Friday, August 20, 2010

Why it's difficult to take some who stylize themselves as "professional leftists" seriously

by Joel Wendland

The item on the other end of this link appeared just two weeks ago on the often well-reported news website Inter Press Service. It was immediately re-posted by a bunch of left-wing sites like Dissident Voice and, as well as other ultra-leftist sites who claim to be "Marxist-Leninist" – most of whom regularly denounce Obama and Democrats, and, during the 2008 election campaign sometimes openly argued and sometimes obliquely suggested that a President McCain would be no different. Even liberal sites like – which is generally pro-Obama – re-posted the item.

Aside from, many of the people behind these other sites even argued that Obama's statements, pledges, and positions were "just words" – echoing ironically a lot of right wingers and other political opponents of his.

The reporter in the IPS piece noted that President Obama delivered a speech to a veterans group in which he did not speak to his pledge to remove all U.S. combat troops by the end of this month. The IPS reporter took this absence as evidence that the President had "dropped" his promise to do so.

The reporter wrote:

Obama's jettisoning of one of his key campaign promises and of a high-profile pledge early in his administration without explicit acknowledgement highlights the way in which language on national security policy can be manipulated for political benefit with the acquiescence of the news media.

This statement was made even as the last combat brigades in Iraq were being shipped home. Indeed, the same reporter predicted even before Obama took office that his pledges to bring the war to an end would go unfulfilled.

Grudgingly acknowledging that the troop levels are dramatically lower, the reporter then goes on to try to make a case that remaining troops labeled as non-combat have the same combat capabilities, taking the word of an unidentified "senior administration official" as evidence.

Unfortunately this kind of reporting suggests a real problem for the left. Instead of emphasizing the need for drug testing Robert Gibbs could have aimed his criticisms of what he labeled the "professional left's" (not that he had IPS or any of these other websites in mind) being out of touch with the general public, its attitudes or its experiences, and how much self-identified members of this group actually relish that fact.

Anyone who has military experience in a combat unit knows that while all military personnel get some level of combat training, not all troops are the same. And while some non-combat units will have some combat attachments, the force in Iraq can in no serious sense be thought of as a war-making force.

Not understanding this, or caring to explain this, is the fatal flaw in IPS piece. It is meant to show problems and spark divisions rather than get at the truth. The aim, unfortunately, appears to have been to make the President the main political enemy of the "real" progressive movement. And apparently a lot of folks who run those websites bit.

Ironically, President Obama's pledge – thought to be "just words"– proved to end in a real policy change; while the words of a "senior administration official" unfortunately got reported by IPS – and circulated by a lot of anti-Obama left-wing sites – as the real policy. Let's do better next time.

What the unnamed "senior official's" words reflect is an altogether different phenomenon missed by the author of the article and apparently by most of the anti-Obama left. Those words were meant as political cover from the right (again ironic that a leftish publication like IPS took the bait).

Those words were meant to emphasize that a strong military presence remains – because it does – to soften the harshest criticisms of the militarists and right-wing supporters of endless war and occupation. Now it might be tempting to say it doesn't matter what right-wing people say or think or do, but because they have unlimited quantities of cash and media resources, they shouldn't be so easily dismissed. Because of their resources, they have proven deft, even after being so clearly defeated politically and discredited ideologically just two years ago, at dominating messages and manipulating public opinion today.

Being out of touch and quite high on one's horse sometimes makes dismissing this stark reality. If Obama were really principled and really a good guy, he'd stand up and say damn the right-wing and just do what he wants. He's the boss of the military after all. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work like that – especially not without a unified majority of Americans of diverse political backgrounds and outlooks standing with him and giving him the political cover to make those changes.

Leftish self-marginalization makes it easy not to have to worry about the vast quantity of political calculation which holding power, pursuing an agenda, and keeping power (through reelection) requires.

Let's remember that after massive action by the peace movement and a growing realization about the disaster of Bush's policy in Iraq, Americans remained split on how to bring the war to an end. (Again right-wing pundits and political figures dominated this conversation in important ways.) While more than six in 10 Americans wanted to get out of Iraq, they were split down the middle on how quickly that should take place and in what manner it should be done.

(Of course, it is easy to dismiss this point, saying real anti-imperialism demands and end to war now and leave campaigning or building a meaningful, influential movement to someone else. But let's just dismiss the nonsense in that last clause out of hand, especially since we're trying to be serious about being a viable political force.)

President Obama has essentially fulfilled his promise – so far – in a way that reflects that majority opinion.

I don't think it is nit-picky (and here I think Gibbs is off base) to say the withdrawal could be faster and that we have to make sure it is completed. While the military units that remain in Iraq are by no means a war-making force, as I have argued elsewhere, they are in harm's way and can be exposed to situations that easily slip into a viable campaign for escalation. They need to come home quick and safe.

Whatever the case, the one enduring thread throughout this discussion is the influence and power of the Republicans, the ultra-right, the militarists, and their media arms. This is the linchpin. It is self-evident that the necessary goal of decisively defeating this force in our country has not yet been realized.

How do you do so on the issue of US military involvement overseas? I think there are some great suggestions in this piece about local organizing around stressing to elected officials – at this time candidates seeking votes are even more prone to influence – the importance of shifting priorities to militarism to social needs and job creation. Also, leftists should be enthusiastic about the possibilities of success rather than defeatists off the top.

A special focus on Afghanistan may be even more important here. Because while the Obama administration re-emphasized its intention to begin a pull-out from there by next year, military brass and others have made noise about wanting to delay it (ironically many of these same left media sources have taken this noise as evidence of the real administration policy). One thing's for sure – it will be a movement of people not an echo chamber of "critique" that brings such a necessary change.

Anyway, this is enough out of me for now.


Anonymous said...

Mission Accomplished II
Telling the Truth About Imperialist Occupation

Professional leftist Joel Wedland takes issue with those of us no the left who question the significance of the US ending “combat operations” in Iraq and continue to call for a complete and unconditional withdrawal. The issue is not the sincerity of Obama’s words, although there is certainly reason to question them. The issue is the reality of the situation for the people of Iraq and our obligation to speak the truth about it. Communists have a responsibility to oppose imperialist aggression in all its forms and to lead the fight against it, no matter what the excuses given for its continuance. The fact is that over 50,000 occupation troops remain in Iraq, regardless of whether they are labeled “combat troops”. In addition there are at least another 5,000 mercenaries, with plans to more than double their number, and the largest embassy, really a fortress, the world has ever known.

No one questions the need to target the right. But that hardly is cause to let the liberal wing of imperialism off the hook. The difference between them is often more one of emphasis and means, rather than ultimate goals. The liberals wish to convince us, rather than force us, to cooperate with our own oppression. Whereas the Bush wing emphasizes unilateralism and brute force, the Obamaites emphasize the need for cooperation - both with other imperialist forces and comprador classes within developing countries. They seek to use diplomatic approaches in preference to military. But, that hardly means they won’t use military force. Witness the plans to expand militarily into Africa and Latin America. Or the expansion of extra judicial murders around the world. And let us not forget that the idea of expanding the war in Afghanistan comes from Obama himself.

Wedland chides us for not understanding the difference between “combat” troops and other troops. But, it is he who misses the point. No matter what you call them, they are still occupation forces, and a large number will remain in Iraq, together with the mercenaries, for the indefinite future. Yes, the US has succeeded in training the Iraqi army to take over some of the tasks previously done by the US military. Thus we learn that President Al Malaki now controls his own prison where prisoners are tortured by Iraqi soldiers as was previously done by US soldiers at Abu Graib. I feel much more confident they brought American values to Iraq, don’t you?

Wedland can fool himself into thinking that talk from administration officials about not withdrawing from Iraq is not what it seems, and just meant for political cover. But, he is either being willfully ignorant or just naive. Our right wing opponents are not fools. They know the difference between talk and action, even if Wedland does not.

Wedland also makes a big point about Obama following American public opinion. Leaving aside the question of the accuracy of his assessment of public opinion, he seems to forget that OUR job as Communists is not to follow public sentiment, but to influence it. We can’t succeed in fighting the influence of the war mongers by being wishy washy. We need to clearly demand “OUT NOW!”.

Joel said...

Interesting remarks. I recommend reading the whole post.

Anonymous said...

"Communists have a responsibility...": What is that from some manual on communism?

Communists have a responsibility to help build the broadest movement against the ultra-right and for social progress -- above all. I see nothing in this screed that maps such a thing out. Frankly, it's the kind of arrogance that makes ultra leftists irrelevant.