Barack Obama and the Mindset of War

Hollow Rhetoric and False Hope

The issue on which Sen. Obama scored the most points in the January 31st debate with Sen. Clinton was the Iraq occupation. While Iraq has been pushed from the front pages, despite continued carnage, it remains a priority for many voters. Iraq persists to be an area of weakness for Clinton in the primary.

Indeed, the most recent CNN poll, which has Obama in the lead nationally for the first time, shows Democratic voters trust Clinton more on health care and the economy, but trusted Obama on Iraq. Iraq is the issue propelling Obama ahead of Clinton.

Obama made a number of points on Iraq in their last debate, finishing with: “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” He followed that lofty goal with a promise: “That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next president of the United States. That’s what I intend to provide.”

Obama blames conventional, Washington thinking for the war saying:

. . . conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war. The pundits judged the political winds to be blowing in the direction of the President. Despite, or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions. Too many took the President at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves. Congress gave the President the authority to go to war. Our only opportunity to stop the war was lost.

The mindset for war often infects Washington. Since World War II the U.S. has been a nation at war more often than not, and whether at war or peace, consistently invests in building the most powerful military in world history.

Peace Voters have already begun the process of changing that conventional thinking mindset in Washington. Even Senator Clinton, who has voted for the war from the beginning, is now saying “I will do everything I can to get as many of our troops out as quickly as possible.” She promises to take one to two brigades out per month.

Ending the “mindset” of war is essentially the position of the organization I direct, VotersForPeace. Not only do we want to end the Iraq occupation but also prevent future wars of aggression. We urge people to take the peace pledge which states: “I will only vote for or support federal candidates who publicly commit to a speedy end to the Iraq war, and to preventing future ‘wars of aggression’.” See VotersForPeace.US.

Obama’s soaring rhetoric of hope and unity along with the proposition of the U.S. electing the first African American president makes me want to exclaim ‘eurkea!’ finally a candidate who can bring much-needed change to the United States.

And, changing the mindset that leads to war would result in other changes in Washington. On foreign policy the U.S. will need to work with other countries, not dominate them and rely on negotiation and diplomacy rather than force. And, to prevent violence, the U.S. will need to help put in place solutions to the underlying problems that lead to military conflict.

Ending the mindset of war would also change domestic policy. For decades the U.S. has been investing in the military economy at the expense of the civilian economy. And, it shows – in the loss of industry, a weakened middle class, a failing infrastructure, and a deteriorating economy.

Could Obama really mean it? Does he really want to end the mindset that leads to war?

How do voters opposed to war square Sen. Obama’s comment with his advocacy for an even bigger military – adding 100,000 more troops? The average annual cost of maintaining a single service member currently exceeds $100,000. The cost of these troops is tens of billions more dollars for the military. And, if the U.S. has another 100,000 troops isn’t its leadership more likely to use them? Isn’t this a signal to the military industrial complex that Obama will not challenge them?

Many members of VotersForPeace, including me, have been critical of Obama’s votes on the war. We all know he spoke out against the war when he was a state senator. He described it as “a rash war” that would result in “an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences.” He was right. But we also know that since coming to the senate his record has been the same as Sen. Clinton. He has voted to give Bush all the funds he has requested, with no strings attached and continue the occupation of Iraq.

And, peace advocates have seen Obama play to the right wing Israeli lobby, missing his first senate vote to speak to AIPAC event and telling them what they want to hear regarding Iran – “all options are on the table.” Yes, he says he wants negotiation with Iran at the same time he keeps the military option available.

So, what is the meaning of Sen. Obama’s comment? Can we trust him to really “end the mindset” that gets the U.S. into continuous wars? It is a lofty goal and would be an epic political struggle. It would require him to challenge the military industrial complex, the oil industry, the pro-war Israeli lobby and others who profit from war. Does Obama have the strength to overcome these political adversaries?

So what is a peace voter supposed to do?

Obama has consistently said, on issue after issue, that change is going to require the people to be organized, active and vocal. He says “change does not happen from the top down, but from the bottom up.” An organized citizenry is especially required when a fundamental paradigm shift is needed in a policy that has deep roots. And militarism runs deep in the United States where half the discretionary spending goes to the military and with the U.S. already spending as much as the rest of the world combined on its armed forces. The strength of the military industrial complex was evident way back when Eisenhower warned the country about it in his farewell speech in 1961.

