It was at the time of the October 26 antiwar rally in Washington–where tens of thousands of demonstrators heard speakers oppose war against Iraq and demand the destruction of capitalism, the end of Zionism, the liberation of convicted cop-killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jamil Al-Amin (a.k.a. H. Rap Brown), and the release of five imprisoned Cuban spies–that longtime nonviolence advocate David Cortright and several other activists decided there was a pressing need to put together what Cortright calls “a broader, more mainstream coalition” to oppose unilateral US military action in Iraq.

The October 26 protest–one of the more prominent antiwar actions so far–had been organized by International ANSWER, a group dominated by the Workers World Party, a small revolutionary-socialist outfit with a fancy for North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il and the goal of abolishing private property. So it was no surprise that the antiwar message–which, according to polls, resonates with at least one-third of Americans–was accessorized with the demands of the fringe far-left. Nor was it a shocker that many speakers did not adopt a give-inspections-a-chance position. The WWP, which hails world leaders that stand against US hegemony (such as Slobodan Milosevic), opposes weapons inspections in Iraq and has assumed the task of trying to steer the antiwar movement away from endorsing them. ANSWER eschews criticism of Saddam Hussein.

Cortright, who was executive director of SANE from 1977 to 1987 (when it was the largest peace organization in the United States) and his colleagues in Washington were looking to assemble an opposition that would possess wider appeal, that would press a message that extends beyond a no-to-war demand and endorses an alternative to military action. In the meantime, television actor Mike Farrell (M*A*S*H and Providence) and longtime movie producer/director Robert Greenwald (Steal This Movie) had weeks earlier begun an effort to round up Hollywood folks for a statement opposing unilateral war against Iraq and supporting the United Nations’ weapons-inspection process. “It was just the two of us with two computers,” says Greenwald. “We sent out an email to friends, who sent it to their friends. We were surprised the response was so positive so soon. We thought people would be more hesitant.” (Greenwald has just finished a movie for CBS on the Enron scandal, in which Farrell plays disgraced Enron chief Kenneth Lay; it is set to air on January 5.)

In November, the Washington and Hollywood endeavors converged. And this week, several large organizations of a progressive bent–the NAACP, the National Council of Churches, the National Organization of Women–and 100 or so entertainers are launching the Win Without War coalition, described by its organizers as the “new mainstream coalition to oppose Bush war policy.” The leaders of this project don’t put down ANSWER, but this clearly is an attempt to recast and reshape the antiwar opposition.

In the rollout, Hollywood went first. At a press conference on December 10 attended by actors Tony Shalhoub, David Clennon, Martin Sheen and Farrell, the entertainment crowd unveiled a letter to George W. Bush declaring its support for Win Without War. The short missive has been signed by Gillian Anderson, Kim Basinger, Matt Damon, David Duchovny, Laurence Fishburne, Jeananne Garofalo, Ethan Hawke, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Lange, the members of REM, Noah Wyle, and dozens more, including two former US ambassadors.

Their letter begins: “War talk in Washington is alarming and unnecessary. We are patriotic Americans who share the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction. We support rigorous UN weapons inspections to assure Iraq’s effective disarmament.” But the group argues “a preemptive military invasion of Iraq will harm America’s national interests. Such a war will increase human suffering, arouse animosity toward our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy, and undermine our moral standing in the world.” The Win Without War artists accept “the valid US and UN objective of disarming Saddam Hussein.” They want to achieve that not by “first-strike attacks,” but by “legal diplomatic means.” At the press conference, retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll Jr. reported that he had spoken with retired General Anthony Zinni, former head of US Central Command, and Zinni agreed with the coalition’s position.

The organizations Cortright recruited for Win Without War–which also includes and Working Assets–are expected to issue a formal announcement of the coalition’s formation on December 11. Earlier in the week, Win Without War organizers noted ithe Sierra Club was considering signing up. No unions are yet participating, but there have been preliminary conversations between Win Without War reps and labor officials.

