The vast outpouring of protest in Chicago last week was a promising sign of health for progressive social movements, but still left big uncertainties about the future.
First and foremost, the US-NATO war in Afghanistan is ending. Too slowly for the peace movement, but much too rapidly for the Pentagon, Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. There is no predicting what will happen on the ground in 2013-14. But American troops, American casualties, American budget costs – and presumably American public interest – will be lessened.
Public opinion strongly supports President Obama’s course of phased withdrawal, but chaos is a real possibility since the Afghan security forces cannot defend themselves against the insurgency, and Obama’s critics (including mainstream media observers) will blame him for any coming implosion in Kabul. At least a majority of House Democrats, led by Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern and others, have called for an accelerated troop withdrawal and end of funding, providing Obama a degree of political cover once again.
Obama is ending the Long War – in terms of deploying American ground forces – but continuing the same Long War doctrine via drones and secret operations in alliance with undependable and corrupt regimes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, inflaming Muslims around the globe. While Americans are led to believe that the Iraq-Afghanistan wars are ending by seeing the troops coming home, the actual threat of further terrorist attacks in Europe or the US may be increasing. It may be possible to keep a war secret from the American public, but not from Muslims on the ground who, in the absence of a genuine end to occupation, will consider suicide attacks their “war of necessity.”
It is crucial to understand that the US escalation to drones and secret ops is not a strategic offensive but more like a strategic retreat for the Pentagon. Projections of a Big Brother, eye-in-the-sky, and totalitarian control system ignore the historical fact that wars are won on the ground. The drones and spies cannot repair the Humpty-Dumpty despots passing for Western allies. And if more invasions by American combat troops are impossible for political reasons, the Pentagon is left playing defensive war. (See Medea Benjamin’s new book, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, an excellent guide to the subject.)
The same political disability hampers Western strategy in Iran and Syria, despite ardent calls from Israeli and Saudi hawks for further intervention. The American and Western capacity for more ground interventions on behalf of regime-change is near exhaustion.
As this chronic foreign policy crisis continues, it appears more likely by the day that domestic economic and social contradictions will be in the forefront for the American public through this November’s election, and perhaps beyond. There could be another “October surprise” but that would be, well, surprising.
The peace movement can and will have to merge with the populist movements opposing austerity budgets and Wall Street crimes. It seems easy enough to call for ending the wars, taxing Wall Street, and reinvesting the savings in health care and education. It is almost as easy to demand that “wars for oil” be ended and a transition to energy conservation and renewables immediately be accelerated.
The coming problem relates to strategic leadership, or its absence. This may seem to be a non-problem for some advocates of anarchist horizontal networks and direct action as performance art. But it is all too obvious that radical vanguards and hidden agendas find fertile ground in such horizontal fields, turning off public opinion. Such was the case in Chicago Saturday when a small militant cadre managed to secure trophy photo-ops of fighting with the Chicago police when the mainstream media images could have been Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning their medals. (For a good eyewitness account of Saturday's demonstrations, see Matt Reichel's "Protest Roars to Life at Chicago NATO Summit in Face of Violent Police Crackdowns.")
At the other end of the protest spectrum are more top-down, bureaucratic, networks like MoveOn.org and Rebuild the American Dream for the 99 Percent, who seek to capitalize on Occupy Wall Street and expand its reach, but whose methods tend toward branding, list-collecting, fund-raising, and holding amorphous training workshops. They are accused of “co-opting Occupy”, often bitterly, by many of the original occupiers who showed up in the beginning and braved the encampments and police evictions. Simply put, the MoveOn/Rebuild wing of the movement is searching for a committed, organized and activist base, while the originalAdbusters/Occupy Wall Street forces are struggling with how to convey a persuasive message and expand their movement further into the mainstream during an election year.
Inevitably, the Occupy movement will struggle and likely splinter over demands – foreclosures, college tuitions, global warming (?) – while lacking a persistent, insistent position towards reforming Wall Street, partly because they are divided over reform itself. Many of them will view Barack Obama and the Democratic Party as diversionary lesser evils – ignoring the fact that millions of people do not see Obama as an “evil” at all, and tens of millions more will be unified against Mitt Romney and Tea Party Republicans. If Obama loses, and the Democrats lose the Senate, too, a toxic round of blaming will begin with adverse consequences for building any progressive movement in America. On the other hand, should Obama win, it is difficult to know how Occupy will be stronger for having been opposed or sidelined.
On the MoveOn/Rebuild the American Dream side of the equation, so far there is a relative lack of power to “co-opt” anyone. If their ultimate intention is to support Obama-Biden, they seem afraid to say so. Their menu of demands seems like a smorgasbord, especially compared to Occupy’s vacuum of any demands.
Between these polar tendencies are groups representing labor, women, LGBT communities, environmentalists and the alternative media struggling day-to-day with the complexities of what Progressive Democrats of America calls the “outside-inside strategy.”
It’s a period of populist pandemonium.