The day after many hundreds of thousands of Americans joined millions in hundreds of cities across the world to protest a war which had not even started, the day after what was perhaps the largest mass action in history, George W. Bush shrugged. “First of all, size of protest, it’s like deciding, ‘Well, I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group,'” he told reporters. Though in less tortured syntax, other administration spokespeople were equally cavalier in underscoring the White House’s determination to topple the Iraqi regime by force, with or without explicit authorization from the UN, over the unmistakably enormous objections of the world and a sizable percentage of the American public. “This is a regime that cuts people’s tongues out who protest,” as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice blithely reminded TV viewers. Urging Bush to ignore opposition, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a charter member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, formed with the encouragement of the White House to drum up popular and Congressional support for US-led “regime change,” called the demonstrators of February 15 “foolish.”

But the Committee’s dribble of press releases since its inception in October 2002 has not visibly lessened the deep public skepticism about the necessity and justice of Bush’s Iraq adventure. To the contrary, that skepticism has snowballed into the most vital and representative anti-war movement the country has seen in a very long time. “I cannot remember such a broad coalition,” says David Cortright, a veteran of the nuclear freeze campaign and a key figure behind United for Peace and Justice and Win Without War, the two “mainstream” anti-war campaigns. “We’re running to keep up with public sentiment,” agrees Eli Pariser, international campaigns director for MoveOn, a cyber-activist organization that helps to power Win Without War. On February 26, as part of a Virtual March on Washington organized by Win Without War, as many as one million people jammed Congressional fax lines and inboxes with messages opposing military action.

Part of the reason why a movement arose to preempt Bush’s strike on Iraq is that the US has not rushed, but marched very deliberately, into an escalated confrontation. As is underscored by the very slowness of the interminable buildup to war, the White House is not targeting Iraq because that country’s weapons of mass destruction pose an imminent and otherwise unstoppable “mortal threat” to international peace and security. Rather, Bush’s administration came to Washington determined to make regime change in Iraq, rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the centerpiece of its Middle East policy. The much-publicized rift between neo-conservative hawks in the Defense Department and Dick Cheney’s office and Secretary of State Colin Powell was about how, rather than whether, to topple Saddam Hussein — with Powell arguing that “reenergized” sanctions would foment a coup or cause the regime to implode. After the September 11 attacks, the neo-conservatives rapidly succeeded in pushing more aggressive options to the top of the foreign policy agenda. [1] According to Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, in the spring of 2002, Bush had already directed the military to form a “coagulated plan” for a regime-changing war on Iraq by April 15.

Yet war on Iraq did not become a matter of widespread concern in the US until the late summer of 2002, when Congress held long overdue hearings on Iraq policy. Though Congress heard mostly hawkish testimony, media attention finally created the semblance of a public debate over an objective the administration had been pursuing for many months. Heeding the remark of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that war was “inevitable,” each cable news network hastened to brand its coverage of the “showdown with Saddam.” But despite the sense of inevitability that has long attended the war, opposition to it is strong, building and firmly ensconced in the mainstream of American politics.

The mainstreaming of anti-war dissent, in many ways a triumph for the stereotypically beleaguered American left, has elated even seasoned organizers. “It really is a cross-section of the population,” says Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). The movement, aided by the Bush administration’s clumsy and propagandistic attempts to market an unjustifiable war, asks probing questions about the purity of US arms. It may even be a harbinger of a deeper sea change in Americans’ normally blinkered thinking about the role of the US in the world.

“Bring Your Own Sign”

Among the first groups to call for a national mobilization against the war on Iraq was International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). Although the scale of opposition was first expressed at nationwide rallies organized by another coalition, Not In Our Name, on October 7, 2002, International ANSWER’s October 26 rally in Washington was the opening salvo of the movement as it currently exists. A diverse crowd of perhaps 100,000, by police estimates the largest anti-war gathering since the Vietnam era, converged on the capital.

ANSWER, formed shortly after the September 11 attacks, is the latest “coalition” launched by the Workers World Party (WWP) and its front group, the International Action Center (IAC), covering a broad range of causes, from organizing workfare workers to anti-imperialism. The WWP can best be described as a Stalinist formation with a long record of unsavory positions, such as support for the Tiananmen Square massacre and the totalitarian North Korean regime. Yet its most public and vigorous campaigns have centered on opposition to US military intervention abroad and fighting poverty and racism at home.