During the election year some peace voters will take Obama at his finest words and work to elect him hoping that he will provide the leadership he promises. Some may even be satisfied with Hillary Clinton’s election year conversion.

Others, will look to the Green Party which has two strong peace candidates in Ralph Nader and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney or other third parties like the Libertarians and Constitution Parties which also are running anti-war candidates. Nader has questioned whether Obama has the backbone to stand up to the special interests on the issue of militarism and points out how Bush justified the war based on Clinton policies. McKinney seeks to lead a “peace slate” to end the war and, like Nader, opposes the bloated military and intelligence budgets.

Whatever choice is made, the 2008 election year is an opportunity to build a movement for deep-seated change away from militarism. And after the election peace advocates need to come together to pressure whoever is elected, to end not only the mindset that has led the U.S. to ongoing wars but the ongoing investment in the military economy.

The election promises to continue to be a debate on the Iraq war. Obama said as much during the debate: “I will be the Democrat who will be most effective in going up against a John McCain, or any other Republican — because they all want basically a continuation of George Bush’s policies.”

Clinton concurs that Iraq will be central to the election year saying “There will be a great debate between us and the Republicans, because the Republicans are still committed to George Bush’s policy, and some are more committed than others” specifically mentioning Senator McCain.

In fact, Obama seems to relish the battle, especially if it is with Senator McCain: “I will be the Democrat who will be most effective in going up against a John McCain . . . because I will offer a clear contrast as somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea.”

In fact, the peace movement’s job in the 2008 election is to make sure the war is an issue through November no matter who the nominee. Senator McCain is a superhawk who jokingly sings about bombing Iran and told a town hall meeting in New Hampshire that it would be “fine with me” if the U.S. stayed “maybe a hundred years in Iraq.” McCain will be quick to the trigger in using the U.S. military.

Building the anti-war movement is a major goal of the election year. It will be critical in 2009 that the movement be stronger than it is today because it will either be facing a militarist in John McCain, or a Democrat who has consistently voted for war funding while saying they will begin to withdraw troops from Iraq. How much progress the United States makes on ending the mindset that leads to ongoing wars will depend more on how well peace advocates organize and how aggressively political pressure is applied to the next president.

Kevin Zeese co-directs Popular Resistance and is on the coordinating council for the Maryland Green Party. Read other articles by Kevin, or visit Kevin's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. ron said on February 5th, 2008 at 6:07am #

    You are absolutley correct. We must not count on the candidates to stick to their worlds but most as a movement and a people hold them to those words and began ending the war and removing ALL the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan the day after inauguration.

  2. Max Shields said on February 5th, 2008 at 7:18am #

    I think it’s a bit self-deluding to think Obama is against military intervention. He has made that very clear. That he has chosen Iraq as an example of a “mindset” that needs changing is no different in some logical sense to McCain’s point that it was a mis-managed invasion (it’s not that invasion is wrong, but when and how). The fundamental issue goes deeper than that. Coopting the sentiments of a movement is not Change – it is…well it’s simply peeling off an idea that will have currency for an election.

    Does that mean that Obama doesn’t agree with say grass-roots organizing? Of course not. He started there. And I do give him a point for voicing the importance of bottom up. It’s the biggest hang up we have in this authoritarian driven country (vote for so and so and he’ll “protect us” from the “bad guys” or leadership will guide us out of this darkness).

    Kucinich was the Democratic candidate who wanted to dismantle the corporate military industrial complex and all of its raison d’être(NFAFA, WTO, World Bank). Nader and McKinney offer a real alternative for enduring peace, not Obama. We are once again left with a lesser deal. Obama’s play is to keep the peace movement at bay (and off-balance), not to embrace it.

    Nevertheless, it has been my contention that a practical conclusion to this election is to end up with a President who does as little harm as possible and allows that grass-roots (and even promotes it) to happen. I think a guy like Dodd could have achieved that, but Hillary won’t and Obama is what is left.

