New Challenges for the Antiwar Movement

The U.S. Occupation of Iraq has entered its fourth calendar year. As criticism of the Iraq War intensifies across the political spectrum, its supporters are deploying new arguments (or repackaged old arguments), in order to defend the war. In December, President Bush delivered a series of speeches to build public support for the Occupation. His speeches were such a failure that they could easily be repackaged and released as a DVD under the title “How to Lose a War in 10 Days.”

Yet even some of the Democratic and Republican critics of Bush’s policy are not advocating an end to the war, but rather proposing a change in the war’s form, or a shift in its focus. Instead of ending the violence, some of their arguments could be used to justify continuing (or even intensifying) violence against Iraqis. Some of the arguments they are making against Bush’s Iraq policy can easily be manipulated or twisted by his Administration to prolong the war.

Specifically, the arguments that U.S. troops should be redeployed to neighboring countries, and that the chaos in Iraq could lead to a civil war or Shi’ite theocratic rule, are now being reinterpreted to justify rather than end the war. In this shifting political environment, the peace movement should be extremely cautious that its original arguments against the war do not become a justification of a new phase of the war, or even fodder for a new war.

The “civil war” argument

The growing call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops has reinvigorated the old argument that the troops need to stay to “prevent a civil war.” Bush claims that if American forces leave Iraq, chaos will follow. His claim evokes the reign of Louis XV, whose followers proclaimed “Apres moi, le deluge” (After me, the flood).

Yet this argument is made not only by Bush, but across the political spectrum–from Fox News to Hillary Clinton. It is even accepted by some liberals who opposed the invasion of Iraq, and blame Bush for worsening internal divisions among Iraqis, but justify the Occupation as a way to keep those divisions from erupting into war.

The “civil war” argument is at best a self-fulfilling prophecy that is actually helping to stimulate a civil war among Iraqis. At worst, it is based on a racist image of savage uncontrollable Middle Easterners, who need a Great White Father to keep them from slitting each other’s throats. The fact is that many of the ethnic and religious divisions in the Middle East have been widened, not narrowed, by foreign control. Since the colonial era, outsiders have tended to worsen internal differences, not improve them, and have exacerbated internal tensions to the point of triggering civil wars.

The reasons are rather simple. Colonial rulers have always tended to side with one internal faction against another. They need native leadership to help them carry out indirect rule, and often offer advantages to leadership from a particular ethnic or religious group. Belgian colonial rule over Rwanda constructed the resentment of Tutsis by Hutus, much as British colonial rule over India exacerbated tensions between Hindus and Muslims. During the 1920-32 British mandate in Iraq, the colonial rulers installed Sunni Arab rulers, and repressed Kurdish and Shi’ite Arab insurgents, laying the groundwork for their own defeat (and for Saddam’s later Sunni dictatorship).

The American tendency to select “good guys” to fight “bad guys” in internal conflicts strongly resembles this colonial history. The U.S. entered Somalia in 1992 as a “peacekeeping” force to keep warring clan militias apart, but took sides against one warlord, and paid the consequences. In former Yugoslavia, U.S. interventions opposed Serbian nationalists, but sided with Croatian and Albanian nationalists. The massive expulsion of Kosovar Albanians in 1999 started after NATO began bombing the Serbs, and was followed by a reverse expulsion of the Serbs and others. Outside intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia brought a “peace” based only on this successful “ethnic cleansing.”

Since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, it has been following the same pattern, siding with Kurdish militias and fighting a Sunni Arab insurgency. Its stance toward the majority Shi’ite Arabs has been almost schizophrenic, marked by wild swings between empowering and fighting the Shi’ite militias. U.S. efforts to integrate Sunnis into the government have been mainly public relations moves to undercut the insurgency. As long as Bush equates “democracy” with “majority rule,” the minority Sunnis will remain afraid. The inconsistency of Bush’s approach is helping to stimulate an actual civil war. Any group that he supports has the stigma of being seen by Iraqis as American puppets.

