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Iraq, the U.S., and the Challenges to the Global Peace Movement


Speech delivered in Vancouver, Canada, at an event sponsored by StopWar.ca, March 18, 2005, held on the occasion of the March 19-20 Global Protest against the War in Iraq.

Over the next few days, millions of people throughout the world, from Vancouver to Johannesburg, London to Manila, will be coming out to the streets to register their protest against the continuing military occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies. In the United States alone, the last count is that there will be anti-war actions in at least 578 cities and communities.

These year’s massive protests are in the tradition of the global protests against the war of Feb. 15, 2003 and March 20, 2004. They underline the world’s continuing repudiation of the massive war crime that the US is perpetrating against the Iraqi people. They are testimony to the fact that aggression always elicits revulsion, even if it is carried out under the pretext of “extending democracy.”

The protests come at a time that Washington has launched another political offensive to convince the peoples of the world “to put Iraq behind them.” The effort is geared to convince us that with the recent elections in Iraq, there is a new game that must be played, and the name of that game is democracy.

The reality is that the old game of domination and occupation continues, and the US is not winning. Today, we continue to witness the rise and consolidation of a wide and deep resistance in Iraq. There is not only the military resistance that we witness day-to-day on television. There is also political resistance–one that is much broader than the military resistance. Then there is something even broader, and that is civil resistance–all those acts that ordinary citrizens engage in day-to-day to deny legitimacy to the occupation, or what James C. Scott calls the “weapons of the weak.”

For us, there must be no question about our political stance. We must support the right of the people or Iraq to resist occupation. There are varieties of resistance, but we must remember that what the Iraqi people want mainly from us is not to support this or that brand of resistance but to demand the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq. Only under this condition will the Iraqi people have the sovereign space to come together to debate and struggle among themselves to create a truly legitimate national government. To call elections carried out under occupation “free” and “democratic” is a travesty of freedom and democracy.

The US: Losing in Iraq

The truth is that the US is losing the war in Iraq, both politically and militarily. Over the last few months, at least 10 allied governments have withdrawn or indicated they are withdrawing their troops. Indeed, the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” is now so reduced that the Pentagon has dropped the term and started using “multinational forces” instead. The 135,000 US troops are stretched thin, their numbers unable to stop the wildfire rise of a guerrilla insurgency. Estimates of many military experts of the minimum necessary number to fight the guerrillas to a stalemate range from 200,000 to a million. It is impossible to attain these numbers without provoking massive civil unrest in the US, where the majority of the population now sees the military intervention as unjustified. Mr. Bush may have won the elections but it was not because of public support for the war, and he knows this.

In the US military itself, more and more troops, even in active duty, along with their families, are speaking out against the war. A few weeks ago, television audiences worldwide witnessed an assembly of troops applauding criticism of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld by an officer who accused him of sending the troops to war without sufficient protection. We have also witnessed an American unit that refused to deliver supplies to a city several miles away because they said their vehicles were unsafe. There are probably more and more such incidents if journalists bothered to look instead of “embedding” themselves with the Pentagon.

The US Army, one must recall, fell apart internally at the last stages of the Vietnam War owing to demoralization, which took the form of, among other things, the “fragging” of officers, or throwing grenades at them. With about 40 per cent of the Army troops in Iraq being non-regular forces with the National Guard, who are not fulltime soldiers, the steady erosion of morale among US units must not be underestimated. Probably the only soldiers that can resist demoralization are the stupidly gung-ho Marines, but they are a minority in what is otherwise an Army show.

The Crisis of Overextension

But the US is not only overextended in Iraq. Iraq has in fact worsened the crisis of overextension of the US globally. The key manifestations of the imperial dilemma stand out starkly:

Despite the recent US-sponsored elections in Afghanistan, the Karzai government effectively controls only parts of Kabul and two or three other cities. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, despite the elections, “without functional state institutions able to serve the basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority and legitimacy of the new government will be short-lived.” And so long as this is the case, Afghanistan will tie down 13,500 US troops within the country and 35,000 support personnel outside.

The US war on terror has backfired completely, with Al Qaeda and its allies much stronger today than in 2001. The invasion of Iraq, according to Richard Clarke, Bush’s former anti-terrorism czar, claims, derailed the war on terror and served as the best recruiting device for Al Qaeda. But even without Iraq, Washington’s heavy handed police and military methods of dealing with terrorism were already alienating millions of Muslims. Nothing illustrates this more than Southern Thailand, where US anti-terrorist advice has helped convert simmering discontent into a full-blown insurgency.

