Peace Activists Welcome Obama, Will Push Him

An organization that has made headlines heckling George W. Bush and other prominent politicians for their support of the Iraq war has declared "victory" after Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States.

"After almost eight years standing outside the White House with a bullhorn and screaming at someone who wouldn’t listen who’s totally impervious to popular opinion, I think it’s going to be great having someone in there who hopefully will be interested in what we have to say," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the group CODEPINK: Women for Peace.

Since the Sep. 11 attacks seven years ago, members of CODEPINK have been a regular presence on Capitol Hill – opposing the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, decrying a proposed American attack on Iran, and pushing for the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney for illegally manipulating intelligence reports to justify the Bush administration’s attack on Iraq.

Recently, the group has also organized demonstrations throughout Washington and the country to protest the $700 billion bailout of financial firms and demand new regulations on those companies and economic relief for families facing bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Their flamboyant tactics – showing up in large groups with bright pink outfits complete with feather boas and other colorful accessories, disrupting government meetings, and shouting at leading politicians with the cameras rolling – have garnered CODEPINK a great deal of media attention, but also a fair amount of criticism. Many of their members have been arrested numerous times in acts of civil disobedience.

But Benjamin said the election of Obama marks a new era in American politics, which calls for new tactics from the peace movement.

"We certainly want to start out in a softer tone," she said, "in terms of trying to get meetings not only with members of Barack Obama’s administration, [but also] trying to influence members of his team who are going to be influential in his policies in the Middle East. We know a lot of them; they’re Clinton leftovers and they’re going to need a lot of pushing, but they’ll be a lot more willing to listen than the folks we have now."

A similar response to Obama’s election is coming from the Arab and Muslim worlds, said Baghdad-born Boston University Professor Shakir Mustafa. "There was a huge sigh of relief," he told OneWorld, "but it was a lot more muted than I expected."

Mustafa said Obama’s offer to sit down and talk with Iranian leaders without preconditions and his promise of a phased US troop withdrawal from Iraq have drawn praise overseas. His statements of support for Israeli military policy and increased bombing of Pakistan have not.

Mustafa said the first place we are likely to see the impact of a President Obama is in the negotiation of a Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad governing the US military presence in Iraq. The United Nations mandate permitting a US military occupation expires Dec. 31, and the Bush administration has been pushing the Iraqi government to sign a treaty allowing the occupation to continue.

Iraqi leaders have resisted the Bush administration’s terms, demanding that any such agreement include a time-line for the withdrawal of all American troops.

"Obama promises to get most American forces out of Iraq in a little more than a year," Mustafa said. "People are very comfortable with this. In fact they are seeing that if security is improving and if Iraqi forces are trained by mid-May as predicted, why would the American forces stay beyond that point? No Sunni party, no Shi’ite party are for the extended stay of American forces."

Longtime peace activist, politician, and writer Tom Hayden says the Obama presidency puts antiwar advocates in much the same position that the presidency of John F. Kennedy put the early civil rights movement. He also compares it to the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and those who wanted to abolish slavery. Both leaders were in favor of progressive change, Hayden says, but had to be pushed by grassroots Americans to take significant action.

"The task is ours to build a social movement and create a climate that organizes the pressure that will enable [Obama] to do the right thing," explains Hayden. "I don’t know of any political leaders who will go beyond what their base has made possible."