What does this election mean for peace?

 In Afghanistan, Election 2010, Iran, Nuclear Weapons

This past Tuesday was a rough election for many people, including supporters of a more peaceful foreign policy. While we know that there will be many more proponents of the war in Afghanistan and increased military spending in Congress, there are still a lot of questions about what specific challenges we face, and what opportunities will arise that we can take advantage of to move our agenda.

While people have all kinds of views about what this election means for foreign policy, there is a reasonable idea that the administration could turn greater attention to foreign policy because they will face such gridlock in the Republican-controlled House and a Senate with a smaller (and non-filibuster-proof) majority. The Democratic caucus is smaller, but now skews much more progressive, with the Congressional Progressive Caucus likely to make up more than 40% of sitting Democrats in the House. In the face of recalcitrant leadership, these Democrats may be more emboldened to speak out in favor of peace. This will depend, however, on how we take advantage of the leverage points we have on some of our top priority issues.


The Republicans’ use of the bully pulpit on the Afghanistan issue is not likely to be pretty. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is already calling for a “fresh look” at our nearly ten-year-old war in Afghanistan, which likely means calling for greater investment in a stale, failing strategy.  Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), incoming chair of the Armed Services Committee, has already stated that making sure troops have the time they need in Afghanistan will be a top priority for his committee. These Republicans could team up with military leadership who oppose starting a real withdrawal to hammer the administration on the plan to start withdrawing in July. They could also stage votes designed to make Democrats looks bad (the foreign policy version of Viagra for sex offenders), like forcing them to vote against the “I love the troops and mom and apple pie and hate Al Qaeda” legislation.

The major leverage point we can exploit next year is the extreme dissatisfaction with the war amongst Democrats. Recent polls have shown that only 20% of Democrats support the war in Afghanistan, and there is unlikely to be positive news that will convince them that the continuing cost in lives and dollars is worthwhile. According to Bob Woodward, President Obama has already said that he can’t afford to lose his base over the war, so we must work with our allies in Congress to link his electoral prospects and those of the Democratic Party with galvanizing the base through actions to end the war in Afghanistan.

Nuclear weapons

Our immediate priority is to get a New START vote in the lame duck session of the Senate, which is scheduled to reconvene on November 15th. While time will be short, the administration and Senate leadership have already reiterated that ratification is a top priority for the lame duck session. A passing vote on what should be an uncontroversial treaty is certainly possible in the new Senate as the treaty has widespread bipartisan support, but waiting to get new senators up to speed means even more time without critical verification measure in place—measures that have been absent for 334 days since the first START Treaty expired.

Getting other things through the House and Senate could obviously be more challenging, which is why this would be a good opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to a nuclear weapons free world by taking steps that don’t need congressional approval. There are a number of things that would put the US further on the road toward disarmament, from taking weapons off of hair-trigger alert to negotiating deeper reductions with Russia, that President Obama can undertake on his own.

Another of our major challenges in 2011 will be to push back against the administration’s misguided attempt to appease Republicans with exorbitant amounts of nuclear pork. The administration is projecting spending $80 billion over the next ten years on the nuclear weapons complex and $100 billion on updating delivery vehicles—money that will ramp up the US’s capacity for building new nuclear weapons despite this administration’s commitment to refrain from doing so.  The conversation about the deficit and the need to cut wasteful spending could help us in this challenging fight to deprive nuclear hawks like Jon Kyl (R-AZ) of this unnecessary funding.


Overall, Congress has been no real friend to proponents of peaceful relations with Iran. While many members have clearly drawn the line at military confrontation, only eight representatives and ZERO senators voted against broad unilateral sanctions that are creating hardship for regular Iranians and resentment against the US’s approach. We may see a ramping up, especially since likely House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will have “get tough on Iran” at the top of her to-do list.

Despite that, many people think that the Obama administration will be largely free to pursue its current course of negotiations if it can begin to show results. Their best bet for results will be to adjust their approach and engage in good faith negotiations and not repeat their routine of rebuffing Iran and then chastising them for failure to cooperate (with reciprocal cooperation from Iran). Of course, if the David Broders and John Boltons of the world, and their slightly saner counterparts, keep beating the drums for war, we will be ready to push back against what the administration hopefully understands would be a disastrous mistake.

