As the Bush administration struggles with occupying Iraq, the anti-war movement is in the midst of intense self-evaluation. For all of the movement’s success in raising doubts about and opposition to the March 2003 invasion, as of July George W. Bush’s war is still popular among Americans. The war caused thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, and Iraqis may be dying for years to come due to widespread use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions. While some local Kurdish and Shi‘i leaders have cautiously decided to work with the occupation regime, the inability of US forces to restore law, order or public services, along with the imperial style of US viceroy L. Paul Bremer, have led to increasing opposition to the occupation among ordinary Iraqis. Yet sentiment among Americans, amidst concerns over post-war casualties and the missing weapons of mass destruction, still supports (albeit cautiously) the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Despite this situation, most leaders of the peace movement are sanguine about its achievements. As one activist explained, “The fact that we connected with the doubts of millions of Americans in the post-September 11 environment is amazing. We built a strong degree of unity in action against the war while allowing for groups that had substantial differences to work together — a big improvement over the way the left has operated for the past three decades.” “The most important aspect of the movement is that it’s global,” adds Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies. “Internationally, what was so interesting was the intersection of civil society and government — groups of individual member states, some of the smallest and weakest in the UN — and the UN as an institution defying the US.”
At the same time, the passage of 165 anti-war and anti-PATRIOT Act resolutions and thousands of demonstrations in cities across the country reflected success at the grassroots. As Leslie Cagan, the chair of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), argues, “Millions of people are in motion. Because it’s become an anti-war movement beyond just Iraq, if the US takes action anywhere else, we’ll see large numbers in motion again.”
Movement for Global Peace and Justice
Making this possible, in no small measure, was the coalescence of anti-war and anti-corporate globalization forces into one larger global peace and justice movement. Heralded by the New York Times as “the second superpower,” this combined movement is perhaps the most important unintended consequence of Bush’s drive to war. The merger provided the anti-war movement with a highly politicized, worldwide activist base of millions, an organizational network and a sophisticated analysis of the existing world system to ground its own critique of the administration’s justifications for invasion.
“Outside of the US, there was a quicker realization among globalization folks that these issues were tied together,” recounts Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange. “Thus, at the World Social Forum in Brazil this year, it was clear that the [global justice] movement had totally embraced the peace movement. War sessions were the biggest ones, while the idea for the February 15 worldwide protest day was actually hatched at the European Social Forum in November.” The combined anti-war and anti-neoliberal globalization discourse raised consciousness among Americans of the link between the largely economic vision of globalization that prevailed in the 1990s and militarization. As Antonia Juhasz of the International Forum on Globalization says, “Our contribution was to develop a plan for something beyond just opposition to the war. Our focus on globalization showed that it’s all the same system.”
Continual images of millions of Europeans, and especially Americans, marching against the war had a deep effect on Arabs and Muslims around the world. According to Pakistani scholar Pervez Hoodbhoy, because of strong public opposition in the West, demonstrations in his country featured the sort of signs that were seen in New York or Paris — “No Blood for Oil,” “No to War” — rather than the blanket condemnations of America and the Christian/Jewish West or the radical Islamist slogans that one might have expected. The anti-war movement “proved to Muslims that their enemy was the US government, not the American people or the West per se.”
The groundwork for future solidarity across cultures and continents was laid by two waves of protest, largely independent of each other, in the US and Europe and in the Islamic world. Yet in a strange irony, the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East might thank the vibrant anti-war movement in the West for helping to contain their own populations. The Western anti-war movement was just as angry at US policy as Middle Easterners were, but it refrained from offering sustained indictments of Middle Eastern regimes — even the one in Baghdad.
What About Saddam?
In the months before the war, did the movement focus enough on the crimes of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the need to bring the deposed dictator to justice and support for a democratic transformation in Iraq? Most organizations in the movement concentrated on countering the specific justifications offered by the White House for war — especially the alleged threat of weapons of mass destruction — rather than offering an alternative to George W. Bush’s version of “regime change.” Bennis, who disagreed with calls to focus more on Hussein before the war, still felt that “there was not enough discussion inside the movement about what our posture should be regarding Hussein. There was a lot of unevenness between those who thought we should focus on the US, those who felt it would be politically untenable not to deal with him in some way and those who felt we needed specific proposals to be credible as an anti-war movement.”
Progressive religious publications such as Sojourners and Tikkun did call for the removal, indictment and trial of Hussein, while simultaneously opposing a US invasion. Yet according to Rami Elamine, an activist in Washington, most organizers believed that focusing on Hussein “would have taken away from our argument and even supported people saying that his regime is the reason we needed to go to war to get rid of him.” According to a senior member of UFPJ, such fears contributed to the deeper reticence about pointing to oppressive and violent Middle Eastern regimes besides Iraq, for fear that the administration would use such arguments as a pretext to invade those countries next. Most senior organizers interviewed for this article in the wake of the invasion remained opposed to offering a systemic critique of Middle Eastern political economy or an alternative to war for “democratizing the Middle East” for fear of diluting the simple “no to war” message, and because coalitions might not have agreed upon a broader platform.
