Response to President Obama’s January 25, 2011 State of the Union Address
Historians Against the War, Adopted by the Steering Committee, January 27, 2011
President Obama’s State of the Union address, coming two months after his party’s defeat in the 2010 elections, makes clear that he puts a high value on winning. He wants the United States to compete more effectively, to be number one around the world again. He wants every child to have the opportunity to compete to achieve the American dream. He wants American industry to compete more successfully in the global marketplace. He wants improvements to our infrastructure to create and sustain more jobs. He wants to produce innovative and competitive scientists, engineers, and technicians. Although competitiveness is not the only value Mr. Obama upholds, by making it number one and allowing it to trump other values, he fails to identify the true sources of our problems at home and abroad such as the bloated military budget and, therefore, fails to effectively address those problems.
Mr. Obama declared that “America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream,” but his focus on competitiveness means embracing corporate rather than democratic values and reflects Mr. Obama’s recent appointments of business executives and business-oriented advisors to crucial advisory and policy formation positions within his administration. The push for competiveness is an attempt to reassert what historian William Appleman Williams called “open door imperialism,” the export of goods and investment of capital abroad with concern only for profits, disregarding the human consequences and paving the way for military intervention when needed to achieve political stability or cooperation. What we need if we are to advance as a nation is a spirit of cooperation at home and abroad. We need to organize our educational system not around competition but around personal rights, ensuring, as John Kennedy explained in his address to the country on civil rights, that all children have the right “to be educated to the limit” of their talents. We need to organize our society around meeting the basic needs of all and cooperating with one another rather than merely asserting everyone should have the chance to try to grab the brass ring. We need to create a world economy based on equality and friendship among peoples, not a competitive race to the top which often forces people from poorer nations and working people in richer nations to the bottom. Symptomatic of the mistaken idea that the competitive market solves all problems is the adoption of NAFTA and other so-called free trade pacts. Although several Latin American states have successfully rejected the International Monetary Fund model of austerity and privatization and put resources toward expanding social benefits and infrastructure development, NAFTA has increased profits for U.S. agricultural firms, flooded Mexico with corn and meat subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, and undermined Mexico’s rural economy. Workers in neither country have benefitted and large numbers of Mexicans have been forced to leave the land, work in American-owned border town factories as cheap labor under the most deplorable working and living conditions, or to seek employment in our country.
In the late nineteenth century, corporations came to dominate our economy and have often had a stranglehold on our political system. Beginning in the late 1970s, corporations with headquarters in the United Sates have transferred manufacturing capital out of the country to low-wage societies. The federal government has not regulated such outflows and indeed has embraced deregulation. The loss of good-paying jobs, attacks on unions, regressive taxes, and deregulation have created the widest wealth and income gap between the corporate elite and the rest of the population in our history. The Supreme Court’s green-lighting of unlimited corporate funding of political campaigns makes the more than century-old problem of money corrupting politics worse than ever. The corporate dictum that we must dominate other countries in order to maximize profits has turned the United States into a warfare state.
The jobs crisis that Mr. Obama hopes to address can only be understood in the context of a political situation dominated by business interests who believe that our economy runs best through a dog-eat-dog competition that has millions of unemployed people seeking jobs. Corporate interests want workers to work harder; they seek to eliminate unions and keep wages low and hours long. At the same time, the most irresponsible portion of the corporate elite wants to minimize its obligation to fund the government and to forsake the needs of ordinary people. However, it expects aid to support its business interests and relies on U.S. military power around the globe to achieve its objectives.
In his address at Tucson on January 8, Mr. Obama confirmed movingly that “those who were harmed, those who were killed — they are part our family, an American family 300 million strong.” He suggested that we should use the occasion “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Mr. Obama’s notion that we should be one America makes sense if it is coupled with the idea of the government serving the needs of all the people, with the bulk of the costs being borne by the people with the ability to pay. Sixty-seven years ago, during the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt used his state of the union address to propose an Economic Bill of Rights in which all of us would be guaranteed “useful and remunerative” jobs, medical care, education, and decent homes. Mr. Roosevelt combined his call for an expanded New Deal with support for tax reform, placing the tax burden on the wealthy and the large corporations because those who reap the most benefits from the economy should be willing to bear the greatest tax burden. As Mr. Roosevelt saw it at the time of his second inaugural address in 1937: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Mr. Roosevelt did not succeed in securing guaranteed jobs or tax reform, but he tried to achieve the ideal of community by promoting justice and that is what is needed again today.