ANSWER’s early dominance of the anti-war movement made it a lightning rod for criticism from both left and right, raising concerns among many activists that the peace movement would be split between two or more national coalitions, as was the case during the 1991 Gulf war, when two groups — one led by the IAC and the other by left-liberal and pacifist forces — held two separate rallies in Washington only days apart. In sharp critiques tinged with red-baiting, liberal columnists like Todd Gitlin and David Corn warned that ANSWER would marginalize the anti-war movement by shoehorning other “left-wing” causes such as the case of Mumia Abu Jamal and Palestinian liberation into the anti-war agenda, and attacked ANSWER for refusing to criticize Saddam Hussein at their events. In fact, the group was extremely careful to make the war on Iraq its central focus. Although, like most anti-war rallies, ANSWER events included speakers from a wide range of perspectives, the main speakers focused on the war on Iraq, and in many cases (though not in the case of ANSWER representatives) voiced criticism of the Iraqi regime. The headline speakers, including Democratic Party figures like Jesse Jackson and Barbara Lee as well as Hollywood liberals such as Jessica Lange, could hardly be described as radical.

Criticisms from the left, however, are legitimate and real. International ANSWER is effectively a closed group — it would be a stretch to call it a coalition, much less a democratic one, even though it does involve some large organizations. Decisions about the next mobilization, such as the demonstration ANSWER has called for March 15, are sprung upon the movement seemingly out of nowhere. In effect, it is impossible to become part of ANSWER or even work with it in any meaningful way. But the controversy around ANSWER has been the preserve of a fairly small circle — beyond it very few knew or cared much about ANSWER’s politics or genealogy. As Ruth Rosen advised her readers in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 17, “March, but bring your own sign.” Nor has the reappearance of the Gulf war-era split between the IAC and the rest of the left seemed to weaken the movement as a whole. Pro-war commentators’ caricatures of the anti-war movement as a fringe of naïve pacifists and Stalinist dupes, as well as the worries of Gitlin and Corn, were proven wrong.

Peace Is Patriotic

The first evidence that anti-war sentiment did not resemble those caricatures, says Cagan of UFPJ, came in the early October 2002 days before the Congressional votes authorizing Bush to use force to remove the Iraqi regime. Congressional offices from both sides of the aisle reported a torrent of constituent calls and e-mails urging them to reject the Bush war resolution, sometimes outnumbering the pro-war messages by ratios of 100-1 and higher. When Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) told a group of anti-war activists attending an emergency Capitol Hill strategy session called by Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich that “we need to hear your voices out there,” Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, threw up his hands in exasperation. “How much louder can we be? Where is the Democratic leadership?” That “leadership,” of course, had already cast its lot with the White House, calculating that support for the Iraq war would allow them to focus on “Democratic issues” like health care and the economy in the November midterm elections. The war resolution easily passed both houses of Congress, but 133 members of the House of Representatives voted no. Taking into account those who voted for the resolution, but also supported one of the various alternative measures offered by anti-war Democrats, the number of representatives who expressed a preference for an Iraq policy other than military force rises to 179. [2] These unexpectedly high numbers, Cagan insists, were “totally a result of grassroots pressure.”

Already in August, the Institute for Policy Studies, Global Exchange and other NGOs (including MERIP) met in Washington to begin setting up a coalition that would express the breadth of opposition to the war. On October 10, the day of the vote in the House of Representatives, these groups sponsored a press conference featuring, among others, ice cream magnate Ben Cohen and Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, who reminded those in attendance that both Bush and Dick Cheney belong to a denomination, the Methodists, whose bishops oppose the war. “Churches have never been more united against a war,” notes Erik Gustafson of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, for many years the Washington lobbying group of the anti-sanctions movement. “It’s their belief that [the war on Iraq] doesn’t meet the just war standard.” As the war fever rose, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, major Latino organizations, the Sierra Club and other pillars of the liberal establishment joined mainline Protestant and Catholic religious leaders in issuing anti-war statements. As of late February 2003, 107 city councils, in places like Chicago, Los Angeles and Des Moines as well as Berkeley and Boulder, had passed resolutions against attacking Iraq preemptively. By the late winter of 2002, all this sentiment had coalesced in the more left-leaning United for Peace and Justice and the avowedly “mainstream” Win Without War.

