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Where the Peace Movement Went Wrong
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
May 15, 2003

I was very glad to see the pictures of Iraqis celebrating freedom from Saddam's dictatorship. Not because it changes my view that this war was the wrong decision, but at least it means that for some Iraqis the death and devastation of their cities is offset by their immediate freedom from Saddam's yoke.

The problem for the peace movement is that they failed to argue persuasively that death and war was not the best option to achieve this goal, instead leaving a lot of the US population with the sense that the choice was between the war and inaction, which ended up tilting many moderates reluctantly to the war camp.

For many Americans, the war involved fighting a brutal regime that abused its own people and has a history of invading neighbors. That the Bush leadership may have other nastier intentions is separate from that obvious issue, which many liberal people can distinguish from even conscious misgivings about the Bush administration.

The antiwar argument had to be about whether there was an alternative way to achieve the goal of a freer and more democratic Iraq (and questioning the good faith of war proponents to achieve that result).

The Emptiness of "No War" Sloganeering: The antiwar movement lost the argument on timing and on the efficacy of alternative means of addressing peoples broad concerns on Iraq. And I attribute that partly to their simplistic focus on "no war" unity over developing a more sophisticated positive message that also would have required more outreach to non-rallygoers (and probably less focus on rallies).

And I continue to argue with a range of activist friends that when we allowed groups like the Workers World Party that had defended the Hussein regime in the past to lead some of the antiwar rallies, many folks who don't like Hussein rightly could think that such a movement has no real plan for an alternative challenge to Hussein's regime.

The left in this country has an honorable history of leading the fight internationally for human rights. From challenges to Belgium's mass murder in the Congo at the end of the 19th century (led by among others Mark Twain) to denunciations of the fascist regimes in Europe in the 1930s to attacks on colonialism in the 1950s to denunciations of death squads in El Salvador and Apartheid in South Africa, the left has always called for challenges to bad regimes.

Progressives have usually supported nonviolent means as a way to do so, arguing that it was misguided support for such regimes early on that get them to the point of becoming so dangerous that war is the only answer. This point is obvious in the case of US support for both bin Laden and Hussein in the 1980s.

But to merely point out past US complicity is not enough. If we oppose war, we need a far clearer roadmap for the public on how we would support those who resist oppression. There is absolutely nothing wrong with humanitarian interventionism in principle -- the left has believed in it for centuries. What is opposed is its use on behalf of corporate interests in a violent form, when non-violent solidarity is both more likely to lead to a just result and imposes less cost on the population.

But in the case of Iraq, the lack of organizing of that global solidarity and lack of an articulated plan on how to help those resisting Hussein is exactly what strengthened the warhawks in arguing that their method was the only way to "liberate Iraq." In practice and in message, there was little or no message by the antiwar movement on how they were acting in solidarity with the oppressed people within Iraq.

And that was the fatal flaw of antiwar organizing.

The Defection of Moderates to the Pro-War Position: That was a substantial reason that large chunks of even liberal opinion moved into supporting the war. You can excuse it by saying they were all misinformed by the media and such, but it's worth understanding and emphasizing that three months ago, only about one-third of the public supported war without significant global support, as signified by UN endorsement, and now an additional 40% of the public now supports this unilateral Bush intervention. It was the failure of the antiwar forces to hold that 40% of the public that needs to be analyzed.

The "Win Without War" folks somewhat took on this challenge but by the time it was organized, it was a bit too little too late. The neoconservative warhawks had been doing their intellectual outreach for years, publishing books, holding policy conferences, organizing at their grassroots, to solidify an ostensibly moral basis for their position (even if its a disingenuous position), while the left was largely throwing its critique together on the fly.

The Left was flatly outorganized on this issue and not because they had fewer resources but because they just didn't even do the organizing necessary or engage in serious intellectual engagement. Which is why it was claimed that the only "unity" position possible was the simplistic "no war" message and thus anyone, including pro-Hussein propagandists like the WWP, could speak in the name of that antiwar message. It was too thin a message and failed.

I opposed this war for a whole range of reasons, moral, realpolitik and geopolitical. On the moral side, I thought that there was a non-war alternative through continuing to press for change on behalf of the Iraqi people through the United Nations or other methods, such as support for internal resistance (and critique the first Bush and Clinton administration for failing in that). On the realpolitick side, this war is unlikely to lead to a real democratic alternative, both because of Bush's disingenuous motives and precisely because it was unilateral, Iraqi nationalism is more likely to be channeled in response into authoritarian counter-responses over time. And geopolitically, the war in Iraq endangers both US residents and others around the world by stoking hatred and strengthening authoritarian movements that will find ideological sustenance denouncing our actions.

Stop Preaching to the Converted: Bits and pieces of this response were scattered across antiwar analysis, but it was marginal to the simplistic "no war" legalisms and "unity" rhetoric with forces that excluded such analysis. Speeches at rallies I went to were preaching to the converted, not speaking to those less convinced of Bush's complete perfidy and for whom an actual argument was necessary.

While I did work supporting the mass rallies, there should have been broader mass outreach to the unconverted middle, whether door-to-door, going to community meetings, or just talking on street corners to those who would listen. The deemphasis on door knocking and the attached organizing is the exact problem with the strategy of much of the antiwar left that preferred to talk to itself at rallies or in its existing media circle rather than reach out to new people.

That needs to change and quickly. And it can start by the peace movement concentrating now on what we can do to guarantee that the Iraqi people get the democracy they have been promised, keep control of their oil resources, and escape their country's debt which largely went to the Western governments and companies that armed the military we just fought. The left needs that positive agenda for true liberation, not merely a defensive "no" as its reflexive organizing response.

Nathan Newman is a union lawyer, longtime community activist, and author of the just published book Net Loss [Penn State Press] on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

Posted by Nathan at May 15, 2003 08:54 PM