Keeping Hope Alive

Keeping Hope Alive

You can be forgiven if, like me, you were a bit depressed to hear that the war had started. But this is no time to go into a funk.


You can be forgiven if, like me, you were a bit depressed to hear that the war had started. But this is no time to go into a funk. It’s time to sustain and build the peace movement, and engage in a full-throated debate about the meaning of this war. Otherwise, as Michael Klare has noted, this could be the first of many resource-driven wars for regime change. If the millions who turned out at demonstrations in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and throughout the world since the war started are any indication, the global peace movement is up to the challenge.

At a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Nation Institute in honor of Eric Alterman’s new book, What Liberal Media?, syndicated columnist and cultural critic Stanley Crouch suggested that a major problem facing the antiwar movement is that “the war might not last more than a few weeks.” Therefore, how can people expect to build the kind of opposition that was built during the Vietnam War, which dragged on for years and years?

Crouch’s analogy is based on a flawed definition of the problem, even if the war ends as quickly as he predicted, which, right now, is far from certain. To be effective, the antiwar movement cannot limit itself to being against the war with Iraq–it must be against the “war without end” doctrine of military first strikes, nuclear saber-rattling and aggressive unilateralism, of which the Iraq war is just the opening act.

The chances of preventing George W. Bush–a true believer in the cleansing powers of military force if there ever was one–from going to war with Iraq were always small. But look what the global antiwar movement accomplished: We forced the Bush Administration to take the issue to the UN; we turned out millions of people in the largest coordinated protests in history; we helped embolden swing states like Guinea, Cameroon, Mexico, Chile, Angola and Pakistan to resist US bullying and bribery at the UN Security Council; we put the future of entire governments at risk when they attempted to side with the United States against the will of their own people. And the start of the war has not diminished the energy and creativity of our movement; if anything, it has sparked renewed determination among antiwar forces.

This doesn’t sound like a peace movement that is losing. It sounds like a peace movement that lost the first skirmish but is poised to win the larger struggle to put the doctrine of aggressive unilateralism back in the trash bin of history, where it belongs.

For the next few weeks, antiwar voices may be muted in the mainstream media as our loyal press corps covers the Iraq war as if it were a sporting event, emphasizing tactical issues and “who’s winning,” not on whether it was necessary to go to war to disarm Iraq in the first place. I got a glimpse of this phenomenon as I marched down Broadway on March 22, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of like-minded protesters, only to hear one of the top local news radio stations, WCBS-AM, announce in no uncertain terms that a surge in flag sales was proof that the American people are lining up behind President Bush’s policy now that the first bombs have started falling.

The war is an outrage precisely because it is so unnecessary. As the Win Without War coalition has noted, other options were available that would have allowed the Bush Administration to save face and back off from the war. As chief UN inspector Hans Blix pointed out, even if Saddam Hussein had bent over backwards to cooperate with disarmament, it would have taken a minimum of two to three months to accomplish that. The Bush folks could have pressed a resolution for Iraq to disarm within three months or face “serious consequences.” The resolution could have included concrete benchmarks for disarmament to be achieved along the way–not the kind of phony benchmarks that the Blair government was promoting at the last minute but practical, achievable ones that would have given a rhythm and focus to the disarmament process. Three months later, we would either have had a disarmed Saddam Hussein, or a Bush Administration with a much broader coalition for using force.

The White House decided not to take this route because for them, this war has never been about disarming Saddam Hussein. It has been about projecting US power into the Persian Gulf in a way that Administration true believers think will enhance US political, military and economic interests and create a safer, and ultimately more democratic, Middle East. Why we should trust the crowd that can’t even abide democracy in Florida to bring democracy to Baghdad, Riyadh and Teheran is one of those great unanswered questions that you are not likely to hear asked on The O’Reilly Factor, CNN or anywhere outside perhaps Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

So, what should the peace movement do now? First and foremost, we shouldn’t give up. We should maintain all the energy and creativity that has resulted in the mass mobilizations, the vigils, the mass faxes and phone calls to Congress, the growing civil disobedience against the war, the campus teach-ins and the whole rich festival of democratic activity that has gotten us this far. And we should make sure that every protester (and all of our friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances) registers and votes against Bush and his circle of new-age warmongers in November 2004. No dabbling with the Green Party, no sitting out the elections because the Democratic candidate isn’t the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s time for the peace movemennt to play political hardball, just as the NRA and the Christian Coalition have been doing for decades.

While CNN’s Connie Chung and Judy Woodruff ooh and aah over the smart bombs while ignoring the dumb policies that made the dropping of the bombs come to pass, we need to change the subject. We can ask some of the questions that the media rarely address (not that they are never asked, just that they don’t get the time and attention they deserve).

Even if Bush gets his quick, “clean” war in which Saddam Hussein is quickly deposed and disarmed, which seems unlikely–will America or the world be any safer the day after the war ends? Will we be less vulnerable to terrorist attacks? Will it be less likely that some tin-pot dictator will get hold of a nuclear arsenal? Will the poverty, ignorance and ideological fervor that are fueling war and terrorism be diminished?

My short answer to these questions is no, no, no and no again. We’re not going to build a safer world by pushing aggressive unilateralist policies at the expense of diplomatic, economic and security cooperation. We’re not going to be in a better position to “roll up” Al Qaeda networks after a war with Iraq. We’re not going to be in a better position to recruit systematic allied cooperation to thwart the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran. We’re not going to be in a better position to revive the US economy and replace the visions of strife and victimhood that pervade so much of our global polity with visions of hope and prosperity.

The next “regime change” that needs to happen after the one in Baghdad should not be in Teheran or Pyongyang–it should be in Washington. It won’t come through force of arms, it will come through what one recent documentary called “a force more powerful”–nonviolent, democratic activism.

For those folks who think the peace movement has “lost,” I say, get back to me in November of 2004. I’m going to be busy for the next twenty months trying to take my country back from the prophets of aggressive unilateralism.

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