Where Are the Mass Protests?
By every conceivable measure, the antiwar movement in the United States should be a vibrant, mass movement.
Forty percent or less of the U.S. population gives the Bush administration a favorable job rating; other polls show that two-thirds of Americans think the Iraq war was a "mistake"; and, most importantly, 80 percent of Iraqis want the U.S.-British occupation of their country to end.
The increasing number of U.S. war dead and the inadequate treatment of injured and disabled veterans has infuriated many people in the U.S., while the exposure of torture and war crimes by U.S. military personnel has wiped away any "moral superiority" the U.S. claimed over its former client Saddam Hussein.
When one adds this list to the mounting social cost of paying for the war with increasing cuts in social welfare programs, one has to ask: why is our antiwar movement so passive?
The reasons for this are many. The Democrats–the so-called "opposition" party in the U.S.–have provided crucial support for the war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s also the hold of liberalism–which from the time of FDR through Clinton has always supported an aggressive U.S. foreign policy–on the U.S. left. The low level of class struggle, despite the huge inequalities of U.S. society and workers’ growing alienation from the political establishment, is another factor.
Another crucial reason for the weakness of the antiwar movement is the political course chosen by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the largest and most visible antiwar coalition in the U.S.
UFPJ’s main claim to leadership was the role it played in organizing the U.S. end of the worldwide antiwar protests on February 15-16, 2003, a month before the invasion took place.
Yet in the three-and-a-half years since, UFPJ has organized only a very small number of national mobilizations. And even these have not always been unambiguously antiwar demonstrations. For example, the clear target of UFPJ’s protest outside the Republican National Convention in August 2004 was George Bush, not the war on Iraq, which has taken place with bipartisan support.
This past spring, meanwhile, some coalition leaders explicitly described the New York City demonstration on April 29–which UFPJ cosponsored with a wide array of liberal groups–as part of a broader mobilization behind the Democrats in the 2006 election.
UFPJ’s response to the major crisis points for U.S. policy since the invasion–the leveling of Falluja, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the threats to attack Iran, the recent Israeli-U.S. assault against Lebanon–has been feeble in terms of protest, while its emphasis on building support for the so-called antiwar Democrats in Congress has grown more distinct.
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ONE FACTOR in this strategic orientation is the influence of the Communist Party (CP) USA, which plays an important part in shaping the direction of UFPJ. One of UFPJ’s co-chairs and most active leaders is Judith LeBlanc, who is publicly identified as a member of the Communist Party.
For the past 70 years, with few exceptions, the CP has argued that it is essential for progressive movements hoping to win social change in the U.S. to support the Democratic Party against the Republicans.
Recently, Sam Webb, the national chair of the CP, put forward the party’s views on antiwar activism and the 2006 election in an article titled "Ending the occupation, the 2006 elections and tactics," published in the CP’s newspaper, People’s Weekly World.
Webb devotes most of article to attacking "some on the left" who "are against any kind of strategy that isn’t ëimmediate’"–an argument apparently directed at organizations such as the International Socialist Organization, the publishers of Socialist Worker, and other voices of the antiwar far left, such as the CounterPunch Web site.
This is not the first time that Sam Webb has put pen to paper to criticize other left organizations. In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Webb declared, "The responsibility of left and progressive people is not to spend their time bellyaching over [John] Kerry’s shortcomings."
Webb seems to be referring to those who argued that it was disastrous for antiwar activists to support John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s pro-war candidate for president.
Like Bush, Kerry argued for "pre-emptive" war–"Every nation has a right to act pre-emptively if it faces an imminent and grave danger," he said. Kerry voted for a war resolution pushed by the White House in October 2002, then later attempted to claim that he didn’t vote to give Bush the authority to wage a unilateral war–even though the resolution he voted "yes" on was called the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq."
During the campaign, Kerry called for 25,000 more U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq. He voted for every funding bill for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and is an ardent supporter of Israel. He could by no stretch of the imagination be called an antiwar candidate.
But Webb and the Communist Party’s support for Kerry in 2004 went beyond the traditional "lesser evil" reasoning of the U.S. left–and the millions of working-class Americans who see little difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but hold their noses and vote for the candidate they think will be "least harmful."
Webb demanded that the left present Kerry as a "positive choice"–as he put it, "to convince millions that there is a choice," because the "biggest danger in this election isÖthat a substantial section of voters still believe that it doesn’t make much of a difference who they vote for on November 2."
Far from being a "positive choice," Kerry’s campaign was so right wing and inept that Bush–who four years before had to steal the vote in Florida to take the White House–won easily with a 3 million vote margin.
The Democrats–who, before and since the 2004 election, ducked every opportunity to challenge the Bush administration’s policies–got the unswerving support of a large section of the left, including the Communist party, to the detriment of the struggle against the Bush agenda.
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NOW, TWO years later, with Bush’s policies sinking still lower in public support–when the anti-war movement should be pressing both parties for immediate withdrawal from Iraq–Webb is arguing against it.
Instead, he proposes that antiwar activists should support what he calls an "anti-occupation bloc" in Congress and the various proposals put forward by its members for "redeployment" of U.S. troops or setting a deadline for their withdrawal from Iraq.
This "anti-occupation" bloc is an interesting group of people. When the Republicans called the Democrats’ bluff and put forward a resolution last spring calling for immediate withdrawal, only three House Democrats voted for it. The rest voted against it–including Rep. John Murtha, whose "redeployment’ plan has been supported by UFPJ, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), an "antiwar" candidate in the 2004 Democrat primaries, who said the Republican resolution was "a trick."
While Webb concedes that the demand for "immediate withdrawal" position "may be correct in the abstract, it is too inflexible as a political approach." Webb proposes that the antiwar movement follow the lead of Democrats, whom he describes as "center" and "progressive" forces. "The most advanced demands of the progressive and center forces–not the demands of the left–are the basis for building the broadest possible mass unity and a congressional majority to end the occupation," he writes.
But most congressional Democrats are opposed to setting a deadline for withdrawal, and even the "antiwar" resolutions put forward by the "out of Iraq" caucus contain qualifications and vague timetables. The demands that Webb would have antiwar activists embrace, in reality, are not to "end the occupation," but to continue it in a different form.
Meanwhile, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), one of the three Democrats to vote for the resolution for immediate withdrawal, was defeated in the recent Democratic primaries by Hank Johnson, a virtual unknown. Johnson was supported by a coalition of conservative Democrats like former Georgia Gov. Roy and prominent Republicans like Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.
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Contrast this Democratic opposition to McKinney with the lavish support–from the likes of Bill Clinton and rising liberal star Sen. Barack Obama–for Bush clone Sen. Joe Lieberman in his failed campaign to win the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut.
What sense does it make for antiwar activists to support a party that worked to defeat one of tiny number of opponents of the Iraq War among its ranks?
The antiwar movement in the United States needs to oppose the various phony "exit strategies" put forward by the Democratic Party. Some are just election-year posturing to fool voters disgusted by Bush and Rumsfeld, while others–for example, Rep. John Murtha’s "redeployment" plan–are schemes for continuing the war on Iraq from outside its borders, most likely by intensified bombing.
The demand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan is the only principled and practical position that the antiwar movement can take to end the misery brought to the region by the United States. Support for the Democratic Party is pulling antiwar organizations further from this principled position–and must be rejected.
JOE ALLEN writes regularly for CounterPunch, the Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He lives in Chicago. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org