Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's Troop Removal: "A Risk That is Unacceptable"

by Billy Wharton

Barack Obama's imagination management representatives were widely deployed on day one of his presidency. Fervent supporters were told to go slow - the NY Times described "sobering challenges," Congressman Dave Obey cautioned against looking for "economic salvation" while an Associated Press article praised Obama's "cold-eyed realism." No matter which analogy is employed, the widening gulf between popular expectations and governmental willingness [or unwillingness] to act is potential source for a more radical set of politics.

Of course, Obama is no George W. Bush. He knows well how to pick off the low-hanging political fruit in order to forestall decisions which threaten to bring his administration into conflict with organized interest blocs. Moving swiftly to close the moral eyesore that is the detention center in Guantanamo Bay signals a return to the normal operation of US Empire. Equally useful is his enactment of measures furthering governmental transparency. This may sooth lingering doubts about Obama's associations with now-impeached Illinois Governor Rod "Let's Make a Deal" Blagojevich. It would be difficult to discover many speakers - apart from those on the fringe of the radical right - willing to defend either Guantanamo or Presidential secrecy.

More significant resistance will be provided to any serious attempt to end the US occupation of Iraq. Evidence of this was provided during the nightly News Hour program aired on Wednesday January 21st. The segment was entitled "Next Steps for Iraq," and featured the pro-Bush retired General Jack Keane and the Obama-ally retired General Wesley Clarke. Both Keane and Clarke delivered a clear message - no troop removal anytime soon.

Keane, the military author of Bush's "surge strategy," claimed that Obama's campaign pledge to remove troops by 2010 "rather dramatically increases the risks" in Iraq. He recommended a "minimal force reduction" in order to "protect the political situation." Though a 2010 departure was "a risk that is unacceptable," Keane assured viewers that "Everyone knows that we are going to take our troops out of Iraq."

The Democratic Party's dog in the fight, Wesley Clarke had little bite as be agreed with Keane's assesment "it [Obama's troop removal pledge] is risky." "When President Obama made that pledge almost a year ago," Clarke claimed, "the context of what combat troops was, was taken from the legislation that was going back and forth through the House and the Senate." He then provided a key qualification, "Distinguishing combat troops from trainers, from counter-insurgency troops or counter-terrorist troops that would go against Al-Quada in Iraq and distinguishing them from the logistics troops." "So," Clarke concluded, "to say that all combat troops will be out in 2010 in sixteen months doesn't necessarily mean that all troops will be out by 2010."

If this double-speak was not enough, Clarke then provided another clear signal that the Obama campaign pledge may fall far short of anything resembling a remotely anti-war position. Clarke praised Keane as the architect of the surge policy and "the success that has been achieved through it."

Not surprisingly, Keane agreed with the non-combative Clarke. He "understands the distinction" between combat and other types of troops. Even if some combat troops were removed, Iraq would still require "a significant number of combat troops" to protect the other types of American troops. Clarke then introduced a new term to the discussion (any possibility of a debate had long since passed) - "re-deployed." He ended his contributions by highlighting the "the need for troops in Afghanistan."

The Clarke-Keane discussion should be quite useful for anti-war activists. It clearly signals that the "surge-consensus" forged by the Bush administration is still fully operative among the military establishment in Washington. Obama's desire for continuity in military strategy, signaled clearly through his re-appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, should be understood as his acceptance of the positions articulated by Keane and Clarke. This presents a sharp challenge to the anti-war movement.

Two tasks are clear. The first is to articulate a clear demand for the complete removal of all US military forces from Iraq. The anti-war movement cannot allow distinctions to be made between combat or counter-insurgency troops, military advisers or technicians. All troops need to be removed immediately. Second, and perhaps even more challenging, is the demand to remove all troops from Afghanistan and to resist any attempt at re-deployment from Iraq. Perhaps a bit of "cold-eye realism," beginning with the fact that more than one million Iraqis have died as a result of the US occupation, should be employed by the anti-war movement as we begin the process of challenging an Obama presidency whose military policy has started off sounding a lot like a re-hashed version of George W. Bush.

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