On Friday, October 21, President Obama announced the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq. Since then, I have diligently read my e‑mails from United For Peace and Justice and NoIraqWar. I have navigated the blogosphere looking for responses from those who over the more than eight years of this war’s duration have consistently, almost daily, called for its ending. But except for essays by Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Robert Parry, virtually nothing celebratory is to be found in the endless stream of debates of the various anti-war entities.
While often at odds with each other (and often themselves) on the issues, the Republicans and right wingers bent on characterizing anything the president does as an error have predictably accused the president of “giving in,” of putting the United States in danger due to the withdrawal of troops.
The mainstream press has been little better or kinder, placing the announcement not within the context of a universally hated “war” but in the context of a tactical debate of whether to leave 5,000 or 10,000 troops on the ground.
All of this could be expected. What was not expected was the silence of the anti-war movement. What has been absent is the voice that strongly declared the announcement as a victory – albeit long in coming – for the millions of Americans who from the fall of 2002 on opposed its onset, decried its human and financial cost and demanded its ending. What has been missing is the voice that declared that the anti-war movement has prevailed. What is missing is the voice that praises the president for acting on the promise he made.
The reason for this failure is multifaceted. It lies partly in the fact that for 30 years the left has been isolated in the wilderness. It reflects the left’s own self image as a political force that has little power, has ceased to be relevant and that is not interested in putting mass in the movement.
This failure may also disturbingly indicate that many on the left have become more interested in “defining themselves” rather than reaching out to others. If you are trying to organize and build a movement, victories – even partial ones – are critical to energizing the base. If however, you are more invested in self-definition, the purity of your position and the sanctity of your own righteousness becomes more important. It allows you to define yourself as different from (Obama, liberals, name your bete noir).
As one of my staff (who by her own admission is in a “fringe” group) put it, “Well, he didn’t really end it. There will still be troops there.” This is a perfect example of how not to influence Obama or the movement that we hope to build. In other words, it is a perfect way to lose (and continue losing) even when you win.
As someone who was an early opponent of the war and an organizer of the 2002 rally at which Barack Obama first proclaimed his opposition (and some would argue launched his campaign for the presidency), I find this silence both problematic and dangerous.
Progressives continuously ask people to “get involved” – with the implied promise that if they do, they can make a difference. When we fail to claim the victories that are there, we undermine our own arguments.
We of the progressive movement resent when the press or the right distort events to further their own purposes. But history belongs to those who write it and if we, by our silence, let the narrative be written by others, we have little room to complain or and leave ourselves no space to compete.
I have listened to and read a litany of complaints from progressives these past three years about the failure of Obama to deliver on what was expected. Yet here is the president executing the very thing that we urged for more than a decade, and we have nothing to say.
Where is the declaration of victory? The praise? The statement that at least recognizes and commends him for a promise made that was kept? How can we expect him to listen to us when his omissions are met with hostility and his praiseworthy actions met with deafening silence?
I have always adhered to the maxim “claim no easy victories.” To this I would add another: “A victory is a terrible thing to waste.” If we don’t claim our victories and praise our allies, we will have few of either. If we don’t write our history, others will. And we will not like what we see.