What, realistically, can the antiwar movement accomplish right now? Tom Andrews, a former Congressman from Maine and national director of the Win Without War coalition, answers the question without hesitation: “We can stop this war.”
For the first time since the Iraq War began, activists are optimistic–and getting serious about the political process. With Bush proposing an escalation and a Democratic Congress that owes its new majority, at least in part, to antiwar sentiment, everyone agrees that there has never been a better opportunity to end this tragic policy. Fresh from January 27’s successful demonstration in Washington, the peace movement is now focusing all of its organizing energies on–and dedicating serious resources to–the people who truly have the power to stop the war: members of Congress.
At this writing, numerous resolutions are floating around the Hill, 800 peace activists working with United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) are meeting with more than 270 Congressional representatives and MoveOn.org has called a Virtual March, in which constituents will flood Capitol Hill with 1 million calls against the war on February 1. MoveOn, Win Without War, the Service Employees International Union and other groups have launched Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, an $8 million- $10 million campaign that will organize constituents in twenty to twenty-five states to pressure fence-sitting legislators. The effort, explains Tom Matzzie, MoveOn.org Political Action’s Washington director, is “very intense, modeled a lot on a presidential campaign.” In another of this war’s firsts, active members of the military have joined the fight. Says Jonathan Hutto, founder of the active-duty troops’ group Appeal for Redress, which advocates a political rather than a military resolution of the Iraq War, politicians “don’t usually hear from us. Soldiers are trained to be grunts. But now is the time.”
The battle for public opinion on the Iraq War is over–not so much because of the antiwar movement’s work but because the situation in Iraq has proved so disastrous. Many mainstream journalists, pundits and politicians now speak against the war as eloquently and convincingly as peace activists do. Only 17 percent of the American people agree with Bush’s current escalation plan. The challenge is to translate that power into a change in policy. Until now, the antiwar forces have had fewer than five full-time Washington lobbyists. But much of the antiwar movement now agrees that there is no contradiction, or conflict, between chanting in the streets and lobbying in the halls of Congress. An impressive showing of demonstrators in DC (UFPJ says half a million) along with the thousands of smaller local protests over the past few weeks bolsters the lobbying effort, showing that peace activists are an impassioned constituency, while protests would be meaningless without additional pressure on politicians.
Success, however, is not assured. A tentative majority in Congress opposes the Bush policy, but there’s a world of difference between supporting a nonbinding resolution and blocking appropriations. That’s why the effort to persuade Congress will require such a massive grassroots campaign. “If we had to vote right now on defunding the war,” MoveOn’s Matzzie said recently, “we would lose. We have to be very strategic and smart.” He sighs. “I have nightmares about the gap between what we need to do and what we are doing. I lose sleep over this.”
There are some within the peace movement who believe that Congressional Democrats will never agree to stop funding the war. They may be right. (As demonstrators assembled in Washington, Senator Hillary Clinton, in Iowa, dismissed the call to cut off funding as a “soundbite.”) Given the Democrats’ trepidation about appearing to cut off support for the troops, some antiwar strategists argue that the movement should shift the focus of its lobbying from defunding the war to funding a real plan for withdrawal.
It’s worth thinking, too, about the broader mission of an antiwar movement. Author and blogger Rahul Mahajan, of UFPJ’s steering committee (speaking for himself, not the organization), worries that unlike in the Vietnam era, today’s peace movement has had little success in getting Americans to rethink the role of the United States in the world. He’s right. The talking point among some Democrats is that while the United States has been so generous, those damned Iraqis have screwed up the war. That way of thinking isn’t going help us avoid further misadventures in imperial arrogance. It’s hardly reassuring to hear Iraq War opponents like Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards say that for Iran, “we must keep all options on the table.” Stopping the war in Iraq is important, but to truly make the world a safer place, we need to change the conversation.