Thousands of idealists marched door-to-door through the snows and delivered a decisive message that the times are changing. From that moment forward, the establishment and its war policies began disintegrating from within.
The year was 1968. The insurgent campaign was on behalf of Senator Eugene McCarthy. I am wondering if anyone even remembered McCarthy in the blur that was New Hampshire January 8.
Did Senator Hillary Clinton remind voters that she was one of those volunteers who took on president Lyndon Johnson and his war? Did Senator Barack Obama invoke the memory of that last great youth crusade?
While the Democratic contenders rushed through their ambiguous rhetoric about “ending the war,” the actual war continued as a bleeding reality, safely unchallenged. Clinton promised to end it “in the right way,” not explaining that ominous phrase.
The anti-war movement never had a voice, being marginalized as electoral amateurs in the blizzard of sound bites and soap opera drama.
The war went on, however. The number of Iraqis in prison doubled in 2007, the number of U.S. air strikes increased seven-fold, and the number of Americans killed was nearly 1,000, but that news went largely unreported.
Especially if either John McCain or Rudolph Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee, the Iraq war will return to presidential politics full force, with the Democrats placed on the defensive. What the counter-message will be is unknown, especially since the Democrats seem to be lessening and blurring their emphasis on Iraq and national security.
Someone needs to restore Iraq to the centre of the Democratic debate.
If Obama wants to win, he needs to sharpen his differences with Clinton immediately, going beyond style to substance, especially on Iraq. Under the five-year Clinton plan, while the good news is that U.S. combat troops would be withdrawn gradually, tens of thousands of “advisers” and counter-terrorism forces would stay in Iraq to fight a counterinsurgency war like Central America in the 1970s.
That is a plan to lessen American casualties and wind down the war on television while still authorizing a nasty low-visibility one. It is impossible to criticize the CIA’s secret torture methods and refuse to see what happens every day in Iraq’s detention centres, complete with their U.S. trainers and funding.
With the Clinton plan, American advisers and special forces are likely to be filling those detention centres through 2013.
Obama could, if he wished, say that a plan to have Americans fighting in Iraq through the next president’s first term is not a peace plan but a five-year war plan filled with risk for American soldiers. He could make the comparisons to Central America. He could point out the impossibility of funding Iraq, Afghanistan and national health care.
There is a solid basis for making these assertions. John Podesta, president Clinton’s former chief of staff and a close associate of Hillary Clinton, has been arguing for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops, including advisers, on a one-year schedule.
Podesta, alone within the Beltway establishment, has complained of “strategic drift” among Democratic national security advisers, who are avoiding the public mandate for peace.
Obama could simply cite president Clinton’s former chief of staff in calling for a more rapid peace timetable.
Taking this position could win traction for Obama among the voters he needs, anti-war Democrats who currently see no differences between him and Clinton. But the chances are that Obama won’t take this course, not because he is timid, but because he himself believes in leaving an ample role for continued counterinsurgency and advisers as American combat troops are withdrawn.
His chief difference with Clinton over Iraq is the specific pace of withdrawing combat troops – Obama promises a 16-to-18-month timetable – but he has not sharpened whatever differences he has over the role of advisers, counter-terrorism units and Halliburton-type contractors.
Obviously, Clinton herself could adopt the recommendations of her husband’s former chief of staff. But she has not done so for many months and is unlikely to change her “game plan” now.
Clinton therefore may be safely beyond Democratic pressures on Iraq, but the issue will haunt her campaign if she succeeds in maintaining the momentum toward November. How will she distinguish herself from McCain if the former POW is the nominee? How will she respond to the Republican attack machine on Iraq while seeking to strengthen her national security image?
By 2009, under either administration, U.S. military forces will be bogged down in quagmires in Iraq, Afghanistan and probably Pakistan. The McCarthy-era Democrats, born in the snows of New Hampshire, will be wandering the deserts of Mesopotamia.
A hopeful new generation at home could become bogged down in a political quagmire of their own depression. Who then will be calling for peace if this worst of all worlds comes to pass?
Tom Hayden is author of Ending The War In Iraq (Akashic, 2007) and The Tom Hayden Reader (City Lights, 2008).