This summer, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq – a broad coalition of advocacy organizations and political action committees from across the political spectrum – has launched the Iraq Summer campaign to help end the war by making it politically toxic for Republicans to support it.
Tom Matzzie, Washington Director of MoveOn.org, is “on loan” to run Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. The national campaign has a staff of 100 people, a multimillion dollar budget, and a tall order as it embarks on this effort to unify opposition to the Iraq War in advance of the Petraeus report in September.
“The debate was set up in the spring as leading towards a September report,” Matzzie says, “so that gave us an organizing opportunity and an organizing momentum going into the summer. The goal is to cut the remaining support for the president’s Iraq policy out from underneath him. Give the Republicans a choice between helping to end the war or facing political extinction.”
With over 80 paid organizers deployed across the country, the Iraq Summer campaign – which organizers say is modeled after the Freedom Summer – is focused on 40 targeted districts where Matzzie says “there is a lot of opposition to the war but very little grassroots leadership supporting an end to the war…. Often in these suburban and exurban Republican districts there’s no institutional support for a campaign to end the war…. That’s what a lot of Iraq Summer is about is building a permanent apparatus to oppose the war policy in these targeted areas. ”
The organizers were trained at the Maritime Institute in Baltimore – a union training facility – and then assigned to 15 states across the country. Many organizers are veterans or their family members. Iowa State Director Sue Dinsdale is the mother of two Marines. Michigan State Director Tamarra Rosenleaf’s husband has been deployed to Iraq. There are also Iraq veterans on staff in New York, Illinois, Virginia, and Kentucky, and three full-time staff in Washington, DC including the chief lobbyist, John Bruhns. Finally, dozens of veterans and their family members are in the field as paid staff and volunteers.
In addition to the 40 districts where the Iraq Summer campaign has sent staff (a fairly up to date list of targets can be found here – it’s missing only Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Jean Schmidt), Americans Against Escalation in Iraq reaches another 30 House targets through grants to local organizations such as the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. In all of these districts the organizers, veterans and military families, and activists are using field operations, coalition building, paid and earned media strategies, volunteer events and cutting edge online organizing to turn up the heat on Republican members of Congress who are blocking a safe end to the Iraq war.
“I think since the war began, for over 4 years, we’ve done a great job as a movement of going out there and saying, ‘We oppose the War,'” Matzzie says. “But we haven’t always brought the responsibility back to the politicians who are allowing it to happen. So we’re changing the rhetoric from ‘I oppose the War’ to ‘I oppose, [for example], Senator Coleman because of his support on the War.’ And that politicization of the war policy helps put the fear into politicians, which is essential…. Ultimately the war ends because the politicians choose their own survival over sticking with Bush. That can be achieved only in the hometowns of these politicians where they count their votes.”
The impact the campaign is having is already evident in the hundreds of videos activists are shooting (such as footage of Representative Mark Kirk ignoring an Iraq Vet). Americans Against Escalation in Iraq gave organizers $125 reusable video cameras – called “ The Flip” camera – that plug into a USB port on a computer. The training of the organizers and activists is clear as they confront war supporters in an aggressive but normally courteous manner, and stay on message.
In addition to on-the-ground organizing, Matzzie says Americans Against Escalation in Iraq are countering the White House spin through the use of PR professionals. “We have for the first time a national, daily counterpoint to the White House and the media,” he says. “We have PR professionals across two public relations firms and on our own payroll who are working every day to provide a counterpoint to the Bush administration in the press.”
Iraq Summer will culminate with Take a Stand Day on August 28th. There will be about 60 town meetings held in targeted districts (the representatives are invited to attend – so far, no takers). In those communities where Representatives already support an end to the war there will be vigils to echo the message that it’s time for Congress to take a stand – over 2,000 such vigils are planned. Matzzie says that MoveOn, Working Assets and True Majority are among the groups that will get the word out about Take a Stand Day nationwide.
Americans Against Escalation in Iraq doesn’t plan to close shop when Congress reconvenes. If its fundraising success continues, it plans to keep its staff through December, adjusting its targets as needed.
“Ultimately what we have to do is make sure that the Republicans know we’re not going away,” Matzzie says. “We’re gonna be in their faces until the war is over. If they still vote wrong, we’re gonna stay in their face… And the sooner the politicians know that the sooner the war will end…. [And] if the Democrats don’t hold Bush’s feet to the fire this fall there will be dozens of primary challenges next spring.”
There are some in the antiwar movement who think the Iraq Summer strategy isn’t doing enough to hold Democrats feet to the fire. CODEPINK, for example, has occupied the offices of Democratic legislators who voted for a timetable but failed to limit war funding to a fully funded troop redeployment only (as opposed to Bush’s escalation). In a recent article in The Hill, one CODEPINK activist called MoveOn “very conservative.”
Matzzie, however, suggests that there isn’t a problem with these diverse tactics. He notes that the partner organizations of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq usually take on the Democrats, but this apparatus takes on “mostly Republicans.”
“It’s gonna take a wall of opposition from the entire political spectrum [to end this war],” Matzzie says. “We’re facing down a determined and isolated president. We’re facing down the Republican Party, the entire foreign policy establishment, the military-industrial complex, Arab governments throughout the Middle East who don’t want us to leave mostly because they don’t want to deal with the problem, a Sunni insurgency, the Shia militias that are conducting ethnic cleansing…. There is a mosaic of people who are working to end the war. We saw work that was not being done, and we went to fill that vacuum. And that’s what we’re doing. And this apparatus is there, and it’s well exercised, and at necessary times it can turn against any target any where in the country, regardless of their party.”
Matzzie believes that the most important thing right now is “Outside the Beltway pressure on the politicians.”
“What’s most important now is that people know that there’s a big showdown on the war this fall,” Matzzie says. “We need people in their home districts to be marching and going to their town hall meetings, and making phone calls, and talking to their neighbors…. We have a genuine shot at bringing some troops home this fall. It might not be that we’re able to win complete redeployment before the next president is elected but if we can bring home 60,000 troops that’s 60,000 families who can sleep with a little more comfort.”
It will be up to the entire mosaic – the entire “wall of opposition” – to stay in the faces of every Republican and Democrat until every soldier comes home.
This post was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.