This reluctance brings to light the more general problem of ideology. Hany Khalil, a senior organizer with three organizations, including UFPJ and Racial Justice 9/11, believes that “we should have focused more on Hussein and a more holistic discourse, and in fact, the movement should have done a better job at thinking ideologically to counter Bush. We weren’t sophisticated enough.” Lack of ideological sophistication likely limited the movement’s ability to mobilize the tens of millions of Americans whose active participation would have been necessary to prevent war, and now to view more critically the goals of the occupation-as-reconstruction. Could war have been prevented had a more coherent and positive public discourse been put forth?
Few in the movement asked this question before the war. A review of the websites and literature of over three dozen organizations heavily involved in anti-war protests revealed almost nothing mentioning the realities of Baathist rule or the need to bring Hussein to justice, and still less addressing problems of autocracy and militarization in the Middle East. Instead, visitors could read “10 things to do to stop the war” — none of which mentioned Hussein — and find out about the “catastrophic casualties predicted by a US invasion.” If you clicked enough times, you might reach a discussion of “Big Problems: Even Bigger Solutions: A More Humane Foreign Policy.”
Organizations such as ANSWER remain satisfied that everything possible was done to stop the war. In the words of Sara Flounders, “This was a war for empire, which is almost impossible to stop at the beginning. In fact, the current in the movement that supported inspections, sanctions, a war if the UN approved, was in fact more ideologically muddled than our direct stand against war. These groups now might not stand firm against occupation, or call for what amounts to a UN fig leaf to replace US troops.” Cagan concurs that while it would not have been “unreasonable for the anti-war movement to provide thoughts on how Hussein could be handled differently, we must consider how quickly the US government moved onto a war footing, which made it hard to focus on anything other than stopping war.” But was it not the job of the leadership of the movement to think about all scenarios?
Where Were the Scholars?
Middle East scholars, NGO professionals and human rights activists with long experience in the region were naturally positioned to help contribute ideological depth and alternative ideas about “what to do about Saddam.” But while many such people spoke at anti-war teach-ins and argued against war in the media, few participated in the leadership and organization of the peace movement. Of the dozens of scholars interviewed for this article, including many of the most well-known members of the profession, none said they were asked to become involved in shaping the strategy and message of the movement, a fact that was confirmed by leaders of the various organizations. Several said their attempts to become involved received no response.
Many interviewed activists were vexed at the general absence of scholars in the leaderships of groups like UFPJ and ANSWER. Others, like Phyllis Bennis, one Middle East specialist who is involved at the highest level of the movement, strongly disagrees that scholars were not sufficiently utilized or that it was the movement’s fault they didn’t play a greater role. “Middle East intellectuals weren’t a community we were worried about excluding, as opposed to communities of color other historically excluded groups. They should have invited themselves in.” This was a sentiment shared by Leslie Cagan, who explained that while “I agree that they weren’t involved enough, it’s not like we got a lot of calls from them.” Indeed, most of the scholars I spoke with said they had not reached out to organizations on the national level, a lack of mobilization that Khalil of UFPJ attributes to the general tendency of “academically oriented researchers who don’t involve themselves in movements — the whole ivory tower issue.” Several organizers argued that, whatever the problems at the national level, local organizations did work with academics in their communities, and one past president of the Middle East Studies Association expressed satisfaction with scholars’ involvement in campus activities and local organizations and media.
Yet the founder of one of the fastest-growing anti-war groups said that they didn’t consult scholars in their planning of delegations to Iraq and other activities, relying instead on recommended books to fill in the knowledge gap. This leads to the question of whether organizations with no previous experience in the Middle East can understand and negotiate the complex history and political dynamics of Iraq, let alone the larger region, by reading a few books and articles. “We went to Iraq to find out for ourselves what was going on. We knew that Hussein was a nightmare, and we’d mention that fact at all our gatherings. But we didn’t pretend to know an alternative strategy to war to deal with him.” Such alternatives are potentially what a greater involvement of scholars could have helped to produce.
How can we account for the absence of Middle East professionals at senior levels of a movement whose fate is so closely tied to the dynamics of the region they know best? Their absence seems particularly odd when the Bush administration has forged strong ties with scholars on the right, and has even tapped NYU law professor Noah Feldman, whose new book, After Jihad, has won acclaim from many Muslims (and who previously worked for Al Gore), to help draft a new Iraqi constitution. There is no agreement on this issue among either scholars or organizers. The general consensus among the former, as another past president of the Middle East Studies Association put it, is that: “The anti-war coalition, the left and Arab intellectuals have not come to grips with the problem of the lack of democracy and development in the Arab world. Period. They have thus left this issue to Fox and the neo-cons.”
