On Friday morning, August 17, Nick Travis protested in Crawford, Texas, as George Bush arrived for a barbecue. “We were making sure there was some kind of protest,” explains Travis. “That he at least saw a sign. It was a presence.” There were four of them. One was arrested.
It’s been two years since Cindy Sheehan set up Camp Casey outside Bush’s ranch to protest the war in the name of her son, who was killed in Iraq. In those two years we have seen the Democrats take back both houses of Congress; the Iraq Study Group call for a pullback of US troops; and the public, punditocracy and political class all reverse their position on the war.
In that time we have also seen an escalation of US troops, no letup in the vast number of civilian and combatant casualties (including US troops) and the exodus of Iraq’s professional class. In short, in the past two years most people’s views about what needed to happen changed and what actually happened did not.
Given the outlook in August 2005, even this is no small feat. Back then, demonstrations in Crawford were about more than just a physical presence. They marked a political moment. All the polls suggested that public sentiment on the war had shifted from frustration to despair but had found inadequate and inconsistent expression in Congress and the press. The mainstream had effectively been marginalized.
Then along came Cindy. Packaged as an Everymother just looking for answers, she made the cable shows and supermarket magazine covers. She had in fact been around for quite some time. (The Nation had featured her on the cover four months earlier.) But now the word was flowing beyond our ideological shores. In the space of a month, Sheehan went from being an activist with energy and a compelling story to a household name who could spark 1,627 local vigils in solidarity.
In the absence of a cohesive, media-savvy antiwar movement, she became the face of protest. As such she did not so much lead public opinion as embody it. Her prominence illustrated the actual weakness of the left as much as it did its potential strength. In the American public, progressives had a receptive audience; but we have failed to meaningfully reach them. “It’s rare when people seriously publicly engage,” Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, told me after Bush announced the “surge.” “They watch it on TV. They read about it in the newspapers. They get angry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they engage.”
That disconnect remains both our greatest challenge and our weakest link. We may toast Karl Rove’s departure and Bush’s woes and tout polling figures that show increasing backing for withdrawal and against occupation. But the fact that the Republicans are losing public support for the war doesn’t necessarily mean that we have won the argument against it.
For the mounting opposition is primarily informed less by a mass conversion against imperialism than by a far more basic factor: America is losing. “The most important single fact is that the public perceive the mission as being destined for success,” says Christopher Gelpi, a professor of political science at Duke University who studies US public opinion and war. “The American public is partly casualty-phobic, but it is primarily defeat-phobic. You can muster support for just about any military operation in the US so long as you can get enough of the defeat-phobic people on board.”
True, it would be churlish not to delight in the demise of the neocons and the now-dominant consensus that this war was a mistake. But it would be equally deluded to pretend that we got here by dint of our reasoning and rallying alone. Opposition to the war is broad, but it is not deep. A change of fortunes for the United States in Iraq would erase much of it. The fact that such a change is unlikely is shaped by military reality, not political persuasion. In short, the opposition to “this” particular war has grown, but support for the principle of American-led intervention has barely shifted. The percentage of those who think the war in Iraq was justified stands in the low 40s, but support for the war in Afghanistan stands at 70 percent.
“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “In Front of Your Nose,” “and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
Which brings us back to Cindy Sheehan. Exposed and increasingly exasperated with the lack of political leadership following the Democratic midterm victory, Sheehan recently retired from campaigning, only to return to the fray soon afterward. But this time she transformed the object of her ire from Bush to House leader Nancy Pelosi, whom she is running against in San Francisco.
This is a strategic error. Not because Pelosi should not be confronted–“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” said Frederick Douglass–but because the most effective confrontation the Democratic leadership will understand at this point is not electoral; it is political.
Democrats have already proved themselves an inadequate and ineffective vehicle for our antiwar hopes–most of their senators, including all of those now running for President who were there at the time, voted for the war. But they are also the most responsive to pressure from the antiwar movement. Pelosi may prove to be an obstacle–but she is not the enemy. It will take the engagement of the angry at every level to force the conversation in Washington from virtual opposition to the war to actually ending it. Sheehan should learn from her own example; 2005 was not an election year. She has already shown us that, whatever the limitations, our only way to reach those who will only go to the polls and raise funds is by taking to the streets and raising hell.