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Were the Anti Iraq War Demonstrations of 2003 Too Good to Be True?


I was never quite as excited as some of my fellow leftists seemed to be about the antiwar movement that developed in response to George W. Bush’s planned and then implemented occupation of Iraq. True, the anti-invasion turnouts in Europe and the United States were remarkable even before the actual fact of the “war.”  On February 17, 2003, more than a month before “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (quickly changed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” [O.I.F] because the original brand name’s acronym [“O.I.L.”]was too suggestive of the invasion’s petro-imperial ambitions) was formally launched, the New York Times was so impressed by the global antiwar outpourings that it said the following: “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Times analyst Patrick Tyler referred with respect to Bush’s “tenacious new adversary: millions of people who flooded the streets of New York and dozens of other world cities to say they are against war based on the evidence at hand.” 1

The people were out in mass opposition before the war actually commenced. This was a notable difference with the popular campaign that helped end the Vietnam War. The Vietnam-era peace demonstrations started out tiny.  It took the 1960s peace movement years of hard and dedicated organizing to become a genuinely mass movement and a force to be reckoned with in the corridors of power. It did not develop the capacity to put substantial numbers in the streets until long after the Washington had (under the John F. Kennedy administration in fact [2]) launched its attack on Vietnam.

Don’t get me wrong. I was one of Tyler’s millions on the eve of O.I.F, pinching myself in downtown Chicago on Lake Shore Drive (LSD) on March 19, 2003 as I took in the endless sea of humanity (quite ethno-racially and otherwise demographically diverse on the first night) chanting and marching against Bush’s criminal war. It brought tears to my eyes. There was another huge march the following night, after Bush unleashed his sickening campaign of “Shock and Awe” on Baghdad. It was a heady experience of popular, democratic activity in George W. Bush’s post-9/11 United States. I still remember the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses marooned on LSD by the flood of peace marchers on the 19th.  The black female bus drivers smiled and made the peace sign with both hands out of their windows. It almost brought tears to my eyes. Still, it all seemed too good to be true.

It was, in a sense. With all due respect for the dedicated work of many left activists across the country, the early pre- and anti-Iraq War marches of March 2003 were a largely spontaneous outpouring of middle class Democrats who sincerely wanted to prevent a Republican president’s stupid and criminal war from happening in the first place but who had little interest in fighting a difficult, long-term battle against that war and the broader culture and system of militarism once the invasion took place. I’ll never forget the comment of one nice, teary-eyed 50-something lady in the elevator of my mother’s downtown Chicago condominium complex after the second straight night of anti-war marching in the city: “Oh well, we tried.  We lost." It was back to real life for this peace marcher, who harbored the fantastic belief that demonstrating against Bush's war might have prevented it.

The marches of March 2003 were organized as much by the televised images of the boorish Bush and his loathsome, transparently arch-authoritarian Vice President (Darth Cheney) and Defense Secretary (Donald Rumsfeld)as by any sophisticated, impressive, in-place, and battle-steeled peace movement. And, as I worried at the beginning, it was all too partisan and Democratic, insufficiently able and/or willing to grasp the imperial and militaristic nature of the Democratic Party in connection with the Iraq War and more broadly. It was opposed not so much to criminal militarism as such as to the clumsy and boorish, and translucently blatant cowboy imperialism of a Texas Republican president, leaving one to suspect that many of its members would be far less likely to be hitting the streets if the wars they claimed to oppose were being conducted by supposedly kinder and gentler imperialists like Al Gore or John F “Reporting for Duty” Kerry.

This dark suspicion was born out by the retreat of the contemporary “antiwar movement” after the election of the militantly imperialist Democratic president Barack Obama. As Cindy Sheehan noted in 2009, thinking of all the liberals she could no longer interest in opposing Washington’s imperial policies, “Wars that were wrong under Bush become acceptable under Obama.”  Alexander Cockburn chimed with the observation that numerous supposedly left and liberal Americans who opposed criminal wiretappings, immoral and illegal wars, plutocratic bankers’ bailouts and other vile policies when they were implemented in the name of a white Republican moron from West Texas but who became all too strangely silent when those same policies were enacted under the portrait of an eloquent black Democrat from Chicago. Democrats can be very dangerous.