The final communiqué produced by the landmark meeting of American, European and Arab anti-war activists in Cairo in December 2002 reflected this problem. On the one hand, the communiqué contains perhaps the most concise explanations of the relationship between globalization and US military aggression yet offered by the movement. Yet it could only “admit” to “restrictions on democratic development in Iraq,” while the majority of the document focused on Israeli and US crimes. While attendees ignored the oppressive reality of the Egyptian or other Arab regimes — which angered at least a few organizers and participants — the declaration was, according to one Egyptian academic with ties to Gamal Mubarak, used as a propaganda tool by the Mubarak regime as part of its campaign to deflect public anger. By allowing the conference to proceed, the government appeared to be criticizing the war, but then arrested scores of local activists after the media and foreign activists moved on.
Sara Flounders, who was in Cairo, disagrees with this assessment, explaining that “the coalition at the meeting was composed of Nasserites, leftists, communists and Islamists, which acted as enormous restraint. At the same time, we felt that the best way to challenge the Egyptian government was to challenge the coming war, because in challenging the US war and Israel, by subtext, we were attacking the government that supports both. So the meeting reflected a peoples’ movement from below looking for ways to find political space to resist and to link up globally.” Yet without underestimating the symbolic and networking importance of the gathering (one US-based Egyptian scholar who attended exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. It seemed like all of Egypt was there”), one could question whether the event “conceptualized the Iraq problem in a global context” when it refused to address the regional, let alone Egyptian, situation as part of its critique.
Ducking the Question
Scholars and Middle East professionals interviewed for this article were most unhappy with the lack of a clearly articulated critique of Hussein in favor of a more negative, “anti-”US and anti-war rhetoric. Joe Stork, Middle East advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, believes that “the demonstrations were single-issue: Stop the war. There was a clear ignoring, or even willful ignorance, about the realities of the Hussein regime.” While some groups and speakers did mention Hussein, by and large the largest groups either “ducked the question” or seemed “pretty apologetic” about the Hussein regime, and even dismissive of those who would focus on its crimes.
Another senior scholar felt that “ANSWER, of course, supports Saddam Hussein as an anti-imperialist hero. There is also a tendency for Not in Our Name to do that. United for Peace and Justice is well aware of the character of the Iraqi regime, but has chosen not to make it a major issue.” Where does this perception come from? A review of ANSWER’s literature and public statements does not suggest any kind of public, open “support” for Hussein. When confronted with this perception, Flounders argued that “we were not addressing Saddam at all, let alone defending him. [But] Saddam is now gone and I don’t see the US leaving. So he was never really the issue, US occupation was. Those who would constantly raise Saddam and ‘their solutions’ — it just reeks of arrogance, because they wound up being a shadow of Bush.”
Why is it, then, that so many people, including senior Middle Eastern scholars, felt that ANSWER was somehow defending Hussein when their literature and official rhetoric in fact avoided discussing him in any systematic way? Part of the answer is clearly that Hussein’s crimes and oppression were so great that those who did not address them were perceived as either apologizing for or defending his rule, or at least hoping — in the manner of the much-reported “Arab street” — that he’d put up a good fight. (Indeed, one wonders how movements whose explicit goals are stopping racism, ending war and fighting for peace and justice decided that the Hussein regime was not relevant to their program.)
Perhaps the perception stems from the fact that while ANSWER and other left groups officially did not apologize for the Hussein regime, at rallies or in interviews speakers did in fact give this impression. Indeed, most of those who made this complaint did so on the basis of hearing representatives of the anti-war organizations, or speakers at rallies or in interviews. As this was also a widespread public perception that negatively reflected on the movement at large, this issue needs to be addressed in a timely manner.
The same assumptions underlying the belief by members of the anti-war movement that they could navigate the complicated terrain of national, religious and communal politics in Iraq — or Egypt — led other groups to coordinate delegations with the Iraqi Culture Ministry, generalize (inaccurately) from visits to wealthier, middle-class Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad that the political and human rights situation had improved significantly countrywide, or report to audiences, as did a group of nuns at a Washington Square Park rally, how “nice their [official] Iraqi hosts were.”
A different dynamic has prevailed in Europe, although the implications are similar. In France, the supposedly pro-peace position of the conservative Chirac government gave little space for French intellectuals and academics to adopt an independently critical tone. In Britain, Blair’s wholehearted support for the war alienated the majority of the population, including academia, which mobilized en masse with many of the most eminent scientists and professors of humanities and social science at the forefront. Yet according to London School of Economics professor Martha Mundy, who was quite active in the movement, the British Middle East studies establishment did not in fact play a strong anti-war role. The British media was more critical than in the US, which lessened the need to focus on public education. Furthermore, leading figures of the prestigious Middle East Studies Group were decidedly pro-invasion. This group “occupied a space of commentary about Iraq that prevented more critical voices from getting an airing outside of the Guardian or Independent,” although scholars and activists did coalesce in smaller groups.
