Now What?

When the antiwar movement didn’t prevent the war, it failed. The movement’s talking heads will deny it. Like the CEO of a chronically unprofitable company, defeat incites them to recycle the same old wishful thinking. They will talk about how the struggle has just begun, how you, you out there, built an incredible movement, how they had personally witnessed this or that inspiring or heartwarming scene. More than likely, they will tweak Dubya with some Bush/bush joke. Earnest plans will be made to stop this war in its tracks, and yet again we will hear about the web of lobbies, oil interests and Christian fundamentalists who run things. Yet again we will be told that these people are very bad in an astounding number of ways.

But we’re not attending a children’s birthday party: it doesn’t behoove us to think we’re all winners. If I try to prevent a murder, and the murder occurs, I’m not supposed to congratulate myself on giving it the old college try. The same goes for multiple murders conducted by nation states. Guilt and shame, not pride in my ‘achievement’, would be a more appropriate response. Yet on the left such responses, and even the notion that you ought to attain your objectives, are almost unknown.

Like many people, I half-thought the protests just might turn the tide. Now, on reflection, I wonder whether the protest movement was really trying to succeed. It did try, very hard, to oppose the war, but that’s not the same thing.

This isn’t splitting hairs. To their organizers and participants, the antiwar protests were not part of some imagined sequence of events leading to a reversal of US policy. It was merely imagined that there might be such a sequence. The protests, however inspiring, always looked more plausible as mere opposition to war–“we say no”–than as some phase of a strategy to prevent it. Bush was set on his course, no one expected Congress or the Republican party to revolt, and it wasn’t as if the left would bring America to a standstill. No one saw a road to victory. No one had in mind some sequence of actions beginning with the protests and ending with an order to send the troops home.

Now that the troops are actually fighting, the left faces problems it barely recognizes. They have to do with patriotism. This ain’t the sixties. During the Vietnam war, thousands of leftists openly wished for a communist victory and an American defeat. The idea that we were all somehow good Americans, guided by bittersweet passions through a tragic collective drama, is a recent invention. And while there was sympathy on the left for America’s conscript cannon fodder, this certainly did not extend to the volunteer special forces, or to the American pilots to whom the North Vietnamese were so inexplicably unkind. The left, frankly, looked on these people as murderous creeps.

These sentiments, if they exist today, are murmurs. We have come a long way from the sixties in another sense. We may be kinder, gentler leftists now, but we are also cowed. We talked a lot of treason back then. Now, we wouldn’t dare. We do not expect to be indulged like the college kids of yore; we expect to be imprisoned.

The left responds to this changed environment with a vaguely plausible pretense to patriotism. It is said we support the troops; we want to bring them home. And we are careful. We crow about US ‘setbacks’ or ‘miscalculations’, but not about US fatalities. We spare a tear for our dead and captured professional soldiers; we tremble for the MIAs.

Or do we? The problem isn’t just that we’re operating in a more repressive climate; it’s also that, with the start of fighting, a serious gap has opened up between ourselves and the rest of America, one which we do not acknowledge. Yes, we want to bring the troops home; so did the anti-Vietnam war protestors. But this is a phoney objective. We know damn well that one or both of two things will end the war: victory or heavy US casualties. For all the sound and fury of the sixties, it was the Vietnamese who brought ‘our’ troops home by killing 50,000 of them. If anyone will bring the troops home before the US government is good and ready to do so, it will be the Iraqis, not the protestors.

As well as a phoney objective, we have phoney attitudes. Suppose we do prefer, like most Americans, that all American troops return from Iraq without a scratch. Does that mean we ‘support’ the troops? Let’s see, which do you prefer: the death of a hundred Iraqi civilians, or the death of ten American soldiers? If you say you ‘can’t weigh one death against another’, that means you don’t prefer one alternative to the other, and vice versa. But that fits the classic definition of indifference between the alternatives. No matter how you reject weighing lives, the fact is that you do not prefer sparing the American ones. And the questions have just begun. What if it were 50 Iraqi civilians? or Iraqi soldiers? Or ten, or five or one? Difficult questions, because we believe, don’t we, that the invading troops have no right to be there, that they are violating international conventions and standards of justice? that they serve a bad cause? We may tell ourselves that we are basically on the same wavelength as the American people, but we’re wrong.

What are the strategic implications of this? We seem to have a choice between dishonesty and suicidal frankness. But our dishonesty is too obvious to be a viable option; we will be found out. What the left needs is something to offer. Since we can’t in fact succeed in bringing the troops home, we have nothing, unless you can keep a straight face when you hear that we’re going to build a just society. Sorry, I just don’t think we will. If we couldn’t even stop a really quite unpopular rush to war, how the hell are we going to accomplish this much harder task?

