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

Obama’s Heroes Would Not Approve of His War in Afghanistan

Thanks to Derrick Crowe of Rethinking Afghanistan and Return Good for Evil for this video.

We have to speak truth to power–always. In season and out, regardless of change of administrations.

October 23, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, foreign policy, nonviolence, peacemaking, U.S. politics, war | 11 Comments

Too Soon the Laureate

One word leaps to mind in considering the Nobel Committee’s announcement yesterday that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to President Barack Obama:  premature.  Alfred Nobel’s will was very clear on who could nominate someone for the peace prize (members of national parliaments or congresses, political science or philosophy faculty in universities, and persons who have already won the prize) and who would determine (in secret) the recipient (a committee formed by the Norwegian Storting or Parliament but whose members cannot include sitting members of the Storting or the Norwegian government).  But Nobel’s will (largely because he wrote it without legal help, distrusting lawyers) is notoriously vague on the criteria for winning the Peace Prize.  This has led to a wide variety of Nobel Peace Laureates in the century plus of the award–from pacifists and peace activists, human rights activists, to politicians and diplomats from many countries, to organizations that work for peace in a wide variety of ways.  The award has been given for diplomatic efforts leading to the end of wars and to signing of peace treaties. It has been given for relief work in the midst of war (e.g., the International Red Cross and Crescent Societies, Doctors Without Borders, etc.), for aid to refugees. It has been given for efforts in arms reduction, or to nonviolent social movements, and for efforts to eliminate major causes of war and violence such as poverty, ethnic or religious conflict, or environmental threats.

But the vagueness of criteria for the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize has led to some very odd choices:  most notoriously when former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam’s chief negotiator Lu Duc Tho (neither a person of peace) were awarded the Prize jointly for negotiations toward ending the Vietnam War.  Lu Duc Tho became the only person in history to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize saying, rightly, that no peace had been achieved and that the talks were breaking down. Another time the Nobel Committee made an embarrassing choice designed to encourage a peace process was when they jointly awarded the prize to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat.  Both Rabin and Arafat had previous histories as terrorists and some argued that Arafat had not yet abandoned that role.  One member of the Nobel committee quit in protest.

The selection President Obama is not that bizarre.  In fact, if his ambitious foreign policy agenda is successful at any of his peacemaking goals:  a just two-state peace between Israel and Palestine, reversing the nuclear arms race, etc., then I fully expected that he might be a future Nobel Laureate.  But this seems, at best, premature  –even to Pres. Obama to judge from his reaction.  Yes, he has stopped U.S. torture, although failing so far to hold any of the torturers accountable and pushing for the continuation of the practices of indefinite detention without trial (for some al Qaeda members that the administration believes guilty of crimes but cannot prosecute because the evidence was obtained by torture under the Bush regime) and rendition.  But the prison at Guantanemo Bay is not yet closed and the “detainees” have not been either tried in regular courts or released.  Yes, he has begun the slow ending of the occupation of Iraq, but most of our troops are still there.  Yes, he wants to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process, but has failed so far to get Israel to stop building new settlements or get Palestinian factions to reconcile with each other or stop stockpiling weapons for future attacks against Israel–nothing has yet happened.  Yes, we are scheduled to have nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia–but they haven’t yet taken place.  He has expanded the war in Afghanistan and started an undeclared one in Pakistan with predator drones.  He wants a new engagement with Iran that leads to their abandoning of their nuclear weapons ambitions and, eventually, to the first resumption of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic ties since 1979–but no progress has yet been made and recently he seemed to imply a willingness to bomb suspected Iranian nuclear plants.

The hawkish Obama has proceeded apace, but the Obama who dreams of peacemaking has yet to move from hope to actual change.  Thus, I call this award premature, and Obama himself calls it “a call to action.”  That, I suggest, is how peace activists from around the world should react–not by mocking or condemning this choice, but by using it as moral leverage in encouraging real peacemaking from this administration.  As filmmaker Michael Moore said yesterday, “Congratulations, Mr. President–now go out and earn it.”  That should be the unanimous note of peace activists–encouraging this president to live into the award that he does not (yet) deserve.

Later this weekend, I will email the White House with this message and a list of suggested actions that Pres. Obama can take between now and the formal presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize in December that will act as steps toward fulfilling that “call to action.”