Rather self-consciously to insulate itself from the shrill charges of anti-Americanism that have dogged any and all dissenters since the September 11 attacks, Win Without War has wrapped itself in the flag. “We are patriotic Americans who share the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction,” reads a statement on the coalition’s website. “But we believe that a pre-emptive military invasion of Iraq will harm American national interests.” This posture, encouraged by various left-liberal scholars, [3] has probably induced people to speak out who otherwise would have remained silent. On January 14, Republicans organized by Cohen’s group, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, bought a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal that rasped, “We want our money back,” before laying out a vigorous anti-war case. Perhaps the most telling sign of the mainstreaming of anti-war dissent was the formation of US Labor Against War at a January meeting hosted by Chicago’s largest Teamsters local. “I’d say it’s a pretty conservative union,” ventured Jerry Zero, the local’s president. “Yet they feel pretty strongly against the war.”

Additional “mainstream” image (and large amounts of money) come from the involvement of MoveOn, started by two wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to pressure Congress to “move on” rather than impeach Bill Clinton. MoveOn mobilizes its members by e-mail to contribute money and volunteer in coordinating the anti-war groundswell. “These are not long-time activists who are being reactivated,” says Pariser, echoing the theme of several stories that appeared after the media finally discovered the peace movement in January. By circulating Internet petitions and pleas for money to finance anti-war TV ads, “we’re able to provide them with a safe first step.” Pariser claims that 350,000 new members have joined MoveOn since the organization began focusing on Iraq around the time of the Congressional hearings in August. After the impeachment imbroglio, MoveOn continued to develop its association with the Democratic Party, raising money through online donations for “moderate candidates with real potential to take or hold key congressional seats.” Following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, the cyber-activists raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in only a few days for Democratic senatorial campaigns. While this ability clearly gives MoveOn some political clout, the close association of the “mainstream” elements in the anti-war movement with the Democrats prompts one to examine what in the movement’s public profile has kept it “safe.”

Who Are “Ordinary People”?

The most potentially harmful strategic decision taken to mainstream the peace movement was to denounce Bush’s war on Iraq primarily as a distraction from the “war on terrorism.” If it was inevitable that the national debate would largely be conducted on terms of the Bush’s administration’s choosing, this strategy may have contributed to keeping it that way. MoveOn and Win Without War have been highly visible proponents of this argument, first with a widely circulated poster that pictures Osama bin Laden pointing his finger Uncle Sam-style at the viewer, and demanding: “I Want You to Invade Iraq.” In January, the anti-war movement aired what has become its signature TV ad, a remake of the classic “Daisy” message in which President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign accused Republican candidate Barry Goldwater of leading the US into nuclear confrontation. As one male voice counts down to zero, the ad’s voice-over intones: “War with Iraq, maybe it’ll end quickly, maybe not. Maybe extremists will take over countries with nuclear weapons.” A stereotypical image of a madding brown-skinned crowd flashes during the preceding sentence, before the voice-over continues: “Maybe the unthinkable,” and the spot closes with a mushroom cloud. Though it only aired briefly, the new Daisy ad was “enormously successful,” says Pariser, citing the fact that George Stephanopoulos showed it to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on ABC’s “This Week.” Rumsfeld breezily dismissed the commercial, saying that “persuasion is reason as well as emotion.”

Of course, the Bush administration has shamelessly manipulated Americans’ emotions with its periodic claims that the Iraqi regime is dangerous because it might transfer a nuclear bomb in a suitcase to would-be imitators of the September 11 hijackers. What reasonable person with foreknowledge of similar mass murders would not strike preemptively to avert them? But the Daisy ad employs the politics of fear to fight the politics of fear — strongly implying, with little direct evidence, that Americans should oppose the war mainly because their own safety is at imminent risk. To the uninitiated, this implication contradicts other anti-war arguments, chiefly the argument that Iraq is one problem and radical Islamism is another, while deploying an image of the “Arab street” that is redolent of the unresolved existential fears of the “other” which have led most Americans to back the “war on terrorism.”

Why should activists assume that a successful movement to stop the war on Iraq must support the “war on terrorism”? An open letter to the anti-war movement signed by several anti-racist activists in New York suggests that “even many white liberals cling to the notion that building a mass movement against war necessitates the use of techniques and rhetoric that ‘don’t scare away’ middle-class whites.” But as this letter goes on to explain, such a mental picture of what constitutes the American “mainstream” is a hindrance to actual organizing. Communities of color, who disproportionately serve in the US military, are also disproportionately affected by Attorney General John Ashcroft’s “counter-terrorism” measures and the sagging wartime economy. Immigrant communities, particularly Arabs and Muslims, may be targets in the “war on terrorism,” as the Bush administration is actually fighting it. While all of the anti-war coalitions have connections to prominent people of color, it is probably no accident that ANSWER, with its openly anti-racist rhetoric, can best mobilize communities of color, particularly Muslims. Hany Khalil, an author of the open letter, told Middle East Report that “subsequent to some intense discussions and negotiations,” United for Peace and Justice made great strides in integrating the concerns of activists of color leading in to the February 15 event. Since its inception, UFPJ has taken a strong stand against “new repressive measures at home.”

