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The only high-level questions being raised concerning White House war plans were from a collection of conservatives and generals critiquing the politics and logistics of an invasion. Whose bases should we demand to use? Do we bomb first or launch a ground invasion? Would American soldiers be home in time for lunch? This was the visible debate on Iraq only two months ago.
Then came the surprise of late September. Congress is inundated with constituent visits, phone calls, letters, cards, faxes and e-mails, a volume not seen in years. Public sentiment is running strongly against invasion—by several estimates, an average of 90 percent opposed, with well over 99 percent in some districts.
As the bags of mail kept piling higher, the reports from overseas started coming in. In Germany: An unpopular incumbent chancellor wins re-election largely by campaigning against Bush’s war, and his minority coalition partner, the Green Party, wins a record number of parliamentary seats. Across the Muslim world, major protest marches are held. In Europe, too. The only government committed to supporting U.S. attack plans, Great Britain, witnesses perhaps 400,000 opponents in the streets of London on September 28; other European protests occur in Berlin, Dublin and Madrid. The next weekend, 1.5 million march across Italy—a direct rebuke to conservative ruler Silvio Berlusconi, Bush’s only other noticeably sympathetic European leader.
Back in the United States, Bush is dogged by protesters in every city he visits; as many as 3,000 showed up September 27 in Denver, that city’s biggest protest in years. By October 6, streets are thick with anti-war gatherings. Big cities: thousands, even tens of thousands, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Boston. And smaller cities: Austin, Hartford, Tulsa, Fresno, Buffalo, Fort Wayne. A hundred people in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Moreover, some big media outlets actually reported what attendees already knew: Many of the protesters were new at it, people of all ages and cultures and occupations who’ve rarely marched for or against anything. Unlike late September’s anti-IMF/World Bank protests in Washington, the dominant TV images of Iraq protests haven’t been heavily armored robocops and ski-masked miscreants. They’ve been children, dogs, playful puppets and signs.
And fear. Anger. Outrage. A lot of it, often from people who looked nostalgic for the ’90s, not the ’60s. In an astonishingly short timespan, something has happened. But what? And can it continue? Grow? Change policy?
Already, the anti-invasion impulse—it’s not a movement, yet—has changed one important political calculation in Washington. The Bush administration will get its resolution for war out of Congress (at press time, the House had already given its approval). But it will have cost the White House more political chits than Karl Rove ever expected. The Bush team’s unexpected need to hustle this time has been a direct result of the unprecedented flood of public opinion, and the ability of an anti-war movement, which attracted dozens to rallies over the summer, to turn out broad community cross-sections five weeks later.
How did that happen? Partly credit latent anger over the Bush agenda, especially the extreme positions and at times insultingly banal justifications staked out by the White House. But protesters also are furious with the utter lack of any meaningful Democratic opposition, the party’s failure to muster more than a weak “Me, too” in the face of each fresh Bush administration outrage, going back to the stolen 2000 election.
Notably, grassroots activists on both the left and right also have learned to rely on and refine political mobilizing of the public via the Internet in ways traditional Beltway politicos generally don’t yet understand. The wave of anti-war sentiment has been unlike anything Washington has seen in decades: a sudden outpouring of opposition not coordinated or championed by any one group, any prominent politicians or media outlets, or even any well-established advocacy network. It seemed to materialize from thin air.
But the ability to generate such a movement isn’t the same as influencing government policy. A representative democracy can work one of two ways: Either a leader is expected to represent the wishes of her constituents, or she is elected and entrusted to use her best judgment on the issues of the day, on the basis of information not apparent to most of us. By raw numbers, polls show an increasing number of Americans opposing an Iraq invasion, period, and a solid majority opposing invasion without international support. (Excepting Tony Blair, such global support is completely absent—a stunningly rare display of global unanimity.)
So the only conceivably legitimate reason, then, for congressional approval of these resolutions has been because lawmakers know something we don’t. With the seriousness of the issue we face, and the enormous chasm between public opinion and Congress, we are at the very least owed an explanation, a hint of what that missing information might be.
