Questions for the Peace Movement, Part 2

Back to Part I

U.S. Troops Out Now

Western imperialism and its retrograde opponents have a symbiotic relationship in which they mutually strengthen and reinforce one another. For example, by providing an anti-terroristrationale, the murderous attack on the World Trade Center was a gift to those who had long wanted to expand and fortify U.S. military power around the world and to mobilize a hitherto skeptical public opinion behind an aggressive imperial agenda. But the opposite is also the case. The war against Iraq, U.S. military aggression and support for dictators and repressive regimes, and the de facto alliance between the Bush administration and Israels Sharon government, create not only waves of new recruits for terrorism and political fundamentalists but also widespread acquiescence or even outright support for these elements among ordinary people in the Middle East.

There is a desperate need to build a militant democratic left in the Middle East, and advocates of a new democratic U.S. foreign policy can only succeed over time if they are able to link up with and support the victory of fledgling progressive forces in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and throughout the Middle East and around the world. But a precondition for making these links is an unambiguous independence from and opposition to U.S. imperial power. Some in the U.S. and Britain who opposed the war today support the occupation as an unfortunate necessity now that Saddam Hussein has been toppled. And others formally oppose the occupation, but nonetheless also oppose the slogan of Troops Out Now which can only mean that they support Troops Out Later When Some Conditions Are Metand in the meantime U.S., British and other Coalition forces should stay in Iraq.

These reluctant supporters of imperial military power justify their position on the grounds that if U.S. forces leave now there may be a Baathist return to power, the introduction of a harsh Shiite theocracy, chaos or civil war. One or another of these might indeed happen if the U.S. leaves, but the fact is that the longer the U.S. stays, the more powerful the reactionary forces become, and the more likely they are to win out in any future conflict. A New York Times story of November 27, for example, notes that Moderate Iraqis cooperating with the Americans say the young men of Mosul are increasingly heeding the calls of militant clerics.(Dexter Filkins, Attacks on GIs in Mosul Rise as Good Will Fades) What exists now in Iraq can be described as a form of chaos, and further chaos and civil war with repressive forces leading in contention is precisely what continuing U.S. occupation is breeding, not preventing.

Another justification sometimes given for the U.S. keeping its military in Iraq for nowis that withdrawal might mean that Iraq will split into three parts: a predominantly Kurdish north, a largely Shiite south and the remaining center of the country, where most of the Sunnis live. This split may well happen once the U.S. leaves, but it would not necessarily be a retrograde development. The country of Iraq was an artificial colonial invention in the first place, and has no automatic reason to remain united, though the breakup of the country would obviously raise crucial questions of minority rights in each of the three new nations. Peace activists and democrats should keep an open mind about the necessity of maintaining the territorial integrityof Iraq; given the freedom to choose, the peoples of Iraq may not want to live in one country, and if they dont, the challenge will be to foster a breakup that is as peaceful and mindful of minority rights as possible.

In response to the unexpectedly high level of resistance to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, there are signs that the United States may decide to desert its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council and declare an end to the occupation as early as June of 2004. But even if the U.S. resorts to this option, this does not mean that it will abandon its hope of continuing to dominate Iraq. The Bush administration has made it clear that it intends to install permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, even if the formal occupation ends, and Washington will use every resource in its arsenal from troops to economic pressure to insure that whatever government comes to power is subservient to U.S. interests.

Can the UN Security Council Save the Day?

Many people propose that the solution to the current U.S. occupation of Iraq is for the United Nations to play a greater role. Supporters of this approach come from very different political viewpoints. Some, like Clintons Secretary of State Madeleine Albright support a form of multilateralism and greater UN involvement as a more sophisticated way to secure U.S. interests and power. Peace activists and others look to the UN to provide a genuine peaceful and democratic solution for Iraq and to offer an alternative to U.S. domination of the region.

As presently constituted, however, the United Nations is hardly a vehicle for democratic, accountable resolution of conflicts among or within countries, especially where the question of control of the resources and wealth of Third World countries by First World interests is paramount. Five nations the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China constitute the so-called Permanent Five (P-5) members of the Security Council, and they each wield a veto over Council decisions. These countries are not elected to their positions, they occupy them permanentlyas a consequence of the power they held at the end of World War II. It is important to keep in mind that the Security Council voted for the first Gulf War (thus making it multilateral a cautionary note), and administered the deadly sanctions against Iraq right up through the beginning of the 2003 war. And while in a move remarkable for its singularity the Security Council refused to rubber-stamp the second U.S. war on Iraq, in October 2003 the Council backtracked and shamefully legitimized the Coalitionoccupation of the country.

