The anti-war movement has been a noted absence in America for the last several years. To me this has been a cacophonous silence, something much more evident and noteworthy precisely because of its disappearance.
My explanatory thesis of this phenomenon is very brief “Team Red=Team Blue” argument. Democrats and Republicans actually disagree on very few things. Outside of a few fractious issues like gun control and abortion rights, there are few real differences between the two parties. And indeed, these issues are used as banners to corral followers precisely because of their very intractability. The call for stricter gun control regulation is dead in the water. Abortion rights were settled in Roe v. Wade, and despite all of the War on Women talk, they aren’t going anywhere on the national level.
Rather, there is an abundance of perceived differences between the parties. The result is a battle of two brands to control the most powerful nation in the history of the planet, a struggle between Coke and Pepsi for literal world domination. The only difference is that I for one can clearly taste the difference between the Team Red and Team Blue of the cola world, whereas the Democrats and Republicans are both selling the same re-labeled talking points.
In the salient example of the Syria debacle, although both Democrats and Republicans are perfectly willing to support unnecessary military campaigns, the former party used to have a reputation as being staunchly opposed to foreign entanglements.
When W. Bush was in power, the anti-war movement was mobilized and powerful, with hundreds of rallies occurring in the US and globally between 2002 and 2008. On February 15, 2003, the world witnessed what some have called the largest protest in human history. The BBC estimates that 250,000 gathered in San Francisco, with another 100,000 in New York protesting the imminent invasion of Iraq. These numbers are dwarfed by the figures from Europe. Barcelona alone held demonstrations numbering 1.3 million strong. London was host to up to one million anti-war activists. Another million raised their placards in Rome.
The anti-war effort hit a profound snag, however, when many Democrats abruptly stopped participating in these rallies. According to this chart from Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Fojas, respectively from the University of Michigan and Indiana University, Democratic support of these protests nosedived between September 2008 and January of 2009.
I wonder what transformative event between those dates could have possibly changed their minds?
The authors explain their reasoning:
However, after Obama’s election as president, Democratic participation in antiwar activities plunged, falling from 37 percent in January 2009 to a low of 19 percent in November 2009, and registering 22 percent in December 2009….Since Democrats are more numerous in the population at large than are members of third parties, the withdrawal of Democrats from the movement in 2009 appears to be a significant explanation for the falling size of antiwar protests. Thus, we have identified the kernel of the linkage between Democratic partisanship and the demobilization of the antiwar movement.
Obama campaigned in 2008 on being the anti-war candidate. When he was still an Illinois State Senator in 2002, Obama expressed his views on the impending conflict in Iraq: “I don’t oppose all wars…What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
The implications are very clear. Democrats were rightfully enraged about the war in Iraq and America’s other extra-curricular adventures in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Oman. However, now that their party occupies the White House, they are not only less rabid in their opposition to war, but they actively campaign for military action.
It is clear that Team Blue only criticized the Iraq War because it was an easy way to attack the Team Red President. Now that Team Blue sits on the throne, it’s easy to see that the criticism was convenient but certainly not principled. Obama has instructed Congress to debate a possible intervention in Syria further in order to gauge Congressional support as well as the general public’s. This gesture is utterly meaningless, though, as the President has made it perfectly clear that he can take unilateral action against Syria with or without the legislature’s approval.
Speaking on August 31, Obama stated:
I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets…I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.
Secretary of State John Kerry has also explicitly revealed the White House’s desire to intervene. Speaking in London, Kerry laid out the reasoning for US action:
I don’t believe that we should shy from this moment: the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.
In the end, sending the debate to the legislative branch was nothing but political theater. If Congress favors military action, Obama can claim that he went through the proper legislative channels. He can also later blame any collateral damage on their approval, distancing his legacy from an unpopular intervention. If Congress fails to give him their support, he can blame any further loss of life in Syria on Republican obstructionism and use it as political fodder in the 2014 midterms.
Heads he wins, tails we lose. New boss, meet the old boss.
To be fair, regardless of Congressional deliberations and whether or not the White House even chooses to acquiesce to their judgement, I can’t imagine that any Republican president would have acted any differently than Obama has. Plenty of Republicans are also gung-ho for US action, including former Presidential hopeful John McCain.
But that’s the entire point, isn’t it? After all, Team Red=Team Blue.