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As the U.S. occupation of Iraq enters its third year, the news from both the war zone and the home front is increasingly grim for the Bush Administration and its allies.
Elections engineered by the occupation authorities in late January have failed to stem a growing insurgency. Almost 500 people were killed in May alone, and it has become clear that U.S. military forces cannot even control Baghdad or the main highway to the airport, much less the rest of the country. Outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the occupation headquarters and the Iraqi puppet government are located, the struggle for control of the country is being waged every hour of every day.
More than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the war began on March 20, 2003, and many more have been injured or displaced. More than 1,600 U.S. troops have been killed, and more than 25,000 have been medically evacuated. The economic cost of the war already exceeds $200 billion. U.S. policymakers' rhetoric about helping to build a "stable democracy" rings hollow in Iraq, where the vast majority of people want the occupation to end. One public opinion poll there found that 69 percent of Shiites and 82 percent of Sunnis favor the withdrawal of U.S. forces ("Survey Finds Deep Divisions In Iraq," Zogby International, January 28, 2005).
Moreover, as the number of U.S. casualties increases and confidence in the mission decreases, public opinion at home is increasingly turning against the war. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 57 percent of the public said that it was not worth going to war in Iraq and 56 percent said the conflict is going badly for the U.S. ("Poll: Most in U.S. Say Iraq War Not Worthwhile," CNN.com, May 3, 2005). Almost half the respondents in another national poll said they would like to see most U.S. troops withdrawn this year (Doyle McManus, "Support for War in Iraq Hits New Low," Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2005).
Two years later, the frequency, size, and intensity of anti-war demonstrations have significantly decreased. It is clear that the war in Iraq must be ended. But it is also clear that there is a serious crisis in the anti-war movement in the U.S. If we are to renew and revitalize this movement, we must have a solid political analysis of how this crisis developed and how it can be overcome.
With the war going so badly for the U.S. governmentand with public opinion more opposed to the war than everone would think that the anti-war movement in our country would be bigger, broader, and stronger than ever. But that is not the case. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, a historically unprecedented anti-war movement developed in the U.S. and around the world. Strikingly, however, protests and related actions peaked at the beginning of the war and began to decline in the months that followed.
Even before the war began, the overwhelming majority of nations and peoples in the world strongly opposed the pending U.S. invasion as an unjustified act of aggression, a violation of international law, and a "crime against peace." Most members of the United Nations implored Bush to forego an unnecessary and immoral war. And in the months leading up to the war, the largest, most diverse, and first truly global anti-war movement in history developed. Millions of people from Britain to Bahrain, from New York to Nigeria, and from South Korea to Spain became involved in this preemptive peace movement. Former South African President Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, actress Susan Sarandon, British playwright Harold Pinter, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, the Dixie Chicks, and many other famous individuals spoke out against a military attack on Iraq.
On February 15 and 16, 2003, more than ten million people participated in anti-war marches, rallies, and protests in more than 60 countries ("Millions Join Global Anti-War Protests," BBC News online, February 17, 2003). When Bush ordered the attack on Iraq the following month, millions more took to the streets. Mass rallies across Europe drew crowds too large to count. Workers walked off the job in Greece, Italy, Spain, and several other countries. Demonstrators besieged dozens of U.S. embassies around the world. Large protests were also held in Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries. Hundreds of thousands of people marched and rallied in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Much of the hard work needed to build the anti-war movement in the U.S. had been done by various Marxist and socialist organizations and peace groups. But the movement was extraordinarily diverse, encompassing labor union activists, people of faith, students and professors, young workers, people of color, immigrants, and many others. As Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, observed, "This is a much more mainstream movement than the anti-Vietnam War movement was at a comparable stage" (Marjie Lundstrom, "Anti-War Protesters Are Flowing In From the Mainstream," Sacramento Bee, December 5, 2002). Vietnam War protest leader David Harris expressed the views of many when he told a San Francisco crowd, "We're here to save our country" (Nanette Asimov, "'We're Here to Save Our Country,'" San Francisco Chronicle, February 17, 2003).
So what exactly happened to the anti-war movement in the U.S. and how can this vital movement be rebuilt? In mid-May, Houston-area activists explored these questions in a forum at College of the Mainland. The title of the forum was "Which Way Forward for the Anti-War Movement?" Paul D'Amato, a Chicago-based member of the International Socialist Organization and associate editor of its theoretical journal, International Socialist Review, was a special guest speaker at the event, which was sponsored by the local ISO chapter and the Progressive Workers Organizing Committee, an independent Marxist group to which I belong. In an interview before the forum, D'Amato incisively observed, "The strange situation we face now is that more people than ever think the war was a mistake, but the anti-war movement is still fairly weak."