The Win Without War message does differ from the antiwar declarations that only decry oil-greedy US imperialism. “We’re trying to spread as wide a net as possible,” says Greenwald. “Millions of Americans have doubts about the war. We want to get the word out: you’re not alone. And it doesn’t do any good to speak to a small group. We’ve designed this to try to create a broader impact.” The coalition acknowledges that Saddam poses a problem–not a direct and immediate threat to the United States, as the White House suggests, but a threat that still needs to be confronted. “This is a different message beyond the traditional antiwar message,” Cortright remarks. “We’re for a sound, credible security policy that addresses threats. Saddam Hussein and Iraq are a potential threat, due to Iraq’s weapons capacity, and there has to be a way to deal with it. Peaceful and diplomatic means have to be pursued. The positioning of this message is extremely important. We have the potential to build broad support.”

The coalition’s central demand is, let the UN and its weapons inspectors do their jobs. But what if Saddam thwarts the inspectors or they find he has ready-to-go weapons of mass destruction? Would Win Without War back a UN-sanctioned military response? Elements of the coalition are pacifists, according to Cortright; most are not: “There might be circumstances where some of our groups would support [military action against Iraq], such as if there were explicit authorization from the UN Security Council.” Greenwald notes that the artists’ statement “leaves open the possibility of a multilateral attack. We felt it was premature to get into that. The biggest point of agreement among the signers is that the United States should follow the law, follow the Security Council.”

Cortright concedes that Win Without War got a late start. (Some Washington prognosticators are claiming–more as a hunch than an educated guess–that a US military assault could come as early as January.) “We didn’t begin this until the October rally,” he notes, “and it takes time to get a national coalition together.” He expects the coalition to sponsor advertisements and draw on the membership of its component organizations to mount local actions. “Some of our groups might participate in big marches,” he says, “but that’s not our focus.” The Hollywood contingent wants to deploy its celebs to gain media notice for the antiwar position. “We know we’ll be dismissed by some, we will be infantalized,” says Greenwald. “We’ll have to see how far they go in this.”

One slogan being used by Win Without War is “Keep America Safe”–a sign its creators are hoping to encourage opposition to a unilateral invasion without bemoaning US interventionism, appearing soft on Saddam or terrorism, or coming across as harsh critics of America at home and abroad. (The latter may not always be easy. In an interview with UPI, actor Ed Asner, a signer of the Win Without War statement, said of the American public, “They’re sheep. They like [Bush] enough to credit him with saving the nation after 9/11. Three thousand people get killed, and everybody thinks they’re next on the list. The president comes along, and he’s got his six-guns strapped on, and people think he’s going to save them.”) Also, the coalition is not preparing to compete with the WWP-controlled ANSWER and its highly motivated cadre of volunteers in the street-protest category. And its internal cohesion may be tested in the future, if events occur in Iraq that persuade the UN Security Council–or several of its members–that force must be used to deal with Saddam. But until such a development occurs, the main question is, can a self-professed “mainstream” antiwar coalition bearing a nuanced message succeed and attract many more people to the stop-the-war cause?

There may not be enough time to derail precipitous US action, but before the antiwar movement even has a shot at preventing or curtailing a US first-strike, it must grow much larger. Bringing tens of thousands of protesters to Washington on a Saturday–or even the 100,000-plus ANSWER claimed for its October 26 event–is not going to impress or worry the decisionmakers of the nation’s capital. That’s a tiny slice of America. (See Asner’s comments above.) The antiwar movement, as Bush might say, has to raise the pie higher–a lot higher. If Win Without War takes off, Americans critical or skeptical of the president’s apparent policy will have an outlet for dissent unencumbered by the wackiness of the WWP. And the antiwar movement will benefit from the institutional strengths of the coalition’s founding partners. Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Dick Cheney do not yet have to fear that citizen action is going to interfere with their plans. (“Look out, here comes Ed Begley Jr.”) But an effective Win Without War coalition could move the antiwar campaign in a direction that causes the White House–or, maybe at best, other politicians and perhaps even the reportedly reluctant military–to take notice.