Among the missing-in-action of these last years are all those Americans who went out into the streets before the invasion of Iraq began, part of the largest global antiwar demonstrations ever mounted. Even a fine piece like Frank Rich’s “The Ides of March 2003,” his recent return to the countdown to war, leaves out that mass of people — a distinct minority in the U.S., but already part of a global majority.
They carried a plethora of handmade signs, including “No blood for oil,” “Contain Saddam — and Bush,” “Uproot Shrub,” “Oil for Brains, We Don’t Buy It, Liberate Florida,” “The Bush administration is a material breach,” “Pre-emptive war is terrorism,” “W is not healthy for Iraqis and other living things,” “Use our Might to Persuade, not Invade,” “Give Peace a Chance, Give Inspections a Chance,” “How did USA’s oil get under Iraq’s sand,” “Peace is Patriotic,” and thousands more. In their essential grasp of the situation, they were on target and they marched directly into the postwar period in vast numbers before seemingly disappearing from the scene and then being wiped from history.
It wasn’t, as people now often claim, that almost everyone was gulled and manipulated into supporting this war by the Bush administration, that no one could have had any sense of what a disaster was in the making. Millions of Americans had a strong sense of what might be coming down the pike and many of them actively tried to stop it from happening. I certainly did and I found myself repeatedly in crowds of staggering size.
Women traced out pleas for peace naked on beaches, while in the Antarctic well bundled bodies formed similar peace signs in the snow. And almost everywhere on the planet hundreds of thousands, millions, marched. After the invasion was launched and we had broken Iraq like a Pottery Barn vase, Americans in startling numbers went to the effort of officially apologizing in photos at the Sorry Everyone website.
The demonstrations of that moment were impressive enough that my hometown paper, the New York Times, which loves to cover large demonstrations as if they were of no significance, had a fine front-page piece by Patrick Tyler claiming that we might be seeing the planet’s other superpower out on the streets.
Here is a description I offered of an enormous demonstration in New York City four days after the shock-and-awe invasion was launched:
“Twenty to thirty minutes after the group I was with ended our march at Washington Square and dispersed, I called my son — thanks to the glories of the cell phone — and he told me he was stuck at the end of the march over 30 blocks north of us. And we hadn’t even been near the front of the march. That’s a lot of people and there were sizeable crowds of onlookers, cheering from the street side as well as people waving or offering V signs from windows all along the way. It was a remarkably upbeat experience. We were all, perhaps, stunned by the evidence of our existence. Many, many young people. Wonderful signs. Drums and music. Roaring waves of cheers at the end. I think we felt something like shock and awe — of the genuine kind — that we had not gone away, that we were not likely to go away.”
And then, in a sense, we were gone. And yet, in another sense, we never left the scene.
At the time the invasion was launched, polls showed over 70% of Americans in support of the President’s war (or in a state of terror about terror, should we not stop Saddam Hussein from nuking us). Now, here we are, four years later, and the pundits who were telling us that we should indeed do it are still familiar fixtures on our TVs, while the faces of the pundits who didn’t, and of the Americans, in their millions, who arrived at similar conclusions and tried to stop possibly the maddest, most improvident war in our history, have been erased from memory.
And yet, to offer a little hope to those who believe that the mainstream media holds the idling brains of hundreds of millions of Americans helplessly in its thrall, that we are all merely the manipulated, let’s consider something curious indeed: The general point of view of the minority represented in those giant prewar demonstrations took deep hold as time passed and has now been embraced by a striking majority.
Back in December 2006, when James Baker’s Iraq Study Group released its report — and was hailed in the press for finding genuine “common ground” on Iraq — I argued that the American people, without much help from politicians or the media, “had formed their own Iraq Study Group and arrived at sanity well ahead of the elite and all the ‘wise men’ in Washington.”
The Bush administration, of course, rejected the findings of the Iraq Study Group, while the Democrats, by and large, accepted them. But no one turned out to be particularly interested in the “Iraq Study Group” formed by ordinary Americans whose “findings” were expressed in that least active of all forms: the opinion poll (and later, the midterm election). Nonetheless, the numbers in those polls represent a modest miracle, if you think about it.
According to a poll released that December by the reliable Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), 58% of Americans wanted a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq on a timeline — 18% within six months, 25% within a year, 15% within two years; 68% of Americans wanted us completely out of that country with no permanent bases left behind, including a majority of Republicans — despite the fact, that you could search the American press, most of the time, in vain for any indication that the Bush administration had built a series of vast military bases, big enough to have multiple bus routes and capable of housing 20,000 or more American troops and contractors. In addition, according to PIPA, by the end of 2006, 60% of Americans had reached the conclusion that the U.S. military presence was “provoking more conflict than it is preventing”; while only 35% still thought it a “stabilizing force” in Iraq.
Too bad we don’t have similar polls for politicians, opinion-makers, and media gatekeepers. They would surely bear little relation to PIPA’s findings.
In 2007, if anything, such polling figures have only grown more emphatic. A recent Newsweek poll, for instance, offered the following figures: 69% of Americans disapprove of the President’s “handling” of the Iraqi situation; 61% think the U.S. is losing ground in Iraq; 64% oppose the President’s “surge” plan; 59% favor Congressional legislation requiring the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the fall of 2008.
In the most recent CNN poll, 61% of Americans feel the decision to launch the invasion of Iraq was “not worth it”; 54% think the U.S. will not win there; 58% believe we should either withdraw “now” or “in a year”; in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 58% favor total withdrawal from Iraq either immediately or within 12 months. So it goes in poll after poll, while the President’s approval ratings continue their slow slide into the low 30s.
Let’s remember, by the way, that, unlike mainstream Democratic “withdrawal” plans, the American public is talking about actually leaving Iraq, as in that old, straightforward slogan of the Vietnam era: Out now! In other words, there is a hardly noted but growing gap — call it, in Vietnam-era-speak, a “credibility gap” — between the Washington consensus and what the American people believe should be done when it comes to Iraq.
Add in one more odd fact here: It’s possible that American public opinion is now actually closer in its conclusions to its Iraqi equivalent than to the Washington consensus. A number of recent polls, in which Iraqis expressed grim feelings about what has happened to their country, have been released and, like the American polls, they seem to reflect a belief that American forces are anything but “stabilizing” and an urge simply to have the Americans out. A PIPA September 2006 poll found “that seven in ten Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to commit to withdraw within a year.”
The question is, of course, will this public sea change someday be translated into actual policy?
This is part of a longer piece, “Demobilizing America,” at Tomdispatch.com on why public opinion about the Iraq War has become so strong and has diverged so much from the “Washington consensus,” while public protest has remained so relatively weak.