War': A Full Throated Cry
By Robert Jensen
17 August, 2003
months ago, U.S. President George Bush made his "Top Gun"
appearance on a U.S. aircraft carrier to announce that the war in Iraq
was over, and no doubt he assumed the anti-war movement was finished,
too. Wrong, on both counts.
The U.S. "liberation"
of Iraq has given way to a guerilla war against an occupation army that
grows increasingly unpopular at home, while at the same time the lies,
distortions and disinformation that Bush used to justify going to war
are beginning to unravel. Americans haven't taken to the streets as
they did before the war, but anti-war organisers are making progress
both on long-term movement-building and planning for actions this fall.
continues to exist in the U.S. broad space for dissenting political
activity. While the Bush administration's abuse of the civil and human
rights of prisoners at home and Guantanamo Bay goes on, the large-scale
repression of civil liberties and free expression that many predicted
after 9/11 hasn't materialised. Arab, South Asian and Muslim men in
the U.S. still have reason to fear arbitrary detention and deportation,
but most Americans (especially white, middle-class folks) who speak
out risk nothing more than an unkind word from friends or co-workers.
In short: Americans
are generally free to speak and organise; a small but committed group
of activists is doing just that; and there are reasons to believe public
opinion is shifting, albeit slowly. Bush's approval rating has dropped
to 58 per cent in the latest Gallup Poll, down from around 70 per cent
during the Iraq war and the post-9/11 high of 90 per cent.
Hany Khalil, the
Iraq campaign coordinator for United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and
a member of the collective that produces the national anti-war publication
War Times summed it up this way: "After the invasion, people, understandably,
were discouraged for a while, and the level of public protest naturally
fell off. But there was still organising going on. People saw the need
for a long-term, broad-based coalition, and UFPJ started the discussions
and organising work to do that. Now people are seeing that Bush isn't
invulnerable, that we have a chance to end the occupation if the global
anti-war movement works together."
is supported by the results of the UFPJ organising conference in June,
which demonstrated that this wing of the movement had a coherent critique
of the many facets of the U.S. empire: diplomatic, military and economic.
The conference agreed on three priorities: a campaign to end the occupation
of Iraq; a focus on immigrant rights and civil liberties; and a commitment
to connecting the peace movement with the struggle against corporate
For many, if not
most, of the people associated with UFPJ, defeating George Bush in the
2004 presidential election also is an important goal. But the question
of how central to make that project highlights some differences within
the anti-war movement. In general, UFPJ has become the home to those
with a more radical analysis (but who don't identify with traditional
left-sectarian political groups), while the Win Without War coalition
has been the base for more mainstream opponents of the war, many of
who identify as Democrats.
Embedded in that
question is a crucial issue: Does the Bush administration pose a unique
threat that is qualitatively different from past administrations?
It's easy to argue
that the ideological fanaticism of the neo-conservatives who are steering
the Bush ship (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz) is a serious enough
threat to push everyone to vote Democratic. Even many radical activists
who typically see few meaningful differences between Republicans and
Democrats are hinting they will offer at least some support to any Democrat
who challenges Bush (though many people choke at the possibility, no
matter how slim, of Sen. Joseph Lieberman the only Democrat who
possibly could oust Bush Bush heading the ticket). But should
this be the primary focus of the anti-war movement?
The difference between
the two goes deeper than electoral strategy. For example, on its web
page, the Win Without War coalition states, "We reject the doctrine
a reversal of long-held American tradition that our country,
alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks. America is not
that kind of country."
Throughout its history,
of course, America has been exactly that kind of country. Built on the
nearly complete extermination of indigenous people, the United States
went on to invade countless nations in Latin America to secure its hemispheric
power, later extending that project to the world through direct and
The difference is
not mere nit-picking over words, but highlights a fundamental question
for organisers in the United States today: Is it politically strategic
to fudge about the fundamental character of the United States, to play
to mainstream America's distorted sense of itself and the country's
history? Or, should the movement attempt to shift the framework in which
most Americans understand the world?
of this is a strange nostalgia for the Clinton administration, even
among many progressives, based in the belief that Clinton was somehow
an anti-imperialist who avoided unilateral action. Clinton, we might
recall, was the president who launched illegal and unilateral missile
strikes against Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, and whose U.N. Ambassador
(and later Secretary of State), Madeline Albright, once announced the
United States would act "multilaterally when we can and unilaterally
when we must".
Compared with Bush,
of course, virtually any U.S. politician looks attractive in international
affairs. But it's crucial to realise that Clinton was engaged in empire-building
every bit as much as Bush, just through different strategies. And we
should remember that if Clinton, Gore or any other Democrat had been
in office on 9/11, it's not at all clear that they would not have exploited
the situation and used the military to expand U.S. power.
For the time being,
both camps of the movement are sponsoring a variety of campaigns, but
as the 2004 election draws closer these differences will emerge as more
important. And the common positions also will continue:
A general rejection
of war as a means of imposing U.S. control on the world, resistance
to the erosion of civil liberties, and a commitment to expanding citizen
participation in democracy.
handlers keep the spin machine running at full speed: Whether or not
the famed weapons of mass destruction are ever found, officials say,
the liberation of the Iraqi people justified the invasion, and a stable
peace is just around the corner. Or, maybe around the corner and down
the hall. Or maybe around the corner, down the hall, out the back door,
and down the street somewhere. But rest assured, the U.S. public is
told, that the "remnants" of the Hussein regime that are causing
trouble will be eliminated, leading to an Iraqi democracy. Never mind
that the resistance to U.S. occupation extends far beyond Baath Party
supporters, and that many Iraqis see the United States as an impediment
to real democracy.
As Bush's fairy
tales wear increasingly thin for more and more Americans, the challenge
for organisers is to be ready to channel that anti-Bush energy into
a serious popular anti-empire movement.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor
at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com