As US policy supporting the continuation of sanctions on Iraq becomes ever more isolated abroad, domestic criticism of sanctions also mounts. Opponents of sanctions gained new visibility in February 1998 at Ohio State University, when pointed questions from the audience disrupted the Clinton administration’s carefully staged “town meeting.” (See Sam Husseini’s “Short-Circuiting the Media/Policy Machine,” Middle East Report 208, Fall 1998.) Activists now speak of an anti-sanctions movement drawn primarily from faith-based and peace groups. Yet, as evidenced by the hawkish stances of the leading presidential candidates, the movement has yet to reach the mass constituency necessary to influence policy. Middle East Report spoke with the following activists this spring about the lessons learned in the anti-sanctions movement to date and the challenges ahead: Anthony Arnove, editor of Iraq Under Siege and member of the International Socialist Organization; Susan Gordon, Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission (Colorado Springs); Glenn Helkenn, Catholic Worker (Denver) and former sergeant in US Army intelligence; Kathy Kelly, Voices in the Wilderness; Peter Lems, Program Assistant for Iraq, Middle East Peace Education, American Friends Service Committee (Philadelphia); Rania Masri, Iraq Action Coalition; Mark Schneider, Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace (Denver).
What compelled you to work against sanctions?
Glenn In the Army I believed everything the government said about the Gulf war. I was pretty conservative politically. In college, I was still in the Reserves, and I would do lots of research, looking into the justifications for the various “hot spots” that I might be sent to. My research into the Korean conflict and the Gulf war eventually led me to leave the Army and become a conscientious objector.
Susan It’s a matter of life and death, a very unjust situation that our government is perpetuating. Because I have two small children, some people accused me of being irresponsible [when I went to Iraq]. They didn’t understand that it was because I have two children that I felt compelled to go.
When you speak against sanctions in the US, how do audiences react?
Mark Most people are really surprised. They didn’t know their country was capable of doing this. Speaking engagements have brought a lot of interest in our group, but there’s also a sense of powerlessness.
Peter I speak most frequently to the broad “peace church” community. On the issue of sanctions in Iraq, one can never assume that our traditional allies automatically understand the critical need to lift the economic sanctions. The challenges I’ve faced have been in trying to reach new and larger audiences. People are extremely sympathetic once they’ve seen some slides and understand that people in Iraq are “just like us.”
Glenn Usually, the reaction tends to be really positive, really negative, or just apathetic and lethargic. People walk up to you at a vigil on [Denver’s 16th Street] mall and say, “If you love Iraq so much, why don’t you go there?” Others are much more supportive, but it seems that most Americans want to maintain their denial.
Have reactions to your work changed over the years?
Kathy Initially when we would come back with reports, people would say, “Oh, we didn’t know,” and there would be genuine remorse and some chagrin, but now people really feel that something can be done. And that’s because such a large segment of the peace community has gotten involved. It seems to me that in every city or town you’ll find people who are working on this.
Anthony Everywhere there’s not only an audience, but an audience that’s active. Iraq is an issue that has long inspired passion and commitment among a small group of people. But since the CNN town meeting in Ohio and the December 1998 bombings, there’s been a real mood change. Recent meetings have been some of the most positive and well-attended meetings I’ve been involved in during ten years as an activist. They’re multiracial, and bring together students, workers and people from other walks of life.
Rania There’s been a real strengthening of the Arab-American voice in the movement. Perhaps Arab-Americans needed some support, and they needed a movement to join, to work in solidarity with other activists struggling to end the war against Iraq.
Anti-sanctions activists often are accused of being soft on Saddam Hussein. How do you answer that criticism?
Anthony There’s a very marginal section of the movement that could be called naive about Saddam Hussein. But I think that charge is usually raised to discredit anyone who wants to criticize the US or the British and to deflect attention from their past support for his regime. The Iraqi government is a very repressive and undemocratic one, and the sanctions are strengthening Saddam Hussein. The most consistent critics of the Iraqi regime have been anti-war activists — the US government just stood by while they were gassing Kurds in Halabja in March 1988.
Kathy Are we soft on Saddam or are we helping Saddam? Well, don’t mix me up with George Bush or Arlen Specter, who helped the Ba’th party strengthen its power. I think the sanctions strengthen the regime. And if you want to strengthen the trend toward democracy in any region, you support education, communication and social services. But I won’t endorse the idea that I have no credibility on this issue, simply because I’m not constantly saying that Hussein is a monster.
