Reject Defeatism... Organize!

by Stephen R. Shalom and Michael Albert

Dissident Voice

March 20, 2003


The onset of war does not negate the unprecedented antiwar activism in recent weeks and months, nor does it provide reason to diminish our efforts. Quite the contrary.


Struggle for change should not be apocalyptic. The task is to steadily amass growing commitment to prevent U.S. imperial, anti-democratic, illegal, and immoral assaults on defenseless third world nations. We must persist in our rejection of war on Iraq, on Iran, on Syria, on Venezuela, on North Korea.


The FBI has reported that "the intensity and scope of opposition to a U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein has grown to levels that far exceed any such opposition that existed in 1991." (Wilgoren, New York Times, 3/19/03) We haven't prevented this war, but that is not the key point in assessing our efforts. The key point is that our efforts to prevent immoral wars are growing ever larger and ever more effective, and are on a path -- a long path, to be sure -- toward not only preventing such wars but then removing their institutional causes.


We should not apply wrong standards to our efforts. We should not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


The assault on Iraq will be horrific. The risk to citizens there and to people around the globe will be enormous. But, at the same time, the emergence of massive, coordinated, and rapidly escalating and maturing movements against war and corporate globalization across the planet is more than just hopeful, exciting, and optimistic. It is the stuff of new worlds.


There are now two super powers in the world, the New York Times told its readers, after the February 15th demonstrations.


On one side there is the U.S. military machine. On the other side, there is international public opinion.


True, the latter has not yet restrained the former. But we need to understand our achievements and step up our efforts. We should not mourn our failure to prevent war as if it means we are on a losing trajectory.


Objective assessment is good but defeatism will reduce our potentials even when the prospects for victory have never been nearer.


We hope the following questions and answers will help activists deal with the difficult, chaotic conditions likely to confront us in the immediate days and weeks ahead.


(1) What is the point of demonstrating and organizing? How can it win? When can it win?


We demonstrate in order to win outcomes that we desire -- it could be higher wages, it could be affirmative action, it could be a new law, or, as now, it could be preventing or terminating a grotesque war.


Activism does not rationally convince elites to change their policies. Nor does activism massage their hearts and lead to a moral transformation.


Activism wins when it creates conditions within which elites making critical decisions feel they have no choice but to change their behavior. They change when they decide that to pursue their policies and otherwise ignore popular demands, with the risk that this will energize dissent, is a worse course of action for them than not doing so.


In the case of war in Iraq, subsequent occupation of Iraq, and then war against other victims of the U.S. Empire, the U.S. government -- the "Asses of Evil" -- is seeking to change the rules of international relations. They want increased control over oil and the power to broker and coerce outcomes that that control bestows. They want to demonstrate U.S. power to intimidate, and they want to weaken and perhaps literally destroy international law so that it cannot restrain their options and choices. But mostly it seems that they want to create a unipolar world in which military might -- which Washington monopolizes -- is the only currency, and thus which the U.S. rules.


Our dissent must raise very substantial costs for elites, creating a situation in which they decide that the pursuit of their aims is no longer advisable because the dissent it engenders is too costly to their interests. Instead of gaining greater power and sway as they desire from war, elites must face the prospect that the war's side-effect creation of popular opposition actually threatens to reduce their power and sway.


When can a movement raising such a threat win? At any moment. It has, for example, already convinced large sectors of owners and political leaders that war against Iraq is too risky for what they value most: their authority. These elements, including whole governments, now oppose war. When dissent convinces enough elite elements that war risks their interests, the policies will be abandoned.


(2) What are the right issues on which to focus in order to be most effective? Should our efforts be single or multi-issue?


A movement is effective to precisely the extent that it conveys to elites an indication that continued rejection of the movement's demands will lead to growing costs and risks for them. In our current case, the movement must convey that continued pursuit of war and occupation in Iraq, and then subsequent war against other targets, will produce an opposition that elites simply don't want to bring into existence. This is the logic of dissent and of elite reactions to it.