“More positively,” Mundy continues, “the lead-up to the war marked the first time in British history you had major Muslim and South Asian groups involved at the highest level, with significant crossover between the old British left and Muslim associations, against the wishes of many of the more conservative Muslim leaders. But a lot of this community building died the minute the war started. Once Stop the War failed to stop the war, what else was there for it to do?”
“It’s America Now”
Whether in the US or Europe, most groups (particularly on the left) paid less attention to Hussein because they felt, and continue to feel, that the United States and its current drive to empire constitutes the most important, and perhaps even sole, threat to world peace and security. With the obvious exception of centrist or mainstream organizations such as Win Without War and MoveOn, this sentiment was shared across the board in the anti-war and anti-corporate globalization movements. “We have no option but to demonize the United States,” an Italian participant at the Cairo conference declared.
The IFG’s Juhasz explains, “The criticism shouldn’t be that we didn’t pay enough attention to the Middle East, but that we didn’t pay enough attention to the US willingness to use all means to further its agenda…. We must face that it’s America now.” Yet another senior activist warned that Americans must be educated to how their government is “building its empire with an unprecedented combination of military and economic aggression. We are now ‘enemy number one’ for the peoples of the world.”
Indeed, the US did handily beat Iraq and North Korea as the biggest threat to world peace in a CNN/Time poll taken before the war. But there is no precedent in the history of empire for masses of citizens to oppose, let alone transform, a state’s imperial policies. Majorities of British and French citizens alike were proud of their countries’ world dominance — only the financial and physical losses of large-scale war, and massive indigenous resistance, changed their minds. Few remember the last American “Anti-Imperialist League,” started in 1899 to oppose the invasion of the Philippines, and the Vietnam war was only rendered unpopular by heavy American casualties. Today it takes little to inspire new imperial visions at the heart of our political system, while raising public consciousness about the dangerous repercussions of such policies has so far proven an elusive goal.
Indeed, to bet that Americans will respond to anti-imperialist discourse in the hyper-patriotic and consumerist post-September 11 society seems an unwise wager. In resisting and countering discourses of imperialism, the movement needs to consider that the US has become a country where professional wrestling and Britney Spears are the cultural dominants, the government flouts international conventions at no domestic political cost and the obesity of our bodies is matched only by that of our cars. If the new anti-imperialism is to succeed where earlier incarnations did not, it will be crucial to develop a positive yet viable alternative paradigm that resonates with the concerns and highest ideals of most Americans.
Naomi Klein, a prominent leftist author on globalization, expressed concern about the focus on anti-imperialist discourse, because “it’s no longer about the US building empire in a traditional sense, but rather a multinational imperialism. Europe is laughing at empire discourse because it lets them off the hook. They enjoy the idea that they’re a counter-power — Chirac playing the hero of the oppressed — when what Europe is doing on the international stage is 90 percent the same as the US. What we need is an analysis of empire that understands that the forces are genuinely transnational. They can’t be tied to the nation-state, and the class of global managers within the developing world are part of the same class as their northern counterparts.” Moreover, as Arundhati Roy points out, nationalist and religious forces from Yugoslavia to India have profited from the rise of free-market globalization, making this dynamic dangerous to ignore.
Anti-War to Anti-Occupation
For now, the movement is faced with the difficult task of defining a precise message about the US occupation of Iraq. Activists around the world who were inspired by the sight of Cameroon refusing to vote for a Security Council resolution authorizing force now hope that the UN, perhaps led by France and Germany, could act as a check on US ambitions in post-war Iraq. While a few groups, like ANSWER, oppose a UN takeover of Iraq’s reconstruction because it would be a “fig leaf” for continued US control, most groups have advocated the transfer of authority to the UN as part of a US pullout of the country.
Advocating a UN supervisory role makes sense for the peace movement, not least because a majority of Americans believe that the UN and not the US should control the reconstruction process. Americans retain a surprisingly positive image of the UN, considering the ferocity of the conservative assault. Phyllis Bennis and John Cavanagh, also of the Institute for Policy Studies, argue from this evidence that in the time it takes for a “unifying agenda for the global peace movement to emerge we must emphasize the primacy of internationalism and the centrality of the UN, claiming the UN as our own.” But, apart from UN Security Council Resolution 1483, which placed Iraq under a US-British condominium, serious structural constraints mitigate against a UN takeover of Iraq. As a senior official in the Arab Department of the UN Development Program explained: “The UN is an instrument in the hands of its members. The rules governing it, sadly, do not allow the UN as an institution to impose itself, and will not allow the international community to impose the UN, if it is against the will of the US.”