What obstacles do anti-sanctions activists face?
Kathy We’re hampered badly by the military-industrial-media complex. It’s hard to come back with eyewitness reports and try to speak faithfully about what you’ve seen and heard, and then open up the New York Times and see Barbara Crossette quoting yet another unnamed Western diplomatic source contradicting you. You know that everyone who heard you talk is also reading the Times, and thinking, “Oh, Kathy had it all wrong.”
Peter We’re working in tough times. There’s a kind of crisis within the peace camp. There’s a financial crisis, and staff has been cut back dramatically. We have some strong tools and commitments, but we just don’t have the organizational strength out there. The old social justice networks are just not as vibrant as they used to be. The Pope, for instance, has been very outspoken, but it has not trickled down into the dioceses. Mistakes have been made, but Idon’t think we’re on the wrong track.
Susan Here in Colorado Springs [home of the Air Force Academy and other military installations], we’re having trouble getting people to move from reflection to action. When you’re talking about the “vital interests” the US defends in its foreign interventions, you’re talking about lifestyle issues. [Laughs.] Then again, on Mother’s Day, we were at fourteen churches asking people to sign postcards calling for an end to sanctions to be hand-delivered to three Congressional offices the next day. We ran out of postcards at most churches and collected about 2,000 total.
Anthony A more consistent anti-imperialist politics on the left would have helped to make Iraq an issue sooner. We’ve seen sections of the left support US interventionism in the 1990s, as we witnessed most recently during the bombing in the former Yugoslavia.
Is the work of activists changing public opinion?
Kathy We’ve got to keep on aiming beneath the radar to change public opinion. I don’t think the major media are likely to be more openly critical. We have to aim at the smaller newspapers that might be willing to run our views. We have to get everyone who goes over there to come back and hit the ground running.
Peter We’re not nearly as isolated as we were two years ago. The access that Denis Halliday provided was critical. In this country, we always seem to like a whistleblower. A unique trait of the anti-sanctions movement is the fact that vibrant local activities have done so much to set the tone and balance the work being done on a national level.
Anthony The movement has overcome a sense of isolation that it has felt in the past, a sense that our message can’t reach a wide audience in the US. Most people think Americans are more conservative and less open to our ideas than I think they are. When we make our case against sanctions in a clear, accessible way, people listen.
Will the work of activists change US policy toward Iraq?
Peter I think the potential is great. There are initiatives going on in Congress, and a certain number of members are endorsing the delinking of military and economic sanctions. But I think there’s been a broader quiet change — it’s almost impossible now to deny that sanctions have caused a humanitarian crisis.
Rania Before we will see a change in policy, we need to make this a mainstream issue. We need to make links, for example, with environmental groups over the environmental degradation that’s happening in Iraq, with teachers’ unions over the decline in education, and so on. This is America’s longest-running war, not just a fringe issue.
Anthony Well, there haven’t been any more town meetings, because the government is afraid to submit this policy to public scrutiny.
What can the anti-sanctions movement do better?
Peter There have been some exciting initiatives toward building a national strategy. The challenge will be to develop a stronger and more responsive national network to lift the economic sanctions. The broader theme of sanctions as economic violence against Iraq has not been raised enough. History will view the US policy against Iraq as economic violence inflicted in the most horrible way.
Glenn I tend to see this movement as an opportunity to enlighten people about what drives US foreign policy in general, rather than to treat this as a single isolated issue. If we were somehow able to get the president to lift the sanctions tomorrow, that would be excellent, but the basic interests driving our foreign policy would still be in place, and another crisis like this would be just around the corner.
Anthony We need to work more on reaching a larger audience by connecting the sanctions to related issues closer to home. There are some very organic connections to make between sanctions and the demonstrations against the WTO, for example, and the A16 events, which included a good anti-sanctions demonstration.
What’s next for the anti-sanctions movement?
Rania We do not have any room for being helpless in this struggle. History has shown us many wonderful surprises in social movements. I would plead with people not to feel helpless, but to be empowered by their actions to end the war.
Mark The horrid effects of the sanctions still continue, the US-dominated 661 committee still denies access to dual-use items, and until all of that goes away, we will be around.