Ronald Radosh: The Left Offers Obama a Strategy

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Ronald Radosh taught history at the City University of New York and is now an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.]

What is Barack Obama’s foreign policy? As it becomes clear that Obama is likely to win the Democratic nomination, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain are attacking him for a lack of foreign policy experience and for proposals he has made that appear to make him appear rather naïve. Is he going to retreat from confronting our nation’s enemies, or is he going to be tough when he has to be? What advice will he heed? Now, he has been offered advice for his campaign by none other than Tom Hayden, once the young lion of the New Left and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Tom Hayden is, of course, no longer a major public figure with great influence. His words, however, resonate with scores of activists as well as liberal intellectuals, who will take them to heart and seek to up the ante on the Obama campaign. Hayden, who clearly views Iraq as another Vietnam, is seeking to move Obama to adopt the prescriptions of the most left-wing sectors of the Democratic Party constituency.

Pointing to Obama’s victory speech in Houston last week, Hayden has noted that Obama has shifted his position, to one of calling for withdrawal of all American troops in the first year of his administration, not over a lengthier time span. Does Obama mean it? Hayden has one suggestion: the Left and antiwar forces must hold Obama to his word. More importantly, he argues that sentiment among Obama’s base “is running strongly enough to push the candidate forward to a stronger commitment,” strong enough to move him away from the words in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, in which Obama wrote that a complete withdrawal was a matter of “imperfect judgment” and “best guesses.”

It is clear from Mr. Hayden that his supposition - and that of the Left he represents - (his comments appear in The Nation magazine website) believe that the United States should not be involved on a “so-called war on terrorism,” a phony concept developed by evil and strong neoconservatives who falsely believe there is something called “Islamofascism.” Obviously believing that there is not such force in the world, he argues that its advocates, including Senator John McCain, favor a “permanent war against Muslim radicals” that is really about one thing: “American access to oil.”

What worries Mr. Hayden is that in a contest between McCain and Obama, John McCain’s war record, combined with his Senate experience, makes him a “formidable” advocate of tough steps to protect American national security, something Mr. Hayden sees as a danger to the antiwar movement. His own prescription for withdrawal of troops are thus threatened by General Petraeus’ forthcoming April testimony before Congress, in which it is expected he will report on the favorable outcome of the surge, and urge the nation to stay the course.

Mr. Hayden thus sees Petraeus not as a honest soldier reporting the truth of what he has accomplished, but as a “de facto surrogate for McCain” that will force Barack Obama to have to respond without retreating from his promise of early withdrawal. He says, rightfully, that those he dubs the neoconservative opposition will oppose Obama by challenging him for wanting “to pull the plug on Iraq just when the tide is turning.” And why shouldn’t McCain do just that? Does Mr. Hayden think that the United States, should in fact, pull the plug precisely when the situation in Iraq is improving?

Ironically, Mr. Hayden condemns William Kristol for arguing in the pages of the New York Times and The Weekly Standard that the Democratic Party has become “the puppet of the antiwar groups.” Clearly, Mr. Kristol may have been premature. Mr. Hayden seems to want now to prove Kristol both prescient and right. Mr. Hayden fears that all of this will lead to McCain successfully forging a new center-Right coalition, leaving the Democrats only with the moderate and antiwar left-wing. The Republicans will have, he notes, the aid of Senator Joe Lieberman working as an ally who would also make inroads among the Jewish community.

Nevertheless, Tom Hayden is optimistic. He believes Americans will also see Afghanistan as a quagmire not susceptible to a military solution; Pakistanis showing they do not want to be pawns in an American war, and that a fight with the Taliban or al-Qaeda is nothing but a “bottomless battle.” His fear: that Obama will ignore all this, and seek to “prove his credentials as a militarist or face being painted as another Democrat too weak to be Commander-in-Chief.” His solution: the forces of the Left and the peace movement wage “open political and intellectual battle” against “the neoconservative agenda.”

Should Barack Obama listen to the Left’s advice, he will only push the Democratic Party back to the age of McGovernite isolationism, and contrary to the assertion of Tom Hayden, make the campaign much easier for John McCain. If the Democrats hope to actually win the presidency, the worst thing they could do is to take advice from Tom Hayden.

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/6/2008

Mr. Stepp,

You're absolutely right on practically all your points...but
you're stepping on dangerous territory. Following your (fully justified) logical pattern Americans may find that this country did not have any military heroes since WWII.
It is going to hurt this nation's psyche "too much".
Please, go easy on "us".

I would vote for Ron Paul-Barak Obama hybrid.

William J. Stepp - 3/5/2008

I find it courious that Mr. Offner
thinks the Vietnam War was wrong, but claims John McCain was a war hero.
What did McCain do that was so heroic?
Was invading a foreign country in a military plane, presumably to cause death and destruction in a country that never invaded U.S. territory, heroic?
And regarding George McGovern, why was carrying out his job as a bomber pilot heroic? Did he perform a particular act of heroism that his colleagues didn't?
Was every GI Joe a hero just because he was a GI? That would be a pretty big deficit of never-bestowed medals. Better get the metal lathe and ribbon cutters started.

The Bush-Cheyney-neocon-jobbers are not true isolationists. On the ocntrary, they are war hawks and mass murderers. There is no "i" in war hawk or mass murderer. Real isolationists, like Harry Elmer Barnes, wanted the U.S. to avoid entangling political alliances and foreign wars. They would have opposed not only the Iraq War, but all attempts to impose democracy or anything else on foreign countries.

Since isolationists were mostly for free markets, they didn't want the U.S. to run the world and wouldn't want it to attempt to do so today.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/4/2008

Oh, he is far from being "misguided", Mr. Offner.
He's an old zealot of and propagandist for the US imperialistic policies. That's the only reason he hates any American movement for peace.

Arnold A Offner - 3/1/2008

Ronald Radosh is totally misguided in his thinking. McGovern was not an isolationist, and every bit the war hero (of WWII--bomber pilot) McCain is. McGovern opposed continuing an untterly unwinnable and costly war that was misguided from the first premise, whether it was HSt, JFK, or LBJ who started us down the Indochina road. So too is the Iraq war one that was (is) miguided, and lied about, from the onset. The true isolationists in the U.S. are the Bush-Cheney and the neoconservatives, who think the U.S. can unilaterally run the world, and that our actions do not draw reactions. It is time for America to come home from untenable positions and restake a claim to responsible, nonmilitarist, leadership. Bullying the world, a la William Kristol's approach, won't work. But if he or Radosh want to send their children or granchildren to fight in Pakistan and Iraq, that's fine. But also time the Democrats (and democrats) in the U.S. told our war hawks where to get off.

Jim Good - 3/1/2008

When any group is reduced to ad hominem arguments, it is apparent that they've run out of genuine ideas.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/1/2008

They will write anything to justify
and protect a so-called "war on terrorism", i.e. permanent state of preemptive wars.

Robert Lee Gaston - 3/1/2008

I’m not surprised that Hayden dislikes anything related to defending the United States. He, after all has publicly stated that he hates the United States and its capitalist establishment.

One should remember that all Mr. Hayden did in the 60s was not honorable or driven by a deep comment to the country. It seems to have been motivated by the narcissism of a spoiled little boy. A spoiled little boy who is still trying to justify his decades long tantrum.

What Mr. Obama needs to keep in mind that the only real differences between his friend William Ayers and Timothy McVeigh is that McVeigh was more competent in his bomb making, and was not the darling of the new left.