It is simply not inevitable that in the absence of Western troops, Iraqis will naturally want to kill each other. Despite their ethnic and religious diversity, Iraqis have a set of common experiences that have helped construct a state identity over the past century. Iraqis’ resistance to Turkish and British colonial rule, and the overthrow of their pro-Western monarch, were only the beginning. In recent decades, Iraqis have also together faced Saddam’s harsh repression, a brutal border war with Iran, and bombing, sanctions, and occupation by the Americans and British. Iraqis have more in common with each other than with foreign rulers or exiles.

On December 12, Bush reiterated and contradicted the “civil war” argument at the same time, with his odd statement that “It took a four-year civil war and a century of struggle after that before the promise of our Declaration was extended to all Americans. It is important to keep this history in mind as we look at the progress of freedom and democracy in Iraq.”

Would Bush have argued that British troops should have stayed in the Thirteen Colonies because regional divisions among Americans could lead to a “four-year civil war”? Iraqis could easily turn his statement around: Americans fought for their independence from foreign occupation and domination even though they were torn by internal differences. The suggestion that full self-determination should be delayed due to the risk of civil war is not one we would make to ourselves.

Indeed, the British did use the fact that the colonists were divided by sectional loyalties as an argument against American independence. For example, a British resident of New York, stated in a letter in London’s Morning Chronicle on February 2, 1775 that “should the liberty side get the better, it will end in the destruction of the colonies, as New England only wants to grind the other provinces. Most sensible people here, people of propertyare of this opinion, and say that one master is better than a thousand, and that they would rather be oppressed by a King than by a rascally mob.”

Of course, the British did withdraw and the Americans did have a Civil War, 78 years later. Would the British have been a neutral peacekeeping force between North and South? The question is moot because no Americans advocated in 1861 that the British should back send the redcoats to prevent our own bloody civil war.

If Americans would not want an foreign military presence to prevent our own regional or ethnic strife, why would Iraqis? Contradictions in a sovereign state sometimes lead to a civil war, but denying full sovereignty is not a solution. Frustrated by outside control they cannot change, Iraqis are taking out their frustrations on each other. Our continued military presence in Iraq may not prevent a civil war, but instead guarantee one. The only way it may ultimately be preventing a civil war is by turning Iraqis of all backgrounds against us.
The “redeployment” argument

Rep. John Murtha’s call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq opened a wider debate on the war, but his actual call was misinterpreted by all sides in the debate. Murtha advocated not an end to the war, but a “redeployment” of troops to neighboring countries and aircraft carriers, from which they could continue to combat the Iraqi insurgency. While the Occupation would end, the air strikes that began in 1991 would not end, nor would armed raids made at the “request” of the Iraqi government.

Another parallel exists between the Iraq War debate and old British debates over the American colonies. In 1766, British Secretary at War William Barrington proposed to redeploy troops from the Thirteen Colonies to Canada and Florida (and for some to return home), in order to save costs, “remove an irritant and serve as a conciliatory gesture,” in a way that the forces could return to the eastern seaboard in case of a rebellion. His plan was ultimately rejected by General Thomas Gage, who felt the troops would be “too far away for prompt action in the event of serious trouble.”

Rep. Murtha’s redeployment argument is being rejected for the same reasons by Donald Rumsfeld, who is at the same time trying to defuse Murtha’s call by gradually withdrawing some troops. A full-scale withdrawal, Rumsfeld claims, would undercut the Iraqi government and hand a victory to the insurgents.

Of course, Rumsfeld’s arguments are merely old napalm in a new bottle. In September 1963, President Kennedy told CBS that in South Vietnam “….it is the people and the Government itself who have to win or lose this struggle. All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear. But I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake.” He later told NBC “What I am concerned about is that Americans will get impatient and say, because they don’t like events in Southeast Asia or they don’t like the Government in Saigon, that we should withdraw. That only makes it easy for the Communists. I think we should stay.” Had JFK withdrawn U.S. forces in 1963, he could have avoided a war that needlessly stretched on for 12 more years.

Yet the experience of Vietnam also offers other, more sinister lessons. The peace movement’s sincere exhortations to “support the troops-bring them home” may be manipulated by an administration not to wind down a war but to intensify it. Withdrawing troops is not the same as ending a war, because the war may be continued in a way that causes even more deaths.

