Struggling for Peace on New Terrain

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Of the many dimensions of life that people juggle and balance when engaging in politics, sometimes the emotional level surges to the fore.  That’s the way it was for hundreds of thousands who poured into the streets across the U.S. and much of the world Tuesday evening November 4.

Eloquent descriptions and insightful analyses of the spirit and impact of that moment have flooded the progressive media ever since.  For example, Makani Themba-Nixon, in “A Black Woman Looks at the Election,” wrote:

“I’ve always wanted to love this country.  To feel that unalterable sense of home that no matter what it does, it belongs to me.  I know people from Chile, Palestine, Rwanda, for example, who have literally lost everything — their parents and siblings murdered, their homes burned to the ground.  Still, they fight for their homeland with a sense of ownership, a sense of deep connection that separates the place from the people who run it. . . .  Last night, election night, for the first time in my life, I saw people gathered to say unequivocally that they finally feel at home in this country.  I walked the streets of this nation’s capital, built by enslaved Africans, until nearly dawn.  Spontaneous gatherings were sprouting everywhere.  I stood in the crush of thousands at the White House as people sang, ‘Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey, hey, hey, Goodbye. . . .’  They chanted, ‘Whose House?  Our House!’. . . .”

Miriam Ching Yoon Louie’s poem, “Election Night,” begins:

“Weep history / honk hallelujah!

Sea swell rapt faces runny mascara joy

Chain breaks ancestor bone sighs

At last!  Oprah & Jesse blubber

On shoulders of strangers. . . .”


Sometimes it’s also a focus on people’s spontaneous reaction that yields the first jolt of recognition of how an event especially impacts a new generation.  It’s no accident that several of the most gripping post-election assessments have come from teachers.  Here’s one from a teacher whose class consists of 28 students of color in Boston, quoted in an article by ZNet’s Michael Albert:

“The excitement started as soon as I entered my building.  It turns out that a small group of students were in the building before school even started to decorate our hallways with Obama posters.  At 7:14 am, the hallways at my school looked very familiar: crowded, hectic and loud.  Only this morning, students weren’t ignoring their teacher’s requests to get to their homerooms because they were too busy gossiping about shoes or TV last night or each other.  Instead, students were all talking politics with their friends.  It was stunning to overhear conversations between 8th graders that included words like: electoral votes, democracy and ballot.  And it wasn’t just a few kids — it was all of them. 

“Felix, the loudest, tallest and coolest 8th grade boy in homeroom 8F came into our room with 6 Obama buttons on his sweatshirt. . . .  Meanwhile I looked around and had a shocking realization: this is a room filled with 13 year olds and all of them are in a good mood.  But knowing how much their moods fluctuate during the course of a day, I was sure that by last block the excitement would have subsided.  I was wrong. . . . 

“I knew my lesson on chemical formulas would be a hard sell for an over-tired afternoon crew so I decided to make them a deal.  ‘If we get all our work done this afternoon, we will spend the last 20 minutes of the day watching Obama’s victory speech.’  When else would this be a successful incentive for adolescent children: if you work hard, I’ll let you listen silently to a grown-up give a long speech about our political process.  I couldn’t believe it worked, but it did. . . .

“As promised, at the end of the period we tuned in to hear our next President give his victory speech.  It didn’t seem to matter that it was the last 15 minutes of the day . . . the first bell even rang and no one even packed up their things. . . .  You remember this part of Obama’s speech last night: ‘This victory is not my victory.  It’s yours.’  To this, Vianca (one of my most chatty and challenging girls) said out loud: ‘Yeah, it’s my victory!'”

All this energy and hope; the collective glee at repudiating eight years of Bushism and striking a major blow against white supremacy; the raised expectations and claiming of first-class citizenship by the descendants of slaves and the dispossessed: these will reverberate for years to come.  In the immediate months ahead, they set favorable conditions for galvanizing popular movements that could turn the promise of change into actual change.

The challenge is to combine these powerful sentiments with hard-headed realism and strategically effective practical work.  Post-election, we are entering more hopeful but uncharted territory.  There remain deep structural obstacles facing all who want to see peace, equality and environmental responsibility dominate the country’s agenda.  Moreover, many policies advocated by the President-elect whose victory millions are celebrating diverge from the progressive agenda in significant ways.


