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In the buildup to a potential military intervention in Syria, one of the stranger aspects was the silence by organizations with close ties to the Obama Administration. Organizing for Action, the political action group initially known as Obama for America during the campaign, took no official stance during the speech.  J Street, a liberal pro-Israel peace group seen as the alternative to AIPAC, also took no official stance on the proposed congressional resolution. In addition, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power delivered an address to the Center for American Progress, the preeminent left-wing and progressive think tank in the U.S.

Meanwhile, grassroots progressive group moveon.org chose to release an advertisement opposing intervention in Syria. All of this is illustrative of the state of the anti-war movement after the election of Barack Obama. The anti-war movement and community thrived under the Bush Administration but has found itself significantly weakened in the era of Obama, as it has divided those on the left. There has been a similar schism in the Obama on issues like drones strikes, the NSA programs and Afghanistan.

While some would amount this to hypocrisy and holding Obama to a different standard than Bush, research shows that the movement that for some who participated in the anti war movement in the past decade and supporting Obama’s action are consistent in their actions as Democrats. In the article “Partisans, Nonpartisans and the Antiwar Movement in the United States,” show that under the Bush Administration the alliance between the anti war movement and partisan Democrats was beneficial (Heaney and Rojas, 6). For social activists, they get access to elected officials and well as prop up winning candidates, but also greater access to money.

Similarly, as noted in Daniel Kreiss’ Taking Our Country Back, Governor Howard Dean’s campaign tried to harness the energy of the anti-war movement of the netroots and progressives opposed to Iraq (36). Dean’s campaign was predicated on his consistent opposition to the War in Iraq with mixed results. Though Dean did not win the Democratic nomination, he added part of the netroots into the Democratic coalition.

In addition, in their study, conducted during the Bush years, Heaney and Rojas found that 40% of those active in anti-war activism identified as Democrats (10). Heaney and Rojas conclude that, “a sizeable percentage of social movement activists maintain dual loyalties to the movement and to a major political party (453).” In short, when participating in the anti-war activism, those who identify as partisan Democrats are doing that fulfilling their loyalty to both the Democratic party by opposing a war started by George W. Bush, and fulfilling their duties to the anti war movement by giving the social capital needed to lobby congress and back candidates opposed to the Iraq War.

This dynamic changed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Like Dean, Obama staked himself out as an early opponent of the Iraq War and used that as a political tool against Hillary Clinton, who as a Senator voted for the war. As a result the anti war movement and partisan Democrats continued their alliance. As Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow wrote, ” As long as Bush and Cheney remained in the White House, the movement easily occupied the terrain of the Obama Campaign (537).”

But when Obama became president and as his foreign policy shifted, this was no longer the case. Afterward, partisan Democrats fully assumed their duties as members of a party, even what that deviated from the anti-war line. But this does create a problem for advocacy organizations. As McAdam and Tarrow point out, “as a party attains power and hews to the center–as the Obama Administration has already done–it runs the risk of setting in motion internal party dynamics corrosive of the centrist stance that was key to victory in the first place (537).”

The leaders of J Street and OFA are probably aware of the fact that factions of the anti-war left that propelled it to the White House is at best wary of this schism, moreso than with its use of drones and its escalation of the Afghanistan war. As a result, they realize that possibly having Obama’s organizing arm advocate for military force when he campaigned as someone opposed to rash use of force might be seen as hypocritical, while speaking against it  betrays its purpose, which is to advocate for Obama’s agenda. In turn, the only option it may see itself as having is neutrality. But ironically, by maintaining a position of neutrality, OFA may have allowed the left wing blogosphere to control the narrative.

Cited work

McAdams, Doug, and Sidney Tarrow. “Ballots and Barricades: On the Reciprocal Relationship between Elections and Social Movements.” Perspectives on Politics 8.2 (2010): 529-42. Print.

Heaney, Michael, and Fabio Rojas. “Partisans, Nonpartisans, and the Antiwar Movement in the United States.” American Politics Research 35.4 (2007): 431-64. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Kriess, Daniel. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2012. 27 Sept. 2013.

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