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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Anti-War Dilemma: How To Protest A President You Trust

TEMPE, ARIZONA – During the Bush era, peace protests were presupposed. If the President of the United States showed up anywhere, so did the protesters. Now that Barack Obama has taken over the helm, though, peace activists are debating and rehashing protest strategies and often not protesting at all.

“Does this mean we just give Obama a free pass, no matter what he does?”

Two nights ago, this was the overarching question when a local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America debated whether they should endorse an anti-war protest when President Obama delivers the commencement address at Arizona State University (ASU) this Wednesday. After all, one of the planks of the organization is peace, but they are also a partisan organization (hence the word ‘Democrat’ in the name) that supports Obama.

Crossposted from the Huffington Post

In recent years, peace protests have focused on military action in Iraq. Opposition to war in Afghanistan was not as widespread because the Taliban in Afghanistan were linked directly to 9/11. Yet most peace activists object to what they see as an escalation of war in Afghanistan by the Obama administration. Some believe a Republican president would have pulled out of Iraq within a similar time frame as Obama.

So, why the lack of enthusiasm for protesting Obama’s warfare policies?

For most, it seems to boil down to trust. For the first time in decades (for many, the first time in their lives), a considerable number of peace activists trust the President of the United States.

“We need to give him a chance,” one activist beseeches, “I really believe that he is doing the best he can. He has only been in office 100 days.”

Most Obama supporters also believe that Obama has kept his promises in regards to military action. He has made strides toward an independent Iraq, and he is working to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Some want “protests” at presidential events to be transformed into “rallies” where activists thank the president rather than picketing. They suggest peace activists bring signs that convey a positive message, such as, “Thank you for your efforts toward peace,” rather than the more contentious signs that have been routinely brandished by protesters on the nightly news.

Dan O’Neal, the Arizona Coordinator of the Progressive Democrats of America, was a strong proponent of a protest at the ASU commencement but conceded the action did not have to be called a protest. He pointed out that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with labor leaders and progressives after his election, he told them that he agreed with them and then said, “Now make me do it.”

O’Neal says, “We want the progressive in Obama to come bouncing out,” but says that the newly inaugurated president will be pulled from both sides — the right and left. “We want Obama to be successful, and the only way he can be successful is if we keep pulling him back to the left. We’re doing this to make him a better president.”

Although Obama is seen as a centrist within the Democratic party, those on the left undoubtedly want to continually pull him toward the left — just as those on the right want to pull him further toward the right.

Liz Hourican of Code Pink says, “This is a new question. All peace organizations are going to have to rethink our strategies.” She acknowledges that having a president who is friendlier to their cause changes the nature of presidential protests, and believes that all peace organizations are going to have to ask themselves, “What is the one message that we would like to share?”

Obama’s presidency has not only complicated the anti-war message, but has also made it more difficult to turn out the large numbers that the movement enjoyed during the latter Bush years. Over the weekend, Code Pink held their annual 24-hour Mother’s Day Vigil for Peace in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It was the first time since 2006 that they asked people from outside the Washington area to attend. Just over a hundred people showed up to the event according to organizers, a stark contrast to the thousands that Code Pink enjoyed in 2006.

Liz Hourican still plans to be a part what she calls “peace actions” at the ASU commencement Wednesday. She is careful not to use the word “protest” and encourages fellow activists to make actions during the Obama’s visit more positive. She told her fellow activists, “I am going to get there early, get my spot, and make sure that I talk to everyone I can. I’m going to get signatures, email addresses, and really expand my network.”

Code Pink worked with a coalition of local peace groups to come to a consensus on messaging. Then volunteers spent Saturday afternoon making signs to carry at ASU with two basic, nonconfrontational messages, “War is taxing” and “Peace is priceless.”

Hourican says it is more important to build support toward a critical mass than to make protests an outlet for anger and emotions, “Is it more important to be mad or to appeal to people who are not in our group? The bigger picture is way beyond us.”

For some, reticence on Obama’s Afghanistan policy is more strategic than earnest. Many progressives feel that other priorities — like the economy — must take precedence. They worry that protesting Obama at this juncture could divide (and conquer) those who support a more liberal agenda overall. The economic crisis and an ambitious domestic agenda is often the overriding reason for activists to compromise on Afghanistan.

“It’s not about disagreeing with Obama. It’s about the way we disagree. How we, as progressives, are perceived by the rest of the Democratic Party,” said one local activist who was concerned that if local chapters of Progressive Democrats of America protested against Obama, their message might be lost. “Even worse,” she said, “the group could be seen as the fringe wing of the party.”


  1. anna shane

    that Barack is doing his best, which doesn’t preclude him being wrong.  Not dead wrong, but still not right.  The problem is the idea that violence is the best way to defeat the opposition. Barack said he wasn’t against wars, just stupid wars, but to my mind all war is stupid, unless it’s a limited operation to rescue identifiable victims.  Perhaps the problem is we don’t mind paying for war, but won’t put similar resources into peace.  It would cost plenty to pacify Afghanistan, with locally run education projects, and locally run small business opportunities.

    We’re lazy though, we just try to find some local guy to be in charge, and what a surprise he turns out not up to the task unable to withstand temptation, unable to hire decent and competent people.  

    There has to be a way of delivering what’s necessary for the people to improve their own lives, we need some new ideas.  And Barack says there are lots of ideas out there, we just need the will to carry them out.

    How about local television, with educational programs?  How about businesses that take used materials (not raw ones) from the industrialized scrap heaps and turns them into local useful long-lasting goods?  How about moms running cooking schools and at the same time small restaurants? A cook off among the local talent broadcast on local tv?  Why does everything always have to be so damn massive and unwieldily and so very open to corruption?  