  • Announce that the U.S. will “re-sign” the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty “unsigned” by former Pres. Bush.  Since the legality of “unsigning” a ratified treaty is murky (and unprecedented!) under both U.S. and international law, I doubt that this would even need ratification by the U.S. Senate–but with 60 Democratic Senators, such ratification should be pro forma.
  • Announce that the U.S. will “re-sign” the Treaty of Rome that authorized the creation of the International Criminal Court and will join the ICC instead of continuing the Bush-era attempts to evade the ICC’s jurisdiction.  Joining will require Senate confirmation, and some will balk out of fear that the ICC might attempt to try members of the Bush admin. for war crimes related to torture and rendition if the U.S. does not prosecute them, but Obama should take that risk.
  • Sign the International Treaty Banning Landmines.  The U.S. is one of the few democratic holdouts even though American Jody Williams (who won the Nobel for her efforts) founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.  Even many famous generals around the globe support this since landmines are of limited military value in war, but continue to kill and maim civilians long after wars are officially over.
  • Sign the Treaty Against Child Soldiers.  Former Pres. Bush refused because he wanted the U.S. to still be able to have 17 year olds in the military–but out military will hardly crumble without them.  And this treaty gives some teeth to efforts to stop the kidnapping and forced induction of adolescent and pre-adolescent children into both government and rebel armies–most notoriously by the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda.
  • Announce an increased pace of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.
  • Announce an end to use of the predator drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of the enormous loss of civilian life.
  • Deny General McChrystal’s request for additional troops in Afghanistan. Freeze at current levels while re-thinking Afghanistan–seeking a new way forward.
  • Announce that the U.S. will unilaterally reduce its nuclear weapons by 10% across the board. We need MUCH deeper cuts around the globe, but this unilateral step could jump-start the talks with Russia and show the world that you are serious about reversing the nuclear arms race. It could be a transforming initiative that invites similar moves on the part of others.

Beyond these steps, the way grows harder and must include cooperation from both Congress and international partners.  Grassroots peace and human rights organizations should do our part by supporting the actions the Obama administration takes for peace, praising them, and encouraging more and criticizing steps in the wrong direction.  Also, not waiting for governments or prizes, we need to continue our own, independent, actions for peace.

October 10, 2009 Posted by | foreign policy, human rights., Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, peacemaking | 12 Comments

Afghanistan: Reaping the Poison Fruit of Counterinsurgency

This is a link to a great article by Derrick Crowe.  Unfortunately, it reinforces my continued belief that Afghanistan will be to Obama what Vietnam was to LBJ.  I highly recommend the article and wish the Obama admin. was not getting trapped in the D.C.  bubble.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, foreign policy, just peacemaking, pacifism, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Afghanistan: Reaping the Poison Fruit of Counterinsurgency

World Can’t Wait: Nationwide Peace Protests 19 March 2009

Protests of “Obama’s War,” against continuing occupation and war in Iraq, Afghanistan, & Pakistan will take place on 19 March–the 6th anniversary of the U.S.’ illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses.  It is sponsored by the World Can’t Wait coalition and other anti-war groups.  Although I disagree with the tone of the advertisement, I am all in favor of these protests.  Peace doesn’t come just by an election.  We need to keep up street pressure and other kinds of pressure from to counter the pressure of the hawks:  Politicians in this country tend to protect their right flank, and be more sensitive to attacks on their patriotism and “dovishness.” Without countervailing pressure from peace groups nothing happens.

FDR once said to workers pushing for Social Security, “I agree with you. Now MAKE me do it.”  At the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Pres. Johnson that a voting rights act was needed next. LBJ replied that the votes were not there and wouldn’t be for another 10 years.  “I’ll get you those votes in the streets,” replied King and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. 

I may be naive, but I think Pres. Obama wants to end the Iraq Occupation COMPLETELY on a faster time table than he has announced–if for no other reason than he needs the money for his domestic agenda.  I think he is realizing that there is no military solution to Afghanistan, but is afraid to leave safe havens for al Qaeda in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Peace folks definitely need to propose alternatives here.)  The Beltway Consensus that we need to escalate in Afghanistan as we de-escalate in Iraq–which was nearly absolute as recently as last summer–is coming undone.  It is being challenged in the media and in Congress–and not just from peace or progressive circles.  Polls show the majority of Americans AT LEAST WORRIED about escalating in Afghanistan.

