Time for the Anti-War Movement to Throw Down for Racial and Economic Justice
Why peace activists must look beyond our own movement.
When the United States threatened to bomb Syria in 2013, an outpouring of public opposition helped stop the Obama administration from launching a new air war.
But this success also transformed existing disagreement over the conflict among anti-war organizers into bitter debates. Activists disputed the nature of the Assad regime and Syria’s domestic opposition forces; they diverged on what to do about ISIS, the neighboring countries and their militia proxies, and intervention by global powers. The intense intra-movement battle involved only a small cohort of people, largely on social media. But, while both sides agreed on many things, the feud derailed the rise of a unified and internationalist anti-war movement—a movement that would focus on ending the Syrian wars, rather than urging victory for a preferred side.
Of course, the movement’s mission extends beyond Syria. Anyone monitoring U.S. wars today is whipsawed as military crises—along with U.S. drones, bombers, troops, weapons and more—bounce from continent to continent, target to target. Iraq to Syria, North Korea to Yemen, Iran to Afghanistan, the Philippines to Somalia. Ending those lethal wars demands our urgent attention even as Charlottesville, Flint and Standing Rock continue to claim our time, commitment and passion.
An independent anti-war movement, especially a divided one, cannot take this on alone. Challenging the wars abroad, while at the same time addressing domestic crises, requires that we focus on building a larger, broader people’s movement in which the struggle against war and militarism is inextricably linked to the fight against racism, for equality, for the Earth and for justice.
During the George W. Bush years, the movement achieved significant victories, most notably the Feb. 15, 2003, global mobilization against the Iraq War. This may not have prevented the U.S. invasion, but it created a model for what a truly international protest could look like, helped keep Bush from attacking Iran and later helped inspire the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
When Barack Obama was elected, some activists believed that with a supposedly anti-war president, they could move on. In addition, the economic crisis meant that many more people faced newly desperate circumstances, necessitating a greater focus on urgent domestic issues, including housing, jobs and healthcare.
The movement strategized on how to respond. Should we focus on rebuilding an independent movement? Or prioritize building an anti-war component into other progressive movements? Supporters of the first idea won the debate, and produced some powerful short-term mobilizations. But subsequent movement-building efforts failed to sufficiently respond to the new political conditions. People of color and (excepting veterans) younger people were still underrepresented, and the movement still failed to sufficiently link militarism to the economic and racial justice campaigns on which younger activists had cut their political teeth.
This is why we must build on the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who, in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, called for a unified movement against “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism”—adding, as Dr. King surely would have, protection of the planet.
Yet, we still must figure out the dynamics of particular conflicts to determine how—and convince others why—to end specific wars. Today’s wars are vastly more complex than U.S. interventions during the Cold War. In those years, many activists supported “the other side”—the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the African National Congress in South Africa, the Sandinistas and the FMLN in Central America. It’s more difficult to ground our movements in international solidarity when “the other side” is composed of fighters we don’t support, who hold anti-democratic, extremist religious, misogynist or other reactionary views. We still have progressive counterparts—the Iraqi oil workers union, some Syrian opposition activists and more—but they’re not the ones engaged on the battlefield.
Here, we can learn from the strong anti-war movement following the 9/11 attacks. The two big coalitions—United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and ANSWER—divided over organizing strategy and whether to criticize the Saddam Hussein government. The broader of the two, UFPJ—powerfully anti-war but willing to criticize Hussein—grew far more influential, partly because its more nuanced position encouraged engaging a wider range of domestic and international organizations.
Today, we must ensure that opposing U.S. intervention in Syria does not blind us to Bashar al-Assad’s legacy of torture and collaboration with other U.S. wars, just as we have to acknowledge that however progressive and indeed heroic the original protest movement of Syria’s Arab Spring, the majority of those now engaged in armed anti-regime fighting are not those progressive heroes. While activists facing brutal repression in Syria or Libya or elsewhere may call for U.S. intervention, we must not uncritically accept that call.
Similarly, we have to recognize that Washington’s continued violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, requiring it to move toward full nuclear disarmament, is a major reason North Korea is so determined to produce nuclear weapons of its own. At the same time, we must insist that Kim Jong-Un’s threats are unacceptable.
To strengthen all our movements, we must also understand that militarism is a key cause of domestic crises: Military spending strips funds from the social safety net; excess Pentagon equipment sent to local police departments militarizes our communities; Islamophobia rises in response to wars abroad; militarism’s outsized carbon footprint threatens us all. The Movement for Black Lives, the new Poor People’s Campaign, various environmental and economic justice organizations, and many others already recognize this.
We in the anti-war movement must do better in getting accessible information and analysis—on the human, environmental and economic costs of war and militarism, and the integral links between war and racism—into the hands of today’s resistance.
We Must Find Common Ground Without Giving In to Liberal Interventionists
An effective anti-war movement’s first priority must be stopping U.S. imperialism.
Phyllis writes with characteristic sense and sensitivity about the dilemmas of the U.S. anti-war movement. She is right that the current conjuncture is quite different than that of the Cold War. Then, there was a clearer sense of international solidarity—in the U.S. wars and coups of that period, the U.S. Left could find progressive allies. No such easy solidarity is possible today. Comparing the two eras, there is a wide gulf between Algeria’s FLN and al-Qaeda, between El Salvador’s FMLN and Mexican drug gangs. A great deal of confusion reigns.