As the heavy fighting wound down, Erik Gustafson, executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington, argued that “calling for an ‘immediate end to occupation’ — unconditional US withdrawal — would likely create chaos, more violence and a humanitarian disaster. We should be more interested in making sure the US takes responsibility for the consequences of occupation than just picking up and leaving.” Not surprisingly, ANSWER’s Flounders vehemently disagreed, believing that “Iraqis are capable of taking charge themselves if we pulled out.” Since the beginning of the occupation, both views would seem to have been simultaneously challenged and confirmed. The occupation regime remains unable — or unwilling — to commit the kind of resources necessary to bring the country “back online.” Meanwhile, some Iraqis are resisting occupation with coordinated peaceful activism, while others are employing violence.
Both UFPJ and ANSWER are now devoting significant energy to attacking Bush administration policies around the world and domestically. At the June 2003 UFPJ organizers’ conference, the first such gathering since the coalition’s inception, the leadership called a vote on priorities for the joint agenda in the next year. The occupation of Iraq came in eighth, well behind issues such as the defense of civil liberties and justice for Palestine. There is also a clear desire to link the militarization of US foreign policy to globalization, with groups such as Direct Action Against the War turning their mobilization efforts toward other targets of US military or economic power, while waiting for the situation in Iraq to become clearer.
Embedding the Peace Movement
If Iraq is no longer the center of activity for the US peace and justice movement, perhaps it should be. “Iraq isn’t colonized yet, but it will be soon,” explained one activist just returned from Iraq. “By this time next year, after ‘elections’ the game will be over, and until then you can bet the country’s getting the full attention of the CIA and Halliburton.” The most innovative initiative since the end of large-scale combat has been the establishment of Occupation Watch, a project led by Global Exchange, UFPJ and Code Pink. Among its ambitious goals are monitoring the role of foreign companies in Iraq, advocating for Iraqis’ right to control their own resources, acting as a watchdog over the military occupation and US-appointed “governing council,” researching Iraqi movements to resist the occupation, supporting the creation of independent Iraqi civil society organizations and monitoring the physical impact of the US-British invasion, including civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure.
How can Occupation Watch serve as a model for the evolving global peace and justice movement? According to Medea Benjamin, “We failed miserably as a movement in Afghanistan in terms of not following up to push the US government to deliver on its aid pledges and other promises, and more broadly to understand just how difficult it remains in Afghanistan for the people.” Besides stopping the US from prosecuting new wars, “We have a responsibility as a peace movement to try to make people’s lives better in [countries the US has attacked]…. It’s easier to talk about ‘get the troops out now,’ but it’s far more important for Iraqis to talk about getting electricity and water online.” Occupation Watch has made an effort to involve Middle East scholars and specialists directly in its activities. The advisory committee includes scholars such as Martha Mundy, Phyllis Bennis, Kamil Mahdi and Tariq Ali. (This author has also been asked to join.)
Jodie Evans, founder of Code Pink and an organizer of Occupation Watch, hopes that this effort will differ from the delegations of the sanctions era because the movement will have an institutionalized presence in Baghdad with strong ties in Iraqi society. Evans was infuriated at the situation in Baghdad upon her return from an exploratory visit in July 2003. “I was with a group of women when Bremer spoke [about the new Iraqi “governing council”], and there was lots of grumbling. He basically admitted that he holds all the power, can kick anyone off the various appointed committees if he deems it necessary and has already approved their budget without consultation. It is still very controlled, and each ministry will have a Bremer person in the office…. He said he has already spent $1 billion and no one can find out where yet, except maybe in the palace.”
While NYU’s Noah Feldman helps to write the Iraqi constitution, other American scholars are engaged in even more troubling relationships with the occupation regime. Perhaps the most egregious involves a professor from a major West Coast graduate school who has become one of Bremer’s top intelligence advisers. When privately asked by a leading American activist in Baghdad why the US can’t get basic services up and running when Iraqis were able to do so within weeks after the 1991 war (in which Baghdad was much more heavily bombed), he replied: “When you make a dog hungry he’ll follow you.” The professor/intelligence adviser frankly acknowledged that his phrase alluded to the goal of breaking the occupied population, in the manner of Israel’s tactics in Palestine.
Another problem, according to Evans, is that no one in charge of the reconstruction of the country has ever done his or her job before: “The airport guy never built an airport, the ‘mayor’ of Baghdad is a police chief from Florida, the head of trash was a Brit who showed up and said he wanted to volunteer. So he was handed sanitation but he’s spending his days in Uday’s palace playing with his tigers and cheetahs. It’s so bad — much worse than anyone in the US can possibly imagine — that people are saying not just that things were better before the war, but even during the war.”
