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Anti-war activists respond to Obama’s counterterrorism address

By Meredith Aby

On May 23, President Barrack Obama gave a major counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University about U.S. drone warfare and the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama’s speech was billed as a major policy speech with new reforms.

While the speech did offer criticism of how the U.S. had conducted the ‘war on terrorism,’ it did not give any concrete insight into how the U.S. prison in Guantanamo will be closed. Additionally, Obama said he was saddened by the occasional deaths of innocent people by U.S. drone strikes, but then argued for the effectiveness, legality and the moral justification for continuing U.S. drone attacks. Instead of offering a change to U.S. policy, Obama announced the continuation of the status quo.

Medea Benjamin, the founder of Code Pink and author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, was in the audience and could not keep quiet. Benjamin challenged the president’s portrayal of the continuation of Guantanamo as Congress’ fault. She told The Daily Beast, “If he had indeed made significant policy changes, I wasn’t going to say anything. I would have preferred that option, but given that he didn’t make those kind of changes I was looking for, I was glad to be given the opportunity to speak out.”

Many other voices of the anti-war movement were not as fortunate as Benjamin, so Fight Back! interviewed an array of anti-war leaders to add to Benjamin’s reaction:

Alan Dale, an organizer with the Minnesota Peace Action Coalition, told Fight Back! that he did not see the speech as a shift in policy. “Obama did not say that the U.S. was going to end its decade long orgy of militarism around the world. The Obama speech attempts to put a humane face on the continuing U.S. wars and interventions. The U.S. is not ending the war in Afghanistan; the U.S. government knows the war is unpopular, so it is adjusting. The U.S. plans to leave thousands of troops and drones behind. The drone strikes and night raids on Afghan villages will continue. The anti-war movement must continue to do everything possible to mobilize and end the wars and interventions.”

Joe Iosbaker, an activist with the Chicago Antiwar Committee, which is leading protests against Boeing’s production of drones, told Fight Back!, “Our protests against drone warfare have helped make it controversial. As a result of all the public pressure, both in the U.S. and abroad, President Obama could not remain silent. He responded by justifying their use and declaring that they will continue to be used. Since the U.S. will continue to carry out targeted killings and assassinations, we will continue to build a movement against U.S. wars and against the Boeing Company, for example, to stop them from making the next killer drone.”

Jess Sundin, an activist with the Minnesota Anti-War Committee who was targeted by the FBI for her activism, reacted to Obama’s attempt to show concern for civil liberties during the war on terror: “At every opportunity, the Obama administration has bolstered the war effort at the expense of civil liberties and civil rights. His terms in office have been a lesson in constitutional law, as his Department of Justice strikes down the Bill of Rights in every case of so-called terrorism. Freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to due process, including a speedy and public trial with a jury of one's peers, the prohibition of excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment – these are things for crime novels and TV dramas, but not for real life.

“When the FBI burst through my front door, and a federal prosecutor ordered me to Chicago to testify against anti-war and international solidarity activists, I had my first taste of the political repression that has long besieged freedom fighters in this country and around the world. The CSFR [Committee to Stop FBI Repression] stands with all those who have been targets of this repression – from Arab and Muslim charities to the Occupy movement. By building a united movement, we can make it impossible for the Obama administration, or any other, to silence us and clear the way for their cruel agenda of war and poverty.” Sundin also organizes with the Committee to Stop FBI Repression to demand policy changes from the federal government on civil liberties.

Lucia Wilkes-Smith is a board member of Women Against Military Madness and her reaction to Obama’s speech was, “Sometimes I agreed with Obama's general statements, and then I am outraged by his seemingly logical inferences. For example, he said, ‘Force alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere...a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.’ But, then I realize that his alternative to force and perpetual war is economic manipulation of other nations and peoples, to bring them into compliance with supposed U.S. interests and goals. Obama calls it ‘patiently supporting transitions to democracy.’ When Obama states, ‘For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or with a shotgun – without due process’, he continues to separate the elites from the others (non-U.S. citizens) who are assassinated or mowed down as ‘collateral damage.’ That's disgusting.”

Pete Shell, with the United National Antiwar Coalition and the Merton Center Anti-War Committee gave his reaction to Fight Back!, “Despite Obama's attempt to put progressive dressing on U.S. foreign policy, the fact remains that drone warfare and targeted assassination and the continuing torture of Guantanamo Bay detainees violate international law and create hatred against the U.S. In Pittsburgh, the Thomas Merton Center-AWC and Code Pink have recently started a coalition against drone warfare, together with representatives of Veterans for Peace, WILPF [Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom], the Green Party and AFSC [American Friends Service Committee]. CMU [Carnegie Mellon University] and Pitt [University of Pittsburgh] get millions of dollars a year in military funding, much of it for drone and robotic warfare research and development. It's time to transform this military-oriented economy into a true peace-time economy.”

Coleen Rowley, who left the FBI as a whistleblower and is an activist with Tackling Torture at the Top with WAMM, gave her reaction: “I agree with what Ray McGovern wrote in Doubting Obama’s Resolve to Do Right, ‘In his counterterrorism speech, President Obama ruminated about the moral and legal dilemma of balancing the safety of the American people against the use of targeted killings abroad.’ Those who want the war killing under a deluded notion of Pax Americana to continue, like the Chicago Tribune editors who assess nothing will change, will see an endorsement of the ‘long war’ status quo. If only a certain portion of the people, however, would seize the moment and emulate Medea – instead of criticizing her rudeness in telling some truth about their political leader to whom they have lazily abdicated their responsibility and morals – we could actually see the tide turn.”

In conclusion, President Obama’s message to the anti-war movement was not that their work was done, but rather that anti-war leaders and activists across the country need to continue to develop a movement for peace and justice. Anti-war activists will continue to organize to ground the drones, close Guantanamo, and to say no to U.S. warfare and militarism!

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