The Election & the Antiwar Movement




S

ome
of the more enthusiastic moments at the March 20, 2004 antiwar rallies
around the country occurred when speakers raised the specter of
President Bush being given the electoral equivalent of a one-way
bus ticket back to Craw- fordsville next November. It’s an
understandable reaction. The Bush administration is arguably the
single worst thing to happen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the
British torched it in 1812. 


It’s
unfortunate that the upcoming U.S. presidential election offers
no likelihood that an antiwar candidate will be elected who will
end the U.S. occupation of Iraq—at least not of their own initiative.
Apparently, Senator John Kerry’s run-away Democratic primary
campaign has emboldened the Massachusetts politician only in the
sense that he has stepped up his efforts to win support from those
who share his friend Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) view that
the occupation of Iraq remains a “noble cause.” 


As
Tim Russert noted on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kerry
sounds a lot like Bush these days when he talks about Iraq. Asked
if he thought the Iraq war was a “mistake,” Kerry would
only say that it was the way the president went to war that was
a mistake. As he earlier declared in a February 2004 speech at UCLA,
“Whatever we thought of the Bush adminis- tration’s decisions
and mistakes— especially in Iraq—we now have a solemn
obligation to complete the mission, in that country and in Afghanistan.” 


Kerry’s
stay-the-course stance on Iraq is becoming more ironic by the day
as support for the occupation plummets, both domestically and in
Iraq. A recent

New York Times

/CBS News poll found 46 percent
of U.S. citizens believe the United States should get out of Iraq.
In Iraq, a poll taken by western news services just prior to the
outbreak of violence in Fallujah found a majority of Iraqis—57
percent—want the U.S. military and its occupation allies out
of the country “in the next few months.” Where the subsequent
violence has since driven Iraqi opinion is not hard to surmise. 


Actually,
Kerry is somewhat less inclined on the war issue than the president
to engage in all the rhetoric about bringing “freedom”
and “democracy” to Iraq. His declared concern now is more
the establishment of a stable, pro-U.S. (i.e., compliant) Iraqi
government. The same “concerns” for pro-western stability
once led President Carter and the CIA to support the 1979 internal
Ba’ath party coup that originally brought Saddam Hussein to
power. The same concerns led the Republican administrations of Presidents
Reagan and later Bush Sr. to remain steadfast in their fidelity
to Hussein’s dictatorial rule throughout the 1980s (the decade
of his greatest military power and human rights crimes). 


The
same concerns also led President Bush Sr. to hold back from seeking
the dictator’s overthrow in 1991, even after a mass Shi’ite
rebellion in the south, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War,
threatened just that. Likewise, concerns for regional stability,
not “freedom” and “democracy” or even “weapons
of mass destruction,” motivated President Clin- ton’s
unflinching support of UN economic sanctions against Iraq, designed
as they were to weaken, but not destroy, the central government
while creating devastating conditions for the civilian population. 


Accordingly,
it is no surprise that while President Bush and apologists for the
occupation blather on about bringing “freedom” to Iraq,
occupation authorities are also moving to bring back into the fold
former Ba’ath Party officials and military officers, to collaborate
in the rebuilding of what is destined to be a new repressive political-security
apparatus not essentially different from what Iraq has already known
for decades. 



What’s
a Progressive to Do? 



T

he
Massachusetts senator’s “Bush-lite” foreign policy
undoubtedly disappoints many among the broad left-progressive milieu,
such as it is, that supports him. Unless one believes criticizing
the president’s lack of “boldness” in rallying international
allies to the occupation cause is somehow a galvanizing message,
Kerry is offering “Anybody But Bush” supporters a rather
tepid foreign policy “alternative” to rally around. 