So, we need only ask, what type of movement raises social costs and threatens to be a continuing and growing problem for elites? Is it a movement that has a very narrow focus on a single war or a single policy? Is it a movement which will dissolve once that primary issue is no longer in the forefront? Or is it a movement which certainly focuses on the opposed policy -- in this case war in Iraq -- making it clear that continued pursuit of the war is enlarging the movement, but which also stretches and grows to address other dimensions of international relations and then of corporate and political power, thereby making clear that if the movement is produced by continued pursuit of the war, it will not just fade away with the war's conclusion, and that once it is brought into being it will not only persist, but will function to obstruct and challenge state policies on diverse fronts held in even higher priority by elites than the war itself?


To ask the question is to answer it. We need to continually reach out and enlarge the movement if its trajectory of development is to effectively raise costs for elites. But we also need to present clear evidence that the growing opposition is extending beyond the immediate issue to basic defining relations and institutions of society. This is what will cause elite constituencies served by Bush to think to themselves "our war policy is threatening the fabric of our rule over society, it is disrupting our capacity to undertake business as usual, it is taking the next generation from us and making them our enemy, it is putting at risk things we hold even more dear than the war policy -- our power and wealth -- therefore, we must cease our support for war.


(3) Regarding the war itself, what demands should we be raising?


We should call for an immediate end to the war.


We should particularly condemn violations of international humanitarian law, such as the use of cluster bombs and other indiscriminate weapons, and the targeting of infrastructure needed by civilians.


We should condemn the press censorship and demand access for independent media.


We should denounce the grossly inadequate humanitarian preparations and demand that as the occupying power the United States accept its legal responsibility to provide for the welfare of the civilian population.


We should push for democracy in Iraq, giving as little say to the invading forces as possible (and this includes Turkey).


We should insist that the U.S. is entitled to absolutely none of Iraq's oil. It is the property of the Iraqi people.


As soon as humanitarian supplies are assured, all U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. Any military bases or U.S. occupation is an imperial imposition and unacceptable.


(4) What's the right tactic to use to be most effective? Should our movements be single or multi-tactic and with what mix?


Imagine a movement that keeps growing, but there is no diversification of approach, and therefore no evidence of increasing depth of commitment and perseverance, or a movement that shrinks but its diminishing numbers are evidently becoming more committed, or a movement that is continually growing, and which has a growing subset of members who display growing militancy and commitment and whose involvement seems in time to be the destination point for all other members as well.


Isn't it clear that the last option presents a far more threatening prospect to elites? If so, then isn't it obvious that the task is to combine diverse tactics suitable for different sectors but without in any way curtailing the movement's ability to reach out to new and less committed people and to engage their participation as well?


What we need to incorporate if we are to have the most effective movement is a combination of consciousness-raising activities, demonstrations and marches, strikes and civil disobedience, all of them mutually supportive, and none of them pursued in a way that undermines the rest.


That approach is what can simultaneously enlarge the movement, make the movement congenial to its members, and raise the greatest threat of continued development and danger for elites.


(5) What happens and how do we respond if there is a terrorist attack on the U.S.?


The prospects of a terrorist attack on the United States or American citizens abroad is very real. And if any attack does occur it will likely be used by the Bush administration just as 9-11 was used -- to mobilize public opinion behind more repression at home and more aggression abroad. People's critical judgment is often a major victim of terrorist attack and the Bush administration knows this. Bush's approval rating jumped from 50 percent in late August 2001 to 89 percent a week and a half after 9-11. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked her senior staff "how do you capitalize on these opportunities?" (quoted in New Yorker, 4/1/02) And capitalize they did.


The Bush administration will claim that any new terrorist attack proves the wisdom of its having gone to war. But this argument is utterly illogical; it proves not that Bush was right but that his critics were.


The antiwar movement noted, for example, the likely affect of any U.S. war against Iraq would be to "super charge" recruiting for al Qaeda type organizations, to use the words of General Wesley Clark. And sure enough, that's precisely what's been happening. (See Sebastian Rotella, "Threat of war in Iraq is adding to the pool of potential recruits for Al Qaeda and others," Los Angeles Times, 3/2/03; Don Van Natta Jr. and Desmond Butler, "Anger on Iraq Seen as New Qaeda Recruiting Tool," New York Times, 3/16/03.)


