Anti-war voices lose influence

Salena Zito
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Posted: May 17, 2009 10:00 AM

Will the last activist who hopes the antiwar cause will re-emerge as a central tenet of the Democratic Party please turn out the lights on the way out the door?

Little evidence exists that any antiwar movement is alive, well and influencing policy in this country.

Certainly no voice for it is coming from Barack Obama’s White House. In fact, Obama has been pretty consistent in jerking-around antiwar crusaders, beginning with last summer’s vote as a U.S. senator for a federal surveillance law and its provision shielding telecommunications companies that cooperated in warrantless wiretaps – a law he previously opposed.

The only sound coming from the left at the time was a momentary backlash from the blogosphere.

The president reinforced his dismissal of antiwar activists last week, when he performed an enormous flip and decided to halt the release of photographs of detainee abuse. He said that releasing the photos would put U.S. troops at risk and inflame anti-American opinion.

On April 23, the Obama administration had said the Pentagon would hand over 44 photos of detainee abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq under the Bush administration.

Less than two years ago, the liberal public-policy group MoveOn.org ran its now-infamous “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” ad, accusing the four-star of exaggerating the success of the troop surge in Iraq.

Go to MoveOn.org’s website today, and ending the war is fourth behind health care, climate change and the economy in its goals for 2009, buried in a nondescript click on the site.

“With an anti-war Democrat in the White House, the anti-war activists are cutting him some slack – for now,” said Purdue University political scientist Bert Rockman. “I have no doubt that an anti-war movement will eventually focus on the Afghan-Pakistan front … it will be up to Obama to explain what is at stake.”

A year from now, if circumstances have not changed or worsened on the Afghan-Pakistan front, Obama will have trouble holding the center against left-wing Democrats on one side and right-wing Republicans on the other. So far, he has shown himself to be politically agile in explaining through reason what is at stake – but agility has its limits.

Note that the debate so far has been about tactics rather than necessities, according to Rockman. That’s why Gen. David McKiernan was replaced as U.S. commander in Afghanistan – “not that he was an incompetent commander, but he may have been the wrong one for this kind of war.”

The Obama administration appears to be planning to wage war there with decreasing risks to Afghan civilians but likely increasing risk to our own soldiers. There will be less high-penetration ordnance and more dependence on cultivating intelligence sources and carefully targeted strikes – “Which is why a Special Forces general is the new commander in Afghanistan,” Rockman adds.

Tactics that cause increased casualties for our troops is apt to stimulate anti-war fever, however.

“Where is Code Pink” – another liberal activist group – “or Moveon.org today?” asks Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “Is it all okay if Barack Obama does it?”

“Being against the war was something the left used to draw a bright line between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” he says. “But there is no cause now, because there was no cause then.”

St. Louis University law professor Joel Goldstein says the antiwar movement has lost steam for at least three reasons: It was centered on a widespread lack of faith in the Bush administration; real concerns about Afghanistan and Pakistan which implicate our security interests have emerged; the economy now has the attention of the public and the media.

The left ousted Republicans who it was convinced were intent on continuing the war in Iraq, so the “antiwar effort necessarily loses its steam,” Goldstein adds.

While President Obama gingerly takes ownership of the war in Afghanistan – pumping up troop levels, hand-picking his own commander, adding Pakistan as part of the solution and the problem – he is disowning antiwar activists who voted for him, expecting him to put an end all wars.

Unfortunately for them, they have nowhere else to go, Castellanos says, “So the noise you will hear from them will be voiceless.”