    War? What is it good for? (absolutely nothing).  

  2. This is the dilemma that faced a lot of folks in Northampton a while back. After years of protesting for marriage equality, folks finally got it and then… what?

    Suddenly, a lot of folks felt empty and bereft of a purpose for their time. Suddenly, lesbians were marrying, they were getting on with their lives, they were having weddings, honeymoons, changed their wills and a few other details and then…

    Nothing much. It was pretty much the same as before–NoHo is a pretty easy going town, and having out lesbians in office isn’t exactly new. Or Out business owners. Or women walking down the street hand in hand.

    There was still an undercurrent of activism, but it was sort of unfocused. It was ready to pounce, but the “reaction” to gay and lesbian couples marrying was a new retirement condo complex being built in neighboring Easthampton. With very little fanfare from the town, other than a fair number of folks putting in bids to build it, and a good number of folks who were looking for jobs once it got built.

    While I think that the Iraq conflict was a terrible mistake, we’re there. And we have a President who would like to the US to be out, but it’s easier to stay out, than get out, and we’re stuck there for a bit–and like it or not, we have to be careful on our exit.

    Afghanistan is more muddled, because of the horrendous policy that came before–and a policy that drove warlords directly to the arms of Al Qaida and Taliban operatives. And we have to sort that out. We dismantled a government, and like it or not, we have to maintain some semblance of order in the region, or we just hand the country right back to the extremists who are waiting in the wings, thanks to the dumbassery of the previous Administration.

    I can understand the protests against the Administration that got us into this situation, and I can understand wanting peace as a sort of nebulous concept that sells well to the wings, but in this case, we have a President who has inherited conflicts. One was trumped up, but now we’re stuck in it, and we can either do our best to extricate ourselves from it and leave a nation behind that has a chance at survival, or we can bork it up and hurry out.

    Likewise, we are committed to a course in Afghanistan, and are stuck with it. Wanting peace is fine and wonderful, but we have to maintain stability. We leave, the region will be plunged into violence, and become a hotbed of terrorist activity, as well as laying the groundwork for the fall of the Pakistani government.

    It isn’t a dilemma in the least. It’s a crisis of cause. The cause for the “movement” is gone. The Administration that spawned the problem is now long gone–and you’re left with a President who is committed to ending the conflict, but is likewise committed to the safety not only of our troops, and our people, but also the people of the region.

    This means a further presence.

    Congratulations. Your side won the day–but that doesn’t mean that you can cheer in the streets. It means that the real work is just beginning. And rather than looking for a chance to “rally” folks should be looking for ways to volunteer their time to make the transition process easier in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    It’s time to change gears. You want peace? There’s work to be done. It’s just different work now. It’s not a dilemma in the least, but it is going to take a change in focus, and a change in what needs to be done. Not protests, not rallies, but real work to help these folks–that will bring about peace in the region faster than petitioning our leaders–they want out too.  

  3. Hourican says it is more important to build support toward a critical mass than to make protests an outlet for anger and emotions, “Is it more important to be mad or to appeal to people who are not in our group? The bigger picture is way beyond us.”

    I am generally not a fan of protesters.  I am a fan of protesting – IOW I am always glad to see that people will take time to voice their opinions, and glad that major issues are always countered with a vocal opposition – but most often I don’t feel any alignment with the messages of protesters themselves.  They often strike me more as simple-minded and absolutist emoting than they do actionable and intelligent real-world options presented by people who have given the topics honest thought.

    Hearing protest organizers looking to use “actions” as ways to “build support” instead of simply providing “an outlet for anger and emotions” strikes me as a positive evolution.  Of course, emoting brings bigger crowds and there is nothing to say that the angry-crowd protests don’t have their own value as pressure-release valves and litmuses of public angst.

  4. Protesting without offering alternatives to the current course of action is what the Republicans in Congress are getting ridiculed for right now. Anyone that wants to be taken seriously needs to do more than wave signs and yell, “GET OUT, NOW!”

    One option I would like to see considered is to buy up the opium crop from the farmers. There are several pluses. It would take that revenue source away from the Taliban. It would also keep it off the market. The farmers would be legitimized and could then be weaned off that crop and encouraged to grow something else. Agricultural subsidies would make other crops more profitable.

    I’m not sure about the economic consequences for legitimate poppy growers that might come from such a policy. You couldn’t just dump the product on the pharmaceutical market. It might all have to be destroyed. It would still be better than what is going on right now.

    I’ve always been more afraid of Afghanistan turning into another Vietnam than I was that Iraq would go that way. Iraq is more urban. The mountains in Afghanistan are a hard terrain to fight in just like the jungle was in Vietnam.

    We learned the hard way in Vietnam that you can’t win this kind of fight without the support of the people. We must win hearts and minds or we will lose in the end.

  5. creamer

      But I think it’s important that the anti-war groups make themselves heard without being overly divisive and without being labeled as unpatriotic.

     In regards to the “we broke it, we own it” conversation, at some point the Iraqi’s must stop killing each other and decide to govern themselves. I have always been opposed to the war with/in Iraq, but at some point we are entitled to say, here is your country, have a great life. We are not responsible for the hate that seperates factions in Iraq, nor are we capable of controlling or changing that hate. That’s somthing the Iraqi’s must do for themselves.

    In regards to Afghanistan, while I fear getting sucked in to deep, I do think there is a need to hurt the Taliban so badly that in at least the near term they cannot threaten us. Obviously this depends totaly on the effectivness of Pakistan dealing with the Taliban within their borders. In the end I think Afgahnistan will return to a fractured state ruled by local warlords. If this is good or bad is in my mind not the issue. The issue is if they are a threat.  

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