An Open Letter to Our Movement

4 June 2007
The sense of betrayal in the peace movement is legitimate as a result of the US Congress decision to pass a funding bill which continues the occupation of Iraq, says Phyllis Bennis, but the movement has to keep mobilizing. The next rally is on 10 June to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and to demand an end to the war in Iraq, the end of US support for occupation of Palestine, and against war on Iran.

These are tough times for the anti-war activists in the United States. At a moment when the momentum of our global movement is on the rise, many here at the center of the empire are filled with doubt and uncertainty. We watch the rise of global people's resistance to war in Iraq and the ubiquity of international governmental and popular opposition to war in Iran. We see the new successes of movements against occupation and for Palestinian equality and human rights from British academics to the Congress of South African Trade Unions to Israel's former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. And yet. And yet we are tired, hesitant. Is it worth the effort to mobilize, whether in Washington or our local community, to protest once again? Is it worth writing one more letter, organizing one more teach-in, planning one more sit-in in a congressional office?

The answer is yes. It is worth it. And the world is waiting for us to do so. Somehow we have to renounce our isolation from that very international movement in which we play such a vital part. It is time for us to reclaim our global citizenship, and live up to the demands, the hopes, the expectations that the rest of the world holds for us. Only when global resistance - from people, from governments, perhaps at some point once again the United Nations - challenges these U.S. wars will our domestic mobilization have a chance to succeed. But even the most vibrant and deeply rooted international opposition will have little impact if we fail to do our part here.

Our sense of uncertainty, exhaustion, even despair, is understandable. We have worked hard yet the wars continue. Victory remains out of reach. But it is time to put aside our despair, and reclaim our initiative. It is time we measure the value of our political mobilizations beyond a specific vote in congress - good organizing always means a long-term politics of erosion. Erosion of support for the war in Iraq, for Israeli occupation ?our job is to wear them out. We have to wear out their willingness to keep waging war.

So it is time we get even more serious about challenging U.S. policy that equates war with democracy, occupation with liberation, death and destruction with human rights. Given what our government is doing in our name with our tax dollars in Iraq, in Palestine, off the coast of Iran - to name just a few places - we don't have the right to give up.

What happened

We know that Congress is not the peace movement, and elections by themselves don't end wars or create justice. If we look back at all the times the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, most of the time it wasn't enough. Two exceptions, though, stand out. In 1936-38, FDR enacted much of the social justice legislation that formed the New Deal. And in 1964-66 Johnson was able to get landmark civil rights legislation passed. What made those historical moments possible, both times, was the work of huge, powerful, progressive movements, willing and able to shut the country down if elected officials ignored their demands. The Communist-led social and labor movements of the 1930s, the civil rights movement at its height in the mid-1960s? that's what forced the U.S. government - however reluctant - to do the right thing. That's the lesson for today.

Back in 2004, lots of people made the judgment that that election was so crucial that they should drop all other activity to defeat Bush. That didn't happen (at least officially) and after the election as the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq rocketed into ever-greater spirals of violence, it seemed to many that their work had been for nothing.

But the work of our anti-war and anti-empire movements - including those sectors that had placed their hopes and invested their energy in the election - was not in vain. Changes continued to rumble across the U.S. Throughout the next two years our movements' influence, bolstered by growing public awareness of the war's soaring human and economic costs, grew powerful enough that unprecedented majorities of the American people began demanding an end to the war. It wasn't yet enough; too many still hesitated to recognize that the only way to allow Iraqis to at least begin to rebuild their shattered country, is to bring all the U.S. troops and all the U.S.-backed mercenaries home, to close the U.S. bases in Iraq and give up U.S. control of Iraq's oil. Congress still did not feel compelled to embrace the growing anti-war surge, and the media underplayed it. Too many still counted only the U.S. dead, ignoring the toll of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian dead and the millions of Iraqis dispossessed and forced into exile. But more and more people across the U.S. did start to make those connections, beginning to understand that occupation can never be the foundation for democracy and human rights, and that dispossession and exile cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Despite Bush's 2004 victory, the demand for change was rising. And more and more people across the United States began to realize that the pictures they were seeing of the U.S. occupation of Iraq looked like the pictures of another - much longer - occupation also at the root of U.S. policy in the Middle East: Israel's now 40-year-long occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Some began to see parallels between the 2 million Iraqi refugees, some living in squalid refugee camps in neighboring countries, and the millions of Palestinian refugees whose lives from 1948 and 1967 continue to be shaped by exile and dispossession.