With its full embrace of Ariel Sharon’s no-win strategy of sabotaging the emergence of a Palestinian state, Washington has forfeited all the political capital that it had gained among Arabs by brokering the now defunct Oslo Accord. Moreover, the go-with-Sharon strategy, along with the occupation of Iraq, has left Washington’s allies among the Arab elites exposed, discredited, and vulnerable. With the death of Yasser Arafat, Tel Aviv and Washington may entertain hopes of a settlement of the Palestinian issue on their terms. This is an illusion, and we probably will see this in growing support for Hamas among the Palestinians at the expense of Mr. Abbas’ PLO.

Latin America’s move to the left will accelerate. The victory of the leftist coalition in Uruguay is simply the latest in a series of electoral victories for progressive forces, following those in Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil. Along with electoral turns to the left, there may also be in the offing more mass insurrections such as that which occurred in Bolivia in October 2003. Speaking of the turn towards the left and away from the empire, one of the US’ friends, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, assesses the situation accurately: “America’s friends…are feeling the fire of this anti-American wrath. They are finding themselves forced to shift their own rhetoric and attitude in order to dampen their defense of policies viewed as pro-American or US-inspired, and to stiffen their resistance to Washington’s demands and desires.”

This is the global picture that belies the triumphalism that accompanied Bush’s European tour. This enterprise sought to enlist diplomacy in the service of countering the erosion of the American position. It was a trip undertaken out of desperation. One can, in fact, say that while the papers have been filled with bellicose words from Washington against Iran, Syria, and North Korea, the reality is that, owing to its being pinned down in an endless war in Iraq, the US is in less of a position to destabilize these governments than it was in 2003, before the invasion of Iraq.

What we are witnessing is the third major PR effort to convince the world that Iraq has been pacified. The first was the famous declaration of victory on board the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. We all know what happened afterwards. The second was the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people last June. A sharp escalation of the resistance followed that forgettable episode. Now, this effort to convince the world, relying on television images, that elections carried out under military occupation and amidst widespread resistance–which were boycotted by millions of Iraqi voters—were an exercise in “freedom” and “democracy.”

Wooing the Venusians

Europe is, of course, the special target of the Bush strategy. The shift in the assessment of Europe’s position brought about by the hard realities of the Iraq resistance is illustrated by the neoconservative ideologue Robert Kagan. In 2002, Kagan spoke disparagingly of Europe’s approach to world order, with his notorious comment that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” In 2004, the same Kagan had changed his tune somewhat, writing in Foreign Affairs that “Americans will need the legitimacy that Europe can provide, but Europeans may well fail to grant it.”

Fortunately, Europeans are not being taken in by the “new,” “conciliatory” Bush. The liberal Financial Times regards the new approach as constituting a “belated recognition that the US is overstretched and is in need of allies,” though it cautions Europeans against adopting a “do-nothing attitude” towards the Bush initiative. Yet, unfortunately for the Times, on the question of Iraq, there is really little the Western European governments can do since their peoples continue to be strongly against participation in the US war by large majorities. Indeed, even in less anti-American Eastern Europe, the US is losing allies, with Hungary withdrawing its troops and the Polish government stating its wish to pull out the Polish contingent as soon as “circumstances allow.”

Bush’s diplomacy is, in fact, running against the long term currents. The Atlantic Alliance is dead. Iraq was merely the coup de grace to a relationship that had been savaged by escalating conflicts with the US on trade, environmental, and security issues. Indeed, not only is the basis of common action disappearing but, as American expert Ivo Daalder contends, “not a few [Europeans] now fear the United States more than what, objectively, constitute the principal threat to their security.” Already, European experts such as Marco Piccioni are arguing to a receptive public that the US presence in Iraq is part of a larger Middle East strategy designed to exclude Europe from oil producing areas by force if necessary.

If France and Germany went the distance in refusing to legitimize the American invasion of Iraq and, at this point, pointedly refuse to make any commitments, it is not simply because of the anti-war sentiments of their citizens. It is also to discourage any future US moves that might pose a direct threat to their own national security.

Challenges to the Global Anti-War Movement

Despite all this, however, the US is still in Iraq, and, while the situation becomes more and more unfavorable for Washington, it has given no indication that it is withdrawing anytime soon. In the meantime, ordinary Iraqis are being killed and harmed day by day. While the press has focused on bombings carried out by some groups in the resistance, the recent shooting and killing by US troops of the Italian agent that negotiated the release of journalist Giuliana Sgrena underlined the kind of threats to their lives from Occupation forces that Iraqis face day to day from the Occupation.

With this grim realities in mind, let me now turn to the challenges ahead of the global anti-war movement as the US position in Iraq worsens.

Supporting the Iraqi people’s struggle to create the sovereign space to create a national government of their choice continues to be one of the two overriding priorities of the global anti-war movement. The other is ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the trampling of the Palestinian people’s rights. At a moment marked by the conjunction of a resurgent Right in the US and a continuing crisis of empire globally, what will it take to advance this goal?