There is some new evidence on just how bad this problem was and remains. Consistent with Sheehan and Cockburn’s complaint and my own voluminous warnings on what Tariq Ali calls “the Obama syndrome,” a recent major study by University of Michigan political scientist Michael Heany and his colleague Fabio Rojas of Indiana University finds that the antiwar movement in the United States “demobilized” as Democrats withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, first with Congress in 2006 and then with the presidency in 2008. Democrats had been sparked to participate in antiwar activities when the war (the invasion and occupation of Iraq) they purported to oppose was being conducted by a Republican president. "As president,” Heany notes, “Obama has maintained the occupation of Iraq and escalated the war inAfghanistan…The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama's 'betrayal' and reinvigorated its protest activity. Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions." 3

Looking at Heany and Rojas’ study the other day, I was reminded of my futile counsel to the local campus antiwar activists with the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee (UIAC) in Iowa City in the summer of 2008: “protest at the [Obama-nominating] Democratic national convention in Denver, Colorado, not the [McCain-nominating] Republican national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Obama,” I told disbelieving students, is “the next president, the empire’s next and new clothes. He is very militaristic and imperial, as you would know if you studied his speeches and writings for the power elite. He will continue the war on Iraq and expand the one in Afghanistan.” The students were convinced that Obama could not win because of his skin color and what they thought was his “antiwar” position. We know what happened on that score.

There is no longer an antiwar group of any relevance in Iowa City.  The UIAC is dead, thanks to the departure of the best activists, the nefarious activities of an FBI informant, internal squabbles over personalities and Israel, and – last but not least – the significant demobilizing impact of a Democratic president who deceptively ran as an antiwar candidate. The kids in UIAC loved Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States but did not seem to grasp the radical historians’ counsel that “The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.” 4

The anti-Vietnam War movement may have started out small and weak but it built and expanded hard-earned capacity and legitimacy over time. And the popular struggle againstWashington’s Indochina wars did not discriminate between the two imperial parties, the Republicans and Democrats.  The biggest mobilizations followed the Republican war monger Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, but the movement reached critical mass and emerged as a truly mass phenomenon in opposition to a Democratic presidential war monger named Lyndon Baines Johnson, the most socially liberal U.S. president in American history.  Had the Democratic war hawk Hubert Humphrey defeated Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, the movement would have continued to expand through the end of the decade and beyond.

But, of course, the 1960s and early 1970s antiwar movement was the creation and creature of a different war and time. Negative comparison between contemporary peace movement failures and antiwar triumphs in the 1960s and 1970s can be significantly unfair. The earlier antiwar organizers both fed into and fed off broader and related currents of social protest and organization around race, poverty, sexuality, culture and the role of the modern university in American life.  They drew heavily on the fact that the Vietnam era-military drafted middle and even some upper class teenagers and young men into its ugly campaigns abroad. While the primary victims by far were Indochinese, the Vietnam War much more lethal for U.S. citizens than O.I.F, killing more than 58,000 Americans.

The U.S. imperial establishment learned from Vietnam to never again fight bloody colonial wars with a citizens’ army that includes the children of privileged classes.  It now kills official enemies in more technology-/capital-intensive ways and fills its mercenary (both uniformed and private-corporate) ranks with specialized, multi-tour gendarmes who are recruited mainly from the working class and who constitute something of a separate element – people who kill, torture, and maim to earn a living – within American society. To make matters worse for would-be antiwar organizers, the mass corporate war and entertainment media today is more consolidated and more adept at deleting, misrepresenting, mocking, and otherwise marginalizing those who dare to raise their voices in opposition to the U.S. imperial project [5]. And American “higher education” is now even more captive to the corporate and military establishment than it was in the 1960s.  Last but not least, Americans have much less free time and are more deeply in debt than they were in the 1960s – two related facts that work against mass participation in protest movements of any kind.

On a positive note, I wanted Obama to win the presidential election in 2008 for what might seem to some as a strange reason. I thought there was radical potential in U.S.voters and citizens, especially younger ones, experiencing life under a Democratic administration.  I wanted Americans to come into more direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the American imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their rising and ridden expectations and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial and military rules with supposedly antiwar (in-fact highly militaristic) Democrats at the nominal helm of the ship of state. I wanted them to be subjected in a very dramatic war to the cold reality that (in Marxist writer Doug Henwood’s words) "everything still pretty much sucks" [6] when Democrats hold the top political offices – that the basic institutional reality stays the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it on Facebook last year:  "I'm glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation. The modern nation-state was created by war, of war, and for war. That is its only real purpose, and all others are subordinate to it. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.”

Call me crazy, but I’m still clinging to this ironic version of Obamanistic hope.  We’ve yet to see much of what I (along with Henwood and Goff) dialectically dreamed of yet, but two years and four months is not a long period of time on the historical scale and my hope springs eternal in a time when surprises (e.g. the Republic Door and Window workplace occupation of December 2008 and the Arab democracy uprising of 2011) still take place and revolutions must occur if humanity is going to survive in a desirable form. In Madison, Wisconsin, we did briefly get to see a significant number of workers and citizens seem to momentarily grasp the wisdom of Zinn’s counsel in 2009 that the really critical thing isn’t “who’s sitting in the White House” but rather “who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency,” Zinn added, “that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.”[7] Dialectics aside, that is an existential fact that needs to be acted upon on a significantly expanded scale in the world’s only superpower if humanity is going to enjoy a desirable future.    

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