So, now is the time for street pressure.  19 March is a good place to begin. Look up local marches in your area.

UPDATE:  Thanks to citizen activism, the debate is widening in Congress and the press. Today, Rep. Russ Feingold (D-WI), a strong progressive who was a role model for Obama when he first ran for the U.S. Senate, urged Obama to speed up his Iraq withdrawal, deeply cut the “transitional forces” and to re-think Afghanistan entirely.  Keep it up, folks.  And drop Sen. Feingold an email thanking him for speaking out–then send a copy to your Rep. and Senators.

March 3, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, foreign policy, Iraq, peacemaking, terrorism prevention | 1 Comment

Obama Announces Iraq Pull-Out

See the full text and video of his speech here.

This is not everything a Christian pacifist and nonviolent activist like myself could want, but it is a GREAT step in the right direction.  He has adjusted the timeline:  “Combat” troops out by August 2010; Residual force (mostly for training Iraqis) of 30-50,000 (seems large); ALL troops out by 2011–respecting the Status of Forces Agreement Bush made with Iraq.  We’ve been in Iraq WAAAAY too long and if we in the peace movement can put pressure into stepping up the pace, we should.  But ALL troops out is more than Obama would commit to as a candidate. 

Some on the left and some peace folk are purists who are never satisfied when politicians make good steps.  Others are “true believers” who never want to criticize their leader.  I think both stances are a mistake.  I have criticisms to make, but I want us to notice the good and celebrate it first:

  • Obama was against the  invasion of Iraq from the beginning. This is important to note because this marks a first in U.S. history: The very first time that a principled opponent of a particular war was elected president WHILE THAT WAR WAS STILL ONGOING–and while campaigning to end it.
  • The economic crisis (recession, depression–who knows) helps him work to end it–we simply cannot afford this war any longer.
  • The phase out will involve the United Nations and the surrounding countries–a huge change from Bush’s “go  it alone” policies. 
  • Honoring the SOFU with Iraq,  honoring Iraqi sovereignty, is a major step in rebuilding our compliance with international law.
  • Obama’s withdrawal timetable now has the support of McCain and other Republicans!  I know, this surprised me, too, especially since McCain spent the entire general election campaign last year calling Obama “naive” on foreign policy and suggesting that he wouldn’t care if we were in Iraq 100 years!  But this bi-partisan support–even if the number of GOP supporters is few–will make it harder for the rightwing hawks (in and out of the military) to pressure Obama into slowing down the withdrawal or stopping it–or make political hay out of his keeping this campaign pledge.
  • On the other hand, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)  are expressing concern about the number of residual troops in Iraq and the speed of withdrawal.  This is also good news on several levels:  It shows Congress reasserting itself as a separate and EQUAL branch of government again (per the Constitution, remember?) even with the same party in charge of both houses of Congress and the presidency.  It also gives us allies in pushing for quicker, more complete withdrawal.  (Pelosi noted in that interview that the House voted to end the Iraq war repeatedly in ’07 and ’08, but a timetable got out of the Senate only once and Bush vetoed it.  She did not say why she then kept impeachment off the table–since that could have ended the war sooner.)


Now for the major criticism:  As we are winding down Iraq, we are increasing troops in Afghanistan–and without much national or Congressional debate, with no timeline, no clearly defined mission.  I have mentioned before that I believe Afghanistan could be for Obama what Vietnam was for LBJ–the Achilles’ heal that undoes much  of the good he tries to do domestically.   We need to Get Afghanistan Right! and that means recognizing that there is no military solution–even if there theoretically was one when Bush largely abandoned Afghanistan to invade Iraq–a nation uninvolved with al-Qaeda or 9/11 and which was no threat to us! 

Watch the video, sign the petition, and contact your members of Congress to Rethink Afghanistan!  New polling suggests that the American people want to find a way out of Afghanistan, too–certainly by 2012 at the very latest.

