COLUMNS Stephen Berk

What Are We Fighting For?

Shortly after Osama Bin Laden was killed, Spc. William Baxter, a parachute rigger with the 101st Sustainment Brigade, was quoted as saying, “OK, he’s dead, can we go home?”  Much as the “Global War on Terror” has been billed as much more than merely killing its leader, Baxter’s remark struck a responsive chord around a war weary country.  Well over sixty per cent now want out of Afghanistan.  And while the assassination of the terrorist mastermind was supposed to burnish the oft doubted warrior credentials of the president, it was not supposed to ignite congressional antiwar sentiment.  But that is in fact what it has done.

The prevailing wisdom in the Democratic Party for over a generation has been that the Vietnam era antiwar movement, drawing strong congressional support from Democratic doves, created a patriotic backlash that eventually led to the ascendancy of Republican conservatism.  But as the collective memory of Vietnam fades, people have grown increasingly impatient with the social and financial costs of today’s smaller but more costly, interminable wars.  Liberal hawks, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, now find themselves on the defensive, as they try to maintain national commitment to relentless counterinsurgency against a shadowy, stateless enemy.  Thus once the terrorist symbol was at last eliminated, smoldering antiwar sentiment in Congress and around the country suddenly broke into the open.

The Obama administration, which in 2009 sharply escalated the war in Afghanistan, following the Bush surge model in Iraq, had postponed any significant draw down of troops there to 2014.  And that is obviously contingent upon the president’s reelection.  But now an odd combination of progressive Democrats with a smaller number of determined conservative Republicans mustered 204 votes in the House for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act calling for speeded up withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its authors were long time Massachusetts antiwar Democrat Jim McGovern and a North Carolina conservative Republican, Walter Jones. Jones now regrets his vote authorizing the Iraq War, and while maintaining the need to intervene in Afghanistan in 2001, he now believes that the war there has long outlived its purpose and is serving only to prop up a hopelessly corrupt government.  Deeply religious, Jones recently converted from his family’s warrior Baptist tradition to Roman Catholicism, whose popes have increasingly opposed resort to war as a means to settle international and civil disputes.

Failing passage by only six votes, the McGovern-Jones amendment must give pause to the Obama administration’s war planners. It drew support from a broad cross section of the president’s own party with no less than former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, known for his center right positions, signing on. Another sign that antiwar sentiment has been heating up follows the administration’s lack of consultation with Congress prior to its decision to back the rebels and bomb Kaddafi’s positions in Libya, thus placing us in a third protracted war.  Rep. Dennis Kucinich, arguably the most antiwar person in Congress, now teams up with the same Walter Jones, to author a bill disputing the constitutionality of the administration’s Libyan bombing and invoking the War Powers Act, requiring authorization from Congress to continue that intervention.

Administration policy in the wake of Arab Spring, the popular uprisings against Middle Eastern dictators, has been to ride the crest of the pro-democracy wave.  This is complicated by long established US policy of strong support for many of those very dictators, particularly Hosni Mubarak, who went along with US support of Israel. Post-Mubarak Egypt is already altering this by opening its border with Gaza in support of blockaded, suffering Palestinians there.  The Obama administration now finds itself caught between growing domestic antiwar sentiment and the need to support new forces rising to power in the Middle East. They would do well to turn toward diplomacy, beginning with the Taliban.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.