Barack Obama is not yet commander-in-chief, yet already the antiwar left is denouncing him as a captive if not a captain of the dreaded military-industrial complex. Tom Hayden, a founder of Progressives for Obama, writes of “Obama’s multiple wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, not to mention Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Robert Scheer, another veteran of the '60s antiwar movement, has denounced Obama for taking counsel from “unrepentant Democratic hawks” like Zbigniew Brzezinski. The fact that Marine General Jim Jones will be Obama’s national security adviser, while Robert Gates will continue as secretary of defense, is inspiring many on the left with buyer’s remorse about the candidate of change. With an announced intention of reminding Obama of his promises, a group of leftists has announced plans to camp in tents near the Obama home in Hyde Park, Chicago, in January. No doubt Cindy Sheehan will be on the scene.
The magic bus of history has driven past the peace movement...The truth is that those on the radical left who oppose all uses of military force by the US were always a minority among Democrats.
All of this is as anachronistic as it seems. The magic bus of history has driven past the peace movement. Obama’s election night speech at Grant Park in Chicago did more than close the rift in the Democratic Party that lingered from the battles between police and antiwar protesters at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention, not far from where Obama spoke. The rift was sealed in terms favorable to the muscular internationalist wing of the Democratic Party, led by Barack Obama today.
The truth is that those on the radical left who oppose all uses of military force by the US, rather than only particular misguided military interventions like the Iraq war, were always a minority among Democrats as well as Americans as a whole. Throughout the 20th century, there had been progressive isolationists, secular and religious pacifists like Quakers; during the Cold War these were joined by pro-communist leftists, who objected to US opposition to communism, not to “wars of liberation” by Marxist-Leninist totalitarians. The catastrophe of the Vietnam War temporarily enlarged the audience in the Democratic Party for the antiwar left, particularly among college students threatened by the draft before its 1973 abolition and their parents. But the victory of the antiwar left following the US defeat in Vietnam was a Pyrrhic one. Their increased influence in the party permitted the Republican Party to caricature the Democrats as appeasers. And the same public that displayed a post-Vietnam skepticism about foreign intervention also put hawkish Republican presidents in the White House between 1968 and 1992. The exception, Jimmy Carter, was a center-right Southern Democrat who played up his military experience as a naval officer. In a disastrous feedback loop, Republican dominance of the White House, itself in part the product of perceived Democratic foreign policy weakness, further cemented the hold of antiwar liberals on liberalism as a whole.
Everything changed, however, with Bill Clinton, the first Democrat since FDR to serve two terms in the White House. Now that the Democrats controlled the executive branch, Democratic partisanship and knee-jerk opposition to the exercise of military power were no longer compatible. With the end of the Cold War and the reshaping of the geopolitical landscape, new issues and new alliances appeared. Most liberals had reflexively opposed the 1991 Gulf War, even though it was a classic exercise of collective security to punish inter-state aggression approved by the United Nations. But the relatively low cost in US casualties of the Gulf War persuaded many liberals to support US/NATO intervention in the Balkan wars and end ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars by the Serbs. Still, there remained left-wing opposition to Clinton’s use of force against Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
While some liberals sympathized with the proclaimed anti-colonial and egalitarian ideals of Third World communists and leftists during the Cold War, after September 11 jihadists appeared not only as religious reactionaries but also as vicious racists, like No. 2 Al Qaeda terrorist Ayman al-Zawahri, who described Barack Obama as a “house slave.” The 2003 Iraq war also found many supporters among liberals and even on the left, who later became disillusioned with the Bush administration’s manipulations and incompetence.
By the time of the 2008 election, the constituencies who had no objection to the responsible use of US military power when necessary included not only conservative and centrist Democrats but also many progressives who had been convinced in the 1990s or following September 11 that there can be outcomes worse than war. At the beginning of the 21st century, mainstream liberalism in America has made its peace with the use of force on behalf of US interests and international order. Support for prudent uses of military force no longer disqualifies a Democratic politician from being an authentic liberal. And in the new universe of liberal politics, being reflexively antiwar no longer makes much sense, if it ever did. One can be against particular wars, but in an anarchic world in which self-help is the rule, it makes no more sense to oppose all wars in principle than it does to oppose all uses of force by domestic police.
Ironically, while the antiwar left has shrunken, the pro-war right has taken over the Republican Party. Largely because of the party’s domination by Southern conservatives, who have always formed a militaristic subculture in a civilian nation, many Republicans impulsively appear to support any war, against any enemy, at any time, for any purpose. The militarists of the right, who are reflexively in favor of war as such, are the mirror image of the anti-militarists of the left—but far more influential in their party today.
The antiwar left, increasingly divided over Obama, is beginning to resemble the marginal coalition on the left that denounced Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry Truman as tyrannical warmongers. Obama is justified in brushing them off his shoulders.
Michael Lind is the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of The American Way of Strategy. He has been a staff writer or senior editor at The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, and The National Interest.