Read MoveOn.org’s response to this article here. An earlier version of this article mischaracterized a February 2009 conversation between President Barack Obama and Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org. According to MoveOn, Ruben did not say that the organization would drop opposition to funding the war in Afghanistan, to sending additional troops or to attacks on civilians.
The most powerful grassroots organization of the peace movement, MoveOn, remains silent as the American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan simmer or escalate.
Last December 17, 48.3 percent of MoveOn members listed “end the war in Iraq” as a 2009 goal, after healthcare (64.9 percent), economic recovery and job creation (62.1 percent) and building a green economy/stopping climate change (49.6 percent–only 1.5 percent above Iraq.) This was at a moment when most Americans believed the Iraq War was ending. Afghanistan and Pakistan were not listed among top goals which members could vote on.
Then on May 22 MoveOn surveyed its members once again, listing ten possible campaigns for the organization. “Keep up the pressure to the end the war in Iraq” was listed ninth among the options.
Afghanistan and Pakistan were not on the MoveOn list of options.
Nor was Guantánamo nor the administration’s torture policies. (“Investigate the Bush Administration” was the first option.)
MoveOn is supposed to be an Internet version of participatory democracy, but the organization’s decision-making structure apparently assures that the membership is voiceless on the question of these long wars.
What if they included an option like “demanding a diplomatic settlement and opposing a quagmire in Afghanistan and Pakistan”? Or “shifting from a priority on military spending to civilian spending on food, medicine and schools?”
This is no small matter. MoveOn has collected a privately held list of 5 million names, most of them strong peace advocates. The organization’s membership contributed an unprecedented $180 million for the federal election cycle in 2004-2006. Those resources, now squelched or sequestered, mean that the most vital organization in the American peace movement is missing in action.
What to do? There is no point raving and ranting against MoveOn. The only path is in organizing a dialogue with the membership, over the Internet, and having faith that their voices will turn the organization to oppose these escalating occupations. The same approach is necessary towards other vital organs of the peace movement including rank-and-file Democrat activists and the post-election Obama organization (Organizing for America) through a persistent, bottom-up campaign to renew the peace movement as a powerful force in civil society.
This is not a simple matter of an organizational oligarchy manipulating its membership, although the avoidance by MoveOn’s leadership is a troubling sign. There is genuine confusion over Afghanistan and Pakistan among the rank and file. The economic crisis has averted attention away from the battlefront. Many who voted for Obama understandably will give him the benefit of the doubt, for now.
Silence sends a message. The de facto MoveOn support for the $94 billion war supplemental reverberates up the ladder of power. Feeling no pressure, Congressional leadership has abdicated its critical oversight function over the expanding wars, not even allowing members to vote for a December report on possible exit strategies. In the end, a gutsy sixty voted against HR 2346 on May 14, but many defected to vote for the war spending, including Neil Abercrombie, Jerry Nadler, David Obey, Xavier Becerra, Lois Capps, Maurice Hinchey, Jesse Jackson, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Patrick Kennedy, Charles Rangel, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Loretta Sanchez, Rosa De Lauro, Bennie Thompson, Jerry McNerney, Robert Wexler and Henry Waxman. (Bill Delahunt, Linda Sanchez and Pete Stark were not recorded.)
If there were significant pressures from networks like MoveOn in their Congressional districts, the opposition vote might have approached 85.
Appropriations chair David Obey in essence granted Obama a one-year pass to show results in Afghanistan. If the war appears to be a quagmire by then, he claimed, the Democrats will become more critical. Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered the same message; according to the Washington Examiner, May 6: “There won’t be any more war supplementals, so my message to my members is, this is it.” Pelosi’s words were carefully parsed, saying that the White House would not be allowed another supplemental form of appropriation, which is different from an actual pledge to oppose war funding.
This one-year pass means that the grassroots peace movement has a few months to light a fire and reawaken pressure from below on the Congress and president. In the meantime, here are some predictions for the coming year:
: Will Obama keep his pledge to withdraw combat forces from Iraq on a sixteen-month timetable, and all forces by 2011? At this point, the pace is slowing, and the deadline being somewhat extended, under pressure from US commanders on the ground. Sunnis are threatening to resume their insurgency if the al-Maliki regime fails to incorporate them into the political and security structures. The president insists however, that he is only making adjustments to a timetable that is on track.
: Will the Obama troop escalation deepen the quagmire or become a successful surge against the Taliban by next year? Another 21,000 troops and advisers are on their way to the battlefield. Civilian casualties are mounting, causing the besieged Karzai government to complain. Preventive detention of Afghans will only expand. US deaths, now over 600, are sure to increase this summer. Taliban may hold out and redeploy in order to stretch US forces thin.
Prognosis: Escalation into quagmire.
: US policies have driven Al Qaeda from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the United States is attacking with Predators and turning Pakistan’s US-funded armed forces towards counterinsurgency. Public opinion is being inflamed against the US intervention.
Prognosis: An expanding American war in Pakistan with greater threats to American security.
: With or without US complicity, Israel may attack Iran early next year, with unforeseeable consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Prognosis: Crisis will intensify.
: The United States will fail to attract more combat troops to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan from Europe or elsewhere, causing pressure to increase for a non-military negotiated solution.
Prognosis: Obama still popular, US still isolated.
: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will deeply threaten the administration’s ability to succeed on the domestic front with stimulus spending, healthcare, education and alternative energy.
Prognosis: false hope for “guns and butter” all over again