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What’s Next

Across the country, legions of newly motivated anti-war activists now turn ... to what?

Geov Parrish

In thousands of cities and towns, millions of people—many of them new to activism—marched, vigiled, prayed, lobbied. War on Iraq happened anyway. And many Americans judged the war to be successful.

In 1991 a similar scenario led to discouragement and dropping out. Bill Clinton defeated George Bush I the following year despite, not because of, Bush’s war record. The months and years after Clinton’s elections were the darkest days since the ’50s for many organized peace groups. There was virtually no activist carryover from the momentum of the first Gulf War.

2003 promises to be different. Comparisons between 1991 and 2003 suggests that despite the emotional burden of having watched a war unfold over their objections, and as polls register solid and increasing pro-war sentiment, more among this generation of peace activists will be in it for the long haul. Activism itself has changed; with the Internet, activists are much more aware of and connected to each other and to the rest of the world.

Unlike the first Gulf War, America’s military strike was and has remained unpopular in almost every other country in the world. In Europe, in East Asia, in Latin America—not to mention the entire Muslim world—anti-American and anti-war sentiment actually increased during the war, as each day their media showed the disconnect between military pronouncements and the reality of what was unfolding, in a way not apparent in the United States itself. Outside our borders, skepticism of future American military aims is nearly universal.

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The perception of those aims, of course, is the biggest difference. The 1991 effort to liberate Kuwait was presented as a reactive police measure; it came at a time when the end of the Cold War was seen to pose an opportunity for long-overdue global peace, not a threat of unilateral superpower invasions. But this time, although some in the Bush administration are insisting that Iraq is sui generis and the U.S. focus will now be on Middle East peace and rebuilding Iraq, any number of others, including the neocons Bush seems to have cast his lot with, are very loudly debating who, not what, should be next.

The bid to topple Saddam came in the framework of an endless “war on terror” that concerns many not only for its military aggressiveness but for its domestic components as well. There are other ominous war clouds: Hawks whose now-public rhapsodies on the global benefits of American Empire envision an endless military campaign for global hegemony with or without any war on terror; war-induced humanitarian and reconstruction issues in Iraq; and the reality of continuing field combat action by U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Philippines and—despite Bush’s declaration of “victory”—Iraq itself. New activists have no shortage of reasons to continue agitating.

The other major difference between the protesters of Gulf Wars I and II is demographics. A number of the reasons for opposing Dubya’s invasion concerned not just peaceniks, but people who were neither reflexively anti-military nor anti-Bush. They were skeptical of the disingenuousness of the Bush administration’s shifting rationales; the lack of an imminent threat to U.S. security; global disapproval (as epitomized in the U.N. Security Council); and the doctrines of “pre-emptive” invasion and unilateral “regime change.” The demographics of those attending public protests were broader, and often older and less counter-cultural, than the politics from the stage. Such trends may favor more of war’s opponents having a long-term perspective and commitment.

The ad hoc coalitions and local groups that have mushroomed in recent months now face the rocky prospect of connecting with or transforming themselves into groups equipped for the longer haul. It is a task of shifting from emergency responses to measured ones, from decrying public policies to attempting to change them, from battling political power to wielding it. It’s also a task of recognizing that, far from failing, America’s peace movement over the past several months had an enormous impact, even though it had virtually no existing organization, few champions among politicians or mass media, and faced staggering political odds.

Along with the global peace movement, its domestic counterpart was instrumental in forcing the Bush administration to deal with the United Nations; allowing even small, aid-dependent countries to stand up to U.S. diplomatic bullying, bribes and threats; and, finally, forcing the United States and Britain to wage their war in nearly complete global isolation. Even more significantly, global and domestic opinion helped force Bush to go from “shock and awe” tactics to genuine efforts—though neither were uniformly applied nor uniformly successful—to avoid civilian casualties. Without the domestic and worldwide peace movements, many, many more Iraqi civilians may have died.

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“A lot of the criticism that’s been leveled at the peace movement is that it’s too negative,” says Scott Lynch, a spokesperson for Peace Action. Lynch’s group has already identified three major planks to focus on for shifting U.S. foreign policy: reducing weapons of mass destruction, greater international cooperation, and a greater emphasis on human rights and democracy, particularly regarding the arms trade. Peace Action is also cooperating with TomPaine.com, TrueMajority.org and Rock the Vote on a drive to conduct voter registration among peace activists.

Groups like Win Without War have already involved a variety of progressive constituents: the Sierra Club, NOW, religious leaders and some facets of organized labor. United for Peace and Justice, another of the broad coalitions that came together in recent months to oppose the invasion, is hosting constituent groups in a June conference in Chicago to discuss future directions and group efforts. Lynch envisions a broader effort among progressive activists of all types: “If they don’t work together, not only will Republicans remain in office, but it tends to suck all the oxygen out of the air, and money out of the budget. … They have to be invested in addressing foreign policy, because Republicans can use it as a large stick to beat down a lot of the domestic issues.”

At the local level—where cities, counties and every one of the 50 states face urgent budget crises caused in part by federal cutbacks and economic policies—the link between military spending and domestic priorities is receiving a lot of attention. “There is bound to be another military action of one sort or another, because Iraq was part of a larger war for hegemony and effort to control resources,” says Tim Kingston of Global Exchange. “Any sort of peace campaign that is pro-education or pro-public health has to be bound up with foreign policy, because so many resources are going into the military and tax cuts.”

But Kingston doesn’t see a mass return to the pre-9/11 focus on global trade groups like the WTO and IMF: “Where that was previously focused on rulemakers, it’s now on ending the war.” For their part, Global Exchange and Rainforest Action Network—both of whom have histories of direct action rather than lobbying—are preparing to launch a post-invasion corporate accountability campaign, demanding that major automakers dramatically raise fuel efficiency standards. (Taking the notion further, a recent Earth First! Journal cover proclaimed, “No Blood OR Oil!”)

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Beyond all the issues, an election looms. Even though Lynch touts Peace Action’s own work as having appeal beyond its progressive base, he has a narrower ambition for 2004. “We want to reach out to the natural constituencies of the Democrats,” he says of Peace Action’s voter registration effort. “Democrats haven’t been doing their jobs. We want to build a large, progressive-left coalition.”

Most opponents of war—whether they are focused on electoral politics or not—had no connection before last fall with organized progressive institutions, and most still don’t, in their own communities or nationally. Given the American media’s relentless pandering to Washington’s status quo, and how Bush continually plays to the public’s fears—and pursues policies that actually do increase security threats to ordinary Americans—activists, new and old, can still find themselves feeling isolated and powerless. Convincing individuals that they can make a difference is crucial to stopping America’s rightward slide.

The best way to ensure that the enormous groundswell of the past several months continues to grow in size and political power is to ensure that activists recognize their own power and focus anew on the urgent goals that await. Only by persisting do we have a chance to break the cycles of endless enemies, retaliations and deaths of ordinary people caught in the crossfire. And unless the permanent war that George W. Bush has launched is confronted by a permanent peace campaign, we, too, will all eventually be caught in that crossfire.

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