Judith LeBlanc, field director of Peace Action, the 100,000-member national peace organization, said President Obama reflected the views of a majority when he called for "nation-building here at home" in his June 22 speech announcing troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
"The withdrawal of troops he announced is a beginning which the peace movement must and will build on," LeBlanc said. "Without our efforts in the last few weeks we may have had only the troop withdrawals the Pentagon is willing to accept, about 5,000 troops."
"Some of the reactions to President Obama's speech have diminished what we have been able to do thus far and what our next steps must be," she added. "Unfortunately too many on the left are carping about the speech as though Obama was the president of the peace movement and disappointed us."
Yet, she added, the president "missed an opportunity" in limiting the withdrawal to only 10,000 troops this year and an additional 23,000 by September 2012. That will still leave 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at a cost of about $100 billion a year, she noted.
"The human and economic cost of this war can no longer be tolerated," she said.
Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is now a clear majority, 56 percent in the most recent poll, she added. Twenty-seven U.S. senators signed a letter to the president urging a speedy exit from Afghanistan. The House of Representatives cast the largest number of votes yet for a rapid troop withdrawal. Those calling for a quicker withdrawal include prominent liberal and centrist Democrats. They also include Republicans, some of whom seem to think they can make an election issue out of it.
LeBlanc noted that the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Baltimore, June 20, just two days before the president's speech, approved overwhelmingly a "Bring the troops home! Bring the war dollars home" resolution. The mayors urged that the $126 billion spent in Afghanistan be redirected to U.S. cities hammered with double-digit joblessness and devastating budget cuts.
In his speech last night, Obama acknowledged the frustration among taxpayers that the U.S. is building schools, hospitals, and bridges in Kandahar but not in Baltimore.
"We have spent a trillion dollars on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times," the president said. "America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home."
LeBlanc noted that continuing a large troop presence for another few years will make that focus difficult. "If we are paying $10 billion a month for war, it will be impossible to create jobs and fund our communities," she said. She noted that Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, has announced plans to introduce a bill to defund the war in Afghanistan when the House returns from its July 4 recess.
LeBlanc debunked the line of Republican - and some Democratic - deficit hawks who want to slash Social Security, Medicare, and other safety net programs in the name of deficit reduction, leaving military spending uncut.
"We don't have a deficit crisis," she said. "We have a revenue crisis. A majority of the people think the deficits were created by the wars and by tax cuts for the corporations and the rich, and they are right!" In addition to stopping the war drain on our nation's budget, she said, it's time to increase taxes on the corporations and the wealthy."
In addition to the "Bring the troops and war dollars home" resolution, the mayors approved a nuclear non-proliferation resolution urging Congress to terminate funding for a new generation of nuclear weapons. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, urging passage of the two resolutions, told the mayors the "road to peace goes through cities and towns around the world."
"It was an historic action by the mayors" LeBlanc said, pointing out that it is the first stand on a foreign policy issue by the U.S. Conference of Mayors since 1971, when the mayors called for an end to the war in Vietnam.
It shows how important it is to have the peace movement and members of Congress speaking out against the war, she said. "Without our efforts in the last few weeks we may have had only the troop withdrawals the Pentagon is willing to accept, about 5,000 troops. We're claiming this as a victory but we've got to work even harder to get a even more substantial withdrawal and even more robust support for a diplomatic solution in Afghanistan."
Troop withdrawals are one side of the story, she said. "The other side is that without reconciliation there will be no end to this war. That means drawing in the countries of the region" to seek a negotiated end to the war.
"At this point, the Pentagon believes more casualties, more combat, strengthens the U.S. negotiating position. It means that more Afghan people, more U.S. soldiers will die, when in fact there is no military solution in Afghanistan."
Turning to the U.S. political scene, LeBlanc said the 2012 elections, including President Obama's campaign, "offer opportunities to educate and work with folks to raise the volume on the problem of wars and war spending," and to link it to funding human needs, jobs creation and a green economy.
"The peace movement has the best environment in a long time to organize a peace vote in the 2012 elections," she said. "The worst thing we could do would be to sit on the sidelines. Voter registration and education, issue forums with candidates, Democratic Party delegate briefings - there are huge opportunities to go beyond our choir."
Photo: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden hold an economic meeting with senior advisors in the White House, June 21, the day before the president's speech on Afghanistan. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)