D'Amato recalled that he had participated in one of the massive peace rallies in New York City before the war began, and he agreed with estimates that about one-half million people had turned out for the event. "I've never seen so many people in one place," he said. For D'Amato, the global anti-war movement in late 2002 and early 2003 had been massive and important, and he acknowledged the need to understand the reasons for its decline. In his view, one factor was the disillusionment experienced by some people "who hoped somehow that mass protest would be enough" to stop the invasion of Iraq and then had their hopes dashed. Another part of the explanation lay in the fact that some people felt the need to "support the troops" once the war began. D'Amato also emphasized the negative consequences of anti-war activists forsaking protest for the sake of Democratic Party electoral politics in late 2003 and 2004. He noted that the effort to elect "Anybody but Bush" had ironically culminated in support for Democratic Party presidential nominee John Kerry, a pro-war candidate.
Elaborating on these themes in his presentation, D'Amato found the audience shared his perspective on the crisis in the anti-war movement. As the speaker who followed him in the program, I was glad that my own remarks dovetailed nicely with his. The audience appeared to appreciate the fact that two different Left organizations could forge unity in the struggle to comprehendand work to rectifythe problems in the anti-war movement. And virtually everyone at the forum seemed to agree about how to answer the question, "Which Way Forward for the Anti-War Movement." Of course, the renewal and revitalization of the anti-war movement will require Left activists to do more than "preach to the choir." But clarity about the causes of the crisis in the anti-war movement is undoubtedly an indispensable prerequisite for developing the kinds of political action that can overcome this crisis.
D'Amato's observation about the role of disillusionment in the anti-war movement is an important one. Many people who joined the movement in 2002 and early 2003 were new to political activism and many of them became involved in order to express their moral outrage at the prospect of an invasion of Iraqnot necessarily to build the kind of social movement that, over time, could force the government to end a war and occupation. The fact that large numbers of people in the movement could eloquently express moral outrage about such a war, but did not necessarily see themselves as part of a struggle against the government, as part of a struggle for power, attests to the need for the continued development of working-class politics in the homeland of the American Empire.
In addition, D'Amato pointed out that some people left the movement because the Bush Administration emphasized the need to "support the troops" after the war began. An important distinction can be made here: Although some individuals were influenced by the traditional call to "rally around the flag," many others ceased being active because they were afraid to publicly oppose the war once it was underway. Fear of government repression has been one of the dirty little secrets of U.S. history, and Bush frightened more than a few people when he announced that "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror" in the aftermath of the tragedy of September 11, 2001 ("'You Are Either With Us or Against Us,'"CNN.com, November 6, 2001).
Recent concerns about political repression have proved to be well founded. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has denounced the government's use of the USA PATRIOT Act and the Joint Terrorism Task Force to identify, interrogate, and intimidate anti-war protesters and other activists. As ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has noted, "The FBI's intimidation and interrogation of peaceful protesters brings back eerie echoes of the days of J. Edgar Hoover" ("ACLU Denounces FBI Tactics Targeting Political Protesters," ACLU.org, August 16, 2004). Although people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, and radicals have been most vulnerable to renewed repression, the specter of a New McCarthyism has undoubtedly discouraged a broad spectrum of people from involvement in the anti-war movement.
However, the most important cause of the crisis in the anti-war movement has arguably been the defection of people who thought that the next big battle for peace must be fought at the ballot box in the 2004 presidential election. For some seasoned Left activists, this was not entirely surprising. Unlike many other nations, our country has only two major political parties, and both the Republicans and Democrats are relatively conservative parties aligned with various factions of the capitalist class. There is no mass Left party representing the working-class majority. As a result, some people involved in progressive U.S. social movements have historically felt compelled to place their hopes in Democratic Party politicians.
Anti-war activists should have known better than to traverse this well-known path in 2003 and 2004. After all, most Democrats in Congress have supported the war, and none of the Democratic presidential candidates in the primary elections and caucuses called for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. While each of these candidates was less reactionary than Bush on some important issues, none of them was an authentic anti-war candidate. And as D'Amato pointed out, anti-war activists ended up sacrificing their own principles and undermining the struggle to end the war when they embraced the pro-war candidacy of John Kerry. It was not only liberals who made this grievous mistake. Some supposedly Marxist and progressive organizations tailed the liberals and embraced the "lesser of evils" fallacy, too.
D'Amato explained that the result was "an election period where the issue that most concerned millions of Americansthe warwas literally taken off the table because both candidates were for the war." And to make matters worse, some activists have interpreted the 2004 election results as evidence that the country is moving to the right and felt that they must "tone down" their opposition to an increasingly bloody and unwinnable war. What he described as "political sliding" has been manifested not only in activists' failure to organize a large national anti-war demonstration thus far in 2005, but in other ways as well. Moveon.org, the main liberal Democratic Party group critical of the war, has refused to support the withdrawal of U.S. troops and has now "moved on" to other issues like Social Security (Norman Solomon, "MoveOn.org: Making Peace With the War in Iraq," CommonDreams.com, March 10, 2005). Some activists now limit themselves to participating in ceremonies where they mourn the soldiers killed in Iraq. Other activists are mounting campaigns against corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel for war profiteering, but downplay opposition to the war itself and refrain from directly challenging the government.
