What Obama's Speech Means for the Antiwar Movement



While President Obama’s May 23 speech did not signal a major change in the War on Terror, in addressing concerns about human rights for the first time, the speech demonstrated the antiwar movement’s growing power.     

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.  

A presidential war speech often doubles as a gauge of the antiwar movement’s weakness or strength. This was borne out again last week when President Obama delivered what the administration billed as a major address on the wars over which he is presiding. In his May 23 presentation at the National Defense University, the president proclaimed a fundamental shift in the wars since 9/11. In reality, it was a carefully nuanced message that said as much about the growing opposition to two aspects of his wars — drones and the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay — as the prospect of an eventual end to “endless war.”

For years the Obama administration did not see fit to comment publicly on the growing drone fleet and its targeted killing program, which independent research demonstrates has led to thousands of deaths. But the anti-drones movement has grown over the past year, with more nonviolent action, civil disobedience, networking, and even a 13-hour filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul. This growing awareness and opposition has increasingly compelled the United States government to shed some light on this policy and to begin a public relations campaign to win hearts and minds for the emerging drones culture.

At the same time, the renewed public focus on Guantánamo — unexpectedly sparked by an ongoing hunger strike being carried out by over 100 inmates — has pushed the administration to again grapple with President Obama’s as-yet-unmet 2008 commitment to close the facility. As details have emerged about the practice of force-feeding and the strike has stretched past the 100-day milestone, solidarity fasts and nonviolent actions across the United States have stoked this growing movement. It is not a coincidence that both of these matters were key features of the president’s presentation.

These policies were embedded in the larger focus of the speech — a suggested end to the multi-pronged war that the United States has been prosecuting since 2001. In a sharp rhetorical divergence from both the Bush administration and his own, President Obama laid out the conviction that this war, like all wars, must end. But instead of truly finishing this conflict, he proposed indefinitely carrying on military operations, especially drone attacks, designed to concentrate on what he termed the reduced but continuing terrorist threat.

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