Friday, July 11, 2008

On the Movement Against the War in Iraq

As one of the many Americans opposed to the war in Iraq, I make a habit of going to demonstrations where I can fraternize with sympathetic souls. They tend to be enjoyable events where I can express myself, get a good cardiovascular workout and reunite with missed friends. But as I was wandering the National Mall on January 27, my optimism for a looming change in foreign policy was joined with reserved skepticism towards my fellow demonstrators.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched on Washington that day to express their desire for an end to the Iraq War, mostly the kind of people you would expect to see at a rally like this; disgruntled veterans, grieving family members, Catholic and Quaker pacifists, organized labor, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Hollywood stars, and lefty gadflies like Dennis Kucinich. But most of those who came to express their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs cannot be pigeonholed so easily; after all, to be a critic of the war is now to find oneself firmly within the mainstream of American public opinion. This is why I have such faith in this movement’s potential to succeed in ending the war in Iraq, and why I am also so discouraged with its current leadership.

My frustration can be best illustrated by my experience on the bus to our nation’s capitol. Participants shared their thoughts over the loudspeaker to pass the time, so I encouraged my fellow disaffected students to register to vote, write to their Congressmen, and to even consider a career in public service. The response was terrifying; self-proclaimed Anarchists, Communists and Islamic Revolutionaries shouted down this “white bourgeois reactionary” for daring to work within the institutions of American democracy – as opposed to plotting its violent overthrow. With this it dawned on me that the biggest obstacle to ending the Iraq War might well be the antiwar movement itself.

This earnest student of American politics believes that for the opinions of the common citizenry to translate into substantive results, Iraq activists must learn the ways of Washington realpolitik. And what I am advocating is not merely superficial change. The fact is are that the plurality of Americans are against the war, but many lawmakers are still wary of being associated with the radical groups and ideologies which make up the most visible elements of the war’s opposition. And rightly so, for as awful as the war is, many of these factions are rather despicable themselves.

On the Mall that day, demonstrators called for not just withdrawal from Iraq, but the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Somalia and every other country in the world in which there is a United States military presence. As some students scrawled on their makeshift riot gear, “US Out of Everywhere.” The reemergence of such sentiment has been one of the unfortunate consequences of our disastrous entanglement along the Tigris and Euphrates, but this is not so much of an indictment of the administration as it is of those who have fallen prey to the seductive logic of pacifist isolationism. The belief that military intervention is necessarily wrong in all places and at all times is as dogmatic and fanciful as the neoconservative ideology which begat this mess in the first place. Though opposition to the protection of American interests can be dismissed as naïve idealism, what is truly reprehensible about this intellectually bankrupt philosophy is that it precludes even the use of force for humanitarian ends (such as intervening to end the Darfur genocide) for the sake of avoiding the appearance of American imperialism. What is precisely wrong with the vocal leadership of the current antiwar movement, why it creates such problems for those in the reality-based community, is that it is not merely anti-war in Iraq but anti-war.

Before considering anything else, the discourse on American foreign policy must recognize that there are wars worth fighting. The United States must exercise some degree of intervention in Iraq and the Middle East as we have indeed vital national security interests which necessitate the preservation of political stability in the region; namely, continued access to the oil supplies and a moderate public opinion towards the West. The preemptive invasion and continued occupation of Iraq has been such a tragic mistake for this very reason, because it has overextended our armed forces, fractured the international counterterrorism consensus, diverted scarce resources away from eliminating the Al Qaeda network and Afghanistan’s resurgent Taliban, and has engendered greater willingness for Muslim youth to join extremist groups hostile to the United States. Any arguments about the moral or ethical dimensions of American foreign policy aside, what is more important is the national interest-based rationale for withdrawal; strategic redeployment from Iraq is necessary because our country’s current path is counterproductive to the larger objectives of the Global War on Terrorism.

As the dovish multitude hundreds of thousands strong passed the rather pathetic counterdemonstration of no more than a few dozen hawks, one of the endangered species held out a sign which actually brought up a good point: “Why aren’t you protesting the terrorists?” From the speakers’ rostrum there was much anger directed towards the American sins of Haditha and Abu Ghraib, but very little was said about the even greater evils which brought about this overreaction in the first place. Though I hate to invoke such imagery, anyone who has seen the charred remnants of Ground Zero knows the consequences of failed government policy towards anti-American Islamic fundamentalist movements, there was little evidence that anyone at the rally had any suggestions for dealing with our geopolitical rivals other than the doctrine of laissez faire.

Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls to which the antiwar crowd often succumbs is the sophistry that any foreign occupation must be wrong, and therefore any opposing faction must be in the right; this illogic has resulted in the morphing of some genuinely concerned lovers of peace and freedom into apologists for quite violent, illiberal movements such as the Mahdi Army, Hezbollah and Hamas. Though such groups’ demands for national sovereignty are certainly worthy, the former’s anti-Sunni pogroms and the latter two’s orchestration of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, among other things, make it difficult to believe that there is anything truly democratic about them. As Harry Truman found himself on the eve of the Cold War flanked by redbaiters on the right as well as Communist sympathizers on the left, today’s liberals must also hold a careful line against both ideological extremes.

Despite its organizers’ faults, what nevertheless makes the movement against the Iraq War so promising is that it represents the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans. This significant fact is unfortunately overlooked by the most prominent group coordinating antiwar activism, United for Peace and Justice, which operates as a motley federation of narrow interest groups and counterculturalists. If they wish to ever have a role in the peacemaking process, they should take a cue from the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah leadership and begin a mass purge of their most extremist member groups; to begin, the Communist Party. Any benefit that including such fringe groups might have in bringing bodies to a rally is certainly offset by the fact that few mainstream politicians will dare touch it with a ten foot pole. Among those which should be expunged from the coalition are groups dedicated to the Palestinian national liberation movement, for regardless of whether they are right or wrong, they are but a distraction to the issue at hand. Just as Lincoln refrained from invoking the abolition of slavery during the Civil War so as to keep the border-states in the Union camp, in the effort to establish a national consensus against the current policy in Iraq there is absolutely no reason to invoke the single most venomous controversy in the entire world. Since there has been no indication of United for Peace and Justice’s desire to remake itself, the mantle of the movement should be passed on to more effective liberal groups such as MoveOn, Campus Progress and particularly the ad hoc Win Without War – which labels itself as “a mainstream voice advocating an end to the war in Iraq”.

The only way for the energy and idealism of the antiwar movement to translate into tangible results is for all of the folks who show up to peace vigils put down their Chomsky readers and accept that the only way that they are going to ever get anything done is through the American institutions of capitalism and democracy. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when the available means are quite sufficient to attain our goals. As a matter of fact, the gears have already begun to churn in our favor.
If activists wish to actually bring this misbegotten war to an end, the first thing that we must adequately grasp is how profoundly the political dynamic has changed since last November’s elections, namely that we now have a Democratic Congress largely as a result of antiwar sentiment. Now that advocates of exercising the legislative branch’s constitutional authority to change course in Iraq are firmly ensconced in the most powerful corridors of Capitol Hill, the difference that can be made by the old-fashioned traditions of civic activism have already begun to show. Now even stalwarts of the Republican foreign policy tradition like Senators John Warner, Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel have decided to resist the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq – which according to the latest Pew Research Group poll is now supported by a paltry 23% of Americans. What shall actually be done still remains up for speculation.

The primary objective of the movement against this ill-fated war should now be the passage of legislation calling for a binding timetable for the withdrawal from Iraq – this should be the antiwar movement’s holy grail. This bill will need to be approved in both houses by not just simple majorities, but by at least two-thirds majorities that can sustain President Bush’s certain veto. For the Whips to accumulate sufficient votes remains and uphill battle, but we private citizens can do much more than simply watch from the sidelines.

The first avenue for the great vocal majority to make the timetable for withdrawal into reality is the race for the next Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. As the current holder of that title has made clear, how to end the war in Iraq shall be bequeathed to his successor, and the identity of the next Decider will be is up to us to decide. So register to vote, take part in the primary and of course the general election – even if you are a Republican. If you are willing to spend your weekend at an antiwar rally, it is worth your time to get seriously involved in an electoral campaign.

The second avenue is lighter on democracy and heavier on capitalism. As we have learned by recent events, one of the most effective ways for private citizens to effect change is through their Rolodexes and checkbooks. Yes, what I am calling for is for the antiwar movement to reach its apex of political sophistication and entrench itself in the business of campaign finance.

Go to all the antiwar demonstrations your heart desires, but if you want to make a real difference, this is my advice: tune in, turn on, and get involved in the democratic process. Partaking in this game of wealth and power might require the most principled of us to hold our noses and learn to compromise, but that’s politics.

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