The notion that Bush's re-election signifies a national shift toward conservatism does not stand up under close examination, as I argued in "No Mandate for the Right: An Analysis of the 2004 Election Results," (IMPACT press, December 2004-January 2005). D'Amato's description of Bush's declining popularity is confirmed by a recent Gallup poll showing that his 45 percent approval rating is "the lowest level of any President since World War II at this point in his second term" ("Gallup: Bush Approval Rating Lowest Ever for Second Term Prez at this Point," Editor & Publisher, April 5, 2005). And on the issue of Iraq, recent poll results make clear that public opinion is increasingly turning against the war. Mounting public criticism of the human and economic costs of the war, combined with growing awareness of widespread Iraqi resistance to the occupation, provide a solid objective basis for rebuilding the anti-war movement.
So where do we go from here? What is to be done? How can we renew and revitalize the anti-war movement? Activists from different political backgrounds will certainly continue to discuss and debate these questions, but most Marxist and socialist organizations agree on several basic principles.
First, we need to be clear about our primary objective, which should be an immediate end to the war and an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. and allied forces from Iraq. We must not be afraid to face the fact that our struggle is fundamentally directed against the U.S. government and we must not be afraid to acknowledge that the Iraqi people have the right to resist the invasion and occupation of their country. This is our solemn internationalist responsibility as workers living in the country whose government is responsible for the war.
Second, we need to understand that a renewed and revitalized anti-war movement must be developed by the independent political action of workers, oppressed people, and other democratic-minded people. This movement cannot be led, constrained, or limited by Democratic Party politicians. After all, the Democratic Party is a party of capital and warnot a party of workers. At the same time, anti-war activists must renew our efforts to win back many of the people who tried the electoral route in 2003 and 2004 and have learned from their mistake. Our movement can offer these people a positive, constructive alternative to the despair and disillusionment that so many of them are currently experiencing.
Third, we need to be committed to building the biggest, broadest, and strongest possible independent coalition in support of our objective of ending the war now. While Marxists and socialists will certainly play a leading role in the rebuilding of the movement, we must recognize that a genuine mass movement will require the participation of large numbers of people from other political backgrounds. We should agree to disagree on other issues while forging unity in the struggle against the war and we should do everything in our power to avoid unnecessary political divisions and minimize sectarian squabbles. Building unity in the anti-war movement will require the rejection of anti-communism and red-baiting, but it will also require that people who do not belong to Left organizations feel that they are full partners in the struggle. Indeed, all forms of opportunism and chauvinism must be eschewed.
Fourth, we must support and promote the development of anti-war tendencies in the labor unions, in workplaces, in communities of color, on the campuses, among people of faith, and among other potentially progressive constituencies. This will require broadening our appeal to encompass more than righteous outrage over an illegal and immoral war. As D'Amato suggested, we must help people understand that the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on the war come at the expense of attacks on Social Security and other vital social programs at home. We must also help people understand that the "War on Terror" is being used to justify attacks on the rights of immigrants, renewed racial profiling, and an ominous assault on civil liberties. We must help young people understand the danger of a new draft and the importance of their participation in the anti-war movement. We must support the growing numbers of men and women in the U.S. military forces who are refusing to fight in Iraq. And we must help people understand the linkage between the war in Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan, Palestine, and Haiti, as well as the ongoing U.S. threats to Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, and other countries.
Fifth, we need to be clear about our strategy and tactics. If we want to end the war in Iraq, we must be able to expand mass protests to the point that we can disrupt "business as usual" and literally force the government to accept our demands. Frederick Douglass was right when he said more than a century ago, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will." The most important examples of progress brought about in our country have been achieved through mass social movements, which disrupted "business as usual" not through voting and elections. It was such mass protest movements that were primarily responsible for the development of Social Security, anti-poverty programs, labor union rights, civil rights reforms, advances in women's rights, andimportantlythe eventual U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
We must have no illusions about bourgeois politicians and their notion of political representation in our society. The historical record provides ample proof that most elected officials and other politicians will represent the interests of the capitalist class and local elites, not the expressed will of the majority of peopleunless they are literally compelled to do so by mass protest and political pressure. We need to put millions of people into the streets, but we need to do more than that. We also need to build a campaign of mass civil disobedience that aims to end the U.S. government's "crime against peace" in Iraq. And as the experience of the U.S. military in the latter stages of the Vietnam war made clear, the development of widespread resistance and rebellion by U.S. troops stationed in Iraq can play a powerful role in bringing the war to an end.
The challenges and difficulties facing the anti-war movement should not be underestimated. But we can build a broad, powerful, multi-racial, working-class people's movement against the war in the months and years ahead. Together, we do have the potential and we can develop the power to end this war, bring the troops home, and enable the Iraqi people to determine their own future.
Dr. David Michael Smith is a professor of government at the College of the Mainland in Texas City, Texas. He can reached at DSmith@com.edu
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