    I want to see a longer term vital alternative. A coalition of progressive, independents and yes, there are some very progressive green-libertarians join forces and begin to make fundamental change. That will take more than one election and it will be bottom-up, and mostly local and congressional. Growing the voice and the power. It aint going to happen from the top. Kucinich, with all his right-on ideas could not have made this happen – and in some ways might have created the detrimental “backlash” that does in every critical effort (look we’re just starting to regain our footing on the environment after 35 years of dormancy – we’re returning to where we left off because of the “backlash” factor).

  3. Gary Lapon said on February 5th, 2008 at 9:33am #


    I’m glad that you have a perspective for growth during the election year, to try to make the war a central issue and hold the candidates accountable (as opposed to some segments of the movement who seek to limit and atomize protest so as not to “embarrass” the Dems, a strategy that didn’t work for UFPJ in 2004 and isn’t working for them in 2008). I also agree with the need to put pressure on whoever is elected. I don’t think it matters so much who is in office, but whether or not the anti-war movement (along with the resistance in Iraq and the GI resistance) can force a situation where the US ruling class perceives the cost of remaining in Iraq as greater than that of withdrawing. Even Bush would end the war in that situation, as even Nixon’s (another “madman”) policy around Vietnam was seriously influenced by the pressure placed on him.

    That said, I disagree that the root cause of US imperialism is a mindset. Rather, the mindset that leads to ongoing war stems from the control of the US government by a class of people who have real material interests in US hegemony in the Middle East, a goal that they see as achievable through a combination of diplomacy and war. And war can increase bargaining power in diplomatic negotiations. For example, the US ruling class realized that the Vietnam war was not winnable after Tet, but they continued the slaughter for several years. The message: if you resist the goals of US imperialism, your people will suffer unfathomable miseries. Similarly, the Japanese were willing to surrender WWII (although not unconditionally…they wanted protection for the Emperor) before the US dropped two atomic bombs on major population centers, killing hundreds of thousands and causing birth defects and cancer for generations, but the Truman jumped at the (rare) chance to show what a nuclear weapon can do to a city full of people, and to show they can do it more than once. The message: don’t mess with us or we will slaughter your civilians…we don’t care, we’re crazy and will do anything to get what we want.

    The US ruling class needs to go to war to achieve its goal of domination of the Middle East, and with it control of the world’s largest supply of energy resources (vital leverage for US capital against emerging competition like China) because it cannot control every country in the ME through diplomacy, and because diplomacy is not as effective without “all options” being on the table. It’s like the bully who generally gets what they want by threatening violence: if they don’t beat someone up every now and then, kids stop taking them seriously and stop giving them their lunch money. And then there is the danger of another bully (China, Russia, etc.) coming along and taking the lunch money the first bully used to take.

    To change the mindset that leads to war, we need to change the material conditions that encourage that mindset, that create a situation where a brutal war that is against the interests of the vast majority of Iraqis and Americans is in the interests of a small elite with control of the most powerfully destructive military in the history of the world.

  4. dan e said on February 5th, 2008 at 2:13pm #

    Thanks to Max & Gary Lapon for clarifying most pts on the Zeese’s topic, but there’s a cpl need more emphasis: 1) Nader, who I worked for in 2004 & caught hell from the local Demogreen Establishment, is now leading said GP Insiders’ drive to derail Cynthia McKinney’s campaign, for which he most recently was rewarded by an invite to appear on Israeli expatriate/ZPC propagandist extraordinaire Wolf Blitzer’s CNN “Situation Room” show; another reason for the invite of course is Nader’s Soft Zionist rap, helping to perpetuate the Two State Illusion, talking about this anachronistic abomination “Israel” as though another Apartheid state is the most normal thing in the world; and 2) nobody mentioned the role of the Israel Lobby/Zionist Power Config in determining what policy courses the Imperial Ruling Class will adopt.

    Aside from those two pts, Mrs Lincoln…

  5. Mike McNiven said on February 11th, 2008 at 1:22am #

    Obama wants to bomb the most impoverished regions of Pakistan ! ( He said that! ) In his colonial mind that does not constitute a war!