The debate over whether to intervene militarily in Syria is the final break in a long-splintering relationship between President Obama and the antiwar movement. Antiwar activists played an important role in the president’s 2008 campaign, helping Obama defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries and Republican nominee John McCain in the general election.
But five years later, a broad coalition of liberal groups that make up the antiwar movement is more likely to oppose the president on foreign policy. And on Syria, the groups successfully pressured Democrats on Capitol Hill to defy Obama, weakening him in the process.
Antiwar activists have run television and print ads, held rallies, organized petitions and blanketed congressional switchboards — all with messages of opposition to the president.
“This moment around Syria
is a high-water mark for progressives speaking out on military policy or foreign policy under Obama,” said Anna Galland,
the executive director of
MoveOn.org. “We strongly and publicly broke with the president on foreign policy for the first time.”
A surprise Russian proposal this week that Syria turn over
its chemical weapons provided Obama a way out of a potentially embarrassing defeat on Capitol Hill, where both Republicans and Democrats were prepared to reject his request for the authority to strike the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Yet it’s unclear whether diplomatic negotiations will ultimately resolve the standoff, meaning that Obama may again choose to turn to lawmakers for support. Obama’s second term could include similar debates over military interventions in other countries as well, including Iran and North Korea.
The Syria experience suggests that Obama would face not only skepticism from Republicans, who have attacked him for his handling of the situation, but also strong opposition from the left. It comes as part of a growing list of grievances among liberals about Obama’s national security policy.
Doing the unthinkable
Initially, the left complained that Obama was too slow to withdraw troops from Iraq and wrong to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan. They were frustrated by his failure to persuade Congress to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
And more recently, they have protested his expansive use of drone warfare and his strong support for surveillance programs.
“He does things that would be unthinkable from a antiwar perspective,” said Tom Hayden, a longtime activist who created an organization to marshal liberals in support of Obama in 2008. “I think a lot of people thought he would do a better job for us.”
Progressive groups rapidly mobilized opposition to Obama’s Syria plans with calls, e-mails and demonstrations. MoveOn.org said it gathered 210,000 votes and petition signatures, generated 46,000 calls to Capitol Hill and staged 220 vigils across the nation with 7,000 attendees. Nearly 20,000 members of the left-leaning group CREDO Mobile have reported on their calls to Congress.
VoteVets played a key role in helping persuade war veterans such as Reps.
(Hawaii), Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Tim Walz (Minn.) to oppose a strike. The group was also instrumental in swaying other moderate Democrats.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who is undecided on Syria, said lawmakers valued getting input from constituents before making a high-stakes vote. “I think we should all be held accountable,” she said in an interview. “That’s the way democracy works.”
The Syria issue was the first major test of the strength of the antiwar movement in the Obama era. Since his election, antiwar activists have been far quieter than they were during the George W. Bush years, in part because there has been much greater focus on domestic matters and in part because so many of them voted for Obama.
“In 2008, there was a large percentage of the American public that had developed a strong antiwar opinion,” said Michael Heaney, a professor at the University of Michigan who has studied the movement’s relationship with Obama. “And Obama’s election provided satisfaction to a large percentage of them.”
But activists say Syria, coming on top of the other concerns, has created new tensions between many liberals and the president they supported.
“When you have the prospect of airstrikes and another war, it just wakes up a lot of people,” said Becky Bond, CREDO Mobile’s political director. “What we’ve seen with the Obama administration, like the George W. Bush administration, is the effort to push the boundaries of executive power relative to Congress and the courts as far as possible.”
Obama was ‘our vehicle’
Obama and the antiwar movement started off on a much better footing. Obama’s deep political ties to the antiwar left date to 2002, when a group of Chicago activists invited the then-Illinois state senator to an antiwar rally. Obama spoke strongly against invading Iraq.
“He was an anchor for building the antiwar movement,” said Marilyn Katz, an antiwar activist who knew Obama in Chicago. “We decided that our vehicle would be in Barack Obama.”
Katz said that it was inevitable that the left would be disappointed in Obama, noting that he said he was against “dumb wars,” not all wars. She said he gets too little credit for what he has achieved, including an end to the war in Iraq and a significant drawdown in Afghanistan.
“The movement expected him to be more and more anti-
military than he ever was,” she said. “This is a guy who made his promise and kept his promise.”
For some, though, Obama’s hawkish stance is more personal than political. Ryan remembered feeling moved when Obama, during a 2008 presidential debate, talked about how he wore a bracelet given to him by the mother of one of his close friends, a Marine named Ryan Jerabek, who died in Iraq.
“She asked me, can you please make sure another mother is not going through what I’m going through,” Obama said in that debate.
But today, Ryan says the president has not followed through on his antiwar message.
“When he talks about the responsibility of being a superpower, that model he is acting out is not a good one,” Ryan said. “I don’t expect change to come from Obama. Obama is not going to be the one to change the way U.S. foreign policy operates. It’s going to be up to us to change the way U.S. foreign policy operates.”