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Anti-War Movement Deserves Some Credit


Although rarely credited, the anti-war movement has been a major factor in mobilizing a majority of the American public to oppose the occupation and killing in Iraq.

To many observers, the movement seems feckless and marginal, its rallies an incoherent bazaar of radical sloganeering. Yet according to Gallup surveys, a majority of Americans came to view Iraq as a mistake more rapidly than they came to oppose the Vietnam War more than three decades ago. So how could there be a peace majority without a peace movement?

Foreign Affairs, the journal of the foreign policy establishment, wondered about this riddle in a 2005 essay by John Mueller reporting a precipitous decline in public support for the war even though “there has not been much” of a peace movement.

In January, when congressional opinion was shifting against the war, a Washington Post analysis made eight references to “public opinion,” as if it were a magical floating balloon, without any mention of organized lobbying, petitioning, protests or marches. That was consistent with a pattern beginning before the invasion, when both the New York Times and National Public Radio reported that few people attended an October 2002 rally in Washington, only to admit a week later that 100,000 had been in the streets.

It is not in the nature of elites to acknowledge people in the streets. Foreign policy is seen as the reserve of the privileged and sophisticated, protected from populist influence. But if anti-war sentiment is truly unimportant, why has there been so much government secrecy and domestic spying?

Two years ago, San Francisco voters supported withdrawal from Iraq by a large margin. Last year many activists sought an anti-war candidate to run against Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Shortly afterward, she shifted from a vague centrism to support for Rep. John Murtha’s call for withdrawal.

When Sen. Hillary Clinton was booed at a liberal pre-election rally recently, it wasn’t accidental that she chose to begin supporting Sen. Carl Levin’s proposal to start a phased withdrawal by year’s end. Understandably, she didn’t want booing throughout her presidential campaign.

Little reported in this month’s electoral upheaval were the referendums demanding immediate withdrawal that passed in Chicago and several Illinois suburbs. One year ago, anti-war resolutions passed in 49 of 57 cities in Vermont.

Perhaps these events go largely unnoticed because of a false paradigm that anti-war protesters must be isolated, howling, fringe figures. That doesn’t fit Cindy Sheehan or the military families who have turned against the war.

Even defined as a street phenomenon, the anti-war movement has commanded significant numbers. The global movement surely succeeded in pressuring foreign governments against supporting the U.S. invasion in 2003. The February 2003 protests were the largest turnouts in history before a war began. The August 2004 demonstrations at the Republican convention in New York were unprecedented in convention history, including the 1,800 arrests (approximately three times the number arrested in Chicago in 1968.)

It is true there have been periodic lapses in street protests since 2003, but these can be explained by the surge of activists into anti-war presidential campaigns like that of Howard Dean. Not only were thousands involved, but MoveOn.org’s voter fund raised $17 million in 2004, most of it from 160,000 contributors averaging $69 donations.

In this year’s election, MoveOn activists made 1 million calls to their elected officials, and poured thousands of dollars and volunteers into campaigns. New Hampshire elected to Congress Carol Shea-Porter, a woman previously known for pulling up her outer garment to display an anti-war slogan.

To disregard forces such as these in the definition of the anti-war movement is a sleight-of-hand, something like eliminating Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire campaign in March 1968 from the history of the anti-Vietnam movement.

The phenomena of the Netroots and indymedia, new since 1999, have opened up vistas of dialogue, resistance and confrontation far beyond the streets and teach-ins of college towns.

This resistance is more remarkable when one considers the establishment’s post-Vietnam strategies to terminate the spread of the Vietnam Syndrome, which supposedly had weakened the nation’s resolve for war.

The 18-year-old vote was delivered along with the end of the military draft by a White House bent on domestic pacification. But now, as Foreign Affairs warns, the inoculation has failed and an Iraq Syndrome is replacing the Vietnam Syndrome.

Based on a disease-control model, this Iraq Syndrome will cause Americans to question the supposed benefits of having the largest military budget in the world, an imperial presidency or policies of policing the world, according to Foreign Affairs. But it seems healthy, not a sign of sickness, for the citizens of a democratic state to question government secrecy or the use of their taxes for torture.

An irreverence toward power, too, is a healthy sign, in a country showered with fear-inducing propaganda, where not a single mainstream media organ has called for bringing our troops home either now or within a year.

If history is any guide, the recommendations of the elite Iraq Study Group may well be designed to placate, or divide, the anti-war sentiment that was a driving force in the Nov. 7 election.

Alongside a military crackdown in Baghdad and possibly a strongman government, there will be talk of beginning a “partial withdrawal” in several months, depending of course on “conditions on the ground.” There may be an attempt to carve up Iraq (politely known as “partition”), but none of these plans is likely to stop the insurgency.

If ever consulted, anti-war voices might propose the following:

First, seek a dialogue with anti-occupation forces in Iraq, from politicians to insurgents, to work toward a cease-fire and a longer-term conflict resolution process.

Second, announce the withdrawal timetable that about 80 percent of Iraqi people and 60 percent of the American people want.

Third, initiate a diplomatic offensive, beginning with Iran, to seek regional global assistance in dealing with security, reconciliation and reconstruction issues.

Because the anti-war movement remains voiceless in the coming debates, the only recourse is to prepare widespread demonstrations and ground organizing in the key presidential primary states, to make it impossible for any candidate to become president in 2008 without pledging to end the war and occupation. If there is no peace movement, there will be no peace.

Tom Hayden, a former state senator, was a leader of the anti-Vietnam war movement. He teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont (Los Angeles County). Contact us at [email protected].

©2006 San Francisco Chronicle

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