In the decades since the founding of the United Nations, there have been countless attempts to reform the Security Council and democratize the UN system; all thus far unsuccessful. Given this fact, it is difficult to understand what truly progressive resolution of the situation in Iraq peace activists expect that the UN Security Council can implement. It is, of course, conceivable that the U.S. occupation of Iraq will become untenable and the United States will have to relinquish formal control of the country. At that point, however, UN intervention could well be worse than nothing it could easily provide a new fig leaf for U.S. hegemony. And even if it did not simply provide cover for the U.S., is it realistic to expect that a United Nations Security Council dominated by the great powers will actually voluntarily hand over control of Iraqs resources and strategic military position to the Iraqi people themselves? Is the Council likely, for example, to repudiate the U.S.-imposed policy of privatization of the nations enterprises, or the edict requiring that Iraq give predatory rights to foreign investors? It is far more probable that France, Russia and (from outside the P-5 group) the Germans will simply see to it that they get their share of lucrative Iraqi reconstruction contracts, while cooperating to promote a more presentable government in Iraq that nonetheless is dependent on and cooperative with the Great Powers and their interests. Of course such plans may founder, just as todays U.S occupation looks like it may, but that doesnt mean that proponents of peace and human rights should call for a Security Council-imposed solution. (On the issue of whether UN intervention should be supported, even under the aegis of the Security Council, Liberia and Rwanda may be exceptions to the general rule given how horrific the situations have been in those countries and the relatively minor imperial motivation there was or would have been in such interventions but thats no reason to discard a general stance of nonsupport.)*

Appreciating the problems with the Security Council, Institute for Policy Studies foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis has come up with an innovative approach: The UN General Assembly, as well as individual governments and groups of governments, should be pressured to take up the Iraq question, removing it from the sole control of the Security Council. The Assembly should be urged to condemn pre-emptive war and to call for an immediate end to the U.S.-UK occupation.(Talking Points,quoted above) This proposal is problematic in that may mean giving power not directly to Iraqis but to an outside body, but it is interesting in that it attempts to circumvent Security Council control over United Nations intervention.

In an important article Jeremy Brecher begins to spell out a similar creative approach to the United Nations when he calls for a Shadow UNof national governments and groups such as the coalition of the unwilling, the Non-Aligned Movement, and regional organizationsthat could circumvent a U.S. veto in the Security Council by activating the General Assembly.(Jeremy Brecher, Terminating the Bush Juggernaut,Foreign Policy in Focus, 5/1/03, www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org ), Brecher cites a recent attempt to begin to chip away at the power of the Security Council: In April 2003, General Assembly President and Iraq War opponent Jan Kavan began trying to establish a General Assembly-based forum to openly debate current foreign policy issues, providing critics of the U.S. an opportunity to address U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. moved rapidly to derail the initiative, sending a confidential note to several foreign capitals saying that Kavans proposal would degenerate into a politically divisivetalk shop that would infringe uponthe Security Councils exclusive right to deal with threats to global peace and security. This represents a backdoor amendment to the U.N. Charter,the note added.(In correspondence with this author on Nov. 18, 2003, Kavan confirmed the events Brecher described, writing that The [Brecher] quote you sent me is basically accurate. The interactive dialogue platformswhich we proposed within the framework of the revitalization of the General Assembly were not supposed to discuss just Iraq or Afghanistan but absolutely any topic member states would wish to raise. The proposal and the surprising US response was described quite accurately at length at that time by [the] Washington Post.(The account can be found in an article by Colum Lynch, U.S. Blocking Criticism at the UN; Officials Fear Debate Provides Platform for Policy Foes, 5/1/03). One must, of course, question whether the U.S. response was at all surprising,given that the proposal threatened to curtail its power over the United Nations.

It is important to bear in mind that while the General Assembly is far preferable to the Security Council, particularly on anticolonial issues facing the Third World, it is itself deeply flawed by the undue influence and power of wealthy countries, and by the fact that many of the member countries themselves are undemocratic and thus incapable of consistently representing the real interests of their own people. (There is also the problem that small and large countries have identical representation, but this could be relatively easily remedied.) True UN reform is inseparable from the grassroots struggle for global economic equity and democracy, including within countries like Malaysia which have been among the most militant in demanding an end of the domination of UN security decisions by the P-5 Security Council members. Nonetheless, the Kavan proposal was a step in the right direction.

Summarizing the divergent views in the antiwar movement about the United Nations, Brecher writes . . . whereas most of the [peace] movement has expressed strong support for the principles underlying the United Nations and has campaigned for governments to support those ideals, a significant minority views the UN as itself little more than an agent of imperialism, something to be disempowered rather than reformed.In my opinion the peace movement needs to go beyond the two options Brecher gives, reforming versus disempowering the United Nations. Peace activists need to fight for democratic reform of the UN and of the countries within it. They should also simultaneously demand that the UN, including the Security Council, do the right thing e.g., refuse to go along with the U.S. war on Iraq, and the victorspostwar occupation. Meanwhile, however, the Council (as opposed to the UN itself), as it is presently constituted, should indeed be disempowered.

Regime Change at Home

With its naked assertion of the right to pre-emptive war, its open contempt for the opinions of other countries, and its war on Iraq, the Bush administration has escalated both the rhetoric and the reality of U.S. imperial power. But Bush and the Republicans do not bear sole responsibility. While a majority of Democratic members of Congress (if one aggregates the House and Senate votes) voted against a resolution supporting the war, the Democratic Party was never seen as championing opposition to it, and once the war started, what Democratic opposition there was largely dissipated, except for mavericks like Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers.

