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Disputes about Anti-War Strategy


(This commentary was spurred and informed by a Chomsky ZNet Forum Post on the same topic.)

Numerous opponents of the “war on terrorism” and war against Iraq have lately urged a new approach to expressing opposition. For example, in an August article in The Progressive David Cortwright writes:

“[We should] focus on the dangers of war in Iraq rather than dwelling on U.S. misdeeds in the past. We should frame the anti-war message in ways that appeal to mainstream audiences. We can do this by emphasizing widely shared values and themes, such as protecting the innocent, winning the campaign against terrorism, cooperating with allies, and preventing the rise of anti-Americanism.”

To me this suggests that to enhance our prospects of building a large, sustained opposition we should not tell the truth about what we believe, including ignoring critically important facts and context. We should oppose war on Iraq by emphasizing negative implications for US citizens but not for those under the bombs. We should keep away from the historical record that bears on explaining motives and anticipating consequences.

Problems abound. How can we assess policy without addressing U.S. “misdeeds in the past”? Which “mainstream audiences” should we “appeal to”? Which “innocents” should be “protected”? Which “terrorism” should we reduce and by what means? Which allies’ should we “cooperate with”? What “anti-Americanism” should we “prevent”?

To “protect the innocent” is fine, but if at Cortwright’s suggestion we accept that we should deemphasize “past misdeeds,” how do we reject Bush’s self description as a trustworthy agent of peace for the region? If we forego reference to history, we would be reduced to arguing that intervention would hurt us and impede our pleasures. But that is a morally bankrupt stance and it would in any event pass into oblivion the minute the government succeeds in

(a) reducing the potential costs to the U.S. or

(b) convincing the public that the dangers to us are warranted by the dangers of not invading — which claims we could not contest because we could not refer to the relevant history.

Cortwright also says that to appeal to wide audiences we should support “winning the war against terrorism.” Surely he doesn’t mean we should support winning Bush’s war that finds terrorists wherever there is dissent from U.S. agendas and sees no terrorists anywhere there is obedience to U.S. agendas. But without context, which Cortwright says we should avoid, that is what the phrase support the “war on terrorism” means.

As to which terrorisms we should reduce, and by what means – look at the leading recipients of US military aid. They are Israel, Egypt, Colombia, Turkey, and a little earlier El Salvador. Notice their levels of anti-civilian violence. An easy way to curtail much of the most vicious state terrorism is simply to stop massively contributing to it. However, if we listen to Cortwright, we have to avoid talking about the relevant history, which means we would also have to avoid explaining key approaches to winning a campaign against terrorism, such as to reduce our support for it.

What about the terrorism we are allowed to look at and oppose in accord with prevailing ideology: the terrorism undertaken against us or our allies? How do we reduce even that terrorism?

Surely, one crucial task is to address the sources of the violence, including legitimate grievances. But if we can’t talk context, then we can’t talk grievances, and if we can’t talk grievances, we certainly can’t propose reducing them.

If a stressed out employee or student takes over a workplace or a public school and kills innocents, we don’t ignore (much less aggravate) the root causes of anxiety, anger, and pain in those venues, but instead we try to address them. We also don’t bomb the workplace or school into dust, much less annihilate the surrounding neighborhoods, much less assault whole states where the perpetrators were born, grew up, or learned how to shoot. We instead try to reduce the causes of future violence.

This is understood by everyone remotely serious about the topics. For example, the head of Israel’s General Security Services (1996-2000), Ami Ayalon, recently repeated publicly that those who want to defeat Palestinian terrorism by force “want an unending war”; the only way to end it is by satisfying their legitimate demands for national self-determination in a viable independent state.

Ayalon couldn’t come to this conclusion were he to have deemphasized the relevant history, in accord with Cortwright’s suggestion. Likewise, if Israelis were to follow Cortwright’s advice to deemphasize their own past crimes, they would commit themselves to an unending war. The lessons apply to the U.S. as well.

What about Cortwright’s advice that we should “cooperate with allies”? Well, our Turkish ally carried out massive atrocities against its Kurdish population throughout the 1990s. The U.S. provided roughly 80% of the arms in an escalating flow. Of course Cortwright doesn’t advocate that cooperation.

If our European allies increase agricultural subsidies to prevent poor countries from exporting to them, should we do the same? Cortwright would say no. So clearly we should only cooperate with allies when it is right to do so, which leaves us where we were before the advice was given.

How about curbing “anti-Americanism?” It sounds sensible, but when criticisms of the U.S. arise from opposition to murderous U.S. policies, should we try to reduce the criticisms? If we want to understand the sources of what is called “anti-Americanism” — should we follow Cortwright’s advice to deemphasize U.S. policies and what they have imposed on others?

During the Vietnam War, various activists, claiming to offer a responsible route to widespread anti-war activism, argued that we shouldn’t highlight that the U.S. attacked South Vietnam and expanded its aggression to the whole of Indochina. We shouldn’t uncover the reasons for the aggression or place the actions in the context of global planning. We shouldn’t reveal the true nature of our war crimes.

We should not call the war “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” but only a “mistake,” because if we did these things, we would alienate the American people — about 70% of whom regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral” and not “a mistake,” by the late 1960s — and still do, with minor fluctuations.

Rather, it was argued, we should concentrate on the “quagmire” costs, thus separating ourselves from the population but appealing to the educated elites, who did overwhelmingly insist that the war began with ‘blundering efforts to do good” but by 1969 was harming our society and killing Americans, so that out of our own interests we should withdraw.

The Vietnam period, in other words, taught that criticism of policies that accepts the intellectual framework of the purveyors of those policies and that only questions their efficacy or effects on ourselves is not only immoral, it has no long-term value toward building sustained opposition that transcends the moment, and it is not even good at building immediate opposition. The lessons still apply.

As to upholding “the best traditions of American democracy,” another suggestion from Cortwright, do we best do that by suppressing discussion of U.S. crimes and praising U.S. motives, regardless of facts, raising question only about methods and side effects?

The deeper point to be made about all this is that advice that we should suppress what we believe and keep to “pragmatic” concerns implies either that we seek only to address elites, who, it is true, rebel at deep criticism of U.S. policy and institutions, or that we want to address broad constituencies, but think that the general public are morally hobbled and intellectually limited.

It is important to ask why some leftists have in mind elites when they talk about reaching out. It is important to ask why some leftists think the people they run into in the supermarket or at a gas station are less capable of decency than opponents of war are, or incapable of understanding what opponents of war can understand.

U.S. anti-war activists surely should talk about protecting the innocent, paying attention to others, etc. But that means telling the truth about U.S. crimes, not harping only on the crimes of others. U.S. crimes are vastly more important for the simple reason that we can do something about them: that is, we can stop committing them.

We should do our best to find out the truth about important matters, and we should be honest in approaching other people. One can doubtless contrive circumstances in which it is better to deceive, but there’s a very heavy burden of proof to bear for anyone who counsels that — and putting it into blunt terms, that’s what the advice now being offered to anti-war activists comes down to. The burden is unmet. In anti-war work, honesty is not only the right policy, but also the most effective one to build wide, sustained dissent.

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