So where are we? We had no concrete strategy for preventing the war, and now we are its pawns. The anti-war movement will grow and shrink in proportion to Iraqi victory and defeat; we have become a mere effect rather than a cause. Many people will be quite content with this status. It fits that very popular leftist ethos according to which our task is to talk and gesticulate. We protest, proclaim our opposition, bear witness, stand up and be counted, denounce, speak out, send a message, express solidarity, support, say no, but never actually try to do something. But really, this is not good enough: the purpose of having a conscience is not simply to tell the world that you have one. Whether or not preventing the war was the real goal, it ought to have been. And while stopping the war is not a genuine objective, we can do better than trying to sell painting-on-velvet visions of world peace and social justice. It is still possible to turn US foreign policy around, just as it was possible to do so before the war started.

This ambitious goal calls for an ambitious strategy, and one hears the sarcasm rumbling just over the horizon: are we to seize important highway junctions, airports and power stations? do some suicide bombing, American style? smash the state in a workers’ revolution? But the left does not need dramatic tactics; it needs a dramatic alternative. The left needs to propose a way for America to achieve its basic objectives without incurring hatred.

To come up with a proposal, the left would have to get beyond its obsessive moralizing. No real change, and therefore no good, can come of calling for moral redemption. Americans do not lust to become morally good. They want instead to be secure. To them, a left that distinguishes itself by incessant sermons and disquisitions on international jurisprudence doesn’t quite seem to be the answer. Americans, being rational if not very moral, would rather hear of something that will address their concerns.

By now it could hardly be more obvious what that something is. Before the war, it seemed as if international pressure might deter the US from policies that lead to ever more insecurity. This has proven a false hope. Only one fundamental shift in US policy can both undo the damage being done, and rapidly address America’s security concerns. Proposing this shift is the only way the left can address the real concerns of the American people. The left needs to demand, as it should have demanded a long time ago, that the US switch sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict. This means that the US should ally itself with the Palestinians and with the Muslim world, against Israel, to secure prompt, unconditional and complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

“Against” means “against”, not “not with”. It implies a commitment to meet Israeli intransigence with increasingly severe responses, as severe as the United Nations will endorse. A posture of benign neutrality would hardly, in the post-911 sense, ‘change everything’, but switching sides would undoubtedly do so. No one needs shout “no war for oil”: changing sides would bring no war *and* oil. It would also instantly reconcile the US with the UN and with its estranged European allies. The war on terror would fight itself; anti-Americanism would go out of fashion in Islam. The civil rights of Arabs and Muslims in America would no longer be an issue. There would be no problem with the US having an inconsistent position on weapons of mass destruction. Even without pure intentions, even without consciousness-raising, the US would recoup everything it has lost since 9-11. Last and least, the clash of civilizations would become an illusion: suddenly it would transpire that Muslims are not really that much more upset about skin on MTV than half the American population.

It is not that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the only important issue in the world; it is just that it is the crucial one. Until the US reconciles with the Islamic world on Palestine, it can never demonstrate a commitment to international conventions, or change the tenor of its self-destructive war on terror, or overcome the petulant bitterness that now poisons any attempt to develop a fruitful foreign policy. Get on the right side of this issue, and there is still much to do, but the way is open to doing it.

How would such a proposal be received by the American public? We don’t know; it’s never been tried. But what would block its acceptance? This doesn’t require sacrifices. No one who wants America to be powerful, no one who wants America protected against terrorism, no one who wants cheap gas for SUVs, will find anything unpalatable here. Sure, there is the obstacle of prejudice anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice, but this prejudice does not run very deep. It has not prevented the US from allying itself with the Gulf States, Pakistan, and Indonesia: why should it prevent the US from forging more and stauncher alliances with other Muslim societies? Americans are used to thinking of Israel as their dear friend, but they are also used to thinking of Syria as their mortal enemy. That didn’t prevent the US and Syria from forming a military alliance hardly more than ten years ago. Of course there would be tremendous opposition from Jewish organizations, neo-conservatives and others, but this would be a real fight for a real objective, with a real chance of victory. At worst it would greatly increase the pressure for peace in the Middle East.

The biggest obstacle to the proposal, however, is the left itself. Many leftists, with admirable moral courage, have indeed put the Palestinian issue front and center. But as what? One of those never-ending charitable campaigns? Yet another example of US perfidy? The problem here is not insufficient concern but, once again, a lack of ambition, an inability to conceive of any strategy that could actually put an end to the Israel/Palestine conflict. In the name of political realism, the pro-Palestinian left promotes the most dangerous of illusions: that the US could stop the killing merely by toying with the Israel aid spigot.

