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Obama the Enabler
Illinois Anti-Warriors and the Attractive Senator
By CARL G. ESTABROOK
"...Yes, this protest march was like many we've seen over the years. First came the traditional running of the liberals [shot of what is probably the lead marchers running down the street], followed by the ritual display of somewhat eccentric signage like this one: CENTRAL ILLINOIS SAYS NO TO WAR -- reflecting the political wisdom that as goes Effingham, so go Altamont and Beecher City..."
--Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, September 27, 2005
Actually, Stewart's got it quite wrong: the sign was from Urbana, not Effingham, which is some eighty miles south of Urbana along Illinois' Interstate 57... LeMonde captured Urbana's presence in the September 24 Washington peace demonstration somewhat more accurately: in an editorial, LeMonde wrote,
"Cody Bralts is only 13 years old. He came from Urbana (Illinois) with his mother. He has been a militant for two years in pacifist groups, and he is 'against everything that this government does.'"
Both the makers of the sign and young Mr. Bralts were associated with a local peace group, of which I am also a member, AWARE -- "Anti-War, Anti-Racism Effort." The group was formed in Champaign-Urbana shortly after 9/11. Home of the main campus of the University of Illinois (with about 40,000 students during term-time), Champaign (pop. 68,000) and Urbana (pop. 38,000) form one population center amidst the corn, soybeans and major agribusiness interests (such as Archer Daniels Midland) of central Illinois. AWARE has contained students and faculty, but most of its members are permanent residents of the two towns.
With a fluid membership and a minimum of formal organization, AWARE has organized anti-war activities, including forums and demonstrations, for almost four years. But an August visit by Illinois' new junior senator, Barack Obama, produced a rift in the organization that reveals among other things the danger of co-option of the anti-war movement by soi-disant progressives like Obama.
Senator Obama's "town meeting" (a well-controlled PR exercise) was an apparent triumph. An editor of the right-wing local newspaper, The Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, wrote, "It was a virtual love-in Thursday at the Illinois Terminal in Champaign when Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama stopped by to answer questions at a town meeting. Even the anti-war protestors, who criticized Obama for not arranging the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq after a mere eight months in office, were deferential."
The student newspaper, The Daily Illini, described AWARE's activities: "Anti-war protesters met Obama in the Illinois Terminal parking lot with posters critical of the senator's reluctance to endorse an immediate pullout. After a short exchange of words with Obama, the protesters followed him all the way to the fourth floor ballroom of the terminal. As Obama delivered his opening statement from the podium, a member of the Anti-War/Anti-Racism Effort walked the aisles passing out the group's literature. Obama attempted to align himself with the protesters' sentiments while defending his cautiousness toward a pullout."
In fact, the senator took just one (gentle) question on the war, and never mentioned torture, Iran, the Downing Street minutes, Israel, impeachment, imprisonment without trial by the US government, etc. (Asked about that by a member of AWARE after the rally, Obama replied, "Other people have the right to ask questions, too.") What he did say about the war was even more disturbing -- that he hoped US troops "could begin to leave Iraq next year, [but] removing the troops now would result in a massive bloodbath for both countries."
That is, of course, almost identical with the administration's position, and it ignores the fact that a majority of the Iraqis want the U.S. out now, understandably enough, because the "massive bloodbath" is already occurring. It contrasts sharply with the view expressed so clearly this summer by Cindy Sheehan, who points out that one is either for the ending of the war and the withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq, or for its continuance.
But to a largely sympathetic audience in August, Obama pled his poor power to add or detract from the blood-letting: he was, after all, only "99th in seniority" in the Senate. "I am not the president -- yet," he said -- "prompting loud cheers," according to the student newspaper.
There was a vein of smug self-satisfaction in Obama's casual talk, as there was in his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. When asked about John Rogers' nomination to the Supreme Court, he replied with a smile, "Well, I know he went to a good law school." (Obama and Rogers were both at Harvard Law.) In an article for Time magazine about another Illinois politician, he had earned some condign ridicule by writing, "In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat -- in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles."
But it's Obama's role as a liberal enabler of the war that most disquieted members of AWARE. He is cooperating in the critical support that the Democratic party has given to the war and to U.S. government policy in the Greater Middle East -- a policy that has killed tens of thousands of people during this administration and may yet have even more catastrophic results. Leading Democrats are now to the right of the Bush administration in calling for an expansion of the U.S. military.
Obama was celebrated as a progressive figure when Illinois voters elected him to the Senate, against token Republican opposition. (He also had an unfunded independent opponent who supported both withdrawal from Iraq and universal health care, positions that Obama rejected.) But his performance belies that description:
--The day before his convention speech, Obama told reporters, "There's not that much difference between my position and George Bush's position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who's in a position to execute." In the speech Obama criticized Bush for invading Iraq "without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world" -- which remains the general Democratic party position.
--Obama voted twice (once in committee and once on the Senate floor) to confirm Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser during the invasion of Iraq, as Secretary of State. (His senior colleague, Richard Durbin, along with thirteen other Democrats, managed to vote no.)
--Like all but six of the Senate Democrats, Obama quite rightly voted against the confirmation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the promoter of the torture policy and the Patriot Act, but he said he did so "At a time when we are fighting for freedom in places like Iraq and Afghanistan ... the seeds of democracy began to take root in Iraq ... we are engaged in a deadly global struggle with those who would intimidate, torture, and murder people for exercising the most basic freedoms..." In short, he echoed the administration's account of the war.
--When Illinois' senior senator, Richard Durbin, timorously raised the question of the administration's torture policy on the floor of the Senate, Obama failed to support him. Instead, he rather timidly observed, after Durbin's tearful apology for doing such a thing, "...he should have said what he said somewhat differently."
--This summer Obama said, "It is a challenge now to try to fix the mess that has been made by this administration. There aren't any easy answers. It would be irresponsible to just spout off without having thought through what all the alternatives -- and implications of those alternatives
-- might be ... I believe the president must take a realistic look at our current strategy and reshape it into an *aggressive and workable plan that will ensure success in Iraq*" [emphasis added].
--Perhaps most disturbingly for the future, during his senatorial campaign Obama supported the possibility of a pre-emptive attack on Iran. On 25 September 2004, the Chicago Tribune wrote, "...the United States should not rule out military strikes to destroy nuclear production sites in Iran, Obama said ... 'having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse [than] us launching some missile strikes into Iran...' he said."
Obama is reported to have said in another town meeting that same week that the U.S. shouldn't maintain permanent bases in Iraq - but then John Kerry said the same thing during the presidential campaign, and both senators oppose U.S withdrawal now.
In spite of this record, there seemed to be a notable hesitation on the part of some members of AWARE to call Obama on his support for the war. Prompted by the complaints of one black Democrat after the town meeting, several members decided that leafleting Obama's rally had been "rude" and that the leaflet "demonized" him. They took the uncomfortable position that AWARE needed to treat black politicians differently from white politicians.
With respect for my colleagues in AWARE, that's nonsense -- it's patronizing or hypocritical, if not racist. A senator in favor of continuing the war, as Obama is, has blood on his hands, whether he's black or white, from voting for continued appropriations and confirmation of the executives who make war. Anti-warriors who fail to say so because of the senator's race find themselves covertly supporting the war.
C. G. Estabrook is a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois, U-C. He can be reached at email@example.com.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. Thanks to several members of AWARE for help in its preparation.