot than stick.
  • Obama has been one of the strongest Senators working to stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan; the Democratic Republic of Congo; and to end the military dictatorship in Burma/Myanmar. He definitely prefers diplomacy and economic and political sanctions to military intervention–and international UN peacekeeping to go-it-alone policies by the U.S. However, I think peace folk need to work to educate him more on the practices of just peacemaking so that he is not boxed into a debate framed as “do nothing vs. military intervention.”
  • I think we can expect a definitely stronger commitment to the United Nations and other post-WWII international institutions for peace, development, and security. We can expect (and urge) him to sign the cluster-bomb ban, the ban on landmines, re-sign the ABM Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Possibly, he would also sign the Treaty of Rome that commits the U.S. to the International Criminal Court, but if he pushes too fast on this one, there could be a Right wing backlash.
  • I don’t think we can expect any deep cuts in military spending his first term. In fact, in terms of troop strength, armor and equipment, and conventional weapons, we should expect Obama to push for increases. Toward the end of his first term, we MIGHT get him behind cutting the wasteful “Star Wars” missile defense and other cold war weapons with no practical use in today’s world, including deep, multi-lateral cuts in nukes. But people in this country are still fearful and fear leads to imperialistic and militaristic actions. To get these kinds of cuts (which we need), we are going to have to work to create the kind of political atmosphere and discourse which leads to “strength through peace” rather than “peace through greater firepower.” Before we as citizen activists (including religious leaders) create such an atmosphere, any president which moved to make deep cuts in weaponry would lose at the polls and we’d end up with another Neo-Con regime. Too fast a movement can create a backlash.
  • For the same reason, I don’t expect a President Obama to show any enthusiasm for a Dept. of Peace. The campaign for this will have to be through Congress–I doubt he would veto it. The same goes for the creation of the Peace Tax Fund for conscientious objectors to be able to pay all of their taxes without any going for war. An Obama presidency would not be as committed to these kinds of actions as, say, a Dennis Kucinich would be.

A later post will outline my thoughts on what progressives can reasonably expect in domestic policies from a President Obama.

Presidents are not magic wands. Citizenship involves more than casting a vote every 4 years. So does the work of peace with justice. We will have plenty of petitions to Congress, letters to the editor, sermons, speeches, demonstrations, independent projects that have no government support (and maybe government opposition) that show new ways of approach, etc., etc. But it seems obvious to me that engaging in all that, in our peace teaching, our counter-recruitment, our citizen-diplomacy meetings, our nonviolent campaigns, etc., that we would have a much more supportive context for this kind of work Barack Obama in the White House (and, I hope, Bill Richardson as Sec. of State!) than with John McCain there. John McCain, like George W. Bush, would keep peacemakers constantly on defense, trying to curb the worst excesses of bad polices.

The contrast leads me to believe that peace activists, faith-based and otherwise, should work hard for the election of Sen. Obama as the next president of the United States–with plenty of hope, but eyes realistically wide open and prepared for disappointments and set backs even if he is elected. Our true work goes on, no matter who is in power–but that doesn’t make elections irrelevant or unimportant.

Jim Wallis likes to say that rather than trying to change one politician with his or her finger to the wind, we should work on changing the direction of the wind.  I think that in Obama we have the opportunity to elect someone who knows that new winds are coming and wants to encourage them.  That’s worth working hard for between now and November 4th–although electoral politics will always be only one dimension of the work for peace, especially from a Kingdom of God perspective.


June 7, 2008 - Posted by | economic justice, foreign policy, peacemaking, U.S. politics


  1. I still don’t understand the justification for keeping US combat troops overseas at all – their presence is aggressive. And I still don’t like his repeated “pro-Israel” rhetoric. And Iran an “immanent threat”. That sounds like what we heard when the US wanted to invade Iraq.