What
Kerry’s hawkish views should not do is shock. He has in his
recent history been far more consistently conservative on military
and security issues than the Republicans would like voters to believe:







  • Kerry voted
    for the 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing the assault
    on Iraq 

  • Kerry voted
    for the uncivil assault on civil and constitutional liberties
    legitimized under the

    PATRIOT Act 


  • Kerry has been
    saying for a while that more troops are needed in Iraq—approximately
    40,000 more, for now 

  • Kerry expects
    at least a six-figure presence of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq
    a year from now—when he hopes to occupy the White House 


Nonetheless,
the presumed Democratic nominee says we must elect him because he
will do a better job at “internationalizing” the Iraqi
conflict and mending relations with European allies and the United
Nations for the imperial mission. 


Of
course, no matter how disappointing Kerry’s campaign—Ruth
Coniff writes for The

Progressive

that this may be the year
Kerry finally loses the liberal label for good—the desire to
defeat Bush will not deter many who have marched against the war
from also voting for Kerry. Nor will it prevent some in the progressive
media from creating their own spin machine on the Democratic candidate’s
behalf. “The right to choose, environmental sustainability
and economic justice will all be hanging in the balance on Nov.
2, 2004,” wrote Don Hazen and Tai Moses for Alternet (March
5), the progressive, San Francisco-based news service. “With
positions, messages and values this starkly opposing, there won’t
be many undecided voters in this race.”  


Admittedly,
Hazen and Moses penned these words in early March, when some of
the free-for-all rhetoric of the primary campaigns, with multiple
candidates raking Bush’s handling of the economy and WMD issue,
was still fresh. But flash forward two months and Hazen is now interviewing
a linguistics expert on the problem Kerry is having finding a defining
theme for his campaign. Such is the Unbearable Lightness of Being
a Progressive Apologist for Anybody But Bush. 


Kerry’s
preeminence as the party’s front-runner has had some time to
hang in the air, enough to smog up some of the hype of pro-Kerry
groups like MoveOn.org with the grimy reality that the election
is shaping up as a choice between a bad pro-war candidate and a
really bad pro-war candidate. Of course, there are differences on
issues (there are always differences). Kerry is pro-choice and Bush
is not, for example. On the war issue, there’s not much difference
at all. It’s also unlikely the great wash of non-voters (somewhere
in the range of half the adult population) will be so motivated
by the program of either of the two parties to begin an unprecedented
rush to the ballot box. 


If
Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be illusory,
so will the fantasies of some in the Democratic Party that the Iraqi
occupation can be transformed into a “socially responsible”
occupation—United Nations sanctioned or not. In this way, Democrats
like left-leaning Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, who
ran in the state’s primary boasting of his antiwar credentials,
are selling something even more insidious than the rank Republican
rhetoric. These are the “antiwar” Democrats whose opposition
in the build-up to the war melted into air the moment U.S. troops
crossed the border into Iraq. 


Now
they attempt to paint an increasingly brutal military occupation
with the veneer of hopes for resuscitated U.S. good intentions.
As if it’s possible for the U.S. presence in Iraq to transform
into a benevolent mission. As if the United States (or the United
Nations) has a track record of supporting democratic revolutions
in the Middle East. 


Of
course, the wild card in the western debates over the fate of Iraq
is the Iraqi people themselves. When asked in the

New York Times/

CBS
poll if they saw the U.S. military as “liberators” or
“occupiers,” 71 percent of Iraqis said occupiers. Yet
the architects and apologists for the war cling to the delusion
that the resistance reflects only politically isolated “regime
remnants” and “terrorists.” But then winning the
hearts and minds of the locals can become problematic when you’re
also dropping 500-pound bombs on the neighborhood. 


Internationally,
the United States has never been more isolated before the court
of world opinion. Spain has announced it is withdrawing its troops,
while six other countries are restricting their small regiments
to their bases. Nor does the United Nations show signs of becoming
anything more than what Naomi Klein in

The Nation

calls “the
political arm of the continued US occupation.” The desire by
many Democratic critics to push the United Nations, or even a NATO
intervention, as some kind of salvation for the U.S. war (as a desperate
Bush also turns to the UN) is, under the circumstances of the nationalist
uprising, unlikely to succeed. As Klein notes, “The post-June
30 caretaker government being set up by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi
will be subject to all the restraints on Iraqi sovereignty that
sparked the current uprising in the first place.” 