Cutting off the aid will do nothing: Israel is determined to stand pat. It will occasionally make noises about a Palestinian state and negotiations, but we know very well that its ‘generous offers’ consistently exclude vital chunks of the West Bank and many of the settlements. We also know that Israel’s current notion of adequate security guarantees includes retaining control over every strategically important feature of the occupied territories, including the borders, major roads, and airports. And we know that even this ‘generosity’ would almost certainly be rejected by the Israeli electorate.

In other words, Israel has not the slightest intention of making peace or agreeing to a Palestinian state. It is not about to cave in when someone talks about cutting off aid. It doesn’t need the aid: it is already one of the world’s leading arms exporters, and it would make up for any aid shortfalls by expanding that business to now-prohibited items. Should the US make timid noises about reducing support, Israel will threaten to sell cutting-edge weapons to US enemies and rattle a nuclear sabre: keep arming us or the Arabs will attack, and we’ll have to nuke ’em. Israel could be restrained and isolated only by what would form instantly were the US to switch sides: a coalition of the whole world determined to call Israel’s bluff. Not coincidentally, a coalition of the whole world is just what the US needs right now.

Meanwhile, as the left knows all too well, the killing goes on. While leftists agonize about the problem, they apparently cannot embrace the solution. Like the US itself, they can’t bring themselves to switch sides, to embrace the very objective that would also solve America’s security problems. They can’t manage to say: “I want the US to ally itself with the Palestinians and the Muslim world. I want the US to see Israel, not as a naughty child to be deprived of military goodies, but as an adversary. Like the majority of people in the Muslim world, perhaps in the world at large, I applaud, without qualification, the resistance of the Palestinian people.” Whatever the causes of this reluctance to take sides, its effects are fatal. It is fiddling while Palestinians burn, it is abandoning the best chance to prevent more Iraqs, and it is a refusal to bridge the gap between the left and the American people.

Morality aside, the left has a choice. It can go on demonstrating in an atmosphere increasingly hostile to dissent. This essentially reduces to waiting until rising US casualties or world outrage does our work for us.(*) The alternative is give Americans an actual alternative to current policy, and that means working to turn the US against Israel. To promote this, you don’t have to scold or moralize, and you can offer genuine hope for genuine change in the post 9-11 world. Opposing Israel is no longer just a moral obligation; it is the only realistic way to deflect America from its destructive and self-destructive path. It was something not considered worthy of consideration before the failure to stop the war. Perhaps that failure will open minds to new ideas.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at:

(*) A perfect sample of the pathetic arm-waving that comes from refusing to deal with the Israel issue can be found in a letter, signed by everyone who’s anyone on the left from Michael Albert to Howard Zinn, which contains the following profession of faith:

“I stand for peace and justice.

I stand for democracy and autonomy. I don’t think the U.S. or any other country should ignore the popular will and violate and weaken international law, seeking to bully and bribe votes in the Security Council.

I stand for internationalism. I oppose any nation spreading an ever expanding network of military bases around the world and producing an arsenal unparalleled in the world.

I stand for equity. I don’t think the U.S. or any other country should seek empire. I don’t think the U.S. ought to control Middle Eastern oil on behalf of U.S. corporations and as a wedge to gain political control over other countries. I stand for freedom. I oppose brutal regimes in Iraq and elsewhere but I also oppose the new doctrine of “preventive war,” which guarantees permanent and very dangerous conflict, and is the reason why the U.S. is now regarded as the major threat to peace in much of the world. I stand for a democratic foreign policy that supports popular opposition to imperialism, dictatorship, and political fundamentalism in all its forms.

I stand for solidarity. I stand for and with all the poor and the excluded. Despite massive disinformation millions oppose unjust, illegal, immoral war, and I want to add my voice to theirs. I stand with moral leaders all over the world, with world labor, and with the huge majority of the populations of countries throughout the world.

I stand for diversity. I stand for an end to racism directed against immigrants and people of color. I stand for an end to repression at home and abroad.

I stand for peace. I stand against this war and against the conditions, mentalities, and institutions that breed and nurture war and injustice.

I stand for sustainability. I stand against the destruction of forests, soil, water, environmental resources, and biodiversity on which all life depends.

I stand for justice. I stand against economic, political, and cultural institutions that promote a rat race mentality, huge economic and power inequalities, corporate domination even unto sweatshop and slave labor, racism, and gender and sexual hierarchies.

I stand for a policy which redirects the money used for war and military spending to provide healthcare, education, housing, and jobs.

I stand for a world whose political, economic, and social institutions foster solidarity, promote equity, maximize participation, celebrate diversity, and encourage full democracy.

I stand for peace and justice and, more, I pledge to work for peace and justice.”

Iraqis and Palestinians will doubtless thank the left for reciting this pious mantra over their dead.

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at