But the mainstreaming of anti-war dissent, as it has been understood, runs the risk of reproducing the racial, class and cultural divides that historically have been the bane of American social movements. The breadth of anti-war sentiment helped force the major media to correct its notoriously bungled coverage of the first mass protests, [4] and it is clear that the mainstreaming of the peace movement gave permission even to sympathetic reporters to treat dissent respectfully. [5] But when reporters quote high-school Spanish teachers from Rice Lake, Wisconsin and mid-level insurance executives from Hartford, Connecticut as evidence that anti-war marchers are “not your parents’ protesters,” it is equally clear to an American reader that “mainstream” is coded as middle-class and white. Several press reports on the January 18 demonstration in Washington explicitly mentioned the presence of three khaki-clad suburbanites bearing a placard identifying themselves as “Mainstream White Guys for Peace” as proof positive of the mainstreaming thesis. In seeming mockery of this racial and class-based coding, Michelle Goldberg of Salon interrupted her dispatch from the February 15 rally to interview “a scrubbed blond couple in black…carrying a sign saying, ‘Yuppies for Peace.’…The two went to Washington on January 18, and [one] said, ‘There seem to be a lot more ordinary people here.'”

Solidarity with Whom?

For all its success in building coalitions, the anti-war movement does not have strong links with the Iraqi-American and Iraqi refugee community. In fact, in the US there has been a disconnect between Iraqis and those working in nominal solidarity with them. At the first sizable peace demonstration in Washington in late September, for example, the organizers had not put a single Iraqi (or any Arab) speaker on the program. Were it not for Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy, who literally ran several blocks to persuade Anas Shallal, a local businessman and founder of the newly formed Iraqi Americans for Peaceful Alternatives, to come to the stage, the assembled crowd would not have heard a single Iraqi voice protesting the impending bombing and invasion of Iraq. Shallal, who has subsequently worked extensively with anti-war groups, says he still feels that “the peace movement believes that Iraqis think it is OK” for the US to attack Iraq, and that the movement is mistaken. “Every time we call someone, it’s like you’re giving a lifeline to them. [Iraqis in the US] don’t realize that others are not for war.” But Shallal admits that his group has no connections so far among recent Iraqi refugees, many of whom fled during the regime’s various reprisals against the Shia after the 1991 Gulf war. Refugees, along with the US-supported opposition groups, have garnered the lion’s share of the coverage seeking to divine Iraqi opinion about US-led regime change. By and large, they support it. [6] Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spoke to a gathering of Iraqis in Dearborn, Michigan, and was repeatedly asked by the crowd why the Bush administration was delaying its attack. [7]

Another obvious structural obstacle to alliances with Iraqis is that many in the official Iraqi opposition pursue demonstrably self-interested agendas that make them no friend of Iraqis inside the country, let alone peace activists in the US. But the many independent Iraqi exiles who both detest the opposition’s coziness with Bush and want to avoid war have found little to latch onto in the positions of the anti-sanctions and anti-war forces in the West. The “hands off Iraq” slogan that so animates ANSWER and other tiermondistes on the left is a total non-starter with Iraqis. Those groups who have expressed firm and effective moral opposition to sanctions, but purposely taken no position on the regime’s culpability for humanitarian disaster in Iraq, also do not offer a solution to exiles whose life’s work has focused on getting rid of Saddam Hussein. [8]