You
Get What You Pay For 



T

he
Anybody But Bush vision now has most of the progressive milieu in
its trance, but it is not a vision as much as it is a paucity of
vision. Faced with a war sparked by the extremist right-wing politics
of the Bush administration, the best so many otherwise articulate
and powerful voices for justice can muster is an insistence on supporting
whoever happens to win the Democratic nomination. It’s revealing
just how desperate progressives are that a return to the Clinton-style
politics Kerry embraces is now considered almost a godsend. 


In
fact, the social policy of the Clinton administration was the most
conservative of any Administration since the end of World War II,
as historian Howard Zinn reminds us in the revised edition to

A
People’s History of the United States

. The entire tenure
of the Clinton administration was defined by erosion of New Deal
social policy, gutting welfare and other safety net programs, deregulating
industries, undermining union and environmental protections, and
generally cozying up to the interests of silver spoon investors
and corporate executives—the principal beneficiaries of the
era’s market prosperity. The campaign slogan of 1992, “Putting
People First,” came to mean “putting the bond market”
first, as Edward Herman remarked a few years ago in a

Z


M


agazine

round-up on the Clinton legacy. 


Is
the only choice now one of the speed of the retreat from the promise
of a better, more just society? Unfortunately, if the possibilities
for political change are viewed only through the lens of Bush versus
Kerry in November, then that is the sorry reality. But it’s
a mistake to view the election as the be-all and end-all of our
hopes. Let’s instead get heretical in our thinking and declare
that a neo-con Republican in power is not inherently less responsive
to pressure from “the street” than a liberal Democrat. 


Historically,
when has progressive social change ever depended more or even mostly
on whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, rather than on
what happens outside the corridors of power, in the workplaces,
campuses, and neighborhoods, among the officially voiceless and
disenfranchised or excluded? This is the story of the Civil Rights
movement, when sit-ins and marches and a growing, relentless dissent
compelled a bipartisan power structure, long comfortable with Jim
Crow racism, to finally sit up and take action. This is also the
story of woman’s suffrage, the Vietnam peace movement, and
labor’s quest for the eight-hour day, benefits, and such radical
ideas as vacations. This is the story of the movement for democracy. 


In
1970, labor activists helped secure passage of the Occupational
Safety and Health Act, viewed by many as “the most important
pro-worker legislation of the last 50 years,” as Steven Greenhouse
noted in a 2002

New York Times

profile of veteran labor leader
Tony Mazzochi. Notably, the OSHA legislation was passed under a
Republican administration. Those same Nixon years also saw an end
to the military draft and legal recognition of a woman’s right
to choose. Again, no thanks to Nixon or even to a “progressive”
Supreme Court (it didn’t exist), but to the popular, organized
activism and mobilization of public opinion of millions of U.S.
citizens. In this context, the million-plus March for Women’s
Lives on April 25 did more to secure women’s reproductive rights
than anything that will happen on November 4. 


It
might similarly be easy to credit President Clinton for passage
of such legislation as the Family Medical Leave Act, but the real
impetus came from women’s groups and unions, who had pushed
for such legislation for years. Likewise, the belief that Clinton’s
early health care reform initiative failed because it was too liberal
or visionary turns reality on its head. The proposal failed because
whatever reformer’s vision it could claim sank in the bog of
endless reassurances by the Administration to sectors of the insurance
industry that their profits would remain sacrosanct. But without
a mobilized public movement, even that was not enough to ensure
passage of the health-care reform. This was not the case in Canada,
where historically active public support for the independent, union-based
New Democratic Party helped to eventually win passage of a single
payer health system.





