Back to home page
International Socialist Review Issue 41, MayJune 2005
For a Mass, Non-Exclusionary Movement
THE BUSH administration has in recent months embarked on a campaign to relegitimate its occupation of Iraq, and indeed its neocon-directed plans to “remake” the Middle East as a whole. It has done so by claiming that elections in Iraq and Palestine, the so-called “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, and moves toward limited reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia all represent the dawning of U.S.-inspired democracy throughout the Middle East.
As several articles in this issue of the ISR explain, the administration’s trumpeting of “democracy” in Iraq is little more than empty rhetoric, designed to justify its continued occupation of that country. Overwhelming American military power will guarantee U.S. authority to determine Iraq’s future as long as its occupation continues, whether elections take place or not. Indeed, the United States, as witnessed by its close ties to Pakistan, a military dictatorship, has an incomparable record of aiding and abetting dictators (including Saddam Hussein) around the world. The U.S. desires compliant client states that will allow the U.S. to further its own interests. If calls for democracy in Iraq help to justify the role of the U.S. as a conquering power, it will make use if this ideological cudgel.
This new propaganda offensive, however, has not made the Iraq occupation more popular domestically. A majority (53 percent according to an April CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll) says the situation in Iraq “was not worth going to war over.” And Bush himself is even less popular. Now only 44 percent of Americans now approve of his administration, the lowest for any reelected president in living memory, according to a mid-April Harris poll. In fact, everything Bush has attempted—from privatizing Social Security to his cynical manipulation of the Terri Schiavo case—has only undermined his support.
Nor has it fooled Iraqis, as evidenced by the massive anti-occupation demonstrations on April 9, the second anniversary of the U.S. takeover—including up to 300,000 in Baghdad and large protests in Najaf and Ramadi. As Walid Mohammad, imam of a Baghdad mosque, said of Iraq’s National Assembly in the New York Times, “No one thinks about what the Iraq people need. They all work for the occupier. Whatever America wants, that is what will happen in the end.”
Although the war has been thoroughly discredited in the minds of millions of Americans, some sections of the antiwar movement continue to retreat since Bush’s electoral victory. Some earlier opponents of the war in Iraq, eager not to offend an imaginary “ordinary American,” have moderated, if not abandoned, continued opposition to the occupation. Moveon.org, an organization that stumped for prowar John Kerry, finally took the next logical step and shifted its focus away from criticizing Bush’s Iraq policies to highlighting only domestic issues.
The Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), an organization that had been more clearly identified with opposition to the Iraq occupation, recently declared its opposition to the demand “Troops out now.” According to EPIC’s executive director Eric Gustafson, “An immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is not responsible. The only way out of Iraq is through sustained multilateral nation building.”
Anthony Arnove, from the ISR’s editorial board—who, along with several others, resigned from EPIC’s speakers’ bureau in protest over Gustafson’s statement—argued in an April 6 debate with Gustafson (which can be downloaded from the Traprock Peace Center Web site, at www.traprockpeace.org/iraq_debate_06april05.html):
Many of the people who spoke out against this invasion, marched on February 15, who opposed sanctions for years before that now are suggesting that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people, that the people who have been carrying out these abuses, these crimes, and have been involved in torture and killing, and, before that, in sanctions on Iraq, that the U.S. government, the military troops sent into Iraq should stay for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Thus, we confront a strange situation of the antiwar movement mobilizing against the war and then supporting an occupation that is a direct result of that war. I think it’s an incoherent position and one that we have to absolutely reject.
Either the U.S. has the right to occupy Iraq to determine Iraq’s future or Iraqis have the right to determine their own future. It is not possible to hold both positions.
This is not a new debate. During the early years of the anti-Vietnam War movement, there were sharp debates around the slogans “negotiations now,” or “out now.” At the 1965 mass Vietnam Day teach-in held in Berkeley, California, socialist Hal Draper debated liberal peace activist Robert Pickus. According to James Petras, who edited a collection of the speeches from the event,
[Pickus] said that he was opposed to U.S. violence in Vietnam, but he declined to support the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers. To oppose American intervention in Vietnam, as Hal Draper pointed out in his debate with Pickus, is to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. To call for it “later” (under whatever pretense) is to legitimatize violence in the here and now—since one cannot impose utopian dreams on what the U.S. army does in fighting a war of conquest. One would not be too irreverent to refer to this type of “peace” approach as “War now—peace later.”