These problems are compounded by the opening of the border to imports, which are flooding the country with foreign goods at a moment when Iraqi industry can barely function, let alone compete. But as Evans notes, the idea that the peace and justice movement will be able to shed light on the situation using imperialist language “is not going to fly. The movement isn’t going to be able to say it’s imperialism, because every day scores of US businessmen are setting up Iraqi front men for their operations…. Once the elections happen next year, they’ll be able to say that there’s democracy and Iraqis control the resources and we’ve done our job and can leave. Good luck convincing Americans otherwise unless we are embedded in the country with our own resources for getting the truth out on a daily basis.”
Walking the Talk
Along with the monitoring function of Occupation Watch, the model of the Christian Peacemaker Teams and the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine, both of which seek to limit occupation violence by “getting in the way,” is on many activists’ minds at present. As Khalil puts it, “What could be better than a thousand college students — not just Americans, but Arabs, Europeans too — going to Iraq, witnessing what is going on, and returning to tell their fellow citizens what they’ve experienced.” There has been some disagreement in the movement over whether this kind of grassroots peace work is logistically and economically feasible in Iraq.
People with direct experience in Palestine are interested but cautious. Adam Shapiro, a leader of the ISM, traveled to Iraq in July 2003 to investigate the possibilities. He believes the answers will be determined by the extent to which active resistance to the occupation comes from the people rather than Hussein loyalists or outside forces, whether those organizing resistance are willing to work through grassroots and non-violent means and whether potential factionalism — for instance, the seeming alignment of the Kurds with the US — frustrates the possibility of coordinated countrywide resistance.
CPT is more sanguine, and already has a permanent presence in Iraq. Rick Polhamus, a long-time member of CPT who has worked in Palestine and Iraq, believes that Palestine holds many lessons for such work in Iraq. “First, in any occupation, the occupier has a tendency to distort the truth to cover up mistakes and make anything the indigenous population does look bad.” He cites the example of US forces firing upon a non-violent demonstration in Falluja, killing 15 Iraqis, and claiming that soldiers had been under attack. Eyewitness accounts from Falluja finally forced the US to retract this claim. Polhamus says the CPT presence in Falluja bears another similarity to its presence in Hebron in the West Bank: “We can intervene early and even anticipate escalations by having relationships within the community.” Where Polhamus sees the peace movement making the greatest contribution is in helping Iraqis who are promoting non-violent strategies for resisting the occupation. “The international peace community must be on the ground to support those efforts, so they don’t say, ‘What good does it do for us to resort to non-violence.’” Code Pink’s Evans confirms this sentiment, adding: “We need a holistic approach because Iraqis are not feeling whole now. They’re feeling like a wounded animal, like they’ve been raped twice — by Saddam and now by the US.”
Addressing Internal Problems
Besides the challenges on the ground in Iraq, the movement is facing problems that have surfaced closer to home. First, the focus on Palestine has alienated some progressive Jewish members of the movement. While publicly the debate surrounds accusations of anti-Semitism, as epitomized by the controversy over Tikkun editor Michael Lerner’s disinvitation to speak at an anti-war rally in March, at root the issue is different. Some in the movement have difficulty embracing critical voices or avoiding generalizations about groups perceived as too implicated in the power structure they are combating.
A significant number of Jewish peace activists who attended the June UFPJ conference felt alienated by the discussions on Palestine, even though the policies advocated by UFPJ were close, if not identical, to those of the Jewish members of UFPJ. As one participant said, “Look, I’m an anti-Zionist, but the issue is an essentialization and utter lack of respect or recognition for Israeli Jews (and even Jews in general) as people. While the leadership is trying to be strategic and inclusive, on the grassroots level if you compare the discourse to the language of the ANC, with its calls for a multi-racial society in South Africa, it’s just absent here. The left is doing the same thing as the US government — going around and attacking certain regimes as illegitimate and unworthy of existence (Israel and in some ways the US), and giving a pass to others, like Sudan or Saudi Arabia. Nor was there a willingness to address issues of violence and terrorism, which is surprising from a group that is vocally committed to non-violence.”
While important, this criticism is in fact not necessarily related to anti-Semitism. Indeed, at the UFPJ meeting, an overwhelming majority of participants voted down a call to join a march commemorating the outbreak of the second intifada because it fell on Rosh Hashanah (ANSWER and al-‘Awda ultimately changed the date). The managing editor of Tikkun was elected to the steering committee. It is true, as a few people complained, that no members of self-identified Jewish organizations were invited to the meeting of the Palestine Caucus, but Mitchell Plitnick, co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace, counters that “Jews were part of it. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation wasn’t invited, and they have Arab members. I don’t think it was about excluding Jews per se, but rather about bringing together people who had more radical views of the conflict. Ultimately, while there is a tendency toward insensitivity and perhaps even anti-Semitism among a few people, as an organization UFPJ clearly respected Jews and desired Jewish participation.”
