Point Austin: Clinton's Wars, Bush's Wars, Obama's ...
A peace prize, a peace rally, and more of the same
– Barack Obama in Cairo, June 4
It's been said of both second marriages and children that they represent the triumph of hope over experience. The same can certainly be said of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, nine months (and logistically speaking, much earlier) into his tenure. The Norwegian prize committee was clearly reacting as much to the promise of a new administration in Washington – and Obama's long-expressed opposition to the endless war in Iraq – as it was to any new facts on the ground (although committee members did applaud the renewed U.S. emphasis on international diplomacy). Obama himself said as much, describing the award largely as a call to action, although somewhat ominously, acknowledging his responsibility "for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people."
We're still a good long ways from ending what Obama calls George W. Bush's "war of choice" in Iraq, but seem finally, clumsily headed in that direction. The "other theater," of course, is Afghanistan, and Obama's unfulfilled award arrives just as he is considering – under heavy pressure by the U.S. military as well as most of the political elite and its water-carriers in the media – a major escalation there, which he still considers a "war of necessity." If the award becomes one more small political factor to consider before sending even more troops, all the better.
Inevitably, the U.S. government insists it is fighting a war, thousands of miles away, in "self-defense." "It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict," Obama said in June. "We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case."
And when will proving that double negative officially not be the case? In four more years? Eight more years?
Yet another peace rally will take place this Saturday (3-6pm) at City Hall, as Texans for Peace and many other activist groups join the national day of solidarity for "Healthcare not Warfare." (Presumably the Texas activists didn't get much input into the decision to hold the rallies the same day as the Texas-OU football game.) Charlie Jackson, the indefatigable Texans for Peace founder, noted wearily that the Afghan conflict will soon have lasted longer than all the time we spent in Vietnam, and he acknowledged frustration but not despair at what seems to be the permanent militarization of American culture. "We know that the war will end eventually," Jackson said. "We just want to do our part to make it end a little sooner." At press time, confirmed participants included Roscoe Overton of the Austin Center for Peace & Justice; Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church; Jesse Romero of Health Care for America Now; and national activist of all trades, Code Pink's Medea Benjamin.
The theme of the action, of course, is that all the people and resources we continue to pour into wars all over the world should instead be directed to truly desperate human needs like national health care, which the politicians and pundits instead continue to rue as "too expensive." When I pointed out to Jackson that even the public U.S. polls have turned against continued war in Afghanistan and Iraq, he responded quickly, "The majority in Iraq and Afghanistan have always been against it." Such is our now institutionally militarized approach to "democracy": We'll attack and invade anybody in our determination to impose it.
Work to Be Done
As it happens, hard on the heels of Saturday's rallies will be an Oct. 29 appearance by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region, undoubtedly a very good and necessary cause. Albright is known as a political groundbreaker and diplomatic authority; she is also infamous in anti-war circles for being former President Bill Clinton's spokeswoman for economic sanctions against Iraq, not to mention Clinton's pre-Bush-invasion war of attrition against the Iraqi population. Her honorary appearance here has understandably raised opposition among those nearing despair over the seemingly endless, multinational, bipartisan wars by the U.S. in the Middle East.
Albright has repeatedly said she regrets as "stupid" her most notorious remark about the sanctions, when Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes asked her in 1996, considering the U.N.-reported deaths of a half-million Iraqi children (a million Iraqis in all) due to the sanctions, "Is the price worth it?" Albright answered, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it." In her 2003 autobiography, Madam Secretary: A Memoir, Albright wrote, "I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. ... My reply had been a terrible mistake."
Alan Pogue of Veterans for Peace visited with Planned Parenthood board members last week, and afterward he seemed less shocked by their resistance to any counter-programming to Albright – the tickets are sold, the program is set – than by their express pleas of complete ignorance "about Albright's role as ambassador to the U.N. or as secretary of state" in supporting and defending the sanctions, brutally destructive of Iraqi life and society. Pogue's impression was confirmed by Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Sarah Wheat, an otherwise deeply savvy and humane activist, who told me, "I personally did not have any awareness of [Albright's] role in the sanctions." Under the circumstances, a little educational counter-programming seems overdue.
I don't care to beat up on Planned Parenthood – or even on Albright, who, after all, was only one spokeswoman for a bipartisan policy of unending war that has persisted through two Clinton administrations, two Bush administrations, and now appears poised to be maintained by a Nobel Peace Prize winner elected on the explicit promise of breaking that tradition.
May he – and we – instead remember, and act upon, what he declared in June: "We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning."
Download a PDF of Barack Obama's June speech at Cairo University here.