Draper’s argument for immediate withdrawal could easily be addressed to a contemporary audience.
While formally opposing the occupation, a national antiwar organization United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) is not immune from the same logic. Many of UFPJ’s constituent organizations spent last year campaigning for pro-war John Kerry, to the detriment of the movement. Rather than concluding that campaigning for Kerry was a mistake, these organizations have followed the Democrats in searching for votes in America’s “conservative heartland.” As a result, UFPJ and its close ally, Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), have adopted a political perspective emphasizes appealing to Democratic politicians, most of whom support the continued occupation of Iraq. Even the PDA-supported Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who sponsored a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces said:
Let me be clear: I am not advocating a cut and run strategy. It would be irresponsible for the United States to abandon the Iraqi people. We must play a role in facilitating their transition to stable democracy. We ought to work with Iraq, the Arab League and the United Nations to create an international peacekeeping force that would keep Iraq secure.
It is hard to spot a difference (if there is one) between Woolsey’s position and EPIC’s.
But tailoring a political appeal so that it is acceptable to Democrats and liberals has the corollary effect of declaring as “unacceptable” other political positions and perspectives in the antiwar movement. And rather than encouraging debate and discussion about these issues within the movement, the (usually unelected) minorities directing different antiwar formations have used bureaucratic maneuvers to exclude and marginalize others who don’t share their political perspectives.
For instance, UFPJ leaders in New York City refused to endorse (and therefore, discouraged its supporters from attending) the March 19 demonstration in Central Park—the main protest in the country’s largest city on the second anniversary of the invasion—in part, they said, because “some of the early materials for this protest” contained “language about supporting the Iraqi resistance...a position strongly opposed by some groups in our coalition.”
No doubt, these objections came from pacifist groups tied to UFPJ; but it is also the case that some members of UFPJ’s leadership support the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which has collaborated with U.S. occupation by accepting positions in the Bremer and Allawi administrations.
Worse is the experience of Carl Webb. Webb is a soldier refusing to ship out to Iraq on grounds that he considers the war “an unethical and illegal aggression” for “oil and profits.” Some members of Military Families Speak Out, an important antiwar organization, cancelled Carl’s April 6 speaking engagements on the West Coast on the grounds that his Web site expressed support for Iraqis right to resist the U.S. occupation. In a similar vein, earlier this year, the MFSO declined to speak in Boston on the same platform as Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader—two of the country’s leading voices against the war—on the grounds that they were too radical.
This imposition of a political litmus test on participation in the movement has its historical precedents in the early anti-Vietnam War movement, which carried an overhang of 1950s McCarthyism. In contrast to liberal peace organizations, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) established an important principle of “non-exclusion” of communists, socialists, and other radicals from the ranks of antiwar activists. Respected long-time peace activist A.J. Muste outlined the political importance of non-exclusion to the movement:
In practice, a non-Communist coalition is in danger of becoming an anti-Communist one, though it may desire to avoid that. In any event, its program will in the long run tend to be moderate and its resistance to the war restrained in policy. It will tend to seek allies to the right. If by any chance its resistance to the war policy should be stiffened and become radical then it will find itself classified with the left, the “enemy,” anyway and in its actual withdrawal of support from the Administration and from the war actually will be in that revolutionary and noble position.
Perhaps antiwar movement leaders who decided to exclude radicals on political grounds, real or imagined, believe that they are acting in the best interests of the movement. But they are wrong. As Muste points out, the end result of this censorship is to tear out the guts of the movement—to remove from its center the people who are the most consistent and passionate opponents of the war. And let’s be clear: the effect isn’t only directed at self-proclaimed radicals and socialists. It also stifles the emergence of activists with a deeper and more thoroughgoing understanding of the war and what it will take to end it. When certain forces in the antiwar movement treat Carl Webb as persona non grata, what does this say to the thousands of soldiers in Iraq today who share Webb’s views? Will this give them confidence to speak out and to organize against the war? Of course not. The radical historian Manning Marable wrote that anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s “retarded the black movement for a decade or more.” We shouldn’t have to wait another decade to end the atrocity in Iraq.
Even the whole issue of how one supports the right of Iraqis to self-determination should be a topic of debate and discussion in the movement—and not a litmus test to determine who is entitled to speak on behalf of the movement. Many of the 300,000 Iraqis who demonstrated peacefully in Firdos Square on April 9 were followers of the fundamentalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. They had fought battles against U.S. troops in Najaf and other cities. Are we to determine that a peaceful demonstration is “good” resistance to the occupation, but that fighting against occupation troops when they attack your cities and homes is “bad” resistance? There is a long history of legitimate resistance, including armed resistance, to colonization and military occupation—from the American colonists who fought the British in 1776 to the Native American fighters who stood up against the colonization of their lands to the Vietnamese resistance to the “American war” in the 1960s. Unfortunately, instead of leaving it to the Iraqi people to decide how they will resist the occupation, leading spokespeople for the movement, such as Rahul Mahajan of UFPJ, have taken to referring to resistance fighters as “extremists”—a characterization that echoes that of the Bush administration.
Many will say that they “support the troops” and for that reason, they cannot support resistance in Iraq against them. When the Vietnam antiwar movement raised the slogan, “Support our troops, bring them home now,” this was clearly meant as an anti-imperialist slogan. It emphasized immediate withdrawal from Vietnam against those who called for negotiations with the North Vietnamese. But it did not imply support for what the troops were doing in Vietnam. Today, organizations like Operation Truth or Veterans for Common Sense (another endorser of the EPIC letter) try to evade this question by emphasizing issues like inadequate armor and equipment for U.S. troops in Iraq. While these issues expose the criminal willingness of the Rumsfelds and Bushes to sacrifice soldiers’ lives for their own agenda, it’s not good enough. That’s because the U.S. military is an occupying force in Iraq. Antiwar activist and Special Forces veteran Stan Goff reminds us in an April 2 CounterPunch essay what this means:
[The U.S. military]…has been used to enforce attacks and sanctions that are slouching toward a body count of 2 million, microtoxified the entire environment with a radioactive condiment that produces babies born without brains, slaughtered children in front of their parents and parents in front of their children, trashed the social and economic infrastructure, imprisoned thousands of people in indiscriminate round-ups (including children, by the way), subjected detainees to sexual humiliation, beatings, rape, murder, and other methods of systematic torture, bombed whole neighborhoods, kicked in the doors of sleeping families and waved guns at their infants and grandmothers, surrounded a city (Fallujah, in case WE forgot), then blocked the exits against “military-aged males,” who the U.S. armed forces then exterminated, Warsaw-style, by the thousands.
Of course many troops don’t like what they are being forced to do in Iraq. But as long as U.S. forces are in Iraq, they will be targets of attacks from Iraqis who want them to get out of their country. That is why we must insist that the only way to “support the troops” is for the U.S. to get out of Iraq now—not “when the situation stabilizes,” not when “Iraqis can take care of their own security”—but now.
What kind of movement?
A movement in which minorities seek to bureaucratically control what should be an expression of ordinary people’s commitment to end the war cannot develop the kind of depth and breadth it needs to end the war. It cannot accommodate to the positions of the prowar Democratic Party or else like MoveOn.org it risks abandoning its principled opposition to the war and occupation. It cannot be built on the basis of accepting some version of U.S. occupation, and it cannot be built without the open and democratic structures that allow it to breathe and grow in an atmosphere of open inclusion and serious debate and education.
The time has come for an open and honest debate in the antiwar movement about what kind of movement we need and how we can build it. To ISR, the critical issues are these. We must reaffirm that the movement’s key demand should be “Troops out now.” Second, we need to build a mass and grassroots movement that maintains its organizational and political independence from the Democratic Party. Third, we should seek to build an open and non-exclusionary movement that debates differences within it rather than seek to stifle them. Fourth, we must support resistance inside the U.S. military, especially those brave soldiers who have spoken out and have refused to participate in the occupation and subjugation of another people. We also need to strengthen resistance at home, for example, in the fight to get military recruiters out of our high schools and colleges. Fifth, we must support self-determination for Iraqis. Only they can determine the future of their country. And only they can determine how they will resist its colonial occupation. Finally, we must reaffirm our support for our own right to dissent at home and to defend the rights of Arabs and Muslims whose civil liberties have been under continued assault. We believe these points provide an outline for a stronger antiwar movement—something that we crucially need today.