As for Saddam Hussein, the CIA stated on October 7, 2002:


Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or C.B.W. chemical and biological weapons against the United States.


Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions. Such terrorism might involve conventional means, as with Iraq's unsuccessful attempt at a terrorist offensive in 1991, or C.B.W.



U.S. officials are well aware that their war increases the risks of terrorism against the United States. "There is a certainty that terrorists will attempt to launch multiple attacks" against the United States and its allies, declared the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism. The FBI's Deputy Assistant Director told senators that there is some intelligence about the Iraqis "indicating an interest in taking terrorist actions against the U.S." (CNN, 3/18/03) (This is quite an intelligence coup, given that suicide bomber squads have marched through the streets of Baghdad and Saddam has warned that the invaders would be fought anywhere in the world.) Hussein presumably hopes to "shock and awe" the U.S. population, ignoring the clear lesson of history that terror tends to yield hatred and resolve rather than capitulation. The U.S. counterpart may be immense enough to induce an Iraqi surrender, but it surely won't lessen hatred for the United States throughout the world.


So rather than reducing anti-U.S. terrorism, U.S. policy has the effect -- the predictable effect -- of increasing it. In Israel/Palestine we have often seen this same pattern. When there is a lull in the violence, and peace proposals are in the air, the Israeli government launches an assassination or a military operation killing many civilians. There is then a Palestinian attack on civilians, which Israel claims shows the need for the continued iron fist. There is in fact a symbiotic relationship between the terrorists on both sides in maintaining the cycle of violence.


The Bush administration will no doubt try to use any terrorist incident to discredit and silence the antiwar movement. In that fevered atmosphere, it will be hard for us to speak up. But we need to do so. We need to make these points:


* We condemn all attacks on civilians and we sympathize with the victims of all such attacks.


* As the CIA and the antiwar movement warned, the U.S. war policy led to anti-U.S. terrorism.


* Real measures to deal with the threat of terrorism against the United States have long been urged by the antiwar movement, both long term (changing U.S. foreign policy to reduce the level of anti-U.S. hatred in the world) and short term (desisting from an unjust and unnecessary war, adequately funding first-responders, providing financial aid to bankrupt cities, building ties to, rather than alienating immigrant communities, and so on). To take just one example, Congress required the Justice Department to submit a report by August 2002 on the vulnerabilities of U.S. chemical facilities. The report has still not been prepared and there exists no legislation requiring chemical plants to protect themselves and no federal agency monitors whether they have done so voluntarily. (GAO-03-439)  Instead of pursuing policies that might actually have dealt with the terrorist threat, the administration, against all advice, chose the course of war, with its predictable -- and horrible -- consequences.


(6) What happens and how do we respond if the TV shows cheering in the streets of Baghdad?


We need to keep in mind how easy it is for the media to give a false picture of what is going on. The Pentagon has been making every effort to exclude independent journalists from the war zone, and with a compliant media it is not hard to make a handful of supporters of the U.S. invasion appear to represent the general Iraqi reaction.


In Afghanistan the media broadcast scenes of cheering women throwing off their burqas as if this were a widespread phenomenon. In fact, it was a scene confined to Kabul, or parts of Kabul, and over the following months our television screens did not focus on the warlordism outside the capital, or the narrowing opportunities for women, or the growing number of people in need of food (exceeding that under the Taliban), or the non-arrival of promised Western aid.


Saddam Hussein is rightly despised by many Iraqis and millions will be thrilled at his ouster. We too ought to cheer his removal, though not the means by which it was accomplished. (There's no contradiction here: the ends do not justify the means. If the police catch a murderer, but kill several innocent bystanders in the process, we're glad that the murderer has been apprehended, but we condemn the way it was done.) That people may dance in the streets at Hussein's fall does not tell us that they favored the U.S. war (and those lying under the rubble of buildings struck by U.S. bombs are presumably not out celebrating.), and certainly does not tell us what their attitude is to the coming U.S. occupation. Recall that when Hussein released thousands of prisoners last October, many people cheered, without necessarily supporting the dictator, long-term or short-term. "'Saddam is our hero,' said one, before adding quickly, 'for today.'" (Washington Post, Oct. 21, 2002)


(7) What happens and how do we respond if Saddam Hussein uses chemical weapons or if U.S. forces discover prohibited weapons of mass destruction? Does that mean Bush was right?