Indeed, the biggest problem the peace movement faces today is its lack of a real alternative for “what to do” about the indefensible regime in Baghdad. Pro-war commentators, naturally, have used the plight of Iraqis under Ba’thist rule to portray anti-war forces as callous, [9] but the problem is not merely one of spin. The simple truth is that the default anti-war position at the UN Security Council — indefinite continuation of inspections, sanctions and authoritarian rule — would have been considered very hawkish as recently as 2001. When Win Without War and other mainstream peace groups urged their constituents to deluge the French embassy with messages of thanks for its stand against a second UN resolution authorizing force, they sent signals that were ethically contradictory at best, in keeping with the contradictions in their core mission to “keep America safe.” Win Without War, to its credit, says on its website that “we are convinced that we can win without war if we work with the UN to strengthen the aspects of current policy that have worked, namely financial controls and military sanctions, while ending those that have failed and harmed innocent civilians.” But the latter part of the message has been lost in the rush to counter every suspect claim the Bush team advances about weapons of mass destruction or al-Qaeda, while the main focus of the statement encourages yet more labyrinthine wrangling at the UN, which, given the balance of forces, offers no prospect of ending sanctions. Pro-war elements have been quick to take advantage of this chink in the anti-war armor. Editorial writers at the Economist, ever the hard-headed realists, concluded that French success in the Security Council would render war “the least bad of the limited range of available options.” In many ways, the Bush administration’s biggest victory in the Iraq crisis was to manipulate and bully the international and domestic opponents of war into accepting a low common denominator — inspections, not war — as a rallying cry.

Not Going Away

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the US anti-war movement is not going away. Rooted as it is in persistent public skepticism of Bush’s case for war, and Americans’ clear distaste for the administration’s preferred unilateralism, the movement also draws strength from vibrant political currents that predate the Iraq crisis. The post-Seattle global justice movement, represented by Global Exchange and other forces in UFPJ, has lent its tactics and energy to anti-war work from early on. Large-scale direct action responses are being planned in a number of cities the day after the US attacks. Having suffered a setback after the September 11 attacks, virtually all the activists who once besieged meetings of the IMF and World Bank have turned their attention to the state of permanent war abroad (“all war, all the time,” as one group puts it), the assault on civil liberties and immigrants at home, and even the occupation of Palestine. For many this was an easy step: “The preferred name of the anti-globalization movement is the global justice movement. So it’s a natural leap to opposition to an imperial war for fossil resources,” explains John Sellers from the Ruckus Society, a direct action group. “There are lots of corporate angles to this war.”

Another group is largely invisible yet fairly significant — those who were stirred by the attacks of September 11 to pay attention to what the US government may be doing to stoke such animosity and hatred. They began to protest and organize during the war on Afghanistan. As the “war on terrorism” moves seamlessly from one assault to another, so the activists who emerged shortly after September 11 are finding it easier to take a stand this time around.

After the floods of e-mails and calls to Congress, huge demonstrations on the coasts and countless smaller rallies across the country, all saying no to the war on Iraq, it is clear that the permanent campaigners inside the Bush administration care about one type of public opinion — the hawkish platform of Bush’s political base among movement conservatives and the Christian right. [10] But the clear anti-war orientation of presidential bids by Democrats Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, and scrambles by Congressional Democrats to “redefine” the meaning of the October war resolution, show that the peace movement has broken Bush’s post-September 11 stranglehold on foreign policy issues. The sheer brazenness of Bush’s march to war has reminded Americans of how he came to occupy the White House in the first place. If an unpopular war becomes an unpopular occupation of Iraq, domestic dissent could become impossible for politicians of both parties to ignore.



[1] Raad Alkadiri and Fareed Mohamedi, “Washington Makes Its Case for War,” Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002).

[2] See a vote analysis by Kathleen Gille of the Center for International Policy, prepared on November 5, 2002. Accessible online at

[3] Michael Kazin, “Patriotism and Protest,” Boulder Daily Camera, February 16, 2003.

[4] See Peter Hart, “New York Times, NPR Recount Anti-War Protests,” Extra! Update (December 2002) and Frances Cerra Whittelsey, “Dead Letter Office,” Extra! (January-Feburary 2003).

[5] See, for example, the difference in tone between Michelle Goldberg, “Peace Kooks,” Salon, October 16, 2002, and Goldberg’s later article, “The Anti-War Movement Goes Mainstream,” Salon, December 12, 2002.

[6] Niraj Warikoo, “Iraqi Exiles Plan Hussein’s Ouster,” Detroit Free Press, February 10, 2003.

[7] Thomas Ricks, “A Pitch to Iraqi Americans,” Washington Post, February 24, 2003.

[8] Faleh A. Jabar, “Opposing War Is Good, but Not Good Enough,” The Progressive (January 2003).

[9] David Aaronovitch, in “Why the Left Is Wrong on Saddam,” Observer, February, 3, 2003, offers a particularly sophisticated statement of this position, from the left.

[10] See especially the interview with John DiIulio, formerly head of Bush’s office on faith-based initiatives, on the thinking of Karl Rove, featured in Ron Suskind, “Why Are These Men Laughing?” Esquire (January 2003).

How to cite this article:

Bilal El-Amine, Chris Toensing "Groundswell," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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