The 2008 election took place within (and was shaped by) a world whose contours have changed substantially in the last seven years.  Of paramount importance has been the failure of the Neoconservative strategy of relying on U.S. military might to “transform” the Middle East, whip allies and waverers into line, and usher in a “New American Century” of unilateral domination.  The Iraq adventure ended up demonstrating the limits of U.S. power rather than its strength.  Opposition to the lies, failures, and inhumanity of the Iraq war was front-and-center driving opposition to the outgoing administration.  It laid much of the groundwork for the Republican debacle November 4.

Then this September’s financial crisis punctured a huge hole in the credibility of neoliberal economics.  Fear of full-scale economic disaster spread like wildfire, for good reason.  Under almost any scenario of what happens next, severe economic hardship is going to afflict workers and the poor within the U.S. and throughout the world.

Seven years ago we faced the globe’s “sole superpower” ordering its legions into battle with free market fundamentalism on its bullying banners.  Today it’s a multipolar world and even neoliberalism’s architects are acknowledging that substantial changes in economic policy are the order of the day.

The bottom line is that the U.S. elite is seeking ways to retrench, shift course, and rebound from these setbacks with the least damage to its political and economic power.  The incoming President — unlike Bush or McCain — grasps that there is a new distribution of global power that dooms unilateral militarism to failure.  Likewise Obama has indicated that (again unlike Bush/McCain) he is willing to make concessions to popular demands in several areas, and even perhaps mobilize grassroots energy to promote some measures that progressives can wholeheartedly support.  At the same time, there are numerous signals (and structural constraints) indicating that the agenda of the corporate wing of the broad coalition which brought Obama to power will get the new administration’s foremost consideration.


The broad outlines of how this new posture will translate into foreign policy are relatively clear, though a host of specifics remain uncertain (and subject to struggle).  Obama projects a different mix of military force and diplomacy, of unilateralism and cooperation with allies, than his predecessor.  The incoming President’s bottom-line goal — maintaining “U.S. world leadership” — remains the same.  But it is apparent that Obama knows there are limits to U.S. power and that various accommodations to other countries’ interests are necessary (if unpleasant) requirements in today’s multipolar world.

Regarding Iraq, this general stance will almost certainly translate into a more aggressive implementation of the “wind-down-U.S.-presence” direction already forced on a reluctant Bush administration.  But Obama and his foreign policy team do not yet seem ready to accept the idea that “winding down” must mean total withdrawal of all U.S. troops and military contractors (despite one provision of the just-approved Status of Forces agreement).  Nor are they ready to provide the no-strings-attached aid for Iraqi reconstruction that Washington owes for its illegal invasion and massive destruction.  So feet will drag.  And calls to “re-negotiate” and extend the U.S. presence can be expected, even as many within the administration recognize that what’s really in question is the full scope of U.S. defeat (and what spin can be put upon it) rather than whether or not this was a losing war.

Regarding Washington’s other losing war, pivotal decisions about Afghanistan loom.  Obama has repeatedly promised to send more troops.  Unfortunately this is one campaign promise he seems certain to fulfill.  At the same time, there are clear signs that Obama and his key advisers realize that no matter how many soldiers are deployed, “victory” is not in the cards.  Voices likely to be central to the administration are therefore echoing an ever-louder chorus from Europe arguing for diplomatic efforts aimed at reconciliation among all Afghan parties and negotiations with all countries in the region.

A new jolt in that direction has just come from U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai himself.  On the heels of his offer to negotiate with ousted Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Karzai told a U.N. Security Council delegation that the international community should set a timeline to end the war in Afghanistan.  With Afghan anger at foreign occupation at fever-pitch levels, the incoming Obama administration will rapidly be faced with a choice: continue to rely on military force, with every bombing further alienating the civilian population; or shift toward an emphasis on diplomacy and begin to think in terms of foreign troops leaving the country.  The details and consequences of this choice (and the impact on neighboring Pakistan, the sixth largest state in the world, with nuclear arms) are laid out starkly in an excellent article in the Guardian (UK): Simon Jenkins, “The Errors of Iraq Are Being Repeated — and Magnified” (Nov. 19).

Decisions also loom regarding Israel-Palestine, long at the nub of conflict in the Middle East.  Figures ranging from the lame-duck Israeli Prime Minister to Palestinian radicals are upping the volume with arguments that ongoing Israeli settlement activity has brought about the “point of no return” for any possible “two-state solution.”  The Arab League has launched a propaganda offensive aimed directly at the Israeli and U.S. publics promoting its offer to normalize relations with Israel if Tel Aviv withdraws from all the territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.  There are hints that at least some members of Obama’s new team (as well as backers among U.S. liberal Zionists) believe a serious effort to implement this proposal is in U.S. interests.  This is a long way from a sign that the new administration will put pressure on Israel, which is a prerequisite for anything like this to be taken out of the realm of dreams.  The only certainty is that continuation of current blank-check-for-Israel policy means more dispossession for Palestinians and endless conflict in the Middle East.