    Comment by steph | June 7, 2008

  2. Steph, I agree, but the U.S. has not become that mature, yet. If any president would vow to close all our overseas bases, he would be replaced immediately by a rightwing imperialist. We have to show the U.S. public that projecting compassion around the globe and treating other nations as equals will result in more security than other policies–then we will be able to close foreign policies without backlash.

    I also agree about the pro-Israel and Iran comments. We will have to push Obama in these areas. But his comments are mild compared to those of McCain. We must not let our dreams of perfection be the enemy of the good we can achieve.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 7, 2008

  3. Thank you Michael. If gun happy McCain got elected there would be no hope for a future at all. But he won’t. Obama must win. I just hope the peacemakers make the difference.

    Comment by steph | June 7, 2008

  4. Steph, I am hopeful, but history gives us no guarantees. Obama is competing not just against McCain, but against the vast Republican smear machine and against the history of racism in this country. If he were white, he would be leading McCain by 20 points already.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 8, 2008

  5. I’ve been getting that impression from news reports here. I saw interviews the other night with several Clinton supporters who said they’d vote for McCain now to ensure that a black man didn’t become President. It is the ugliest thing. I thought the KKK was a evil of the past. McCain would destroy the world. I’m still confident Obama will win because I can’t believe the majority of Americans are so stupid as to vote for McCain … because the majority didn’t vote for Bush.

    Comment by steph | June 8, 2008

  6. In 2000, Steph, you’re right. The majority voted for Gore who also would have won the electoral college votes needed (we SO need to abolish that remnant of the 18th C.!) if FL hadn’t been stolen. But in ’04 Bush did win a bare majority of the popular vote–by less than 1%.

    Bush’s popularity is now 28% and the Republican popularity is not much better, but McCain is scoring above Republicans in general because of his long reputation as a “maverick” and moderate Republican. I showed in another post how this has not been true recently, but it takes some doing for that reputation to be broken. However, McCain is running a very poor campaign and many political science experts and also the Las Vegas oddsmakers (who have proven very accurate in previous presidential elections) have placed McCain’s chances at between 33% and 45%. If our nation can rise above its racism, this will be the year to do it. Obama is only the 3rd African-American senator since Reconstruction and there have been only 3 African-American governors of states since Reconstruction. So, it’s a hard legacy to overcome.
    We are not unique in this regard: I have not seen a Maori Prime Minister of New Zealand, yet.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 8, 2008

  7. Thanks for the perceptive analysis, Michael. I appreciate that someone with convictions I share (Christian pacifism) has been more attentive than I have been able to be to the details of Obama’s positions. And I agree that the Obama campaign is something to be encouraged by in the context of American politics in recent years (maybe forever). He seemingly does deserve our support.

    However, mostly I find what you write here pretty discouraging. It’s not so much that I am a purist (though I may be). It’s just that if Obama truly does approach Israel/Palestine, US military spending, and the war on Afghanistan in the ways you project, he will continue to lead us hellward.

    You probably remember Neil Young’s great line concerning George Bush I in “Rocking in the Free World”: “We’ve got a kinder, gentler, machine-gun hand.”

    The Obama you present here seems more like the kind of leader who will help the U.S. be a more effective empire, better at dominating the world. Is this what Christian pacifists (or any other peace-oriented people) should devote our best energies toward?

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | June 8, 2008

  8. “The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race, and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”–BARAK OBAMA (at the 2008 AIPAC conference)

    Let it be known that this is the preferred candidate of the peace and justice movement.

    Comment by JimR | June 8, 2008

  9. Ted, people evolve. Carter began as a kindler, gentler Cold Warrior. Obama as he is now is so far beyond McCain (or even Clinton) that I feel that peace folk should definitely help him get elected. But there is also the person Obama could become with our help. Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 40 years ago this past Friday, began as a Cold Warrior who had little empathy with the Civil Rights movement. But he GREW! King & Cesar Chavez and his trips to South Africa and Appalachia converted RFK to the poor and, not to ending all war, but to ending Vietnam. Who knows where he would have ended up had he lived.