Meanwhile, Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), points out that the country needs to get ready for the return of these vets. We already have too many homeless and jobless vets and these returning soldiers will be coming back into the worst economy in decades.  We aren’t prepared for their return and MUST get that way, quickly.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to the Middle East next week to begin work on peace in the region and between Palestine and Israel particularly.  It  is my hope that she lays the groundwork for a full Middle East Peace Summit by July–with full participation by the Arab League, the EU, the UN, the US, etc.–and with Pres. Obama front and center in this process. (A July date gives time for planning, is during Congressional recess so Obama can’t work on more of his domestic challenges just then, and is hopefully soon enough that the hawks of the new Israeli cabinet will not be able to sabatouge things.  Hawks from other groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, however don’t seem to operate on a predictable timetablee.  Much to pray about here!)

Overall, these are positive developments. Now, as peacemakers and persons of faith, let’s do our part to keep things moving in these directions.

February 27, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, foreign policy, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, just peacemaking | 20 Comments

Book Review: We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land

peace-in-holy-land2Jimmy Carter, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land:  A Plan That Will Work. Simon and Schuster, 2009.


Full disclosure: 1. Jimmy Carter is one of my heroes. I voted for him when I turned 18 and took his loss to a B-grade movie actor almost as hard as he did.  2. Like Carter, I have a deep passion for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine–a just peace.

Those biases do not blind me, however.  I recognize that Carter was only an average president (you have to win reelection to have a chance at being a great president, even though second terms are usually much rougher than first ones).  Since his good diplomatic skills abroad were not matched with an ability to get even his own party to cooperate domestically, perhaps Carter would have made a better Secretary of State than president.  Even his human rights policy wasn’t perfect–if he hadn’t backed the Shah, perhaps the Iranian revolution would not have turned in an anti-Western direction and history would have been very different.  Carter’s great record in his post-presidency cannot make up for the average job he did as president.

I also know that the odds are stacked against a Middle East peace deal.  In fact, the odds have been getting worse since 2001:  After the collapse of the Clinton-backed talks, Ariel Sharon deliberately provoked the Second (more violent) Intifada and Arafat and the Palestinians played right into that.  Whereas the first Intifada had been led by a nonviolent wing (allthough the Western media focused on those, like the stone throwing youths, who broke nonviolent discipline), the 2nd Intifada centered on suicide bombers–many of them women!  Then came the Likud election of Netanyahu and then Sharon and things got continually bloodier while Bush didn’t care.  Then came the re-occupation of the West Bank, Arafat a prisoner in his own compound, civilian deaths skyrocketed and the suicide bombings increased.  Then Israel built its “security fence,” a huge wall that ate up miles of Palestinian land and turned large sections of the West Bank into giant  open air prisons.  Plus the constant bulldozing of Palestinian homes. Then, after Arafat’s death, the Palestinians became frustrated with a weakened Fatah in charge of the Palestinian Authority and elected Hamas–which led to an ever worse situation. Civil war broke out in the Territories and Fatah claimed the West Bank and Hamas got Gaza.  The Hamas rocket attacks (even if mostly missing any targets) were designed to provoke a disproportionate response and they succeeded–With the Israeli total war against Gaza.  Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, Israeli politics takes a sharp turn to the FAR Right. For although the Kamida Party won the most votes, they don’t have enough to form a government, not even in coalition with Labor.  So, Netanyahu and Likud will return to power in coalition with rightwingers so extreme (like Avigdor Liebermann) that even the ISRAELI press likens them to “Jewish fascists.” In such a context, can any peace plan be realistic?

When Carter promoted his book and plan on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show (my favorite cable news program, hosted by the only out-lesbian in U.S. broadcast journalism–a young Rhodes scholar with a D.Phil. in political science from Oxford and a veteran of the liberal radio network, Air America–and a quirky sense of humor), Maddow asked him if the (then-upcoming) Israeli elections would make a difference in the chances for peace.  He said that the particular cabinet would mean more, although he was clear that a Likud victory would be a setback.  But Carter puts his hope in several facts which give us a window (but narrow one) for a lasting peace:

