Three years into the Iraq war, the US peace movement faces new opportunities to grow and wield influence. Retired generals contend that the United States cannot win in Iraq. George Bush's approval rating has plummeted to 32 percent, a new low. According to a Zogby poll, a majority of active-duty soldiers in Iraq thinks that the United States should withdraw its forces by the end of 2006, and a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times study found that 58 percent of Americans believe the war was not worth fighting. Yet, despite such sentiments, the increasingly unpopular war drags on with no end in sight. Few of our elected officials have had the courage or principle to call upon the White House and Congress to end the U.S. war and occupation. To the contrary, most Republicans and Democrats -- including our two US senators here in New York, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer -- continue to shamelessly preach a tired "stay-the-course" message or some mildly tweaked variant thereof.
While members of Congress are feeling pressure from antiwar constituents --indeed, some pro-war Democrats, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, are facing challenges from within their own party -- most are paying little cost for their embrace of, or at least failure to oppose, the war. If the antiwar movement cannot mount more pressure soon, Congress could cave in to Bush's drive to launch another, potentially far more disastrous war on Iran, just as it did in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
There is a way forward for supporters of peace, one suggested by the mass mobilizations of undocumented immigrants and their supporters across the United States. Their ongoing demonstrations have reshaped debate regarding immigration and boundary control, and have weakened the hand of many of the politicians pushing the most draconian measures. Antiwar activists can similarly change the parameters of debate, and pressure Congress to push for an immediate withdrawal.
To do so requires unity around a focused message that can reach millions, not thousands, and strategic action on multiple fronts. In these areas, the antiwar movement has been fairly successful. From over 600 events and mobilizations in mid-March on the third anniversary of the invasion to the recent Mobile, Alabama-New Orleans march led by Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, the antiwar movement is united around a call for immediate withdrawal, and has growing roots in communities across the country. What is lacking, however, is the persistence, all-out mobilization of multiple social networks, concentrated effort to recruit new supporters, and scale of coordinated action displayed by the pro-immigrant movement.
A number of important factors have facilitated the mobilization of immigrants and their supporters, despite the many obstacles they face. The White House itself, for example, is ambivalent regarding efforts to criminalize unauthorized immigrants, instead preferring some sort of legalization process, a position championed by most elements of the business community. The Republican Party as a whole is somewhat divided and having difficulty reconciling its pro-corporate and nativist wings. At the same time, immigrants and their extended families have a direct and intense interest in the outcome of so-called immigration reform, providing a strong incentive for action.
The antiwar movement, in contrast, does not enjoy any support of note from Wall Street, nor sympathy from Pennsylvania Avenue. Moreover, for the vast majority of the population, the effects of the Iraq War are experienced as indirect (an exception being those enlisted in the military and their family members, among whom antiwar organization is growing). Despite these factors, we have the significant benefit of far more extensive public support for our basic goal of withdrawing from Iraq.
The peace movement must now exploit this advantage by focusing on dramatically expanding its organized base. One way to do so is to build broad-based coalitions between disparate groups so that the antiwar movement becomes part of people's everyday lives. In this regard, the joining together of several large national organizations for this Saturday's March for Peace, Justice, and Democracy in New York City is auspicious. Groups including the National Organization of Women, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Friends of the Earth, U.S. Labor Against the War, and Veterans For Peace are jointly sponsoring the mobilization, with one of the key goals the setting of an agenda for congressional elections later this year.
The antiwar movement needs to make the Iraq issue central to the 2006 elections. We should launch non-partisan issue campaigns to compel every candidate for office to take a clear stand on the war, with a long-term goal of forcing Congress to cut off war-related funding. Every candidate who refuses to back the peace agenda should know that he or she will face a movement with growing clout in Congress. Getting voters to sign the Voter for Peace pledge, distributing voter guides comparing the positions of candidates on the war, organizing candidates' forums, and bird-dogging candidates can bring independent pressure to bear on all candidates and parties. (This summer United for Peace and Justice will launch such a campaign as part of its legislative action strategy.)
In addition, we have to support and expand grassroots efforts -- such as those of the National Network Opposed to the Militarization of Youth -- to counter military recruitment.
Despite massive advertising budgets and the use of unethical tactics, the armed forces are not signing up enough young people, in large part due to the Iraq war. If the peace movement can lower recruitment rates even more, we can create material obstacles to the ability of the Bush administration to prosecute the war. Because the military targets working-class youth with few options, especially people of color, counter-recruitment work can also help make more visible and strengthen antiwar organizing among these constituencies.
As the horrific death toll in Iraq continues to mount, and with the Bush administration ratcheting up its efforts to frame Iran as a great menace while threatening a preemptive US attack, possibly with nuclear weapons, now is the time for the peace movement to refocus and intensify its efforts. The antiwar movements of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were able to end or seriously hinder US-sponsored wars in Vietnam, Central America, and elsewhere. Though we face unique challenges, we have the same responsibility -- and ability -- today.