On January 20, be on the lookout for bonfires across the country and around the world, as ceremonial burnings of the Bush war doctrine light up the sky. A new administration provides an opportunity for change, after eight dark years of devastating wars and consistent violations of international law, matched by the shredding of the Constitution.
But even if the Republican reign of abuse of power and its drive towards empire is ended, it will take a powerful, mobilized antiwar movement across the United States — and indeed, around the world — to hold a new administration accountable to promises made, and to obligations undertaken and imposed.
The Bush administration came into office committed to an aggressive, militarized unilateralism – a tendency that skyrocketed after the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the White House used fear as a weapon to win public acquiescence to extremist policies which would once have met widespread outrage. Bush announced the “global war on terror” and used it to reaffirm and legitimize Americans’ fears. The cost in human lives, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the trillions of dollars diverted from urgently needed social needs at home and abroad, is almost incomprehensible.
Now there is a new opportunity. What is required to reverse the devastation these eight years have wrought?
First, the occupation of Iraq must be ended. Unequivocally and completely. That means bringing home all the U.S. occupation troops (not only the officially named “combat” troops) and all U.S.-paid foreign mercenaries. It means closing all the U.S. military bases that have been built across Iraq. It means renouncing all claims to control of Iraq’s oil. Only then will Iraq and Iraqis have a chance to end their internal wars and rebuild their own shattered country in their own image.
All of that is step one. Only then we can begin the long process of making good on our real obligations to the people of Iraq: real reconstruction — meaning money that goes directly to Iraqis instead of to U.S. war-profiteering contractors — and reparations for the damage to the country that began with the first Gulf crisis in 1990. Fulfilling this obligation will be difficult at a time of economic crisis at home, but U.S. legitimacy in the world will never be restored as long as Iraq remains ravaged.
Then there’s Afghanistan, ostensibly Washington’s “good war.” But that illusion is a dream that has long meant nightmares for the people of Afghanistan. Do we really think that the constant toll of civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes will win Afghan hearts and minds away from the Taliban? Have we forgotten so much history that we really are surprised that the Taliban, however repressive themselves, are now gaining in popular support because they are increasingly seen as the only force able to oppose the hated occupiers? Do we really think this political battle inside Afghan society can be solved by U.S. commandoes and Predator drones dropping bombs, let alone with another “surge” of 30,000 U.S. ground troops from Iraq?
And beyond ending the existing wars, a new administration has the chance to reject the Bush administration’s unilateralism and militarism, and build an entirely new foreign policy based on multilateral cooperation and diplomacy — a whole new paradigm that recognizes there is no such thing as “national security,” there is only international security. But such a shift won’t be easy.
It means shutting down the 1,000-plus military bases around the world that have become the most visible symbol of the U.S. drive towards empire and a major cause of anti-Americanism in every continent. It means recognizing that the decline of U.S. economic power cannot — must not — result in greater reliance on military force as the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. It means going back to basics — privileging diplomacy over threats and invasions, the State Department over the Pentagon, the United Nations over NATO, and an end to coerced “coalitions of the willing.”
And we can’t assume that with a Democrat in the White House this transformation will happen automatically. It was Madeleine Albright, after all, then United Nations Ambassador for the ostensibly multilateralist Clinton administration, who boasted that “the U.N. is a tool of American foreign policy.” In fact, regardless of who gets elected in November, our work come January doesn’t change all that much.
McCain has said he’ll keep the troops in Iraq maybe for a hundred years, until he “wins” the war. Obama says he’ll pull out some, but leave behind as many as 80,000 U.S. troops still occupying Iraq, even though his mobilized constituency took shape with his promise to “end the war.” Both say they will escalate in Afghanistan and continue attacking Pakistan. Without a diverse, powerful, and principled movement demanding an end to these wars, no president will reverse course. Electing the best possible candidate we can is only step one. Holding that president’s feet to the fire, demanding he make good on his promises and not only his threats, on what he can be as well as what he isn’t, is up to us as well.
The world always pays attention to U.S. elections — the U.S. president exerts power far beyond our borders. But this time, people are watching with an urgent demand for change — for a real transformation, not cosmetic tweaks — that is palpable across the globe. The world wants a United States that stands as a partner with the other nations of the world, not a U.S. empire standing as a colossus above all others. The new administration could make good on that global wish — and in doing so make Americans, and the rest of the world, far safer than we are today.