  • Despite all the negative events and crimes on both sides, vast majorities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide (upward of 80%) still favor a two-state peace solution.  No matter who is in power in either side, those numbers MUST push them to peace–especially if the U.S. and Europe prods them.
  • The basic shape of a successful, lasting peace deal has been agreed to IN PRINCIPLE by all parties since the late ’70s:  The Israel-Palestine borders return to the pre-1967 ones (these are the only borders that have been recognized by international law); Israel removes the Jewish settlements from Palestine and either removes the wall or moves it BACK to the border, NOT cutting off any Palestinian land; Palestine is an unarmed state except for police/security forces; Palestine gets a seaport; Jerusalem is a shared city.  These are agreed to by ALL the major parties–the question is how to get there.
  • A major sticking point is the problem of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank.  Carter suggests removing only about 85% of them, leaving the settlements just outside Jerusalem. IN RETURN, Israel would trade Palestine an equal amount of land, acre by acre, to create a corridor that connects the West Bank and Gaza, making Palestine a far more viable nation state.
  • Another major sticking point is the “right of return.” When Israel was founded in 1948, and again during the 1967 war, thousands of Palestinians lost their homes–some of which had been owned for 2000 years. Under international law, such refugees and their descendants are entitled to return to those homes.  But if ALL the Palestinians returned to homes in Israel, they would outnumber Jewish Israelis, making a Jewish state impossible.  Carter suggests that Palestine could accept in its borders the majority of returnees. Others could be compensated monetarily for lost homes.
  • A solution of this kind has been proposed for years.  A few years  ago, the Arab League sweetened the deal for Israel:  IF they would agree to such a two-state peace, then EVERY MEMBER of the Arab League would not only recognize Israel’s right to exist, but cease harboring pro-Palestinian terrorist groups and open FULL DIPLOMATIC relations with Israel. This is something Israel has wanted for over 50 years: It would greatly strengthen its security and economy. To date, only Egypt and Jordan, out of the Arab League, recognize Israel–and the recent Gaza war has led many in their publics to call for cutting off these diplomatic ties.
  • There are Arabic citizens of Israel, not just in Palestine.  Because Israel’s birthrate is  low and Diaspora Jews no longer are moving to Israel, the high-birth Arab Israelis are threatening to soon outnumber the Jewish Israelis.  This would be sped up considerably if Israel simply tried to annex the Palestinian territories. This would mean the death of a Jewish state.  This demographic clock (which all in Israel know about) pushes even the most hawkish Israeli to try to find a peaceful two state solution before it runs out and demographics destroy the Israeli experiment as 50 plus years of war never could.
  • There is also a clock for Palestine: the desperation and despair of the youth.  The rise in suicide bombings  is a sign of a lack of hope for the future.  Between the settlements and the Israeli army, Palestine could soon find it impossible to HAVE a viable state.
  • The Obama administration, unlike the Bush administration, is very interested in a two-state peace.  Obama did not reveal just HOW MUCH he was interested in this until after the election. During the campaign he said far more about the imperative of U.S. protection of Israel than  he ever did about the rights of Palestinians.  It is now clear that he was keeping the pro-Israel Right from using his concern for a Middle East peace as a “wedge issue” to win the election and put the hawkish McCain in the White House.  But since the election, and even more since inauguration, Obama has signalled that U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian relations are changing:  He placed his first presidential overseas phone call to the head of the Palestinian Authority. He appointed George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace. (Mitchell, a former U. S. Senator, was instrumental in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. He also has street cred with both Palestinians and Israelis.) Obama has warned Israel against more Jewish settlements in the territories–even threatening to cut off U.S. military support.

So, while making peace in the Holy Land will be hard, it is not impossible.  Carter’s book is a step-by-step plan to get it done and he has been advising Obama on this since the election.  And Carter, we remember, negotiated the 1978 Camp David Accords which led directly to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty– not one line of which has ever been violated. 

It seems to me that the level of distrust between Palestinians and Israelis is the major obstacle to peace–and requires outside intervention.  The U.S. must be a major player not because of any U.S. peace virtues (if we even HAVE any) but because we are the one nation Israel CANNOT ignore–they depend heavily upon us for economic and military support.  The European Union and the Arab League must be deeply involved because Palestinians need them.

Like Carter, I have deep faith-based reasons to care deeply about this: Christians are to be peacemakers; we have a sense of solidarity with Palestinian Christians–many of whose communities date back to the very first generation of Christians; we have a sense of solidarity with Jews  because our faith is the daughter of Judaism; we have (or should have) a sense of solidarity with mainstream Muslims because ours is a sister faith.  We want a peaceful land that is Holy to all  3 of the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths.  We won’t agree on whether Jesus is the Messiah or the Son of God (God has no children, say Muslims and the Trinity is disguised polytheism say Jews), but we have much else in common and deep reasons to see peace come to the Holy Land.  For Carter this is the cause of his life because he believes it is the very will of God.

But American citizens, whether or not they share anything like Carter’s religious reasons for working for Middle East peace, have deep reasons of self interest to push for success here.  1)The plight of the Palestinians is the NUMBER ONE recruiting tool  for extremist, anti-Western Islamist groups that promote  violence and terrorism.  Some of them, like Hezbollah, are sincere, but many are simply cynically using the Palestinians for their own ends.  In any case, a two-state peace robs these groups of their single biggest recruiting tool. It robs Hezbollah of a reason to exist!  As Arab League nations said to  then-Sec. of State Colin Powell in 2002 when he was trying to recruit allies for the invasion of Iraq–it would be better to make peace between Israel and Palestine. Such a peace is the single-biggest blow to Islamist terorists possible. 2) The U.S.’ apparent one-sided support for Israel channels this concern for the Palestinians into a hatred of America if such hatred were not there previously. 3) The Israel/Palestine fued and series of wars and crises is a drain on U.S. resources: in terms of the level of military support to Israel (our largest % of foreign aid, of all types, is military aid to Israel) and in terms of constant drain on our diplomatic resources. 4) The constant humanitarian crises in Palestine is also a drain on our resources–an economically stable and peaceful  Palestine would not need such support from either Europe or the U.S. 5) We get a constant influx of Palestinian refugees into the United States–it’s amazing that none of the anti-immigrant Lou Dobbs types don’t rail against this.  Our already over stressed social safety net (whose strength was eroded by GOP fiscal priorities long before the current economic crisis) doesn’t need the added burden–and it is inevitable that a few extremists come in with the legitimate refugees. 6) A prosperous and peaceful Israel and Palestine could import U.S. exports, helping us get out of recession.

So, there are many compelling pragmatic as well as moral reasons to invest heavily in Middle East peace.  It won’t be easy–and the recent Israeli elections are the biggest obstacle since the Palestinians elected Hamas!  But it CAN be done–and Jimmy Carter’s book outlines the way forward.

UPDATE:  Even as he is forming his government, new PM Netanyahu is telling reporters that he will work with Obama for peace with Palestine.  While his past record should make us skeptical, we should also see this as a hopeful sign that even Netanyahu realizes that the political context has changed.  Now, if only Obama will push all parties equally instead of returning to the usual U.S. carrot and stick policy:  all carrots for Israel and all sticks for Palestine.

February 22, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, books, foreign policy, Israel-Palestine, Jimmy Carter, just peacemaking, terrorism prevention | 13 Comments

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 | 21 Comments

Colin Powell warns of a “Terrorism Industrial Complex”

Thanks to Bruce Prescott for this story.  And thanks to Bruce’s son Will for the interview with Powell for The Oklahoma University Daily.  Powell should have broken with this TIC long before and his horrible snow job before the UN has undermined greatly his credibility, but, at least his chastened attitude is better than the Petraeus shell game.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | foreign policy, Iraq, terrorism prevention | 1 Comment

Vets Peace Groups Transform U.S. Iraq Debate

votevets1.jpgI have long maintained that peace groups, including faith-based peace groups and pacifist churches, need to work with military veterans, especially those involved in military-related peace groups.  Many of these military and veterans-related groups are NOT committed to nonviolence as a way of life (although some are–Veterans for Peace is composed of military veterans converted to nonviolence). Most follow some form of Just War Theory and/or celebrate military culture in a way that makes many traditional peace churches and pacifist Christians squirm.   Tough. Get over it and get to know these folk as real human beings.

Look, the simple fact is that very few nations (Finland and Costa Rico are exceptions) are doing without standing militaries in the near future.  The U.S. has a national culture that celebrates an independance achieved by a military revolution.  Our national narrative (somewhat inaccurately) celebrates our military as the defenders of all our cherished freedoms. We honor military service as among the most patriotic and selfless ways of service.  None of this is going to change overnight. So, if peace groups want to make a serious impact on foreign policy then, above all, they must not seem contemptuous of the military.  Rightwing militarist policies win over more peaceful, or even more realistic, policies time and again by the simple tactic of making peace groups look and sound “anti-soldier.”  They constantly paint opposition to militaristic foreign policy as failure to “support the troops.”

