Progressive Activism and Afghanistan: Taking Our Eyes Off the Blog

My wife and I went back to D.C. in January for the inauguration of Barack Obama. We’d lived and worked and volunteered in Washington during the absolute worst years for the progressive movement–the Tom Delay Congress–and danced in the halls in the Cannon House Office Building the night we retook Congress. Our journey to pacifism took us out of Washington, D.C. just before Obama won the 2008 election, but we planned to make one last pilgrimage to D.C. in January to celebrate our friends’ victory and to pay our respects to a life from which we were walking away.

Right before we left for the inauguration, I got an email from Alliance for Justice announcing an event the day before the ceremony. The event was called, "Driving Change: The Role of Activists During the Obama Administration." Bradley Whitford was slated to speak, and like good West Wing fans, we signed up. Van Jones was also on the program.

I confess that, even though we stood in the freezing cold for hours and hours to hear it, I cannot recall even generally what Obama said in his inaugural address. I don’t remember what Bradley Whitford said, either. But I remember Van Jones’ speech. I thought of the speech a few nights ago when someone forwarded me the results of the Netroots Nation 2009 straw poll. Here are some excerpts.

Van’s words came to mind as I opened my email because the results from the straw poll at Netroots Nation 2009 show a significant shift among NN09 participants away from a focus on anti-war advocacy. Results from two of the questions that dealt with anti-war activism show that very, very few activists rank "working to end our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan" among their top two issues, and a whopping one percent listed this work as the issue on which they spend most of their time.

Compare these results to those from 2008. The two sets of results are not perfectly comparable because the questions were phrased differently, but the disparities remain alarming.

  • Last year, 11 percent listed "the war in Iraq" as their top concern, placing it within 8 points of the top concern of the plurality of attendees.
  • When asked what their second concern was, "the war in Iraq" won a plurality among 2008 attendees with 17 percent.
  • Twenty-three percent of 2008 attendees listed "the war in Iraq" as their preferred top priority for the incoming administration, again a plurality.

These results clearly show that among Netroots Nations participants, far fewer 2009 participants prioritized ending the wars than last year’s participants.

What happened?

Deciphering this marked shift is complicated. My bet, however, is that the shift can be accounted for by several interlocking factors:

  • Adding Afghanistan to the question in 2009 may have screened out respondents who might have listed this among their priorities if it mentioned Iraq or Afghanistan independently.
  • Many progressives who focused on stopping the war(s) this year thought their job was done after the election/Obama’s announcement of an end-date to the occupation in Iraq.
  • The fact that a Democratic president presides over this ever-expanding military policy depresses attendees’ enthusiasm for challenging it.

The first explanation, if it is true, would probably mean that ending the Afghanistan war arouses considerably less enthusiasm than did ending the Iraq war. But, if that’s the case, it indicates a disconnect between NN09 attendees and progressives generally. Recent polling shows roughly 75 percent of Democrats oppose the Afghanistan war. Most of the arguments in favor of ending the Iraq war apply equally well, if not more so, to the Afghanistan excursion. If this explanation is true then it shows that NN09-ers need to catch up to the rest of the ‘roots.

The second explanation–that the netroots lack urgency over this issue following Obama’s election–speaks to a lack of stamina on the part of online progressive activists. Electing a politician–any politician–is only half of the job. Pointing to the election of a supposed peace candidate as the "win" is awfully convenient for the candidate. But hey guys–remember these words?

These are the stakes: To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.

That’s a campaign ad from a Democrat named Lyndon Baines Johnson. The election is a win, but it is not the win. Voting and organizing on behalf of a candidate is only a tactic, not a strategy–it supports a strategy to get your government to do something. A successful strategy would include public pressure after the campaign to get the politician to act on his campaign promises or to enact an agenda modified to include your demands whether or not they comprised his/her original platform. But voting for a peace candidate and then moving on to other issues is a sure-fire way to end up in another Vietnam. (Don’t look now…) At last count, there were still about 130,000 troops in Iraq, and the Obama Administration is considering another troop increase in Afghanistan. We’re not finished.

The third explanation is related to the second and speaks to our willingness to work to hold the president accountable and to pressure him to enact policies that align with the the views of those who worked to get him into office. If you look at the election as a win or a loss through the lens of particular issues, then the 2008 election was a win for Republicans on Afghanistan. The policy supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats is the policy being enacted.

If we want a progressive foreign policy, we’re going to have to fight for it. Correction, we’re going to have to fight him for it. Policymakers always portray their elections as blanket public endorsements of their entire agenda, but as CNN’s recent poll shows, that’s not the case. It’s our job as activists to support the policies with which we agree and to work to excise those policies with which we disagree, even if they are policies on which the President campaigned. This straw poll shows that we still haven’t got that particular memo. The percentage of NN09 participants who report spending most of their time "working to enact President Obama’s agenda generally" is ten times greater than those spending most of their time working to end our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. For progressive activists with anti-war principles, that number should be terrifying.

We need progressive activists to work to enact many aspects of President Obama’s agenda, that’s true. But just as important–perhaps more importantly–we need progressives to fight to create political space for the President to grow even beyond his original platform, and we need progressives to drag him out of the worst paradigms of the Bush years. And nowhere is this effort more important than in regard to Afghanistan and the larger frame of the War on Terrortm, which the president rejects in the explicit language of his rhetoric but to which he clings in his assumptions about the proper response to international terrorism.

The war in Afghanistan will eclipse the cost of the Iraq war, with all of the opportunity cost that implies. It’s killing massive numbers of civilians and dragging us into moral culpability for the actions of a warlord-ridden narco-state. And as recent statements by senior Obama Administration officials show, no one in the administration has any idea what success looks like or how the war will end.

Not to mention, there are still 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, whose generals daily hatch new schemes to reinvigorate the apparatus of the occupation.

The election was a win for the anti-war movement in this country, but it was not the win. We’ve made great strides, including the election of Barack Obama. It would be a catastrophe if we blew it now, after we’ve come so far, because we took our eye off the ball.

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