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Obama vs. McCain: the view from the anti-war Left

Clare Coatman
4 November 2008

The Stop the War Coalition was founded seven years ago in response to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent attack on Iraq, gathering immense popular support as it brought over one million people into the streets of London on 15 February 2003. These heights have not been reached since; even as the war has dragged on, the anti-war left in the UK (as well as its counterpart in the US) has somewhat dropped off the radar. The recent financial crisis further crowds out the anti-war agenda in the public arena. But as I discovered last night at a meeting on the subject "the US election, the economic crisis and the war", the group is still going strong and working hard towards peace, naturally maintaining its own interests in the outcome of today's election.

There was an assumption running throughout most of the discussion that Barack Obama will win, however Moazzam Begg (ex-Guantanamo detainee) said, "surely, whether it's Obama or McCain, things can only get better".

Despite flashes of high praise for Barack Obama ("Let's recognise that Obama will be far and away the most intelligent President in thirty, maybe forty, years") there was an air of scepticism, both generally ("I don't think problems are solved by leaders no matter how good they are") and specifically - regarding his foreign policy.

Jonathan Steele summed it up, saying, "Barack Obama made a principled objection to the war - it's true that he has made concessions on that stance since becoming a candidate but I think that he does want to get out of Iraq with some kind of dignity." He then went on to criticise Obama's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq within sixteen months of attaining office as only referring to combat troops. A large number of troops would remain to train Iraqi troops (Steele points out that UK forces are doing this already, and that it doesn't have to be undertaken within the country) and defend the embassy (one of the largest in the world). There is also the problem that all of the troops taken out of Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan, and that Obama could send some into Pakistan. There was further criticism that "he still seems to be talking about a military solution not a political one."

The general consensus was unremarkable in concluding that an Obama victory would be the best thing for Iran, herald some change in Iraq, while raising major concerns about the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, Steele did make a further point about foreign policy more generally: "Obama is someone who understands the American empire. He understands that many people around the world feel America has been a force for the bad." Steele went on to support this with a quote from Barack's autobiography Dreams from My Father, which speaks of his time with his mother and step-father in the US embassy in Indonesia, where his mother experienced a sneering regard for Indonesians among her colleagues - until they realised she was married to one. "Obama learned from his mother about the underbelly of America... and I don't think John McCain, Hilary Clinton or any previous President understands this."

Moazzam Begg highlighted McCain's work to improve conditions for prisoners of war (based on his own experience) although this was followed by the sentiment that "even though there will be a change in government, I doubt there will be a change in the use of secret detention centres."

Lindsey German also augured caution saying, "by in large it's not the president who decides when and how to go to war," and, "don't think just because Obama gets in we can stop fighting and there won't be war."

The Q&A summed up both ends of the spectrum succinctly. An Iraqi man encapsulated the more sceptical sentiments: "In Iraq there is a saying: 'If you have a choice between death and fever, you always choose fever.' Barack Obama is our fever." And the more optimistic side was represented by, "if Obama doesn't win, millions of people will be disappointed and the future will be grim."

There was a cautious senes of hope in the air, but also a strong conviction that the Coalition's work is far from done.

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