First of all, the movement has to graduate beyond spontaneity and arrive at a new level of transborder coordination, one that goes beyond synchronizing annual days of protest against the war. The critical mass to affect the outcome of the war will not be attained without a rolling wave of global protests similar to that which marked the anti-Vietnam war mobilizations from 1968 to 1972–one that puts millions of people in a constant state of activism. Coordination, moreover, will mean coordinating not only mass demonstrations but also civil disobedience, work on the global media, day-to-day lobbying of officials, and political education. More effective coordination and, yes, professionalization of the anti-war work must not, however, be achieved at the expense of the participatory processes that are the trademark of our movement.

Second, in terms of tactics, new forms of protests must be engaged in. Sanctions and boycotts are methods that must be brought into play. At the Mumbai World Social Forum in January 2004, Arundhati Roy suggested starting with one or two US firms benefiting directly from the war such as Halliburton and Bechtel and mobilizing to close down their operations worldwide. It is time to take her suggestion seriously, not only with respect to US firms but also with Israeli firms and products.

Moreover, the level of militance must be raised, with more and more civil disobedience and non-violent disruptions of business as usual encouraged. We must tell Washington and its allies that there can be no business as usual so long as the war continues. The kind of debate taking place in Britain, whether to push peaceful demonstrations or civil disobedience, is fruitless, since both are essential and must be combined in innovative and effective ways..

Third, it is clear that Great Britain and Italy are the principal supports of Bush’s war policy outside the United States. Bush constantly resorts to invoking these governments to legitimize the US adventure. What happens in Italy, in turn, affects what happens in Britain. Both countries have solid anti-war majorities that must now be converted into a powerful force to disrupt business as usual in these countries ruled by governments complicit in the American war. Both countries have the hallowed tradition of the general strike that, combined with massive civil disobedience, can significantly raise the costs to their government of their support for Washington. When asked why the demonstrations of March 20, 2004 drew significantly fewer people than those of February 2003, many activists in Britain and Italy respond: because people felt their actions were not able to prevent the US from going to war anyway. That sort of defeatism and demoralization can only be countered not by lowering the demands on people but by upping them, by asking them to put their bodies on the line through acts of nonviolent civil resistance.

In this connection, it is very welcome news indeed that owing to the recent US killing of the Italian intelligence agent we referred to earlier, popular anger has forced Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to announce that Italy will begin withdrawing its troops by September. The task of the European peace movement is to bring that date forward, while intensifying its activities to knock Britain as well out of the war.

Fourth, with the Middle East being the strategic battleground of the next few decades, it will be essential to forge links between the global peace movement and the Arab world. The governments of the Middle East are notoriously supine when it comes to the US, so that, as in Europe, it is forging the ties of solidarity among civil movements that must be main thrust of this effort. This will actually be a courageous and controversial step since some of the strongest anti-US movements in the Middle East have been labeled “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizers” by the US and some European governments. What is important is not to let US-imposed definitions stand in the way of people reaching out to one another to see if there is a basis for working together. Likewise, it is critical for the Palestinian movement and the Israeli anti-Zionist and peace movements to get beyond the labels imposed by governments and find ways of cooperating to end the Israeli occupation. Process has a way of bringing people together from seemingly non-reconcilable political positions. In this regard, the Beirut Anti-War Assembly that took place in mid-September 2004, with strong representation from the global peace movement and social movements from all over the Arab world, was a significant step in this direction. I would also like to call your attention to the coming meeting in Cairo that will place later this week, when the global peace movement will come together with many progressive and democratic groups from Egypt and throughout the Middle East to demand not only an end to American and Israeli occupation but also for genuine democratization throughout the Arab world.

But even as the global peace movement focuses on Iraq and Palestine, national and regional movements must continue to intensify existing struggles or open up new fronts against US hegemony in their areas. Indeed, there is a dialectical relationship between global and local struggles against imperialism. Weakening the US base structure in East Asia, for instance, will affect US military operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan. And as people in East Asia, Europe, Latin America, and East Asia mobilize against the US bases for their logistical support of the Iraq imperial expedition, their actions contribute to popular questioning of why those bases are in their countries in the first place. Indeed, one of the unintended consequences of the imperial war in Iraq may well be the erosion of the US system of international bases.

Let me end by saying that as it begins its second term, the Bush agenda remains the same, global domination, but its capacity to carry that out has been eroded. Our response continues to be global resistance. There is only one thing that can frustrate the empire’s dark aims in Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere: militant solidarity among world’s peoples. Making that solidarity real and powerful and ultimately triumphant is the challenge before the people’s anti-war movement in Canada and all of us.

Walden Bello is with the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines. He was in Vancouver for the March 19 day of action.

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