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When Will Anti-War Protests Return To Balboa Park?

A look at the past week

— The phone at the other end of the line rang and rang as I waited for someone to answer. But no one did. No answering-machine either. I was calling Kenneth Necochea of Poway, the father of Kenneth Necochea Jr. who was killed Sunday in a car-bomb attack in Afghanistan along with five other American soldiers. I was grateful Kenny’s dad never picked up.

I wondered what he would have said if he’d answered and agreed to talk with me about his son. Would he have said he was proud of him? Of course. Would he have said his son died for a good cause? That’s a harder question. And deciding whether U.S. presence in Afghanistan is justified won’t just be up to the families who have lost their sons. It’ll be up to all American voters.

Three years ago, anti-war protests were common in San Diego. Opposition to the war in Iraq drew thousands of people to Balboa Park and to the front of the federal building downtown. Protesters would read the names of the dead. Parents of fallen soldiers would show up to lend their support.

But today, the U.S. has a different president from a different party, and the war has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan. As that has happened, the peace movement has faded.

UCSD Political Science professor Sam Popkin says there are reasons for this. For one thing, there’s no attractive alternative to Barack Obama and his approach to the war. Popkin, who’s fond of Vietnam-era analogies, says so far there’s been no “Eugene McCarthy” on Afghanistan to shake things up.

“This becomes a big political issue when there are candidates offering very different strategies in an election,” he said.

Marjorie Cohn is a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a San Diego peace activist. She says the war in Afghanistan was virtually absent as an issue during this year’s mid-term elections, due to the strong focus on the economy. She says that’s too bad, since the high cost of the war is having a great impact on the economy and the federal budget.

Cohn adds that it’s hard to compare today’s anti-war movement to that of the 60s.

“And I think the main reason is we don’t have the draft. That’s one thing that (politicians) did learn from Vietnam,” she said. “But we do have an anti-war movement. It’s not as visible and I think the media tends to underreport what’s happening.”

If the number of American dead mounts in Afghanistan, and corruption and instability continue to be the rule in that country, political opposition to the war in the U.S. is bound to increase. But Popkin says that opposition may not come in the form of a “peace movement.”

“There’s the possibility of a peace movement,” he said, “or there’s the possibility of an isolationist movement. You know…. ‘It’s not worth it. It’s not working. The Afghanis and the Taliban deserve each other. So let them rot.’”

Popkin quotes another political commentator when he says Americans on the political left think the rest of the world is too good for America, while those on the right think America is too good for the rest of the world. That, he says, sums up the difference between a peace-movement approach to ending the Afghan war and an isolationist approach.

One day after army specialist Kenneth Necochea was killed by a car bomb, another man died. That was Richard Holbrooke, a legendary diplomat who was Barack Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan. Holbrooke seemed like the one person who had the knowledge and skill to bring about some solution to the thorny problem of Afghanistan.

The deaths of Holbrooke and Necochea may not be the events that bring the Afghan war to the front of the U.S. political agenda. But there must come a time when the Obama administration will either declare victory, reach “peace with honor,” or simply pull out our troops and let the Afghans come up with their own solutions.

PS This is a conversation. Leave a comment and let me know what you think the U.S. should do about Afghanistan.

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