Mr. Obama can claim some important recent achievements including the ratification of the START treaty and open participation by gay and lesbian soldiers in our military. We welcome Mr. Obama’s call for the elimination of nuclear weapons since the nuclear arms race has been dangerous, harmful to human health, and economically destructive; it continues to cause instability in world politics. We also appreciate Mr. Obama’s pledge last Saturday, on the anniversary of Roe versus Wade, to protect reproductive freedom. On most peace, national security, and human rights issues, however, Mr. Obama’s record has been disappointing to peace and justice advocates.
The peace movement is critical of Mr. Obama’s desire to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq despite his earlier advocacy of complete withdrawal of our fighting forces from that country. We need to bring a complete end to our unjust intervention in Iraq. Although 60 percent of the U.S. public now believes that the war in Afghanistan is “not worth fighting,” the administration’s December 2010 review of Afghanistan policy led to dubious claims of successes, which the president repeated in his State of the Union address, and to a decision to continue the war for four more years. The choice to continue a policy which the government’s own National Intelligence Estimate makes clear is failing is a grave error. How many more people must die before the forces in conflict sit around a table to negotiate an end to an unwinnable war? With the government making use of private corporations to carry out its military enterprise and warfare, military expenditures have continued to grow under Mr. Obama, reaching over one trillion dollars in 2010 alone. How can the government meet the needs of the people of the United States when military expenditures are at such a level?
Peace forces are also troubled by the administration’s human rights record, by its failure to close the Guantánamo prison as promised, by the opening of military trials of detainees in defiance of international human rights standards, by the many deaths of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan in attacks that amount to war crimes, by continuing interventions against left-wing governments in Latin America, by the recent FBI raids against peace activists, and by the U.S.’s failure to pressure Israel to end its denial of Palestinian rights. Although peace and justice activists support the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we do not agree that democratic reform should be used to promote further militarization of our society as Mr. Obama did with his call to universities to open their doors to the ROTC and military recruiters. Our university graduates are needed in fields that meet people’s needs and that develop the country’s infrastructure rather than in staffing an overextended empire.
The human cost to the civilians in societies where we are intervening and to our own and other combatants is tragic and unsustainable. Continuing down the path of spending almost as much on the military as all other countries put together is bankrupting the country, failing to achieve the control our government seeks, and making us less safe.
Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower’s farewell address warned the country against domination by the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower recognized the destructive nature of militarization. He said in 1953: “”Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” Unfortunately, domination by the military-industrial complex has grown stronger in the past five decades with negative consequences to our democratic polity. It has hampered the ability of our economy to meet the needs of our people and contribute in a positive way to help the poorer people of the world.
Historians Against the War (HAW) was formed in 2003 in response to the Iraq War to offer historical expertise to a burgeoning mass movement in our country against an unjust war. Like the mass movement against the unjust Vietnam War, the movement against the Iraq war raised pragmatic, legal, and moral questions and contributed to a change in U.S. policy. The Democratic capture of Congress in 2006 and Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 owe much to the popular revulsion to the Iraq war, stimulated in part by the anti-war movement.
Since Mr. Obama’s election, peace activists have held vigils, teach-ins, participated in the World Social Forum, the One Nation Coming Together march led by the AFL-CIO, and the National Day of Action to Confront U.S. Militarism in the Americas. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that the grass roots pressure for peace is modest right now. Movements wax and wane and presidents, of course, have to give leadership every day and sometimes trim their sails to deal with political realities.
Our standard is not perfection but having the political courage to move in the right direction. The grass roots will stir again, helped along by peace and justice movements and by contingencies yet to develop, but will Mr. Obama be their ally? We need the president to have the political courage to honestly address the need to finally and fully extricate us from Iraq, end our involvement in the failed war in Afghanistan, contribute to finding peaceful and just solutions to other foreign policy problems, and create a new national security posture based on peace, friendship and equality with other nations rather than domination via overweening military power.