Christian Anti-War Movement Must Prepare for an Obama Presidency

Posted: October 24, 2008 in Uncategorized
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The ambiguities of presidential politics persist today.  From Globe and Mail:

Sounding presidential, Senator Barack Obama said Wednesday he would order a surge of U.S. troops – perhaps 15,000 or more – to Afghanistan as soon as he reached the White House.

“We’re confronting an urgent crisis in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama, the Democratic contender and now clear front-runner to replace George W. Bush, said Wednesday.

“It’s time to heed the call … for more troops. That’s why I’d send at least two or three additional brigades to Afghanistan,” he said in his most hawkish promise to date.

A U.S. army brigade includes about 5,000 soldiers along with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopter gunships.

The opening description, “Sounding presidential,” hits me in a bad way. “Presidential,” as in “his most hawkish promise to date.” Presidential means hawkish. Gotcha.

Each time I read a story about this topic, I hear two words in my head: Lyndon Johnson.  The analogy is not perfect, but you may recall Johnson became President in part because of fears that his opponent would wildly escalate existing conflicts; hence, the Peace Little Girl (Daisy) ad. But the relationship between the anti-war movement and “peace candidates” in the major parties was always ambigious:

A small, core peace movement had long existed in the United States, largely based in Quaker and Unitarian beliefs, but failed to gain popular currency until the Cold War era. The escalating nuclear arms race of the late 1950s led Norman Cousins, editor of the SaturdayReview, along with Clarence Pickett of the American Society of Friends (Quakers), to found the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) in 1957. Their most visible member was Dr. Benjamin Spock, who joined in 1962 after becoming disillusioned with President Kennedy’s failure to halt nuclear proliferation. A decidedly middle-class organization, SANE represented the latest incarnation of traditional liberal peace activism. Their goal was a reduction in nuclear weapons. Another group, the Student Peace Union (SPU), emerged in 1959 on college campuses across the country. Like SANE, the SPU was more liberal than radical. After the Joseph McCarthy inspired dissolution of Communist and Socialist organizations on campuses in the 1950s, the SPU became the only option remaining for nascent activists. The goal of the SPU went beyond that of SANE. Unwilling to settle for fewer nuclear weapons, the students desired a wholesale restructuring of American society. The SPU, never an effective interest group, faded away in 1964, its banner taken up by a more active assemblage, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Throughout the first years of its existence, SDS focused on domestic concerns. The students, as with other groups of the Old and New Left, actively supported Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater. Following Johnson’s victory, they refrained from antiwar rhetoric to avoid alienating the president and possibly endangering the social programs of the Great Society. Although not yet an antiwar organization, SDS actively participated in the Civil Rights struggle and proved an important link between the two defining causes of the decade.

In office, LBJ assisted in many important advancements in areas like civil rights, but certainly did not govern like a “peace president,” if such a thing ever existed. While the anti-war movement did arguably hem in Johnson, the dynamic between the anti-war movement and the President during Vietnam should stand as a cautionary tale for those of us who oppose war and other violence today. Then as now, it is a mistake to believe that a president helped into office by anxieties about war will refrain from warmaking absent early, intense and constant pressure. As Howard Zinn said earlier this week,

…[E]ven though Obama doesn’t represent any fundamental change he creates an opening for a possibility of change. That is why I am voting for Obama. That is why I suggest to people that they vote for him. But I also suggest that Obama will not fulfill that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement, which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough, that he fills his abstract phrases about change with some real content.

We in the Christian anti-war tradition need to begin to plan now. I’d suggest applying pressure against a buildup in Afghanistan from at least three angles: a specifically Christian perspective, holding him to his word on anti-hunger efforts, and pragmatic reasons that an escalation in Afghanistan will not achieve our goals.

A Specifically Christian Perspective

Obama’s Christian faith featured prominently in this campaign because of his and his advisers’ words and because his opponents sought to tie him to Islam in very ugly ways (not that ties to Islam are ugly; my concern is more how “black,” “Hussein,” and “Arab” swirled around him to connect him to “terrorist”). Secretary of State Colin Powell affirmed this identity during his endorsement on Meet the Press: “He’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.”  Obama himself describes his faith thus:

At the point of his decision to accept Christ, Obama says, “what was intellectual and what was emotional joined, and the belief in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, that through him we could achieve eternal life—but also that, through good works we could find order and meaning here on Earth and transcend our limits and our flaws and our foibles—I found that powerful.”

The specific angle I’d suggest with Mr. Obama arises from his remarks in two separate venues which I’d suggest setting side-by-side.  First, from Obama’s answer to a question about gay marriage:

While Obama said he does not believe in same-sex marriage, he argued strongly for civil unions that allow same-sex couples to visit each other in the hospital, let them transfer property to each other and protect them from discrimination. “If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which, I think, is, in my mind, more central than an obscure passage in Romans,” Obama said.

