The movement to prevent the war on Iraq faces many pitfalls.
An obvious pitfall — one that has been pointed out by many people — is that the movement could miss opportunities to reach the growing number of people who are skeptical about Bush’s war aims.
A recent New York Times poll found that 70 percent of those polled wanted Congressional candidates to talk more about improving the economy than about Iraq, while 53 percent thought Bush was actually more interested in regime change than in disarming Iraq.
The same poll found that the numbers supporting war dropped noticeably if Iraqi civilian casualties were high, a question that is rarely asked by pollsters.
So the grounds for thinking we could build a broad movement right now are substantial.
Iraq is not merely a repeat of the war in Afghanistan. There is no evidence linking Iraq to September 11. Many are unconvinced by Bush’s rhetoric about the scale of Iraq’s threat. And many more have grievances that they think Bush is avoiding through talk of war.
Unless reach this audience — and involve many more people in the antiwar movement, as active participants rather than just sympathetic observers — our chances for challenging business as usual and disrupting Bush’s war plans are much smaller.
But in pursuing this understandable goal, some antiwar activists have drawn some dubious conclusions that actually undermine our ability to build an effective, democratic, broad-based, and principled movement.
The first pitfall is to argue that a war on Iraq “may distract the government from the Al Qaeda threat” (in the words of journalist Liza Featherstone in an October 28 editorial in the Nation, praising the approach of Global Exchange).
Setting aside the fact that this is the case being made by the most hawkish and right-wing of Bush’s critics, the problem with this line of argument is that it implies (or accepts) that Bush is now waging an otherwise legitimate “war on terrorism.”
Bush’s agenda has absolutely nothing to do with fighting terrorism or reducing its likelihood, and it is not sectarian to point that out.
Rather, the administration is pushing a series of foreign policy objectives that it had before September 11. These are not defensive, but offensive goals — ones that involve expanding U.S. economic and military power abroad.
The horrific attacks of September 11 were seen by Bush and Co. not as a tragedy but an opportunity.
Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, recently said, “I really think this period is analogous to 1945-1947 … in that the events started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics…. It’s important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions before they harden again.”
The new National Security Strategy of the Bush administration (released to the public on September 20, 2002) lays out the US agenda very clearly: maintaining an immense military and economic edge over any competitor or would be competitor; positioning the US military far more aggressively around the world; expanding the rationale for using “pre-emptive” strikes; and even pushing countries to adopt “lower marginal tax rates.”
None of this has anything to do with fighting terrorism or Al Qaeda.
In fact, as we see from Bush’s response to the bombings in Bali and in Bush’s speeches trying to link Iraq to Al Qaeda, the administration is trying to use this rhetoric to mobilize public support for its war plans.
Speaking about the attacks in Bali, Bush told an audience in Michigan, “We need to think about Saddam Hussein using Al Qaeda to do his dirty work.”
The United States must “pursue the enemy before they hurt us again,” Bush added.
A second mistake is to say that we must call for some “positive” action, such as returning weapon’s inspectors to Iraq.
We should be careful what we wish for, because we may very well get it.
The history of US using UN weapons inspections for its own aims is not ancient history.
In 1999, the Washington Post and Boston Globe exposed how the Clinton administration used UN weapon’s inspections to spy on Iraq, a fact that has been systematically ignored in the media.
After withdrawing inspectors in advance of a planned attack on Iraq in December 1988, the United States “bombed targets that had been developed through the inspection process,” as former weapon’s inspector Scott Ritter pointed out on CounterSpin.
The US is also in no position to be deciding who should have arms and who should not, or whose arms should be inspected.
Last year, the Bush administration denied international inspectors access to U.S. chemical and biological weapons-related facilities — the most likely source the anthrax that has killed five people in the United States — because it could violate “proprietary commercial interests.”
In 1997, the Senate passed the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act, but declared in clause 307 a “National Security Exemption”: “The president may deny a request to inspect any facility in the United States in cases where the president determines that the inspection may pose a threat to the national security interests of the United States.”
But no UN resolutions have been passed authorizing the use of force against Washington.
Far more immediate than the issue of Washington’s hypocrisy, though, is the fact that the US government hopes to use weapons inspections as a pretext for a war on Iraq.
As the Financial Times put it, “a rebuff [of weapon's inspectors] by Baghdad would strengthen Washington’s justification for military action.”
The US seeks to undertake deliberately “aggressive” and “intrusive” inspections in the hope of getting some no, some delay, or some false statement that can be used as a justification for war.
“The inspectors have to go back in under our terms, under no one else’s terms,” Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
“If we find anything in what they give us that is not true, that is the trigger,” a Bush administration official told the New York Times, September 28. “If they delay, obstruct or lie about anything they disclosed, then this will trigger action.”
Thus, rather than being an alternative to war, inspections are a path to war.
The most promising subjects on which we can find common ground with a broader audience are not weapons inspections and Al Qaeda, but the day-to-day economic issues facing millions of people in this country.
This is a war of guns versus butter, not guns and butter.
A war on Iraq may be in the interests of Enron, Lockheed Martin, ChevronTexaco, and Halliburton, but it is not in the interests of the rest of us.
Every hospital destroyed in Iraq in a war will be a hospital that is not built here, a teacher that will be underpaid, an uninsured person who will not receive medical care.
And a pre-emptive strike on Iraq will certainly make the world a much more unstable and dangerous place, though not because it will be a distraction in a military campaign against Al Qaeda.
If we make these connections, we can find common ground with a wide audience without compromising our analysis, our politics, or our principles and without giving credence to Bush’s war rhetoric.
And we can convince tens of thousands to march with us in Washington, DC, on October 26, the next major mobilization against the war.
As historian Howard Zinn suggests in Terrorism and War, activists should search for common ground with others, “But … that common ground should not rest on an acceptance of something we believe to be wrong.”
There are no short cuts to building a movement to prevent a war on Iraq, but if we urgently — and patiently — build such a movement on solid foundations, we have a chance of stopping this war before it starts.
Anthony Arnove is a ZNet commentator. He is the editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War. An updated edition of the book will be published soon by South End Press and Pluto. His article “Iraq: The Case Against Bush’s War” is available on ZNet and the web site of the International Socialist Review.