As Phyllis notes, the Western Left tore itself apart over Syria. One section sees the Assad government as the enemy, while another sees that government as the victim of imperialist attack. But the vast bulk of Western leftists fall between these two poles, in part because they do not know how to understand the Syrian war. The imperialist media has confounded judgment, offering a theory of humanitarian intervention that clouds over previous certainty about the wrongness of imperialist wars of aggression. It is this bewilderment and insecurity that has led to fratricidal debates.
We saw evidence of the American anti-war movement’s weakness at the Women’s March, where few anti-war positions took center stage. There have been marches against the Muslim Ban and for science, but no comparable march against U.S. bombings in Syria and Iraq, U.S. arms delivery to Saudi Arabia for its brutal war on Yemen, and U.S. escalation in Afghanistan. The liberal wing of the resistance to Trump is simply disoriented when it comes to war, having been associated with the Democratic Party’s wars during the Obama years. It has surrendered to liberal interventionism and the war machine.
If a serious anti-war movement is to be part of the new resistance to Trump, it would have to come from the Left. But this is not possible given that this Left is not only weak but fractured. The divides are old—the American Left has been arguing about Cuba, for instance, since 1959, and some continue to believe the country’s government is a state capitalist system that should be removed. Infighting has prevented the American Left from uniting around a clear anti-imperialist platform—one that centers the violence wrought by the U.S. government.
But there ought to be agreement on some core issues that could unite the Left and rejuvenate the anti-war movement:
• Reduction of the military budget.
• Freeze on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
• Reduction of the U.S. military footprint through bases and naval expansion.
• Call for an investigation of civilian casualties by U.S. bombings and U.S.-backed militias from Afghanistan to Syria.
• End to the CIA secret arming of reactionary forces across the Third World.
• Call for the conversion of military industrialism into a peace economy not rooted in arms sales.
Such a concrete platform would find broad agreement across the American Left. Unity in action should be possible if we are able to set aside—for now—the debates around Syria and Venezuela. The American Left, weak beyond measure, can be strengthened by taking a strong class position against the warfare state—one that not only itches to sell arms and bomb countries abroad, but then turns these same weapons on its own people.
The U.S. Anti-War Movement Must Reject a U.S.-Centric View of the World
We don’t have to choose between U.S. empire and regional dictatorships—activists on the ground are fighting for a better alternative.
Phyllis and Vijay’s reflections on how to rebuild the U.S. anti-war movement couldn’t come at a better time. In the wake of Trump’s recent announcement that he plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, and his escalation of U.S. bombings in several other countries, one wonders: Is there an anti-war movement at all?
Phyllis and Vijay rightly perceive a lack of large-scale political work against U.S. militarism. Both point to debates around Syria and other conflicts, and suggest areas of common ground. Engaging these debates is essential.
But I would like to offer another reason for the movement’s absence: Many in the anti-war Left fall prey to an inverted form of U.S. exceptionalism, in which U.S.-caused harm is so central to our messaging, analysis and strategy that little room remains for the agency of people in other parts of the world, or the solutions they could offer.
Growing up in an Iraqi-American household in the 1990s—a period when military attacks and crippling sanctions on Iraq provided frequent reminders of U.S. cruelty—I’ve long been aware of the harmful role the United States plays in the world. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that I discovered the work that Iraqi organizations on the ground were doing to respond to the skyrocketing number of birth defects linked to radiation from U.S. munitions in the northern town of Hawija. I spoke to local leaders over Skype, and learned how, through fundraising, lobbying the Iraqi government and building global awareness, they were able to open a needed treatment clinic. They were also organizing against both right-wing movements linked to ISIS and anti-woman laws backed by the neighboring government of Iran. This helped me understand that, while the liberation Iraqis were working toward depended on what we did here in the United States, we were also completing a much broader picture together—one that involves building alternatives that could someday replace U.S. (and regional) hegemonies. This understanding honestly changed my life.
Going forward, deepening our internationalist engagements is necessary in opposing U.S.—indeed all—militarism. Though it takes effort, grounding strategic campaigns in the lived experience of those on the front lines provides the accountability and inspiration we need. The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJ), in its opposition to U.S. support of repression abroad, highlights the legacy of Berta Cáceres, a remarkable indigenous leader assassinated in the fallout from the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras eight years ago. GGJ has educated people in the United States on the Honduran indigenous land-protector movement of which Cáceres was part, pushed for Congress to suspend U.S. security assistance to the Honduran military and police, and helped build in-person relationships between U.S. grassroots organizers and Honduran activists. Bringing this lesson to Syria, how very different would our relationship to that war be if our analysis began with the popular 2011 movement for freedom and justice that was crushed by the Assad regime?
These are not easy questions, but as Vijay acknowledges, these debates aren’t new. Anti-war organizers have been navigating this terrain for decades. In 1982, for example, the U.S.-based Campaign for Peace and Democracy was founded to support dissidents working for human rights in the Soviet Bloc.
Just as we need not choose between “domestic” and “global” concerns, but rather must see them as intertwined, we need not choose between a focus on U.S. empire and regional dictatorships, as ultimately each relies on the other. The deeper question is: Can we step back from our insistence on a U.S. focus, allow others the spotlight and see an internationalist vision through?
is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.
teaches history and international studies at Trinity College, and is chief editor of LeftWord Books.
is national field organizer for the War Resisters League, and author of Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq.