The Antiwar Movement Takes Shape

American Conservative

A week later, 100,000 turned out in San Francisco and nearly as many in Washington, D.C., to protest the war. A neoconservative smear campaign was launched that tried to label the protestors radical leftists, but these were not just the usual suspects. The throngs who waved handmade signs and marched through the streets of cities all across America were mostly made up of ordinary, middle-class Americans who oppose taking this giant step on the road to empire. I was proud to march in San Francisco alongside Veterans for Peace, who stood out even in a crowd of 100,000-plus, their banner emblazoned with this trenchant slogan: “Preemptive War is Un-American.”

Participants for the most part rejected the printed placards handed out by “International ANSWER” (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the official sponsor of the Washington and San Francisco events and handcrafted their own. The most popular slogan, based on my observations at the Bay Area event, was “Peace is patriotic.” Michelle Goldberg, writing in, noted American flags in abundance and saw the same gentrification process well underway: “The broad-based antiwar movement many have awaited is here.”

Just how broad remains to be seen. Medea Benjamin, one of the movement’s honchos, denied to Pat Buchanan on MSNBC’s “Buchanan and Press” that antiwar groups are dominated by extreme leftists. Reminding him that “We’ve got you with us on this one,” she offered to accompany him personally to the next big rally, slated for Feb. 15. While I doubt that this means Pat—or anyone with views approximating his—will have a place on the speakers’ platform—such a welcome development is no longer unthinkable.

The antiwar movement has gotten bad press in the past because it has indeed been organizationally dominated by outright Communists. The ANSWER group has had to answer charges that it is basically a front for an obscure Marxist sect with the improbable name of Workers World Party. Our war birds have gleefully jumped on this affiliation, happy to divert attention away from the looming conflict by making the antiwar movement the issue. Now a new group, United for Peace, has stepped forward, merging the anti-globalization Left with the moderate peace groups such as Peace Action and the faith-based opposition centered around the National Council of Churches and Catholic groups such as Pax Christi.

The transformation of the American antiwar movement from the exclusive preserve of leftists to the domain of soccer moms and Republican businessmen, while far from complete, is well underway. But this metamorphosis needs to go much further, and happen much more quickly, if the movement is to make a breakthrough. Opposition to war in Iraq is so much broader than the narrow spectrum between the “green” Hollywood Left and the reds of the Far Left. Today, the movement still barely has room for Ed Hamm, yet the guy pulled $170,000 out of his pocket and used it to make one of the most radical condemnations of the drive to war to be heard anywhere, if by “radical” we mean fundamental and not merely frenzied.

“How many young American lives will be lost in this dubious war?” Hamm and his co-signatories asked in their open letter to the president. “How many more innocent Iraqis will be killed and maimed and made homeless? Haven’t they suffered enough, after two decades of terrible wars and sanctions? Among the one billion Muslims in the world there is now a steady trickle of recruits going to Al Qaeda. You will turn the trickle into a torrent. A billion bitter enemies will rise out of this war.”

How many Ed Hamms out there are asking the same questions? To reach them, the antiwar movement has got to ditch its ideological baggage, epitomized by Mumia Abu Jamal, the convicted cop-killer whose cause never goes unmentioned at an antiwar event, including the recent rallies. On “Buchanan & Press,” Ms. Benjamin confidently assured her somewhat skeptical host that “we’re going to stop this war before it starts.” If that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago, it now appears only highly unlikely. Antiwar sentiment is surging, but the president may launch an attack before the movement gains critical mass. If he does not, it will not be because of the organized antiwar effort but due to the efforts of Colin Powell and the self-imposed constraints of the UN inspections process. This is the one opening that could fuel the antiwar movement and give it the broad character it needs to spike the neoconservative project of an all-out global war against the Muslim world.

Norman Podhoretz calls it World War IV—the Cold War being the third—and this horrifying prospect the neocons openly celebrate. The task of the Bush administration, declared Podhoretz in Commentary magazine, is “to fight World War IV—the war against militant Islam.” This means targeting not only the “axis of evil,” but also Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority.

The conservative columnist Paul Craig Roberts wrote a scathing indictment of Podhoretz’s war cry: “Americans are indebted to Podhoretz for making it clear that a U.S. invasion of Iraq is the beginning of World War IV. President Bush and his strategic thinkers should ponder this carefully and be upfront with the American people,” he wrote, and his piece asked many of the same questions raised by Hamm’s ad, but instead addressed their broader implications. “How many sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, grandsons, uncles, cousins and friends are Americans willing to give to a war, the object of which is the social and political reconstruction of the Middle East?”

By explicitly raising the imagery of a new world war in a series of television ads, modeled on Lyndon Baines Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” ads, a grassroots antiwar group has at least addressed this question, but in terms that are far from encouraging. The original 1964 version showed a 6-year-old sprite with the face of an angel pulling the petals off a daisy, while the soundtrack blared the countdown. At the final count the screen was filled with the image of a mushroom cloud. The 2003 re-run follows the same storyline, albeit with a different backdrop: a similarly angelic girl child stands enraptured by the daisy game, as oil wells burn, belligerent crowds swell the streets of foreign cities, and an ambulance speeds to an emergency somewhere in America. The screen goes black, and a mushroom crowd blossoms out of its depths.

Voiceover: “War with Iraq. Maybe it will end quickly. Maybe not. Maybe it will spread. Maybe extremists will take over countries with nuclear weapons. Maybe the unthinkable.” The countdown commences, but only gets to eight before the voice breaks in:

“Maybe that’s why the overwhelming majority of Americans say to President Bush: let the inspections work.”

Among the antiwar left-liberals, the UN has the status of a sacred totem: it is the deus ex machina of their little morality play, always an unconvincing plot device that may necessitate a surprise ending. The inspections procedure itself could become a flashpoint for war: a Gulf of Tonkin-like incident would be easy enough to engineer under the present circumstances.

The liberal multilateralism that energizes the “give inspections a chance” crowd is just as aggressive—and potentially dangerous—as the unilateralists. The perspective of the newest antiwar coalition, “Win Without War,” is that Hans Blix has every right to go traipsing through Iraq as if he owned the place. Backed by Hollywood money, WWW is not opposed to military intervention in principle. “There might be circumstances where some of our groups would support [military action against Iraq],” says David Cortright, formerly the executive director of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and a key leader of the new group, “such as if there were explicit authorization from the UN Security Council.” Producer/ director Robert Greenwald notes that the group’s initial statement “leaves open the possibility of a multilateral attack. We felt it was premature to get into that.”

As the inspectors feel the heat from Washington, and the inspections process grows ever more intrusive, it may be too late to “get into that” before long. At best, the multilateralists can only delay the war by a few months. But in the end their own rhetoric will return to haunt them. The irony of the “daisy” ads in 1964 was that Johnson, not Goldwater, wound up leading us into war, with help from antiwar liberals. It will no doubt give the Marxists of ANSWER cold comfort to realize that history is indeed repeating itself, as Marx predicted: the first time as tragedy, the second as tragedy compounded by an unmistakable element of farce.

Polls indicate that support for the president’s war policy is slipping. According to the Pew Research Center for the People, 76 percent will support a war against Iraq if the “smoking gun” is ever found. While the Bushies insist it is up to the Iraqis to prove they do not have weapons of mass destruction, only 26 percent fail to perceive the logical impossibility of proving a negative. The Pew poll also reveals that 53 percent believe the president has yet to make a credible case for war, while 42 percent say he has. This reverses the Bushian advantage of September, when 52 percent were convinced by the president’s arguments and only 37 percent were avowed skeptics. If a delay is the best proponents of peace can hope for, then they had better pray it is enough time to build momentum—and come up with some better arguments.

The idea that the antiwar movement needs to be “mainstreamed” out of having any principled message will be its undoing. A regional conflagration will be no less disastrous if delayed. Having got rid of the Workers World Party, the movement will merely have exchanged one problem for another, far more insurmountable one: how to avoid canceling itself out.

The idea that the “soft” Wilsonians, with their cult of the UN and their devotion to “humanitarian” wars of “liberation,” as in Kosovo, can lead an effective opposition to the neocons’ war drive is wishful thinking, at best. At worst, the very same people who are now saying “give peace a chance” could turn on a dime and declare: “Well, we gave peace a chance, and it didn’t work.” Then they will turn the job over to the self-described “hard” Wilsonians, such as Wall Street Journal editorial writer Max Boot, and both wings of the War Party will unite in a common cause.

In order to convince Americans that a war of conquest in Iraq is an uncommonly bad idea, the Left need not remove its backbone. It only needs to remove its ideological blinders long enough to see that building a mass movement against the war is not like building a political party. A multi-issue platform can only limit the movement’s mass potential and prevent it from focusing on the overriding issue of war and peace.

Among the complaints of the so-called moderates is that the Left insists on “bashing” Israel. As Dana Hull writes in the Knight-Ridder newspapers, “One of the biggest divides is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While more moderate anti-war groups like the ‘Win Without War’ coalition have pointedly skirted the contentious issue so as not to alienate smainstream Americans,” the ANSWER coalition has embraced the Palestinians. But there can be no discussion of the war, and its causes, without a frank discussion of Israel’s key role as fomenter. This is a matter of simple geography and Saddam’s military limitations. Iraqi Scuds will not reach Peoria, but Tel Aviv may take a few hits before it’s over. Iraq’s central position as Israel’s major enemy in the region, and the larger vision of World War IV, point to the undeniable reality of the coming war: in effect the war will be fought by the U.S. on behalf of Israel. Is this a goal that the “mainstream” is likely to embrace?

Another point of tension in the movement is the question of sanctions. Todd Gitlin, writing in Mother Jones magazine, bemoaned the antiwar coalition’s hostility to sanctions, which have killed many thousands over the years and stunted an entire generation of Iraqis. But this is a fundamental moral point that cannot be compromised by any antiwar movement worthy of the name: if an anti-sanctions stance banishes opponents of U.S. policy to the fringe, then they are in good company with the Pope and the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

Taking these positions contributes to the single-issue clarity in the antiwar movement because these are part of the great question now being debated: what kind of foreign policy is proper for a free and prosperous America? Is it one driven by an unrestrained messianism, the worship of global “democracy,” the imposition of Western values at gunpoint throughout the world? Or is it based on the traditional wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who counseled us against “entangling alliances” and warned that hubris, and the quest for empire, would be the downfall of our old republic?

As now constituted, the antiwar movement is not prepared to win this debate. The only component that can deal with the question of imperialism is hopelessly saddled with all sorts of rather unattractive baggage, and is so self-infatuated that it can barely look further right than the Rev. Al Sharpton.

A few principled leftists realize that they need to broaden the appeal of the movement to oppose the war and that the only reliable allies they can hope for come from the anti-interventionist Right: “If the left can ever reach out to this [populist, antiwar] right,” writes Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, “which it’s almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we’ll have something.” The lessening of ANSWER’s influence, however, will not necessarily lead to this kind of glasnost. An alliance of Pat Buchanan with the Hollywood Left seems even more improbable.

Yet a Left-Right alliance of viscerally antiwar liberals and nationalist “America First” conservatives will naturally evolve over time as the horrible consequences of this war come home to roost: they will find themselves moving ineluctably toward one another, in program if not in spirit. The only problem is that, by that time, it will be too late.


Justin Raimondo is editorial director of and author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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