The second remark comes from his Call to Renewal speech:

…Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

Putting these two passages together could be the beginning of a very fruitful dialogue with Senator Obama. He’s openly declared the Sermon on the Mount as “central” to his faith, and he’s publicly recognized the incompatability of the Sermon with the application of military force.  No one should be so naive as to think his or his advisers’ response to such a tactic would be, “Huh. You got me. We’re pulling out tomorrow,” but these two statements do a good job framing a conversation on favor of adherents of Christian nonviolence.

War is an Enemy of the Poor – Holding Obama Accountable for His Anti-Hunger Rhetoric

I wrote about this topic a few days ago, so I will not belabor the point.  I simply offer the quotes from Senator Obama’s anti-hunger paper and set it next to Dr. King’s quote, which makes the point far better than I could.  If you want to read more of my thoughts on this topic, see the earlier post.  From Obama’s paper:

“We’ve got rising food prices here in the United States. My top priority is making sure that people are able to get enough to eat.” Senator Obama [Meet The Press, 5/4/08]

When he was a child, Barack Obama’s mother briefly received food stamps to put food on the table when she needed help.  As a result, Barack Obama understands firsthand that federal nutrition and food assistance programs play a key role in minimizing the ill-effects of poverty and improving the diets of low-income working families, especially children.  Barack Obama will strengthen and expand nutrition assistance programs and commit to ending childhood hunger by 2015.

Dr. King’s speech:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Insisting on the “guns or butter” frame, i.e. money spent on war is bread taken from the mouth of the poor, is especially important considering the huge increase requested by the Pentagon in funds over the next five years:

Pentagon officials have prepared a new estimate for defense spending that is $450 billion more over the next five years than previously announced figures.

The new estimate, which the Pentagon plans to release shortly before President Bush leaves office, would serve as a marker for the new president and is meant to place pressure on him to either drastically increase the size of the defense budget or defend any reluctance to do so, according to several former senior budget officials who are close to the discussions.

Pragmatic Reasons: Flooding Afghanistan with Foreign Troops Strengthens al Qaida

The head of the UN Security Council’s al Qaida / Taliban monitoring group published a report earlier this year that said in part:

The key to defeating Al-Qaida will be to undermine its local base in the Afghan- Pakistan border area. …[I]t will be important to promote the drift of the Afghan Taliban away from Al-Qaida, which could be achieved by allowing President Karzai more political room to negotiate a deal. The Pakistan government, on the other hand, needs to drive a wedge between tribal leaders and Al-Qaida. For both Governments, it will be critical to improve their bilateral relationship and cooperation.

The international community can and must help with this, but it will have to do  so carefully. Al-Qaida will fight hard to obstruct the influence of the central government (in both Pakistan and Afghanistan) and will try to discredit it by arguing that it acts on behalf of external interests; it will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing all the tribes will unite against. In order to be successful, therefore, the key objectives need to be achieved – and need to be seen to be achieved – by local governments on their own rather than as a result of external intervention.

Al-Qaida…will aim to provoke further intervention by foreign forces, knowing that this is the one thing that all the tribes will combine to oppose; it will exult in civilian casualties that it can exploit to stir up tension, and it will continue to abuse religion as a method of indoctrination and justification for its acts…[P]ouring more troops into Afghanistan will not help if it alienates the local population and allows both Pakistan and Afghan Taliban to forget their internal differences and combine against a common enemy. The focus should remain squarely on Al-Qaida, not on the internal politics of Afghanistan.

Reports about negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government filled the news recently (see here, here and here). The report quoted above indicates that this is the right path to end the vast majority of violence in Afghanistan and that flooding Afghanistan with more foreign troops will not only be counterproductive to that goal, but will also reunify Taliban factions and help repair degrading ties to AQ. Other experts and research echoed these sentiments and others that support them, many of which I wrote about in other posts.

Not only is Obama’s plan to use military force to “pacify” (read: silence) Afghanistan at odds with sacred texts on which he bases his faith, and a direct threat to his own anti-hunger plans, but it will provoke a unification of our enemies, more civilian deaths, and ultimately more terrorism.  It is essential that Christian opponents of violence (don’t you long for the days when that phrase would have been reduntant?) be organized and ready to apply pressure through these and similar arguments should Senator Obama win the election.

  1. […] the whole thing…it’s a good article. This tracks closely with what I’ve said here and here. Published […]

  2. […] while back, I wrote a post arguing that the Christian peace and justice movement should prepare to continue to push and protest policies of …. Many of Obama’s proposed policies at that time were much-need deviations from President […]

  3. […] that he does, in fact, find their ideas and their opposition to war naive and passive, just as he rejected the guidance of Jesus Christ with the glib words “[The Sermon on the Mount is] so radical that it’s doubtful our own […]

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