The simmering controversy over Jewish participation in the leading anti-war coalitions does highlight that, if the movement intends to make Palestine a central focus, it needs to address the sensitivities of Jewish members and push for dialogue even as it rightly challenges some of the red lines of progressive Zionism. Moreover, the dynamics surrounding the Palestine issue are related to the problems with the strategic vision of the movement as a whole. By focusing on “Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq,” the movement prevents itself from considering the reality that the forces responsible for the lack of peace, justice and adequate human development in the Middle East are far more diffuse and numerous than just the US and Israel, however important their role. Indeed, the public discourse on the occupation of Palestine reveals a myopia similar to the movement’s discourse on Iraq, in that there has been little discussion of the corruption and brutality of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, or the crucial debates over non-violence and democracy now taking place among Palestinian activists and intellectuals. The occupation cannot be confronted successfully without addressing these issues, whether in Palestine or the US.
UFPJ leaders are aware of these issues. As Khalil explains, “Important concerns were raised by some Jewish participants. However, Israel is engaged in a brutal occupation that must be challenged on its own terms. The problem is that some Jewish participants seemed to want to make a moral critique of the occupation without actually calling for changes in US policies to combat it. But yes, we should expand our critique to be more systematic, and it is true that as long as every regime in the region is in some way working with the US, its military and economic aid to these regimes is part and parcel of maintaining regimes that are not acting in the interests of their peoples.”
The global peace and justice movement also cannot forgo its core support as it expands its reach to “mainstream” America. Medea Benjamin notes that before the war “the movement relied heavily on the Internet, which many poorer people and minorities don’t use as actively as the white, middle-class core of the movement, when it should have been using canvassing, phone banks and other more hands-on techniques.” She continues that “both the globalization and peace movements had a hard time making the connection with the people at home who suffer the brunt of these policies. Even though we talk about it a lot and try hard, we continue to be a white, middle-class movement. We need to reach minority communities even as we also reach out to conservatives, libertarians, independents and Reform Party folks who share concerns on many issues, particularly the domestic implications of Bush’s war policy.” These concerns echoed those of a group of Arab, African-American and other non-white activists who in February 2003 sent an open letter to leaders of the movement warning against an uncritical “mainstreaming” of the movement toward the white middle class.
According to Rania Masri of the Institute for Southern Studies, a long-time activist against sanctions and war on Iraq, among African-Americans “support for war was small, and many were doing their own protesting, but there was a reluctance to get involved with the larger coalitions. Even in New York, where we went out of our way to make sure 75 percent of the speakers were people of color, only 25 percent of the marchers were. More research needs to be done as to why they haven’t been so involved. It could be a lack of trust, no coordinated base or existing relationships to build on, or even that we’re approaching them with racism that we couldn’t see. Ultimately, we didn’t do the nitty-gritty organizing. We did the sexy organizing — talking to the press, protests, getting arrested, but not canvassing, neighborhood committees, building relations on the ground.”
It is clear that the major organizations have gotten this message. At the June 2003 UFPJ activist meeting in Chicago, it was resolved that 50 percent of steering committee members should be women and 50 percent people of color, with other groups such as gays and lesbians also being guaranteed a minimum proportion of spots on the committees. To ensure greater support among Arabs and Muslims in the US — who have tended to work with ANSWER because of its vocal criticism of US and Israeli policies — UFPJ has started a campaign devoted specifically to fighting the Israeli occupation.
According to Hany Khalil, to increase unity within the movement UFPJ will call for a meeting of a number of anti-war coalitions to discuss collaborative work during October 4-11, possibly culminating with a mass mobilization against the occupation. “We seek to be a coalition that can bring together many sectors of civil society around a politics which targets the threat of Bush’s empire-building agenda,” says Khalil. “Within that, there will be anti-imperialist politics, but not expressed in a crude manner.”
The post-occupation period is a moment of transition and growing pains for the global peace and justice movement. Activists have identified several issues that need attention and development, but as of now it appears that anti-imperialism, civil rights and the occupation of Palestine will be the primary strategic foci. What is clear, however, is that in developing ideological coherence, unity and strategic vision, the global peace and justice movement has to cover a lot of ground to catch up to the right, with far fewer resources at its disposal.
Soren Ambrose of 50 Years is Enough provides a cogent assessment: “What we didn’t have was enough structure to take us through and keep unity and organizational identity past the war. That’s the crisis we’re in now.” While some organizers feel there is a strong base on which to build for future activities, Ambrose argues that “there’s just not a sense of an ongoing movement for peace in this country, a permanent bulwark against the military side of the empire. Organizations like my own have been recalcitrant, or did insufficient work making plain the links between US militarism and the dominance of the world economy. Part of that is lack of knowledge, time and being intimidated by how much we need to know.” Juhasz agreed: “If it takes so long to figure out the policies of the World Bank or trade issues, taking on the much larger task of understanding the intricacies and dynamics of a worldwide US empire is even more daunting.” Where to start?
