It is certainly true that some on the anti-war left who make their living criticizing Western defense initiatives are nothing if not consistent. For them, Barack Obama has been an incredible disappointment. This president has engaged in military interventions, exported American troops, and executed airstrikes in more theaters than George W. Bush. Some, including left-wing commentators at publications like The Nation and Code Pink’s activists, have been quick to note that truth. They are increasingly lonely voices shouting into the void created by the deafening silence of their millions of anti-war compatriots who have been conspicuously muted by the fact that the executor of American military power is a Democrat.
Barack Obama’s failed promise as a scion of the pro-retrenchment left was fully exposed by September 2014, when American soldiers first began to return to the Iraq theater they had so triumphantly departed less than three years prior. That month, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank made the trek to a rather sad anti-war demonstration outside the White House attended by a total of just 22 true believers. “It was the latest display of how Obama has neutralized the left,” Milbank observed.
13 months later, the neutering of this faction is even harder to ignore. The ever-expanding war against the Islamic State has metastasized and the world’s revisionist powers have put their naked loathing for this president’s commitment to maintaining American global hegemony on display. Since then, President Obama extended the war against ISIS into Syria, where a civil-war-turned-regional-war now threatens to draw in the world’s great powers. The president has dispatched U.S. troops to Nigeria to advise the soldiers combating the terrorist organization Boko Haram. American naval assets are preparing to test the parameters of China’s commitment to the defense of its man-made territorial possessions in the South China Sea. Just this week, Barack Obama revealed that he would be unable to fulfill his pledge to end America’s longest foreign war in Afghanistan and bring home most of the soldiers serving there. When Obama leaves office, Americans will still be advising Afghan troops and fighting Islamists in the mountains of Central Asia.
The evidence continues to mount that the international left was never as anti-war as they were anti-Bush. On October 3, a deadly U.S. raid killed 22, including 13 charity workers, at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. After some confusion, American commanders confessed that the targeting error was the Pentagon’s alone. President Barack Obama personally apologized to the international charity organization, but that did not quiet their calls for an independent investigation into the incident. “US special ops knew Afghan site was hospital; unclear if information shared with commanders,” the Associated Press reported on Thursday.
Where are the tens of thousands of conscience-driven Americans marching solemnly down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan demanding redress? This was a lamentable accident, and one that was almost certainly preventable. The Defense Department and the White House deserves the benefit of the doubt, but that’s more than the Bush administration was extended.
At least the world was aware of and alarmed by this tragedy. The same cannot be said for the deadly effects of Russia’s new war in the Middle East.
Within a week of the commencement of Russian bombing raids on anti-Assad rebels, Islamist militias, and U.S.-backed forces in Syria, the non-governmental organization Physicians for Human Rights alleged that Russia had struck three medical facilities in theater. “Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been relentlessly attacking Syria’s health care system for the past four years and the Russian government is now following in their footsteps,” PHR’s director of programs said in a statement.
These aren’t the only humanitarian targets struck by Russian ordnance. The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss reported last week that Russian forces struck Orient Humanitarian Relief medical facilities and ambulances on the same day that an American gunship targeted an Afghanistan hospital. Video of airstrikes in Syria revealed that Russian forces are hitting targets in the country with unguided munitions and cluster bombs, exponentially increasing the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage. There are few reliable figures related to the effects of Russia’s strikes on civilian targets, but nor do you hear much angst from the anti-war left over their absence.
Where are the million-strong marches through the streets of London or Berlin over this new imperialism from Russia? Where are the liberal effigies of a brown-shirted Vladimir Putin being paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue?
The anti-war movement has not disappeared, you see. It is merely in hiding. “The streets of major US cities are not filled with anti-war demonstrations, yet the apparent quiet does not signify consent,” read a particularly deluded dispatch from peace activist Ben Manski in late 2014.
“The core of the peace movement remains active in many parts of the US,” he wrote. “Every day I receive notices about civil disobedience at military bases, hunger strikes, local government resolutions calling for a shift in spending priorities away from the military, and much more.” Manski closed by noting that the core of that movement was just biding its time. For what, you ask? Perhaps another Republican president.
While it is a safe bet that the anti-war movement would discover a new lease on life and renewed moral legitimacy on the same day a GOP chief executive was sworn into office, the international anti-war left is unlikely to ever be similarly energized by Russian crimes of war. The increasingly dangerous situation in Syria remains existentially threatening, not merely for the post-Cold War geopolitical order, but for the anti-war left’s credibility.