Traditional and faith-based peace groups can work with military and veterans-related groups to transform this debate–though differences between pacifists and just war theorists will remain.  The picture relates to this article about Iraq veteran Jon Soltz and the organization he leads, VoteVets.org  which played a major role in the 2006 elections and is seeking both to help members of Congress take a stand for ending the Iraq war and to play a major role in the 2008 elections, especially in helping elect progressive Iraq veterans.  But VoteVets is not the only such organization.

Perhaps the most pacifist/nonviolent of these military veterans peace groups is the aptly named Veterans for Peace.  A national organization founded in 1985, VFP is composed of U.S. military veterans who have dedicated the rest of their lives to working for peace and justice through organized nonviolence.  Some came to be converted to a form of pacifism during or after their military service.  Some are repentant of their former lives.  Others in VFP are quite proud of their military service, but want to make sure that U.S. military forces are used only in defense and in the highest standards of U.S. and international law and the protection of universal human rights. 

Perhaps the oldest of these military-related peace organizations is Vietnam Veterans Against War (originally “Against THE War”) which started in 1967 with 6 vets marching in a peace march in full uniform.  Perhaps the most famous member of VVAW is U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-MA), whose testimony in the “Winter Soldier” hearings before Congress in ’67 gave the nation its first view of VETERANS arguing for withdrawal and an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  VVAW is still working for peace, for an end to wars of “choice,” and for veterans rights.  It was VVAW which organized the Vietnam Agent Orange and Responsibility Campaign in which U.S. Vietnam Vets, often themselves Agent Orange victims, work to get the U.S. government to take responsibility for this chemical weapon (defoliant) and its side effects–and also travel to Vietnam to help their victims of Agent Orange.

Military Families Speak Out breaks the traditional “culture of silence” in which the families and loved ones of military members are intimidated to keep silent about the crass and reckless ways their loved ones are sent into harm’s way, to kill and bleed and possibly die for selfish or narrow reasons.  Another organization with the same focus, Gold Star Families for Peace, is composed of the families and loved ones of those who have died in the war and/or occupation of Iraq.  Such families (who are given gold stars and a U.S. flag when they would rather have a living loved one!) are often paraded before the public to drum up support for continuing the war.  GSFP defuses that exploitation to prevent its use against real debate about policy alternatives.  GSFP’s most famous (and controversial) member is, of course, “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan.

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is modeled on the older Vietnam Veterans Against the War and also has ties to Veterans for Peace.  Membership is open to anyone who served in the U.S. military (active duty, reservist, or national guard) since 9/11, but especially those who served in any part, even support, of the invasion and/or occupation of Iraq.  Veterans for Common Sense, like VoteVets.org, wants to be seen as a mainstream organization, not a part of a peace counter-culture. VCS is composed of military veterans who opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq and who believe that terrorism and other threats to the nation can only be successfully opposed by a sensible foreign policy that respects international law, cooperates with other nations and international organizations, and vigorously defends the human rights of everyone, including national enemies and suspected or captured terrorists. 

These organizations, and possibly others like them, have the potential of transforming presidential and Congressional races, debates in legislatures, the way the media covers military-related stories and peace-activism stories, and even the social culture of mainstream America.  That last transformation may not be as dramatic as pacifists would like (at least, not in the short run), but the transformation will be larger and longer lasting WITH the involvement of such groups than without them.  Traditional peace groups, especially those which are church-related and/or faith based, need to have as much contact and cooperation with these and similar groups as possible–and without delay.

August 30, 2007 Posted by | foreign policy, human rights., Iraq, just war theory, politics | 10 Comments

War Made Easy

Journalist Norman Solomon, founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a media and political watchdog group, wrote the excellent book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.  Now this has been made into a documentary film of the same name, narrated by actor/activist Sean Penn and available on DVD for U.S. $19.95.

This is an important book & film not only for understanding media complicity in government propaganda (which makes the decision to go to war “easy,” counter to the intention of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution–and contrary to good sense, never mind something as radical as, say, the gospel of peace!), but to help the public learn from the process, so that it does not keep repeating.  It also shows, as I have mentioned before, how media reform is not really a separate issue from just peacemaking, but is essential.

June 12, 2007 Posted by | citizenship, foreign policy, just peacemaking, media reform | 1 Comment