Benjamin suggests that the global peace and justice movement needs to put forth the positive idea that Americans need the rest of the world. “We can’t bomb to liberate people. We can’t continue to be 5 percent of the world’s population and consume 25 percent of its resources. That’s what brings on wars like Iraq.” Change, she feels, can only come from “global pressure on the US” generated by “massive popular pressure on allied governments not to cooperate or align themselves with US imperial policies.” She cites the Turkish refusal to grant basing for US troops as a case where foreign anti-war sentiment energized activism in the US, and educated Americans about the limits of US power. The US-based movement needs to link with movements elsewhere to continue this education on a larger scale. These links are growing, says Flounders, because “people are realizing that their real enemy, the enemy that stands against all human progress is the US and its imperialism.”
But while organizers like Benjamin see the need for a “positive” message, Flounders adopts the proposition the US is the only enemy to “all human progress.” In the absence of the US, might not other powers pursue their elites’ interests with similar disregard for the consequences for their own peoples or humanity at large? Precisely this thinking, prevalent during the Cold War, has helped build the structure of neo-liberal globalization. Imperialism never succeeded without the active cooperation of crucial sectors in the colonized or “peripheral” countries. As one frustrated participant “furiously” criticized the tone of the December 2002 Cairo anti-war gathering: “The Iraqi people are also suffering because…their regime is as corrupt as all the others. You can only be credible if you don’t turn a blind eye to your own failures.”
This could be a tall order for a left that, in many ways, has yet to address the problems caused by the infighting and dogmatism of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet it is perhaps the sine qua non for the ideological maturity that would make possible a more holistic message by the peace movement, one that would resonate with much wider numbers of Americans.
While this occurs, however, there is much work to be done. Some of the most creative actions are being undertaken by local organizations such as the Bay Area’s Direct Action Against the War. Since its inception in the weeks leading up to the war, this group has sought to “take it to the next level,” initiating civil disobedience against corporations such as Bechtel that are profiting from the war. But organizer Leda Dederich adds that “we need to develop an alternative discourse beyond being anti-war. We need to let the rest of the world lead us and teach us.” The question remains whether the movement outside the US has the discipline and maturity to focus on these issues rather than directing their fire solely at Washington.
Naomi Klein is particularly worried about the trend toward fetishizing US imperialism as the source of all the world’s problems. Viewing the Iraq crisis from Argentina, where she was filming a new documentary on the rise of social movements in the wake of the economic collapse of the last three years, Klein explained that such a narrow discourse is “replete with dangers. I’m disturbed by a resurgence of a very limited understanding of empire in left academic circles. Powerful and dangerous interests are served by this retrograde focus solely on US empire, because it’s not just the US that is imperialist. Argentina is suffering under imperialism, but part of what’s made Argentina so vulnerable has been that the main imperial players here are European — Spanish, British, French and Italian companies are the owners of most of the privatized industries, and their interests and modus operandi are little different from the US in the Middle East.”
In a forum of leading Islamist activists in Budapest in late May 2002, Tariq Ramadan and Nadia Yassine forcefully argued that Muslims and Europeans must move beyond facile denunciations of the US. Ramadan explained: “To face this reality, we have to speak of the common risks we are facing — not just the Muslim world but everyone. It’s important to find a way to come to universal values and to say this period is a challenge to all of us together. The current security strategy is against all of us as citizens — we are losing our civil rights in Europe, in the US, not just Muslims, but everyone. That’s why we have to avoid simplistic and superficial anti-Americanism.”
EPIC’s Gustafson considers this type of cosmopolitan thinking and international action to be the core of the necessary transformation of the anti-war movement into a genuine solidarity movement. “[The movement] must become more about human rights, balanced perspective, recognizing just how US has contributed to the Iraqi people’s suffering, but also how the Hussein regime, the UN and outside powers contributed, too. Only then can we show true solidarity with the Iraqi people. At the same time, it’s about ideology. We must create more think tanks and institutions in Washington itself that can have influence on the policy process and be guided by values and principles of the progressive community while incorporating — and in so doing, transforming — issues related to ‘national security.’ Because if we can’t speak that language, we’ll continue to be relegated to the street, unable to build cultural change in Washington and thus the country.” As of today, concurs another senior organizer, “What’s still missing is both depth of message and more heavyweight people to deliver it against the likes of William Kristol and Richard Perle.”
If the peace movement is to develop a more sophisticated message and strategy and offer a positive alternative discourse, intercommunal solidarity through dialogue and committed non-violence will be the key mechanisms. If such relationships can be forged between Iraqis, the larger Arab and Muslim worlds and activists in the West, the global peace and justice movement may yet gain the upper hand in the struggle against global empire.