Yes, We Did: A Victory for the Antiwar Movement

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is a victory for the antiwar movement. It is a success for all of us who opposed the invasion, worked to end the occupation, and elected a president who has now fulfilled his pledge to bring the troops home.

We have many mixed emotions on this occasion.  Many of us feel continuing anger that the Bush administration dragged our nation into an unjust, unnecessary, and illegal war.  We share profound sadness at the immense loss of life and human injury and the staggering financial costs resulting from the war. We deeply regret the devastation our nation visited upon the people of Iraq through decades of sanctions and war.  We also honor and respect our men and women in uniform who bore the burden of service and give special gratitude to the many who spoke out against the war. We know that U.S. attempts to dominate Iraq and its oil wealth are far from over. Thousands of U.S. ‘contractor’ mercenaries remain in the country and tens of thousands of troops are nearby in Kuwait and in the Gulf. We know that Iraqi politics are fragile and pervasively corrupt, rife with sectarianism exacerbated by our misguided policies.

These are grim realities we cannot deny, but we also must not ignore the extraordinary importance of the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Pentagon fought relentlessly to keep tens of thousands of troops and permanent bases in Iraq. Over the years I asked many military officers if they thought U.S. troops would remain in Iraq. Every single one expected that our troops would be in the country for decades. Right up to the very end, senior military officials attempted to gain support for the continued presence of U.S. troops.

The Iraqi people would not stand for it, however. Their elected leaders demanded a deadline for the departure of U.S. troops in the security agreement they signed with the Bush administration in 2008. The al-Maliki government stuck to the December 2011 deadline, despite Pentagon pleadings, because it would have been thrown out of office if it had yielded to U.S. demands.

We in the antiwar movement played a significant role in getting the troops home.  Millions of us organized in the United States and all over the world in 2002 and early 2003 to ‘stop the war before it starts,’ as I wrote in an article at the time. When our protests were ignored by the Bush administration, we continued protesting and organized hundreds of local events and vigils calling for troops to come home. In 2006 we volunteered in congressional elections that produced a sweeping victory for the Democratic Party, a result attributed largely to popular revulsion against the war. In 2007-08 we mobilized in support of Obama because of his stalwart opposition to the war and his unequivocal pledge to bring the troops home. Obama’s vaunted social media campaign grew out of the networks of millions of activists who participated in the antiwar movement. Without the base of support provided by our movement Obama would not have attracted the support necessary to establish his candidacy.

So while this is an occasion of sadness and regret, it is also a time to acknowledge our hard-won victory, and thank President Obama for keeping his word to bring the troops home.

Egypt’s Bumpy Road to Democracy

Initial results from Egypt’s first round of elections produced an unexpectedly large showing for Islamists. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood gained approximately 37 percent of the seats selected from political party lists, in line with predictions. The real shocker was the 24 percent vote obtained by the al-Nur party of the Salafi movement. The Salafis are extreme conservatives who favor restrictions on the role of women and Saudi-style controls on public morality. Liberal-left parties in the various party blocs gained about 37 percent. The results are very preliminary, with two more rounds of voting still ahead.

As Juan Cole notes, the party list results differ from the individual candidate results, so it is much too early to say whether the Islamists will dominate the parliament. The Freedom and Justice Party is relatively moderate compared to the Salafi party.  It is unlikely, according to Cole, that the two parties will be able to form an alliance. Dire warnings of an extremist Islamist takeover are premature.

The greatest threat to Egyptian democracy remains continued control by the military. The generals have asserted the right to appoint up to 80 percent of the constituent assembly that will write a new constitution. They have also insisted that, regardless of the composition and form of the new government, the budget and operations of the armed forces will remain exempt from parliamentary control and civilian oversight.

Some may be tempted to see the military as a bulwark against extremism, invoking the original ‘Turkish model’ that began with Ataturk in the 1920s. Over the decades Turkish generals sought to neutralize Islamism and ‘modernize’ the country. A very different ‘Turkish model’ has evolved over the past decade. The generals have returned to the barracks, free elections are now routine, and the moderate Justice and Development Party, led by President Erdoğan, has consolidated civilian democratic rule.  Many in Egypt today hope their country can follow this contemporary Turkish model—the removal of the military from power, and the evolution of Islamism toward political responsibility in a system of guaranteed free elections.

The road ahead will be bumpy and uncertain. Mostly the United States should stay out of the way and cheer for democracy from the sidelines. We can use our influence, however, to pressure the generals to step aside in favor of civilian democratic rule. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have issued statements to that effect. Washington provides $1.3 billion per year in military assistance to Egypt. We should not be afraid to use this aid as leverage to insist that Egypt’s military leaders accept democratic rule. A sign I saw in Tahrir Square recently said it well: “The army should defend the nation, not rule it.”