Ending a War by Electing a President

In a recent article for the Mobilizing Ideas blog I tried to answer the question: what happened to the Iraq antiwar movement? In February 2003 an estimated 10 million people around the world demonstrated against the war, in the largest single day of peace protest in history.  The movement was described as a ‘second superpower.’ Yet the Bush administration pushed ahead with its pre-planned invasion. Antiwar protests and vigils continued for a couple years but then faded away. End of story, right?

My view is different. The movement did not end but changed form—shifting from street protest to conventional politics and electoral campaigns. Antiwar activists were heavily involved in the 2006 congressional elections, helping to elect dozens of new antiwar members to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Most important was the movement’s involvement in electing Barack Obama in 2008. The principal distinction of Obama’s candidacy over that of Hillary Clinton and then John McCain was his forthright stance against the Iraq War. Obama had spoken against the invasion at an October 2002 antiwar rally in Chicago, and he remained unequivocally opposed to the war throughout his campaign. His repeated, unwavering commitment to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq attracted the support of many antiwar activists and generated a massive wave of volunteer help for his campaign.

In the primary campaign against Clinton, Obama won victories in every one of the caucus contests, where success is determined by the strength of local activism rather than big name endorsements and large television advertising budgets. Nationwide Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama held a two to one margin in the 13 caucus contests, enough to win the nomination. Obama’s victory was the result of his superior ability to mobilize tens of thousands of strongly committed loyalists from the antiwar movement.

In the general election the Obama campaign used pre-existing activist networks and social media to build a base of millions of supporters who volunteered for his campaign and sent contributions (average gift size $80) that helped to propel him to the White House. As president he overrode military leaders’ calls to keep a residual force in Iraq and fulfilled his pledge to end the war, setting a schedule for military withdrawal early in 2009 and removing the last of the troops in December 2011.

This was a victory for the antiwar movement. Yes, many of us were disappointed by Obama’s military escalation in Afghanistan and are deeply concerned about his extensive drone warfare program. But on the issue that mattered most to us, ending the occupation of Iraq, the commitment to Obama’s candidacy proved to be a sound antiwar strategy.

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