Democratic dissent against the war was hardly audible until popular dissatisfaction with the failures of the occupation began to manifest itself in the fall of 2003. Even then, Democratic opposition was hardly adequate. On October 16, for example, Ted Kennedy, one of the more outspoken Democrats, made a sharp attack on the administrations request for $87 billion to finance the occupation, but at the same time he declared that the U.S. cannot withdraw now, leaving Iraq to chaos or civil war . . . We need a realistic and specific plan to bring stability to Iraq, to bring genuine self-government to Iraq, to bring our soldiers home with dignity and honor.Kennedys statement is grounded in the assumption that the U.S. is capable of bringing democratic stability to Iraq. This is an illusion: just look at the results of the first six months of occupation, and, as is plain for all to see, the situation is rapidly going downhill.

Howard Dean was the only candidate that the media was paying attention to who unequivocally opposed the war. The Democratic establishment was united in its opposition to Dean because he refused to let them stitch up the process and anoint some complete insider hack. Its a positive development, basically, that ordinary Democrats embraced someone who is perceived as an outsider whose candidacy can be used to oppose the war and shake up the party. The problem is that Dean doesnt oppose the occupation any more than Kennedy does, and that if elected he will easily make peace with the Democratic Party mainstream on the fundamental domestic and international issues. (The Gore endorsement of Dean signifies an important first step in this rapprochement.) Deans critique of the U.S. war on Iraq never objected to the assumptions of both Democrats and Republicans that U.S. power in the world needs to be advanced, and that the United States should pursue a procorporate foreign policy.

Senator Joseph Biden, along with many other Democrats including Senator Hilary Clinton, is worse than either Kennedy or Dean. Despite his criticisms of the administration for being too unilateral, Biden now calls for an increase in the numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. Mainstream Democratic Party critics of U.S. foreign policy, along with critics from the CIA, the military, and former Cold War allies like Germany, perform a valuable function of opening up the debate and to a certain extent delegitimizing the crude use of American power in the world. This opening can be extremely useful, and the peace movement needs to take advantage of it. However, it is crucial that the movement also recognizes and exposes the limitations of these critics to people both in the U.S. and abroad, and limit common action to areas of actual agreement.

But Dont We Have to Defend Ourselves?

The Bush administrations appeal for the support of the American people rests on the claim that only a tough military approach can defend ordinary Americans against maniacal dictators and terrorist attackers. People in this country are becoming uneasy with this claim, especially as the war in Iraq seems unending, the U.S. victory in Afghanistan unravels, the number of casualties and deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq continues to mount, and terrorist attacks spread around the globe. If only we had a resolute, progressive opposition party in this country, free of corporate control, that could turn Bushs claim around and clearly state that a democratic and egalitarian foreign policy is the only answer to the threats of dictatorship and terrorism! Such a party could point out that the iron fist, the police state, and endless war dont enhance security for anyone, in the long or the short run. And such an opposition could crystallize growing public unease with Bushs approach into powerful opposition to the occupation of Iraq and, by extension, future military attacks on Iran, Syria, North Korea or elsewhere.

But we have no such opposition party, so we are going to have to start mounting our protests from the bottom up, handicapped at every point by not yet having a political voice. There are hopeful signs. Unofficial reports reveal widespread low morale in the military (recall that it was precisely such low morale that played a key role in ending the Vietnam war), and military family members have been courageously speaking out against the war and occupation. The peace movement is once again stirring, and many politicians are seeing the war as a point of vulnerability for the Bush administration. Other countries balk at bailing the U.S. out of the mess in Iraq. All of this may result in a U.S. defeat in Iraq. But to avoid more dangerous and destructive imperial ventures in the future, we need to start now to build not only a vigorous protest movement in the streets but an independent political party that can champion a truly nonimperialist, democratic foreign policy.

December 9, 2003

*Several friends and colleagues in the peace movement have suggested to me that while they do not favor an extended UN occupation of Iraq for precisely the reasons I have outlined, they do advocate a very brief period of UN control after U.S. troops completely leave Iraq, during which time real elections (as opposed to the sham “caucus” process advocated by the U.S. exactly in order to avoid true elections) would be speedily set up and carried out. I am deeply skeptical about whether the UN Security Council, with the Permanent Five members each having a veto, would ever design a prompt and fair election process and leave the country quickly after the voting, but I have not totally closed to door to being convinced about the value of proposing this option. It would be very useful for the peace movement to open up a broad public international discussion about whether it would be possible to constrain the Security Council so that it would not have a blank check to do as it pleases in Iraq and would be forced to carry out this agenda for fair and timely elections in Iraq followed by a rapid, total withdrawal.

Back to Part I

Joanne Landy is codirector of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and a member of the New Politics editorial board.

Leave a comment