A possible bright spot is U.S. policy toward Iran.  Obama will almost certainly explore some kind of diplomatic initiative on this front.  Sectors of the Iranian government are more than ready to cooperate if their sovereignty and right to peaceful nuclear power is assured.  A lowering of tensions with Tehran can help a great deal toward resolving conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Israel-Palestine.  Another bight spot is the promise to close Guantánamo and end torture, though it seems loopholes may be left in place and Obama seems disinclined to hold those who ordered torture accountable for their crimes.

Hovering in the background of all this (as well as U.S. relations with Russia, China, and Latin America, and nuclear proliferation) is the key issue of the U.S. military budget.  Continued expansion of military spending — especially amid the current economic crisis — not only ups the danger of more destructive wars.  It drastically narrows the options for serious domestic reform on issues of health care, job creation, rebuilding the infrastructure, and transitioning to sustainable energy sources.


All this means a peace movement is needed as much as ever.  But we need to re-strategize to be effective on today’s new terrain.

From shortly after 9/11 until early in 2008, opposition to the Iraq adventure was the driving force of ever-increasing popular sentiment against the right generally.  The peace movement was at the center of resistance to the powers-that-be.  Mainly because of the depth of the economic crisis, but also because the government has been able to cover up its debacles by giving war a lower profile, this is not likely to be the case in the immediate period ahead.  Rather, movements addressing economic hardship — from labor to health care reform to demands for foreclosure relief, social programs, and Green Jobs — are likely to come to the fore.  It is probable that these — framed as a kind of “New New Deal/Green New Deal” — will exercise the most clout and drive the progressive agenda.  Simultaneously, the kind of “soft on terror” fear-mongering that has been such a staple of the right’s opposition to all struggles for equality and justice has lost some of its bite.

Antiwar activists thus face a new set of challenges.  On the positive side, conditions are more favorable than before to spread and consolidate sentiment that has gained ground as the public’s “common sense”: There are no military solutions to the problems of the Middle East or elsewhere on the globe, including the problem of terrorism.  Reliance on military force is only making things worse, and bankrupting the country to boot.  Put in positive terms, a platform of Peace, Justice, Environmental Sustainability, and Rebuilding the Country can become the dominant “common sense” of the country’s majority.  As progress is made in spreading that umbrella message, the ranks of the consistently anti-empire, anti-racist, “Out Now” wing of the popular alignment have the best conditions to grow.

At the same time, this new set of circumstances is likely to make it difficult for the antiwar movement to demonstrate significant clout and turn sentiment into mass action when acting on its own.  A presence in the street must be maintained.  But it is likely that specifically antiwar demonstrations will be smaller than in the past few years; and new rounds of antiwar education and organizing constituency-by-constituency will be required before the streets can again be filled.

A new urgency also exists for peace movements to get in behind and support other social movements.  It is standard practice for the peace movement to “talk about the links” between U.S. wars and attacks on vulnerable sectors of the population at home.  But this can’t be thought of as simply finding effective ways to convince people who are active around domestic issues to turn out and show their opposition to war.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but the other side of the coin is antiwar activists helping popularize, support, and add strength to the demands and programs of other movements.

This is always on the agenda, but it will assume special importance in the period ahead.  Here peace activists have a special role to play in bringing the issue of the military budget with us when we add our bodies, dollars, and energy to struggles against racism, for immigrant rights, for labor’s right to organize, for Green Jobs, and national health care.  Each of these movements, in order to win its demands, will confront the obstacle of a bloated military budget and militarist us-against-them ideology.  If and when they embrace an anti-military budget, antiwar stance as integral to their agendas, the durability and clout of a progressive coalition seeking a changed country in a peaceful, sustainable world will have taken a tremendous leap forward.

Max Elbaum Max Elbaum is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso 2002).  Elbaum is also a member of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a group represented on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras invites you to sign on to its announcement list (3-4 messages per month) to receive regular reports, interviews, flyers, and news recaps.  Go to the War Times website at  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras is a fiscally sponsored project of the Center for Third World Organizing.  Donations to War Times are tax-deductible; you can donate on-line at or send a check to War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, c/o P.O. Box 99096, Emeryville, CA 94662.