This is certainly the spin that the Bush administration will try to put on it. Already, administration officials have told the New York Times that discovery of weapons of mass destruction "would vindicate the administration's decision to go to war." (3/19/03) But this is unadulterated nonsense. The issue here is not whether Iraq has WMD. Although the antiwar movement has pointed to exaggerated charges and suppressed exculpatory evidence (such as the full testimony of defector Hussein Kamel), its claim was not that Saddam Hussein had no proscribed weapons. Most antiwar analysts had no illusions about Hussein and knew that he was morally capable of producing and hiding WMD. Rather, the claim has been that whatever weapons Hussein might have (1) they constitute a negligible military threat to the United States or any one else beyond Iraq's borders; and (2) the danger they posed was being reduced even further by the inspections process.


Given the Bush administration's record for pushing forgeries, plagiarized documents, and photographic evidence of what Hans Blix tactfully noted "could just as easily have been a routine activity," one should naturally be suspicious of any "discovery" claimed by U.S. forces. But in any event, the only way Bush will have been proven right is if evidence is found that Hussein had a WMD capability that posed an imminent military threat that could neither be deterred nor uncovered by the inspectors.


Nor would Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the U.S. invasion prove Bush right. On the contrary, it would confirm that the antiwar movement was right. Antiwar activists had insisted all along -- citing the CIA -- that the only conceivable circumstances under which Saddam Hussein would consider using any chemical weapons he might have was precisely in the event of a U.S. attack. Such a use of chemical weapons would be unconscionable and violate international law, but it would not prove that the weapons would have been used in the absence of the U.S. attack (which itself is more seriously unconscionable and contrary to international law).


(8) How do we respond to the entreaty to "support our troops" and the assertion that opposing the war is treasonous?


Even before the war began, the jingoists were proclaiming that anyone who isn't a traitor needs to rally around Washington to "support our troops." Opponents of the war have several possible replies.


We could point out that our troops in Iraq are barely in danger at all because they are assaulting a tenth-rate opponent that has no serious means to defend Iraq much less to attack the world's sole superpower.


Or we could point out that the lives of American troops are no more worthy of compassionate support than the lives of Iraqis.


And of course we could explain how unleashing a campaign to "shock and awe" a country is unjust and immoral, and an archetype of the terrorism the U.S. claims to be against.


But the response we propose is a bit different. It is that we too "support our troops."


We support our troops coming home alive, but we also support our troops not having to kill people in Iraq. We support our troops not dying in Iraq figuratively or literally, physically or psychologically. We support our troops coming home with their hearts not broken, retaining humanity and compassion essential to feeling true solidarity with those who confront tyrannical behavior abroad, or right here in the U.S. with its 30 million tyrannized poor.


So: Support our troops, bring them home, provide them housing, provide them health care, provide them socially valuable jobs.


Support our troops and one day they will join the fight for justice for all.


(9) What happens and how do we respond if there's a massive government crackdown on dissent?


There are two sides to this question. The first is how do we prevent the use of ever more destructive and damaging policies of repression by the government. The second is, to the extent that they do escalate their tactics, how do we reply.


What takes options out of play for the government is a belief by them that to use those options would do their efforts more harm than good. Why doesn't the government drop bombs on demonstrators in the streets of Washington DC? Because it would lead to a growth rather than diminution of the opposition; it would strengthen rather than weaken resistance. What determines the government's choice of tactics is their estimate of our response, and of the response of the population at large to the tactic's use.


What will protect the most militant dissenters is huge numbers of less militant dissenters who would be horribly upset at the forceful repression of the militants. What will protect huge numbers of less militant dissenters is a population at large that would be horribly upset at the repression of the dissidents.