The budget

To see some balance in our foreign and domestic priorities, we will need to engage in discussions about the military and foreign affairs budgets. Buck McKeon seems to think he and others were swept into power with a mandate to increase the military budget, despite a complete lack of evidence. However, the deficit commission will be coming out with recommendations later this year, and any serious conversation about cuts must include the Pentagon’s budget, which accounts for more than half of the discretionary budget. The Sustainable Defense Task Force has already identified $960 billion in cuts over the next ten years that would have no negative effects on American security. It will be time for us to see if the deficit hawks are all talk.

On the other side, the Obama administration has stated a commitment to elevating diplomacy and defense as key pillars of US foreign policy. This investment in nonmilitary tools for global engagement is critical if we want other avenues for addressing problems other than military force (not to mention that the military is now engaged in development work it shouldn’t be doing because of a lack of civilian capacity). However, this funding offers an attractive target for members of Congress who want to make cuts, despite the fact that diplomacy and development funding make up a measly 1% of the budget. Because Congress will go after money they don’t think has a domestic constituency, our challenge is to help create one. Most Americans support spending money on foreign aid, they just have misinformed ideas about how much we are all spending (they generally think 10% of the budget is a good number). Kay Granger (R-TX), who wants to take over the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, is skeptical about the funding, so we must organize and point people elsewhere if they want to make cuts.

While this election is no cause for celebration, we also need not despair. As someone who started working at Peace Action West soon after the beginning of the war in Iraq, I have seen the amazing things we can accomplish up against difficult odds. It requires being smart, politically savvy, committed, understanding the political landscape, and having the backing of active supporters like you who make our work possible.




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Showing 7 comments
  • jean-philippe

    Seems that warmongers are going to be yelling about domestic issues for a while.

  • KevinMartin

    Well-stated, Becca! While there are no doubt many political challenges, my sense is the organizing climate for building a stronger movement to demand cuts in military spending in order to invest in human and environmental needs is the best its been in 20 years or more.

    • Rebecca Griffin

      Yes, hopefully we can put a big bullseye on the bloated military budget with all the talk about spending cuts. It could be interesting to see what happens if we end up with a new Defense Secretary next year as well.

  • Monika

    I have to disagree with Rebecca. Peace isn’t going to happen with Iran, because of Iran’s political standings. They hate the west and they hate the US. As for Afghanistan, that war would have been better taken care of if Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq. As for the deficit, social programs and bailouts are making things a lot worse, not military spending. There has to be a balance between left and right. There has to be balance with spending. We need our military to keep us safe. Maybe the US should become an isolationist country again until we can get back on our feet.

    As for the election, I’m excited to see what is going to happen. I’m a democrat who voted republican for the first time because of the healthcare bill, because of President Obama. He has done nothing but pull a Bush, and drag this country down. Only instead of warring, it’s marxism. I maybe wrong, I maybe right, but thats how I feel.

  • Rebecca Griffin

    These two Iran experts offer some good ideas for trying a new approach to negotiating with Iran this time around:

  • Sinz54

    You guys on the Left are once again playing the old bait-and-switch game.

    The only way that conservative Republicans will vote for the START treaty is if they’re assured that the treaty won’t affect programs to modernize and ensure the effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent. (Nuclear warhead materials naturally degrade over time, you know.) Otherwise the treaty won’t get enough votes to pass.

    So Obama will get their votes to pass the treaty in exchange for a promise to modernize the deterrent. And as soon as the treaty is ratified by the Senate, you’ll start working hard to abandon modernization of the deterrent, with the treaty now impossible to retract.

    That’s called “bait-and-switch.”

    This bait-and-switch might have worked 40 years ago, but not now.

    Today, thanks to the Internet, anyone can go onto the Internet and do a few searches and find out about these bait-and-switch games.

    We conservatives read your websites too, you know.

    • Katie Heald

      We are not the only people who believe that eliminating nuclear weapons will make the world a safer place.

      Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.

      That’s Henry Kissinger, he’s pretty conservative. Of course we might have different reasoning behind it, but we arrive at the same conclusion.

      At Peace Action West we work for solutions that we believe will make the world more secure, because we want everyone to be safe–regardless of whether you identify as a liberal or a conservative.

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