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Activists protest Obama's drone war during his January 2013 inauguration in Washington D.C. Recent talk of intervention in Syria has refueled the anti-drone movement. (Debra Sweet/Flickr)

Will Syria Re-Energize the Anti-Drone Movement?

Buoyed by the Syria outcome, anti-war groups are charging ahead.

BY Cole Stangler

'This is a war that kills, this is a war that maims, this is a war that has its collateral damage and its victims in spades—even the occasional American citizen who ends up being killed in these attacks without due process.'

On Wednesday, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) called the temporary blocking of a military intervention in Syria the greatest victory for the peace movement since the end of the war in Vietnam.

Grayson, who helped lead opposition in Congress, made the remarks at a monthly roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill organized by Progressive Democrats of America. “I feel very happy that we set a precedent that I think will demonstrate to our peace movement how to succeed,” Grayson later told In These Times. “One of the great shortcomings of modern life for progressives is the near absence of success. And I think here’s a concrete example of where a popular movement made a difference.”

The president struggled to obtain a pro-war majority in Congress, where only 23 senators and 25 House representatives came out in support of a bombing campaign. The tepid response Obama’s proposal has received in Congress so far echoes polls that show a wide majority of Americans opposed to an intervention. Many legislators have cited those polling figures in addition to the phone calls they received urging a ‘no vote’ as motivation for their opposition to an intervention. Now that Syria supports a Russian proposal to place its chemical weapons under international control, the United States has, at least for now, prioritized diplomacy over what once seemed like imminent preparations for war. The permanent members of the UN Security Council are now working out the details of a proposal to monitor Syria’s weapons.

Like other peace activists, CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin observes how the potential intervention in Syria sparked a revival of the anti-war movement—a once-thriving coalition of organizations that has lost numbers, momentum and often struggled to articulate common positions with a Democrat in the White House. The amount of coordination and consensus that groups like CODEPINK, Win Without War, MoveOn and others reached on Syria harkens back to the anti-war movement during the Iraq War years, several organizers said.

“The peace movement has been very weak after Obama came in,” Benjamin says. “In fact, many organizations fell apart or were just a shell of their former selves. And in a week’s time, so many of them just sprung to life again. MoveOn, which hasn’t been involved in peace work and [whom we] couldn’t get interested in working with us on the drone campaign or even opposing the surge in Afghanistan, all of a sudden appeared and started helping to organize over 100 vigils. And so I think it’s amazing to see—with the divisions that existed within the progressive movement and organizations struggling to decide whether to oppose Obama, especially ones that have been very close to the Democratic Party—what we did accomplish.”

Stephen Miles, the coordinator of the Win Without War coalition, which formed in opposition to the Iraq War, thinks the anti-war bridge-building around Syria is “not so much a dramatic change as a reactivation and a return to focus. … A lot of the connections [between anti-war groups] have remained … so that when there was a moment of crisis, we were able to use that foundation to jump into action, then to expand and to work with players who hadn’t been as engaged in some of our other fights.”

Benjamin believes that the debate over Syria could push a number of Democratic members of Congress to become more outspoken on foreign policy issues. “I think the fact that … Democrats have stood up to the Obama administration has now set a precedent and it will be easier to get them to stand up again,” she says. “Usually they’re so reluctant to secondguess the president.”

Benjamin is optimistic that the success of the push against intervention in Syria could bring much-needed attention to the other issues her group works on: closing Guantanamo, ending drone strikes or speeding the planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. She says that some feasible short-term goals for the anti-war movement include freeing the detainees eligible for release at Guantanamo, ending the CIA’s use of drones and the practice of “signature strikes,” and bringing more transparency to these targeted killing programs—demands that don’t necessarily require passing legislation, since the administration has the power to change its own practices.

“It can be enough to have champions in Congress who are going to really push these issues with the administration, especially if they’re on key committees,” Benjamin says. “We’re having a Drone Summit November 16 and 17, and before these issues around Syria, I was saying, ‘Oh, it’s not even worth it to try and get Congress people to come; they’re not going to want to be seen as speaking out against the administration’s policies.’ And now I feel totally differently. Now I feel like, ‘Yes, let’s push them to come to the drone summit. Let’s get them to be our champions.’ ”

One of those champions, at least on the issue of targeted killings, could very well be Grayson, who sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In These Times asked the congress member if he was interested in addressing and reining in the administration’s use of drones.

“Yes, that’s up for debate,” Grayson answered. ”It’s clear now that we’ve killed over 100 children in these drone attacks. It’s difficult to characterize these children as, in any sense, Al-Qaeda members. And the problem with drone attacks is that it makes warfare almost invisible to everyone except the victims. The Obama administration has used drones according to published reports over 100 times in Pakistan and in Yemen. And what they’ve created was the same sort of secret war that we ended up condemning Nixon for in Cambodia. This is a war that kills, this is a war that maims, this is a war that has its collateral damage and its victims in spades—even the occasional American citizen who ends up being killed in these attacks without due process.”

Congressional oversight over the administration’s use of drones is restricted to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and even committee members receive only limited classified information. For the most part, Congress has shown little interest in drones, holding its first-ever hearings on the topic this year—although the U.S. government adopted drones for targeted killings over a decade ago, shortly after 9/11. The Senate Judiciary Committee held the first two hearings—one in March on the coming introduction of drones into domestic airspace, while the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held another in April devoted to targeted killings (which the administration notably skipped out on). In May, the Congressional Progressive Caucus organized a separate hearing on drones. These hearings generated calls for greater transparency and federal oversight.

Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and opponent of intervention in Syria, is relieved that the United States isn’t at war. But he is more skeptical about any positive long-term implications of blocking a war in Syria—at least when it comes to achieving anything substantial in Congress.

“I think it was important that progressives led the charge on the issue of Syria, and on non-intervention.” Grijalva says. “I think all those points were correct, and we benefited from the fact that we were out in front early. But the Tea Party and the hard Right [were] also totally opposed. And I don’t think that same context will come together on the issue of military spending. On the contrary, many of the Tea Party leaders are saying that should waive the sequestration for military spending because that is and should be a priority.”

“So to say that the coalition, for lack of a better word, will come together significantly on other issues—particularly military spending or peace initiatives in other areas—I’m not real optimistic about that. I think we come at these issues [differently] philosophically and with a different context in Syria. I don’t know how much of their context was anti-Obama as it was concern for the intervention.”

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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