No such public explanation has been offered by Bush. A number of lawmakers from allied countries—who’ve heard the administration’s best private pitch for war—say there is nothing else. Tony Blair’s September “dossier” on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction reads not as its advertised call to arms, but as a hearty endorsement of the effectiveness of U.N. weapons inspections programs in the mid-’90s. White House rationalizations, in the face of mounting dissent, have relied ever more heavily on name-calling and emotion and increasingly less on fact. (For instance, if the United States has knowledge of such dangerous Iraqi facilities, why are neighboring countries so unconcerned?)
White House emotionalism culminated (so far) in an allegedly comprehensive prime-time national speech in Cincinnati on October 7. There, before a hand-picked audience, Bush answered the question of “Why Now?” with a ludicrous and unsubstantiated claim that Iraq could launch an attack on U.S. soil at any moment. How? The public hasn’t been told—not because the information is classified, but because it doesn’t exist.
The result has been that across America, lapsed liberals, soccer moms and expense-account dads, military veterans and Americans of all stripes have had their nonsense detectors triggered. Too many of us seem to know what the proponents of invasion seem not to: War is not a game. War is not a first resort, and it should not be fought for short-term political gain or the financial benefit of one’s buddies or to distract the public from a horrible economy or to satisfy one’s repressed desires to see big things go boom or to avenge Daddy’s humiliation.
But the challenge of the burgeoning anti-war movement is to make the deep and broad base of anti-Bush anger relevant to Washington—to gain enough influence and leverage to overcome that lack of accountability and, in the future, change policy. It’s a formidable task. Successful lobbying requires not only money, but personal relationships, time and trust. A Beltway political culture fueled by tradition, clubbiness and inertia is not about to reverse itself on a critical issue over a movement with no history, no proven staying power, and a core constituency far outside the American political mainstream.
Opponents have already begun to effectively challenge some of those concerns. The kids, dogs and grandmothers at the rallies and on camera have helped. Parallel outrage over a trampled Constitution helps position critics as embracing American ideals, not sneering at them. Protest leaders have, mercifully, stayed on message rather than insisting that opposing an Iraq invasion is inseparable from one or another vision of an ideal world.
The general restraint and clear focus is a surprise and a blessing, particularly at demonstrations originally called by groups, like Not In Our Name and the International Action Center, with roots in the reflexive jargon of the sectarian left. Such groups have a history of alienating potential allies; at this point, the urgency of the task so overwhelms ideological divisions that patriots, pacifists, Trotskyists and people with no particular political leanings at all have able to work together. That unity and focus will be harder to sustain. And a surge largely born of the Internet must discover how to effectively bring in people not already plugged in; search engines lead the public to the organizers, but they don’t lead organizers to the public.
The start of war itself also looms as an enormous challenge; it collapsed the broadest part of the anti-war movement during the Gulf War, in part because the pre-war protest message of “Support the Troops, Not the War” boxed liberals in. Despite a few early rallies, broad opposition never really materialized against the bombing of Afghanistan either. The White House is counting on the patriotic surge that will accompany any combat to erase all doubt, and it also sees the image of Dubya as “the man who rid the world of Saddam Hussein” as its automatic ticket to a second term.
All those barriers to political effectiveness are new territory for activists accustomed more to using activism as a means of moral witness or emotional venting than drafting legislation. The task is to turn that outrage into a component of a carefully calculated strategy to improve or reverse policy. Anti-war activists have never been known for their ability to craft messages with populist appeal, play insider political games, stick with single messages or issues, keep an apolitical public interested, or to plot several steps (or years) ahead. And opponents of U.S. militarism also don’t have an extensive track record of winning.
The good news is that a congressional vote doesn’t end the invasion debate. In many ways, it has just started. With time, the ability of this newfound surge to tap into popular anti-Bush discontent may be far greater than we’ve witnessed. And if Washington does not understand the depth of popular discontent—or a new generation’s decentralized organizing tactics and creativity—it is also far less likely to be able to contain it.
Most importantly, and hopefully, there is new blood—in the good sense. Thousands, perhaps millions of people are calling or writing elected officials or holding a placard or candle in public for the first time. Stopping an “inevitable” war, or even sidetracking it significantly, might be the best news imaginable for our anemic democracy. Ours is a generation long-reconciled to the belief that in America, ordinary people cannot make a difference in the decisions affecting our lives. Maybe, just maybe, we still can.
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