From the standpoint of peace movements, much of modern history has required mobilizations against United States imperialism. In this century, peace activists have mobilized against major wars, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq; interference in and promotion of civil wars as in Libya and Syria; and U.S. defense of regimes that violate human rights such as Israel and Honduras. Peace activists have demanded that their government support, not oppose, grassroots movements which have sought to overthrow oppressive pro-United States rulers, as in Egypt in 2011. In addition, peace activists continue to mobilize against exorbitant military spending, drone warfare, violations of the privacy of citizens and non-citizens alike, and the training of the officer core in Latin America at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
However, from time to time peace activists need to bring their pressure to bear in support of government policies. Now is such a time as the United States has shifted in the direction of negotiating a de-escalation of tensions with Iran and promoting an end to civil war in Syria.
Last summer, President Obama indicated he was giving serious consideration to selective bombing of military targets in Syria. The proposed scenario sounded a lot like the US/NATO war on Libya in 2011 that facilitated the overthrow of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and the disintegration of Libyan society into a maze of warring factions.
Anti-war activists around the country hit the streets to protest impending war. Vocal opposition in Congress to a war on Syria expanded. As a result of this growing resistance to war, the President postponed indefinitely an attack on Syria. Shortly after, Secretary of State Kerry flew to Geneva and began the latest round of discussions with Iranian leaders to eliminate the “threat” of Iran’s nuclear program coupled with the end of the Western economic blockade of that country.
The result of this flurry of activities is a recently signed six-month agreement between the United States and Iran to give time for further diplomatic negotiations. In addition, the administration announced that negotiations would begin in January to end the civil war in Syria.
New York Times reporter Mark Landler wrote that “…the two nearly simultaneous developments were vivid statements that diplomacy, the venerable but often-unsatisfying art of compromise, has once again become the centerpiece of American foreign policy” (“Obama Signals a Shift From Military Might to Diplomacy,” New York Times, November 25, 2013).
Landler referred to 2008 candidate Obama’s pledge to audiences at home, in Europe, and in the Middle East that his administration would use the traditional tools of diplomacy rather than force to help solve world problems. His 2008 rhetoric stood markedly in contrast to the neo-conservative vision of a foreign policy which would use force as a first resort rather than a last one.
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a right wing lobby group, advocated in the 1990s for a foreign policy based on “…the essential elements of the Reagan Administration’s success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposely promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.”
The neo-conservative approach to foreign policy which dominated the Bush Administration was unilateralist and militarist, rejecting diplomacy, international institutions, and securing support from friendly nations. A centerpiece of the policy was the Doctrine of Pre-emption, attacking a group or nation that the United States feels might be planning to attack the United States.
Obama in 2008 sided with a more pragmatic view—secure support from allies, work within international organizations to achieve goals, develop policies to deter threats rather than pre-empting them with offensive military action, and, most of all, use diplomacy to solve conflicts. From the pragmatist viewpoint military force should only be a last resort (see Harry Targ, “Globalists vs. Pragmatists: Two Styles of Imperialism,” Diary of a Heartland Radical, www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com, May 31, 2010.)
Once elected, Obama embraced the pragmatist approach to foreign policy for much of his first two years in office—meeting with the G20 countries, loosening restrictions on American contacts with Cuba, criticizing Israel’s expanding settlements in the West Bank, and mildly rebuking the Honduran military for carrying out a coup in that country. Importantly, the president withdrew most U.S. troops from Iraq.
However, after 2010, his policies reflected more the policies of his predecessor. The United States expanded U.S. military bases in Colombia, stalled the de-escalation of tensions with Cuba, and ignored the refusal of the Honduran military and civilian elite to reestablish its elected government. Criticism of Israeli policy declined. And, most significantly, Obama sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and supported a NATO-led air war against Libya. Finally, some “boots on the ground” were replaced with an escalated drone anti-terror program against targets in Pakistan and Yemen.
Recent developments in United States policy toward Iran and Syria suggest that the “pragmatist” Obama may be returning. As Phyllis Bennis recently asked: “Could we be seeing the rising role of diplomacy instead of military force as the basis of U.S. foreign policy?”
The neo-conservatives and other legislators, who are guided in their policy perspectives in the Middle East by what the government of Israel supports or opposes, are objecting to the Administration’s pursuit of diplomatic solutions to conflicts with Iran and Syria. Many legislators, both Democratic and Republican, are calling for increased sanctions against Iran which would scuttle the U.S./Iranian agreement.
This time the peace movement should step up to support the foreign policy of the Obama Administration rather than oppose it. If not, the United States will return to the traditional neo-conservative approach to world affairs; send in the military now and think about diplomacy later.
As Phyllis Bennis wrote in reference to peace activists: “As usual, it’s up to us to keep the pressure on. We need to make sure the agreement with Iran holds, and we need to make sure the U.S. doesn’t continue to exclude Iran from participating in Syria peace talks” (“Iran diplomacy Works, Afghan War Winding Down, Palestine Crisis Remains,” New Internationalism, Institute for Policy Studies, 2013, Phyllis@ips-dc.org).