    Electoral politics should only be a portion of our concern–but it should be a portion. Obama himself asks us not only to believe that he can change Washington, but that WE CAN. There is more to our work than electing any politician, but I think electing this one is very important. JimR, would you prefer a man who drools over a war with Iran, wants us in Iraq for 100 years, etc.?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 8, 2008

  10. Winston Peters did pretty well as deputy and he’s Maori. We also have a Maori Party currently holding seats in Parliament.

    Comment by steph | June 8, 2008

  11. We also have a high representation of Maori and Pacific Island MPs pretty much representing the percentage in our population.

    Comment by steph | June 8, 2008

  12. Although Winston is Maori it isn’t really an issue.

    Comment by steph | June 8, 2008

  13. I agree that Obama is light years better than McCain. I even think he ranks as one of the very best Democratic or Republican Party nominees for president ever. But I am still pretty uneasy, more about the American empire than about Obama himself.

    What makes you think that if Obama “evolves” to positions that we genuinely could support he wouldn’t be pushed out (ala Henry Wallace in 1944)?

    John Pilger, a journalist I admire, makes a case for the comparison of RFK with Obama is a reason for discouragement.

    See: http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/31/9327/

    Comment by Ted Grimsrud | June 8, 2008

  14. You guys just don’t get it. Barak Obama is just too smart to be a pacifist. He may be “progressive,” he may have been a friend of Rev Wright and Fr.Pfiger but he isn’t so stupid to be a pacifist. If he becomes president he will be confronted with the same problems as McCain when it comes to Iran. They will test him and eventually he will use military force. Do you really think that “talking” with Ahmadinijad will help? Yeah, right. That s what AIPAc speech was all about. Deal with it.

    Comment by John Pratt | June 8, 2008

  15. I think what you’re asking is for progressives to not reject good for best.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | June 9, 2008

  16. Good summary Michael. Most of your reflections focus on foreign policy. Obama will bring a much more nuanced understanding of how change happens at a grass roots level and the counterweight of private or government funding – policy. He is strong in this area, an area that has international and domestic implications. This background will be new for the White House. Gene Stoltzfus

    Comment by Gene Stoltzfus | June 9, 2008

  17. Yes, Gene. I will deal with domestic policy in another post and I believe you are right about his understanding of change coming from the grassroots. Stephen, I am asking progressives and peace folk not to reject the good for a best that is not yet possible. (The impossible will take a little while. We have to create the context for it to become thinkable.)

    Consider that only a few years ago, debt cancellation for countries in the Global South was considered a pipe dream. Then Christians and others created the Jubilee Movement and debt cancellation became mainstream.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 9, 2008

  18. This can’t be good.
    Wal-Mart Defender To Direct Obama’s Economic Policy

    Comment by Marty | June 10, 2008

  19. First I would like to say that I love Black people. But if Obama wins it will be the beginning of the End of the American Empire. Arabs, Muslims, Jihadists, etc. will be celebrating in the streets just like they did on 911. Why?
    In the Muslim world if your father is Muslim, then so are you. Then he says that he will get out of Iraq. They love that even more. Getting out of Iraq before the mission is complete would give the enemy time to regroup and leaving a void for Iran to move into. And you know as soon as we leave that is Iran’s plan.
    Now the Iranian’s hate us far more than we dislike them. This war is not going away for a long time. As long as people hate like the Arab-Muslim countries do, the war goes on. Pulling out of Iraq isn’t going to make it go away. They will just take the war to American, like they did on 9-11.

    Comment by Mel | September 6, 2008

  20. Another thing to Christain Pacifist’s. King David was a warrior and God’s favorite. I don’t think God is against fighting in your own interests. Now God was against the Romans because of the reasons they went to war for. Slavery and cruelty to name a few.

    Comment by Mel | September 6, 2008

  21. obama the president

    Comment by kelvin mash kenya | September 22, 2008

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: