Thinking Strategically: Challenges Facing the Anti-War Movement

03 ဧပြီလ 2006
Assessing the achievements of the US anti-war movement, Bennis stresses that follwing the success in transforming public opinion to the now almost two thirds majority opposition to the war in Iraq, the task now is to transform that consciousness into empowerment and an actual change in policy.

As a movement we have been extraordinarily successful in achieving our initial goal: we have helped transform public opinion to the now almost 2/3 majority opposition to the war in Iraq. Our task now is to transform that consciousness into empowerment. The administration's most useful tool - fear - remains a factor in U.S. politics, but it is now much more concentrated in congress, less so in the American people.

Our priority is to figure out how to engage with power - how do we make continuing the war more politically costly than ending the war? Where, besides congress, are the powers that might have some influence - political, economic, social, media, whatever - on decision-making in the Bush White House? How do we engage with Congress and other parts of government when an executive branch has seized and consolidated such a high degree of power with no accountability? Our goal is now beyond making our constituent organizations and the American people believe that they can be useful and important, and instead figure out how they CAN be efficacious in turning our anti-war majority into national anti-war power.

At the third anniversary of the war, the comparison with the Viet Nam quagmire becomes ever more fitting. The "victory" that President Bush is predicting is a public relations/propaganda victory. The claims that the press is "ignoring the good news" harks back to the Viet Nam-era claims that the media "lost the war" for the U.S. The difference this time around has to do with the level of violence permeating Iraq, making it difficult or close to impossible for western journalists to do their job - or at least impossible for editors to allow them to do it. As a result, reliance on al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite stations, whose material is now often used by U.S. networks, and especially Iraqi stringers feeding information and footage to U.S. media outlets, is resulting in more consistent coverage of the war's horrors. Additionally, the U.S. air war has escalated dramatically, again raising the spectre of Viet Nam, especially at the moment the U.S. is attempting to reduce the level of U.S. troop casualties, and instead move to "change the color of the corpses," as it was described in Indochina.

Building on success: anti-war sentiment to anti-war power

In the U.S., we face a new challenge: how to ratchet up support for a real end to the war and occupation in Iraq, in the context of a majority population now clearly against the war. We can largely assume opposition to the war as a default position, but we need to figure out strategies for transforming that anti-war sentiment into an actual change in policy. We need to figure out how to engage with power, to provide that popular opinion a viable political answer: how to end the war and occupation.

Inside Iraq, a civil war is already well underway. It is a relatively low-level civil war, and is not yet a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia or Arab and Kurd, although that is still possible. But it IS a civil war - between supporters (however reluctant and poverty-driven) and opponents of the U.S. occupation and the U.S.-backed government.

Conditions of that war for ordinary Iraqis mean that the economy remains in a state of collapse, all conditions of everyday life are deteriorating, with severe and rising shortages of jobs, water, electricity, medical care, gasoline, and especially basic security. Sectarian killings are on the rise. All sides continue to vie for power by playing to various domestic constituencies. The U.S. is shifting its position to somewhat distance itself from the main pro-Iranian Shia parties it was supporting, a move that may be related to the escalation in anti-Iranian rhetoric in Washington.

Inside the military

Within the U.S. military, morale is qualitatively down. A recent Zogby International polls indicate that 72% of U.S. troops in Iraq believe the U.S. should get out, within a range of six to twelve months. On a recent PBS Lehrer News Hour, of four veterans discussing the war, ostensibly from "varying" perspectives, three were clear that for different reasons the troops should be brought home. (Only one, Kelly Dougherty from Iraq Veterans Against the War, was explicitly anti-war.) U.S. casualties are somewhat down in Iraq in the last couple of months, but they are significantly higher in Afghanistan, where the percentage of casualties has now matched those in Iraq.

In looking at the role of the military, it is interesting to look at the parallel with Israel in how to create a more militarized society: how to get wide numbers of people to accept increasing repression, loss of civil liberties, etc. is through war and fear. In both the U.S. and Israel anti-Arab racism is a big component of the ideological character; a number of U.S. police departments (not only New York where it was a long-standing tradition) are now sending officers to train in Israel, based on a commonly defined interest of "fighting terrorism." As a result, the role of Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Gold Star Families for Peace becomes even more important.

Republicans on the skids

The Bush administration is facing the lowest ratings of this presidency, including from within the Republican Party. Anti-war views are at their highest, and have largely been embedded within the mainstream of U.S. public opinion. As a result, Bush has been lowering his stated expectations about the war - we no longer expect "democracy" in Iraq, only stability, or a more powerful Iraqi security force and lower U.S. casualties. The U.S. will figure out how to "deal with IEDs…" The result on the ground includes greater emphasis on troop-sparing air attacks, photo-op attacks designed to showcase "success," and inflated claims about the securing of stability in discrete places such as Tal Afar, already being exposed as largely false.

Bush's press conference last week provided a set of gifts to Democrats - particularly his admission that he has no plans for an end to the occupation. Answering a question as to whether he "could envision a time when there are no U.S. troops in Iraq," Bush put aside his stock answer about "we will not stay one day longer than necessary," and instead stated baldly that such a decision would be up to "a different president and a different Iraqi government." While many headlines wrote it as "Bush says troops in Iraq till 2009," in fact he was acknowledging plans for a permanent occupation, despite the congress having passed a bill opposing permanent bases just days before.

His press conference answers, particularly to Helen Thomas' question regarding his real reasons for going to war "since all the official reasons have been proved false," also included a series of direct lies. They included the claim that "I didn't want to go to war" (already disproved by the Downing Street memo), the claim that UN arms inspectors were not being allowed into Iraq (when they were functioning on the ground and were only weeks from finishing their task, having found no WMDs), the statement that "the world, the UN had spoken and I had to make a decision…" (when any decision to be made belonged to the UN and not to the White House)… and more.

But where's the other side?

But the Democrats have been largely paralyzed, unwilling to respond to the massive public opposition to the war, unprepared to challenge Bush directly, and overwhelmingly infected with anti-Arab racism that played out so blatantly in the Clinton-Schumer led attack on the Dubai ports affair. So far while some good bills are floating around (especially the McGovern bill, which would actually cut funding for the war, the key role that congress can take), most democrats are content to let the Murtha call for bringing the troops home be their only voice. The significance of Murtha's bill is not its content (it's very limited, calls for continuing a large-scale regional military force in the middle east, etc.) but in its author - who is historically a major supporter of the military.

Global opposition to the war mounts - but new dangers lurk

Globally, the U.S. "coalition" is collapsing. Italy will likely begin to withdraw troops after their April elections, even if Berlusconi wins. The UK is already reducing their numbers, and of course Spain took the lead in pulling its troops out. Zapatero's success at negotiating with ETA has reminded the world of his role in providing a model for a different way of responding to terror attacks: don't go to war, pull your troops out of the existing illegal war, change your policies and talk-talk-talk. Maybe he'll get the Nobel Prize.

The global peace movement is facing the same challenges as the U.S. movement. Demonstrations marking the third anniversary were largely smaller than in the past, but many of the national movements remain strong and well-grounded in civil society. The demand emerging from the global movement is "Stop Support for Bush's War" - focusing on ending the occupation, bring ALL the troops home now, close the bases, and no war in Iran/create a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the middle east.

In the region, pressure on Syria has diminished a bit, but the danger of escalation remains high against Iran. The nuclear weapons issue provides a broad-stroke cover for other reasons for U.S. opposition to Iran - including its role in Iraq and the region, and potentially most importantly, its plan to open an open-currency (meaning mostly euro-based) oil trading market in the very near future. This follows a similar shift from dollar-based to euro-based oil trading that Iraq instituted in 2002 (quickly reversed shortly after the U.S. invasion), and could significantly undermine the stability of the U.S. currency.

While only weeks ago most U.S. allies appeared to believe that a U.S. military strike against Iran was unlikely, British foreign office sources recently told the Telegraph that "the belief in some areas of Whitehall is that an attack is now all but inevitable." The Iran nuclear controversy has become an important opportunity for the U.S. and global peace movements to return to the issue of nuclear weapons and the need for nuclear disarmament - not only non-proliferation. The level of U.S. hypocrisy, in welcoming Israel's powerful nuclear arsenal, and most recently rewarding India, which refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and built its own illegal nuclear weapons, with new advanced nuclear technology, while threatening to go to war against Iran (which does not have a nuclear weapon and IS a signatory to the NPT, has accepted large-scale UN inspections, and has not violated NPT requirements regarding enrichment) provides a huge opportunity, indeed obligation, for us to build up that arena of work. We should be using every opportunity to expose the U.S. double standards in threatening Iran for even thinking about nuclear weapons, while ignoring Washington's own obligations under Article VI of the NPT to move towards full and complete nuclear disarmament.

The Bush administration is being hollowed out, with key war-leaders losing their most experienced and most ideologically-driven staff (Cheney losing Libby, Rumsfeld losing Wolfowitz and Feith, etc.) but there is no indication the White House has any intention of changing course. The 30-somethings who control the National Security Council are not leaving, and their default position is support for war.

Challenging the war, challenging empire

The Iraq War remains the linchpin of U.S. foreign policy, since it remains the central component of the broader U.S. regional and global drive for empire. So opposing the war remains the fundamental center of our much bigger challenge of opposing that drive towards empire.

But to actual empower those who are against the war, with such a wide diversity of reasons for their opposition, we have to make clear the role of the war in exacerbating all the other features of Bush's disastrous policies - on Katrina, immigration, global warming, etc. The April 29 demonstration will help to magnify those links.

We've won the battle for public opinion - how to empower the majority already against the war?

The focus of the anti-war movement now needs to change. We no longer need to focus primarily on convincing people the war is wrong - we have largely won that battle. Instead, we need to figure out a strategy of how to transform that majority who oppose the war, but are unsure what to do about it, and how to transform anti-war sentiment into anti-war action and power.

Part of that is education - we have to engage seriously in the debate over the "bring ALL the troops home NOW" demand, which many who oppose the war are still uneasy with. We should be clear that the demand is to announce the beginning of a full withdrawal immediately, that of course we understand that actually removing 140,000 troops takes time, that the key is the U.S. commitment to ending the occupation. We need to provide activists with the educational and informational resources they need to defend UFPJ's "Bring ALL the troops home NOW" position, make sure that the elements of an "Iraq 101" campaign are in place. We also need to broaden our own activists and others' familiarity with, and ability to articulate and defend, an exit strategy that starts with recognizing that the U.S. troops are the problem, not the solution, to violence in Iraq, and that calls for withdrawing all U.S. troops, closing the bases, and pulling out the "coalition" and mercenary troops, but then goes on to assert our internationalist humanitarian obligations to the people of Iraq - reparations, real reconstruction, etc. We should take head-on the "Pottery Barn" analogy - making clear that Iraq is not a cup, and the U.S. occupation is not a tube of crazy glue.

So how to we build and strengthen our movement when we are a majority of the American people? Even taking into consideration that part of the 2/3 or so anti-war majority hold various right-wing, racist, and other views that put them outside of our movement, we can truthfully claim to represent the majority of the American people. So we are in a qualitatively different period than February 15, 2003, when we brought half a million people to New York City. However big or small specific protests are, our movement as a whole is NOT smaller, but rather bigger, more grounded, more embedded in the very fabric of U.S. society than anything we've seen so far.

A useful comparison we can look at is the assessment Noam Chomsky did years ago of the anti-intervention movement against the contra wars in Central America during the 1980s. He recognized that while the Viet Nam-era movement was often far more visible, campuses were explosive, huge demonstrations took to the streets in Washington, in fact that movement was not as broad as the Central America movement whose origins were in mainstream churches and came to have a presence in far more mainstream organizations.

Our task is to figure out how to mainstream and realize our demand - Bring ALL the troops home NOW - to get to the next step beyond generalized anti-war sentiment. And we have to figure out ways of insuring that people - that vast majority of people who are more or less on our side - feel that they are accomplishing something, when the most important thing, transforming public opinion to an anti-war majority, has already been accomplished. We also must encourage people to join organizations, or to create new ones, to maintain levels of local, state, regional and national mobilization, and to strengthen the anti-war presence and voice in the media and elsewhere.

So we have to renew our focus on ending the occupation - providing a real exit strategy that people can use and articulate and defend, at least in broad general terms, in discussions with their congressional representatives, local city councils and other local officials, church and university leaders, etc. We have to define ending the occupation to mean bringing home all troops, closing the bases, saying no to expanding the war to Iran. We may want to escalate tactics (such as increasing the focus on CD) in certain circumstances, but most important is to escalate our demand - that we're done with calling for "oppose the war," and moving on to how to end it. We have to reflect the mainstream power we now represent - WE lead, demand that political officials follow.

We also need to be creative in responding to the reality of a disempowered congress and a frightened and largely supine Democratic party. That means, besides demanding that our representatives take seriously our existence as a huge anti-war majority (and working with some of the Progressive Caucus to realize that goal), looking to a renewed focus on local municipal, church and other institutional resolutions calling for bringing the troops home; media work with a focus on exit strategies and bringing the troops home now; reminding our anti-war majority of the constitutional threats inherent in how this war is being waged, and keeping up our links with the other issues emanating from the disastrous consequences of the Bush policies.