Changes were afoot. And two years later, there was another election. In 2006 our movement was stronger, opposition to the war was fiercer, Bush was more isolated, and Congress was increasingly forced to listen. This time it looked like success. We elected a new Congress, Republicans were defeated as the majority party for the first time in 12 years. Committee and sub-committee chairs were quickly taken over by activist congressmembers from the Progressive and Black and Out of Iraq caucuses. Investigations began, subpoenas were issued, hearings were scheduled, progressive analysts filled the briefing rooms.

But the war continued. The supplemental funding bill was passed. The Democrats gave Bush $100 billion to continue the war with no restrictions. "We'll see you in September," the Democrats said. "We'll be alive to fight another day." We knew that wasn't good enough - that too many young American soldiers and WAY too many Iraqi civilians would NOT live to see that other day. It wasn't enough.

The sense of betrayal in our movement is legitimate. This new Congress was elected to end the war; they have refused to do so. Except for a few individual members - Dennis Kucinich on cutting funds, Jim McDermott on ending control of oil, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey on closing the bases, a few others - the Democrats have no plan to actually end the war. Their overall plan is a political tactic for how to take advantage of the war: to allow the war to continue and to fail with George Bush as the sole responsible power, so they themselves cannot be held accountable. They act as if they believe that is a win-win strategy - somehow believing that they will not be held responsible for the war, and that anti-war voters will never be as angry at them as we are at Bush. But they're wrong. Pelosi and Reid and others, who could have continued to include timetables and exit ideas (however weak) in their most recent supplemental bill and watched Bush veto it again, instead chose to delete any restrictions on Bush's war. That makes the war their war too. And they will be held accountable.

We need to use this as a wedge to divide the Democratic leadership from the Progressive Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Out of Iraq Caucus and others more accountable to their political base, those with some semblance of moral integrity. The leadership of the Democratic Party are sacrificing the lives of way too many Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops on the altar of their own short-term political fortunes.

We have to send a signal

- to the rest of the world, that we are part of the global challenge to war and empire;

- to George W. Bush and his government, that their power will not stand;

- to the Democratic leadership in Congress, that we hold them accountable for this war they continue to fund;

- to the people of Iraq and Palestine, that we will fight to end the occupations destroying their lives;

- to ourselves, that we are no longer paralyzed?

That we are still here. That whatever our government may do in our name, we are not prepared to stand quietly as citizens of a rogue state. We know it took more than 30 congressional resolutions - and the near victory of the Vietnamese - before Congress finally agreed to cut funding for that illegal war. We will continue to fight. We know our government will not give up their quest for power and oil in Iraq and across the Middle East until they are forced to - so we will continue to fight to do just that.

So what do we do?

First we look around the world, to gain inspiration and hope from our friends and comrades and colleagues and peace-fighters who remain engaged, who have not given up. We hear the words of South Africa's great liberation fighter Ronnie Kasrils, who says that our work here challenging U.S. support for Israel's occupation, especially the work of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, is part of what has inspired the current rise in South Africa's own mobilization.

And we grab the opportunity to hear Ronnie Kasrils when he joins us on June 10 in Washington at the historic rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and to protest continuing U.S. support for occupation.

After the June 10-11 mobilizations we begin to build new strategies. We look to opportunities like the United for Peace and Justice national assembly and the U.S. Social Forum to debate and discuss our strategies, and to regain our energy and excitement and power as we continue to build our movement.

What will those strategies look like - to end the war in Iraq, end U.S. support for occupation in Palestine, prevent a U.S. war on Iran, and create an entirely new foreign policy based on justice rather than the search for power?

We cannot drop our criticism of Bush and his reckless, unilateralist and militaristic policy - the wars, the occupations, the impoverishment of the peoples of this country and so many peoples and nations around the world. But we cannot and will not be satisfied with the too-little, too-late and ultimately failing alternatives posed by the Democratic leadership, by "realists" in the Pentagon, by those who propose their own version of prudent imperialism as the only answer to the current reckless drive for power and empire.

As we understand that our own direct pressure on Congress is not enough, we will engage a much wider set of power centers to bring their own pressures to bear, with the goal of making continuation of the Iraq war, any military attack on Iran, and continuing the economic, military, corporate and diplomatic enabling of the Israeli occupation, all unacceptable and indefensible - and too politically costly to maintain.

We will work to get governors to demand that "their" National Guard be brought home from Iraq in time to fight fires in Montana and rescue hurricane victims in Louisiana. Bush's "surge" is possible now only because Iraq deployments are being stretched out from twelve to fifteen months, redeploying sooner after shorter breaks at home - all of which mean greater pressure on the reserves and the National Guard.

We will work to strengthen the capacity of the rising organizations of military resistance, groups like Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Gold Star Families for Peace and the brave active duty men and women who have signed the Petition for Redress. Their work remains a linchpin of credibility and influence for our movement.

We will work with local city councils and state assemblies to demand that the federal government stop using funds that should be providing health care, education, transportation and other vital needs at home to fund an illegal war in Iraq. And we will encourage the rising model of state-wide ballot initiatives - such as the one underway in California - that can be so important in undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the war.

We will maintain our own pressure on Congress, reminding them that they lied when they said that voting for last year's supplemental funding bill for Iraq was okay because it would be the "last" such multi-billion dollar gift to the war-mongers. And we don't re-elect liars a second time.

We understand that while it does matter a lot who gets elected president and which party prevails in the Congress (at least for things like Supreme Court nominees and women's rights, if not necessarily for ending occupations and oil-dependency?) we will not allow the 2008 elections to take over our organizing. WE will set our own agendas, WE will determine the right questions with which to bird-dog the candidates and pack their forums.

We will decide if a Boland Amendment (which cut U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contra guerrillas during the 1980s) preemptively prohibiting a strike on Iran is the right approach and if it is we will demand it of congress.

We will move to educate our constituencies about why Nobel peace laureates from former President Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela believe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians violates the International Covenant Against the Crime of Apartheid. And we will push onto the nation's agenda the real nature of U.S. support for Israeli occupation and the need to replace that support with a new policy for a just peace based on ending occupation and equal rights for all.

We will continue to strengthen our ties with the citizens of the nations under assault by our governments' policies and guns - with Iraqis and Iranians and Palestinians - as well as with our counterparts in the global peace and justice movements throughout the world.

Looking ahead

Some ask why we should continue - when the White House is controlled by neo-con ideologues and religious fundamentalists, when Congress doesn't listen, when the mainstream media refuses to question the conventional wisdom of spinmasters and the powerful.

Our answer is that we continue to fight because we know that the White House, and Congress and neo-con ideologues and the Washington Post do not make history. People make history. WE make history, with people from around the world. We have to look outside the Beltway for much of our history - but part of our history requires us to reclaim even Washington's very streets and monuments.

So we will come to Washington on June 10 once again - to protest, this time, our government's 40 years of collaboration with an illegal occupation. It is a global day and week of action, when the world says no to Israeli occupation, and we will be part of it. We will demand an entirely new U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Those in power today will not change until they have no other choice. That's our challenge, and that's our job. Empires of the past have always been brought down from outside, with great violence and fire. We have a different chance, to bring down this empire from within, using the tools we still have available of non-violence, of democracy, of internationalism.

We will reclaim our place with the rest of the world.

About the authors

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of both TNI and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC where she directs IPS's New Internationalism Project. Phyllis specialises in U.S. foreign policy issues, particularly involving the Middle East and United Nations. She worked as a journalist at the UN for ten years and currently serves as a special adviser to several top-level UN officials on Middle East issues, as well as playing an active role in the U.S. and global peace and Palestinian rights movements. A frequent contributor to U.S. and global media, Phyllis is also the author of numerous articles and books, particularly on Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, the UN, and U.S.

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