by Robert Jensen
August 23, 2003
Three months ago George Bush made his “Top Gun” appearance on a U.S. aircraft carrier to announce that the war in Iraq was over, and no doubt he assumed the antiwar movement was finished, too. Wrong, on both counts.
The U.S. “liberation” of Iraq has given way to a guerilla war against an occupation army that grows increasingly unpopular at home, while at the same time the lies, distortions and disinformation that Bush used to justify going to war are beginning to unravel. Americans haven’t taken to the streets as they did before the war, but antiwar organizers are making progress both on long-term movement-building and planning for actions this fall.
Importantly, there continues to exist in the United States broad space for dissenting political activity. While the Bush administration’s abuse of the civil and human rights of prisoners at home and Guantanamo Bay goes on, the large-scale repression of civil liberties and free expression that many predicted after 9/11 hasn’t materialized. Arab, South Asian and Muslim men in the United States still have reason to fear arbitrary detention and deportation, but most Americans (especially white, middle-class folks) who speak out risk nothing more than an unkind word from friends or co-workers.
In short: Americans are generally free to speak and organize; a small but committed group of activists is doing just that; and there are reasons to believe public opinion is shifting, albeit slowly. Bush’s approval rating has dropped to 58 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, down from around 70 percent during the Iraq war and the post-9/11 high of 90 percent.
Hany Khalil, the Iraq campaign coordinator for United for Peace and Justice and a member of the collective that produces the national anti-war publication War Times summed it up this way: “After the invasion, people understandably were discouraged for a while, and the level of public protest naturally fell off. But there was still organizing going on. People saw the need for a long-term, broad-based coalition, and UFPJ started the discussions and organizing work to do that. Now people are seeing that Bush isn’t invulnerable, that we have a chance to end the occupation if the global anti-war movement works together.”
Khalil’s optimism is supported by the results of the UFPJ organizing conference in June, which demonstrated that this wing of the movement had a coherent critique of the many facets of the U.S. empire: diplomatic, military and economic. The conference agreed on three priorities: a campaign to end the occupation of Iraq; a focus on immigrant rights and civil liberties; and a commitment to connecting the peace movement with the struggle against corporate globalization.
For many, if not most, of the people associated with UFPJ, defeating George Bush in the 2004 presidential election also is an important goal. But the question of how central to make that project highlights some differences within the anti-war movement. In general, UFPJ has become the home to those with a more radical analysis (but who don’t identify with traditional left-sectarian political groups), while the Win Without War coalition has been the base for more mainstream opponents of the war, many of who identify as Democrats.
Embedded in that question is a crucial issue: Does the Bush administration pose a unique threat that is qualitatively different from past administrations? It’s easy to argue that the ideological fanaticism of the neo-conservatives who are steering the Bush ship (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz) is a serious enough threat to push everyone to vote Democratic. Even many radical activists who typically see few meaningful differences between Republicans and Democrats are hinting they will offer at least some support to any Democrat who challenges Bush (though many people choke at the possibility, no matter how slim, of Sen. Joseph Lieberman -- the only Democrat who possibly could out-Bush Bush -- heading the ticket). But should this be the primary focus of the antiwar movement?
The difference between the two goes deeper than electoral strategy. For example, on its web page the Win Without War coalition states, “We reject the doctrine -- a reversal of long-held American tradition -- that our country, alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks. America is not that kind of country.”
Throughout its history, of course, America has been exactly that kind of country. Built on the nearly complete extermination of indigenous people, the United States went on to invade countless nations in Latin America to secure its hemispheric power, later extending that project to the whole world through direct and proxy wars.
The difference is not mere nit-picking over words, but highlights a fundamental question for organizers in the United States today: Is it politically strategic to fudge about the fundamental character of the United States, to play to mainstream America’s distorted sense of itself and the country’s history? Or, should the movement attempt to shift the framework in which most Americans understand the world?
One manifestation of this is a strange nostalgia for the Clinton administration, even among many progressives, based in the belief that Clinton was somehow an anti-imperialist who avoided unilateral action. Clinton, we might recall, was the president who launched illegal and unilateral missile strikes against Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, and whose U.N. Ambassador (and later Secretary of State), Madeleine Albright, once announced the United States would act “multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must.”
Compared with Bush, of course, virtually any U.S. politician looks attractive in international affairs. But it’s crucial to realize that Clinton was engaged in empire-building every bit as much as Bush, just through different strategies. And we should remember that if Clinton, Gore or any other Democrat had been in office on 9/11, it’s not at all clear that they would not have exploited the situation and used the military to expand U.S. power.
For the time being, both camps of the movement are sponsoring a variety of campaigns, but as the 2004 election draws closer these differences will emerge as more important. And the common positions also will continue: A general rejection of war as a means of imposing U.S. control on the world, resistance to the erosion of civil liberties, and a commitment to expanding citizen participation in democracy.
Meanwhile, Bush’s handlers keep the spin machine running at full speed: Whether or not the famed weapons of mass destruction are ever found, officials say, the liberation of the Iraqi people justified the invasion, and a stable peace is just around the corner. Or, maybe around the corner and down the hall. Or maybe around the corner, down the hall, out the back door, and down the street somewhere. But rest assured, the U.S. public is told, that the “remnants” of the Hussein regime that are causing trouble will be eliminated, leading to an Iraqi democracy. Never mind that the resistance to U.S. occupation extends far beyond Baath Party supporters, and that many Iraqis see the United States as an impediment to real democracy.
As Bush’s fairy tales wear increasingly thin for more and more Americans, the challenge for organizers is to be ready to channel that anti-Bush energy into a serious popular anti-empire movement.
Robert Jensen is a founding member of the Nowar Collective (www.nowarcollective.com), a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001). He can be reached at email@example.com.