It's a disorienting moment for the peace wing of the Democratic Party, at once elated America selected a new president opposed to the Iraq war and momentarily disoriented by the imminent removal of a commander-in-chief whose every action they've opposed for the past eight years.
“Shock has paralyzed them for the moment,” said Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who writes The Washington Note, a popular foreign policy blog. “We are in an Obama bubble now. And it’s tough to step out and be first to deflate the bubble.”
Especially, he added, before that bubble takes shape.
“You’ve got some people like myself who are saying there may be an interesting design in what Obama is trying to do. Maybe it doesn’t fit easily in a neatly sculpted box of liberal pacifist and warmonger hawk. Maybe it’s more complex than that.”
Still, it’s clearly a team that tilts to the right of Democratic foreign policy thought.
Vice-president-elect Joe Biden initially backed the war in Iraq and has supported other military interventions in his long Senate career. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton also supported the Iraq war resolution, a vote that Obama framed as a critical failure of judgement during the primary. She's also taken a harder line on Iran than the president-elect—and is in line to be his Secretary of State.
Jim Jones, a retired Marine General who advised Clinton, Obama and John McCain during the campaign and has refused to disclose his partisan leanings, is slated for National Security Adviser. And running the Pentagon? For at least the first year of his administration, it’s virtually certain that the new president will retain Robert Gates—the Secretary of Defense appointed by President Bush.
Liberals scored one victory, though, when a top candidate to take over the CIA withdrew from consideration this week after concerns surfaced over his views on the agency’s interrogation methods. In a letter taking his name out of consideration, John Brennan said he didn’t want to be a “distraction” to the president-elect.
Yet most leaders on the left are keeping to themselves any criticisms of the centrist quartet that will help shape and implement Obama’s foreign policy.
For now there is a measure of trust from liberals who believe Obama will hold to the principles he espoused during the campaign: end the war in Iraq, negotiate with adversaries and restore America’s standing in the global community.
“We should have a simple sign on our wall saying, ‘It’s the policy stupid,’” said Tom Andrews, the former Maine congressman, riffing off James Carville's 1992 Clinton campaign mantra. “Many will give President-elect Obama the benefit of the doubt about who is executing the policy as long as there is no comprise or backtracking on the policy itself,” added Andrews, who now heads the group “Win Without War.”
There is, Andrews noted, a reluctance to carp before Obama is even sworn in. “He hasn’t been president for one second yet,” the former congressman observed.
Progressives who knew Obama before his ascent onto the national stage also suggest that he’s remaining on the same course he's always charted – one that hews closer to the middle than those on the right will give him credit for or those on the left would prefer.
Maryiln Katz, a veteran of the peace movement dating back to her days as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, helped organize the October 2002 rally in Chicago’s Federal Plaza where Obama declared his opposition to what hecalled a “dumb war.”
But, Katz recalled, the then-state senator also made certain to point out he was no pacifist.
“He asserted his own position in contradiction to [the] anti-war movement,” she said. “He wasn’t us. He didn’t pander to the crowd.”
But Katz, a well-connected Chicago public-relations executive, said that some liberals chose to ignore the part of the speech where Obama stressed that he was not against military force and actually urged more aggressive pursuit of al Qaeda.
“A lot of people took his position on Iraq and projected our politics onto him,” she said. “And that was never him. It was never true.”
Still, President Obama sounds a lot better than President Bush to a peace movement whose members have spent the last seven years in a posted of principled, if often powerless, opposition—and who now have to find a new point of orientation.
“It’s a real challenge to those of who have grown up in opposition to everything,” said Katz. “How do we behave in a way that it expands the progressive point of view? How do you maintain an independent NGO, issue-based infrastructure based on something other than a culture of complaint?”
Some clues could come in Chicago, where from January 1st to the 19th (MLK Day and the day before Obama’s inauguration), a coalition of liberal groups will rally in Hyde Park at what they're calling “Camp Hope” to push for various liberal priorities at home and abroad. Still, the language of their "presence" -- they do not call it a protest—highlights the confusion as to how to relate to an incoming president who is, at the least, less adversarial to their agenda.
The group will congregate daily to "congratulate Senator Obama as our new President-elect and recommit ourselves to progressive actions he promoted on his campaign trail," states the message on their Web site, which adds, “We earnestly hope his presidency will signal the dawning of long-needed progressive change in the United States.”
To be sure, there are some voices who haven't hesitated to take on the president-elect when he's departed from their line, but those voices have found themselves increasingly marginalized by the press and those in the peace movement willing to give Obama a chance.
"He is violating the people's mandate," complained Jodie Evans, a Code Pink co-founder who emailed from Tehran, where she was meeting with government officials and other peace activists. "The people elected him over her precisely because of their different foreign policy stances. Here we are in Iran, working to establish citizen diplomacy, hearing the concerns of the Iranian people and how it feels to have [Clinton] say she wants to obliterate Iran. Those comments are not taken lightly and [are] seen as policy positions here."
Evans, who with her husband helped raise money for Obama during the primary and general election, hinted at how the new president-elect has kept the left-wing at bay since winning the election—by focusing on the issue that first brought them to his side.
Recalling her interaction with Obama at fundraisers, the veteran liberal activist said: "It has gotten to the point where he sees me coming and before I am close he just keeps repeating, 'Jodie, I PROMISE, I will end the war, I promise I will end the war.' It is effective in limiting the amount of time I have to complain about what ever is up [to] at the moment."
Those vested in power, though, are less inclined to complain just yet.
"My immediate reaction was that I feel sure that President Obama knows that he was elected on a campaign of change, and that includes on foreign policy," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), a Bay Area liberal who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, when asked about the new commander-in-chief. “Regarless of who advises him, he must and I believe he will embrace a bold agenda that uses our non-military power,”
Woolsey said others in the peace movement are holding their fire because they are “so relieved that we will have a leader they can trust,” even as, she said, they are “counting on the progressives in the Congress to keep his feet to the fire."
So far, though, Obama's yet to feel the flame.
Observed Clemons: “It’s very hard for even leaders of the left to poke holes because too many of their followers will say, ‘give the guy a break—he hasn’t even been in there yet.' You should see the ridicule or hate at anyone that tries to poke a hole in the Obama myth right now.”