If
Ralph Nader, an early endorser of the small Labor Party group founded
by Mazzochi, was actually running a campaign advocating Mazzochi’s
idea of truly independent, working-class campaigns for office, in
opposition to the corporate-dominated two parties, it could at the
very least set an example of the direction grass-roots organizing
needs to go if independent political action is ever going to gain
momentum in this country. 


Unfortunately,
that is not what Nader is doing. The Nader campaign seeks to oppose
the Democratic Party while ostensibly trying to boost the Party,
hoping to pressure Kerry from the grass-roots left to take better
positions on a host of issues. Accordingly, Nader thinks he can
pull large blocs of disillusioned non-voters, independents, and
even Republicans into voting booths; blocs otherwise beyond Kerry’s
reach, who, the thinking goes, will then invariably translate part
of their presence in the voting booth into backing for various progressive
Democrats running for local and state offices. It’s a confused,
ambiguous strategy and it makes about as much sense as Michael Moore’s
endorsement of General Wesley Clark, who led NATO in bombing civilian
targets in Belgrade in 1998, as a “peace” candidate for
the Democratic nomination. 


The
problem now with all the elite debates about the future of Iraq
is the thorny problem of the Iraqi insurgency, which, in one way
or another, is likely to continue growing. Of course, it’s
possible the U.S. military may perpetrate a repression so thorough
and bloody that it effectively puts down the rebellion—for
now. But weapons can never obliterate the spirit of human resistance.
They also cannot kill everyone. The spirit of nationalism is such
that the Iraqi people will, in the long run, never countenance the
ongoing occupation of their country, puppet government or not, especially
with the current atrocities and killings becoming part of their
collective memory. They will, one way or another, be the final arbiter
of the future of Iraq. 



More
Demonstrations 



A

s
a labor organizer, Tony Mazzochi understood that the type of progressive
social change that endures always originates and grows from the
grassroots, from the cellar floor, challenging the existing status
quo as well as whatever conventional wisdom tells us about the limits
of what is “practical” to achieve. Social change happens
when the dissent in the air gets organized and visible and takes
to the streets as well as the ballot box. Getting organized has
never depended on “lesser-evils” or benevolent elites.
Our battle now is not just against a military occupation, but against
militarism itself. 


Undoubtedly,
last year’s antiwar protests lost some of their urgency following
the quick military victory by U.S and British forces over Saddam
Hussein’s government. Yet mainstream U.S. politics is as much
a creature of paradox as it is an exercise in sound bites and personality
contests. It was thus, perhaps, at the moment of President Bush’s
most triumphal war posturing that when he paraded macho style in
full flight uniform on the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier,
celebrating “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq—that a
sense of the seismic credibility chasm the Administration was about
to plunge into began to edge into fuller view. 


What
is unfolding now in Iraq is a political disaster for the United
States. The evidence mounts of the utter moral collapse this war
represents for the government of the United States. 


The
beginnings of a classic nationalist rebellion against occupation
by a foreign power are now underway. Think Vietnam. Think Algeria.
With the infrastructure still in crisis, electricity spotty, hospitals
in disrepair, cities under siege, unemployment over 50 percent,
union rights denied under the same Hussein-era laws, and world opinion
largely in opposition to U.S. policy, the corporate CEO- think that
defines the Bush mind-set has proven its profound inability to lead;
if political leadership still has anything to do with social justice,
peace, and prosperity in the world. The Democratic front-runner
John Kerry equally shows no signs of a fundamentally different mind-set. 


The
antiwar marches before the war and most recently on March 20 sent
a vibrant, defiant message that international and domestic opposition
to the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq runs deep. They must continue.
Now more than ever. Louder than ever. Bigger than ever. No matter
who is in office. The killing must stop.



 





Mark Harris is
a Chicago-area journalist. He’s been a contributor to



Utne
Reader



,



Z Magazine



, Alternet, and other
publications and online journals.