Keeping Hope Alive: The War Has Started, But The Peace Movement Has Not “Lost”

by William Hartung

Dissident Voice

March 24, 2003


As promised, President Bush started his war with Iraq last week. The United States has marched off to war despite the fact that the majority of the world’s people oppose it, despite the fact that the Bush administration could not secure explicit authorization from the UN Security Council, and despite the fact that many Americans are supporting the war under false pretenses.


Roughly 44% of Americans think Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks and over half of Americans think Iraqi citizens were among the 9/11 hijackers. There were no Iraqi hijackers, but there were 15 Saudi citizens. But other than a few hard-line associates of Richard Perle, no one among the American political elite is suggesting that we overthrow the House of Saud.


You can be forgiven if, like me, you were a bit depressed to hear that the war had started. Haven’t we been down this road before? But this is no time to go into a funk. It’s time to sustain and build the peace movement, and engage in a full-throated debate about the meaning of this war. Otherwise, as Michael Klare has noted, this could be the first of many resource-driven wars for regime change.


At a panel discussion I attended last week, Stanley Crouch, a syndicated columnist and cultural critic, suggested that a major problem facing the anti-war movement is that “the war might not last more than a few weeks.” Therefore, how can people expect to build the kind of opposition that was built during Vietnam, which dragged on for years and years?


Crouch’s analogy is insightful, but the solution to the dilemma he poses has to do with re-defining the problem. To be effective, the anti-war movement cannot limit itself to being against the war with Iraq – it must be against the “war without end” doctrine of military first strikes, nuclear sabre-rattling, and aggressive unilateralism of which the war in Iraq is just the opening act.


The chances of preventing George W. Bush – a true believer in the cleansing powers of military force if there ever was one – from going to war with Iraq were always small. But look what the global anti-war movement accomplished. We forced the Bush administration to take the issue to the UN; we turned out millions of people in the largest coordinated anti-war demonstrations in history; we helped embolden swing states like Guinea, Cameroon, Mexico, Chile, Angola and Pakistan to resist U.S. bullying and bribery at the UN Security Council; we put the future of entire governments at risk when they attempted to side with the United States against the will of their own people.


That doesn’t sound to me like a peace movement that is “losing.” That sounds to me like a peace movement that may have lost the first skirmish, but is poised to win the larger struggle to put the doctrine of aggressive unilateralism back in the trash bin of history, where it belongs.


For the next few weeks, anti-war voices may be muted in the mainstream media as our loyal press corps covers the Iraq war as if it were a sporting event, focusing solely on tactical issues and “who’s winning,” not on whether it was necessary to go to war to disarm Iraq in the first place.


As the Win Without War coalition has noted, other options were available that would have allowed the Bush administration to save face and back off from the war. As chief UN inspector Hans Blix had pointed out, even if Saddam Hussein had bent over backwards and turned cartwheels to cooperate in disarmament, it would have taken a minimum of two to three months to accomplish that. The Bush folks could have pressed a resolution for Iraq to disarm within three months or face “serious consequences.” The resolution could have included concrete benchmarks for disarmament to be achieved along the way – not the kind of phony benchmarks that the Blair government was promoting at the last minute, but practical, achievable ones that would have given a rhythm and focus to the disarmament process. Three months later, we would either have had a disarmed Saddam Hussein, or a Bush administration with a much broader coalition for using force.


The Bush administration decided not to take this route because for them, this war has never been about disarming Saddam Hussein. It has been about projecting U.S. power into the Persian Gulf in a way that administration true believers think will enhance U.S. political, military, and economic interests and create a safer, and ultimately more democratic, Middle East. Why we should trust the crowd that can’t even abide democracy in Florida to bring democracy to Baghdad, Riyadh, and Teheran is one of those great unanswered questions that you are not likely to hear asked on “The O’Reilly Factor,” or CNN, or anywhere outside perhaps “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central.


So, what should the peace movement do now? First and foremost, we shouldn’t give up. We should maintain all of the energy and creativity that has resulted in the mass mobilizations, the vigils, the mass faxes and phone calls to Congress, the growing civil disobedience against the war, the campus teach-ins, and the whole rich festival of democratic activity that has gotten us this far.


While “General Chung” and “General Woodruff” (my friend Lee’s nicknames for CNN’s Connie Chung and Judy Woodruff when they’re in full metal war coverage mode) ooh and aah over the smart bombs while ignoring the dumb policies that made the dropping of the bombs come to pass, we need to change the subject. We can ask some of the questions that the media is afraid to bring front and center (not that they are NEVER asked, just that they don’t get the time and attention they deserve).


Even if everything goes perfectly in Iraq from President Bush’s point of view – a quick, “clean” war in which Saddam Hussein is deposed and disarmed – will America or the world will be any safer the day after the war ends? Will we be less vulnerable to terrorist attacks? Will it be less likely that some tinpot dictator will get hold of a nuclear arsenal? Will the poverty, ignorance, and ideological fervor that are fueling war and terrorism be diminished?


My short answer to these questions is no, no, no and no again. We’re not going to build a safer world by pushing aggressive unilateralist policies at the expense of diplomatic, economic, and security cooperation. We’re not going to be in a better position to “roll up” Al Qaeda networks after a war with Iraq. We’re not going to be in a better position to recruit systematic allied cooperation to thwart the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran. We’re not going to be in a better position to revive the U.S. and global economies and replace the visions of strife and victimhood that pervade so much of our global polity with visions of hope and prosperity.


The next “regime change” that needs to happen after the one in Baghdad should not be in Teheran or Pyongyang – it should be in Washington. It won’t come through force of arms, it will come through what one recent documentary called “a force more powerful” – non-violent, democratic activism.


For those folks who think the peace movement has “lost,” I say, get back to me in November or December of 2004 (depending upon whether we need another “recount” this time around). I’m going to be busy for the next twenty months trying to take my country back from the prophets of aggressive unilateralism.


William D. Hartung is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of The Hidden Costs of War (Fourth Freedom Forum, 2003). He can be reached at hartung@newschool.edu, and his project’s web site is www.worldpolicy.org/projects/arms/.  




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