If we allow repression to silence us, our ability to protect ourselves will diminish and the repression will grow. If we continually talk to our neighbors, our classmates, our fellow workers, discuss the war with them, expose government lies to them, point out how the liberties of all of us are in danger, we can create an environment within which the government cannot get away with repression. We must not induce paranoia by overstating the level of repression, but nor should we minimize actual government repression.


In the event that repressive policies are forthcoming, our response should be no different than our response to war policies themselves. It is to enlarge the movement, to increase the ties between the movement and the public -- and at the same time to enlarge the more militant sectors of the movement and increase the ties between them and other dissenters.


Nothing else wards off repressive or even violent government response. Arrests will be employed if they cripple dissent, avoided if they boost dissent. Repressive force will be employed if it cripples dissent, avoided if it promotes dissent.


We will have to react to repression but should do so in the context of continuing to react to war...and the balance and mix of attention we should give to each ought to be determined, for us, precisely by what enlarges and deepens overall dissent. Whatever works more to that end, we should do. Whatever doesn't work to that end, we should leave aside.


The exact balance is often hard to know, and there is little gain in fighting about alternative choices. Just explore them, apply energy to what seems wise and worthy...and let others do likewise.


(10) What happens and how do we respond if there's a massive crackdown on immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, etc.?


Immigrants are especially vulnerable and therefore we need to make special efforts to protect them. The government goes after immigrants as part of its salami tactics, cutting off one piece of the opposition at a time, hoping that non-immigrants will not protest very much because it's "them" not "us." Our response, therefore, is clear: we need to vigorously defend the basic rights of immigrants.


Protecting the rights of immigrants, particularly the Arabs and Muslims who are especially singled out, must become an additional focus of our movement, along with the war itself, and with raising broader consciousness.


This is morally right and it is also strategically right. A movement that will not stand up in solidarity with its own supporters is a movement which won't retain its supporters. A movement that fails to protect the most vulnerable will find that everyone is vulnerable.


(11) What happens and how do we respond if Israel uses a war to escalate its repression of Palestinians?


After the Iraqi civilian population, the people most at risk as a result of a U.S. attack on Iraq are the Palestinians. Ever since September 11, 2001, the Israeli government has used the U.S. "war on terrorism" as a cover and justification for increased repression against Palestinians.


Today Israel is ruled by an extreme right-wing government. Headed by Ariel Sharon, the person found responsible by an Israeli commission for the massacre of thousands of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shitila refugee camps in Lebanon, the cabinet includes Uzi Landau (who suggested doing to the Palestinians "what the Iraqis did to the Kurds." [Ha'aretz, 2/20/02]); Gideon Ezra (who said regarding a U.S. attack on Iraq "The more aggressive the attack is, the more it will help Israel against the Palestinians. The understanding would be that what is good to do in Iraq, is also good for here." [Christian Science Monitor, 8/30/02]); and two members of the National Union Party, which calls for the "transfer" of the Palestinian population to neighboring Arab countries (one of the two, Benny Elon, told Evangelical Christians in the U.S. "Let's turn to the Bible, which says very clearly... we have to resettle them, to relocate them." (Forward, 10/18/02) Polls show that a fifth of the Israeli population supports the idea of "transfer."


Three circumstances are particularly worrisome: if Iraq strikes Israel with missiles, if Palestinians display public support for Iraq, or if some Palestinian group launches a large-scale terrorist attack -- it is possible that the Israeli response might be mass expulsions of Palestinians. Even if the government does not itself do this, if mobs of angry Israelis try to drive out Palestinians, it is quite possible that the armed forces will not intervene -- just as they recently allowed Jewish settlers to prevent Palestinians from harvesting their olive crops.

Fortunately, the U.S. government, which in general shares the Israeli government's strategic interests, does not want anything to happen that might incite Arab opinion against the United States while the war with Iraq is going on. Whereas Washington might be willing to permit all sorts of quiet atrocities against the Palestinians, it would likely block any actions that threatened to become the focus of world attention. The task of the U.S. antiwar movement then is obvious: we must make sure that any stepped up Israeli attacks on the Palestinians are widely known and hugely protested.


Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Michael Albert's latest book is PARECON: Life After Capitalism (Verso, April 2003). Albert is an editor of Z Magazine and ZNET, where this article first appeared.




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