During the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration undertook the program of “Vietnamization,” by training South Vietnamese troops to take over the fight against the Viet Cong insurgency, allowing a phased withdrawal of U.S. ground troops. Nixon was responding to the fixation of the mainstream peace movement on American casualties and the draft. Yet the rest of the antiwar movement criticized “Vietnamization” as using “brown bodies” as cannon fodder in a U.S.-sponsored war.

At the same time, Nixon stepped up the Air War, resulting in many deaths among Vietnamese civilians, largely out of sight of the media. Although fewer Americans came home in body bags, more Vietnamese civilians died from aerial bombings. It was not until the U.S.-created South Vietnamese army collapsed in 1975 that the American war finally came to an end.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, the Pentagon generally avoided large-scale commitments of U.S. troops because of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” or the public fear of losing Americans in an “unwinnable” quagmire. Instead, the Reagan/Bush Administrations launched smaller-scale invasions of Grenada and Panama, trained troops to fight rebels in El Salvador and the Philippines, trained rebels as proxies against Nicaragua and Angola, and lobbed bombs, shells and missiles against Libyans, Syrians, and Iranians. When the U.S. lost troops in a civil war, as in Lebanon (and later in Somalia), the reaction was to quickly withdraw the rest of the ground forces.

Soon after Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, President Bush initiated the largest deployment of U.S. troops since Vietnam. The U.S. peace movement failed to learn the lessons of the Nixon and Reagan years, and largely focused on the prospect of bodybags coming back from the Persian Gulf, rather than on the threat of war to Iraqi civilians, and to their self-determination to oust their own dictator.

Our movement did not understand how changes in high-tech weaponry and tightened media control would sanitize the public view of the Gulf War after it began in January 1991. The media depicted the air war as a series of “surgical strikes” that both avoided American deaths and spared Iraqi civilians. Relatively few Americans were killed in the 100-hour ground war. For the first time in world history, an image was painted of warfare in which the invader took on little or no risk to its own forces.

This new image of sanitized war was reinforced during the Clinton Administration of the 1990s. The U.S. bombed Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo War, and incurred zero casualties. From 1993 to 2000, Clinton repeatedly bombed Iraq, and enforced harsh sanctions against the country, again with little or no cost to American lives. Yet global public opinion turned against the sanctions and bombings as harming civilians more than Saddam.

After 9/11, when the new Bush Administration launched an air war against Afghanistan, some global media attention was paid to the civilian casualties, with precious little attention within the U.S. But when Bush began to rattle his sabre at Iraq, a powerful movement grew in opposition to the new war. Mindful that the first Gulf War and sanctions mainly hurt Iraqi civilians, the new movement put their concerns front and center. Since it did not fixate only on potential American casualties, the U.S. movement was able to integrate itself with the global outcry against the war, and become part of a worldwide campaign. For the first time since Vietnam, Americans were actively opposing a war mainly because it would hurt and kill other people.

Despite its unprecedented strength, the movement failed to stop Bush’s determination to invade Iraq in 2003. The media was corralled into Pentagon-controlled pools, trumpeted the triumphs of the invaders, and portrayed any dissent as being “against the troops.” By the time the peace movement was able to regroup, it was diverted into a presidential campaign of a candidate who had backed the invasion, and who fearfully softpedaled any criticism of the Occupation. The fixation on American casualties crept back into the peace movement’s lexicon as the number of GI deaths crept upwards.

Bush and Rumsfeld are beginning to to respond to this concern, by gradually redeploying or withdrawing some troops. They are trying to create an image of a war that is winding down, even as they intensify violence in insurgent zones such as Anbar Province. The war could grow smaller but more efficient, with an even higher Iraqi death toll.

The effects of the war (from all sides) on Iraqi civilians should not be separated from the terrible effects of the war on U.S. troops and their families. Withdrawing U.S. ground troops without ending the war could actually inflict more pain on Iraqi civilians, if it means increased bombing, and less media and public attention to the consequences. People are just as dead if they are hit by a bomb as by a bullet. Either Iraqis are human beings worthy of the same care and protection as Americans, or they’re not.

A mere return to the constant bombing of the Clinton Administration will not solve the underlying political conflicts of Iraq, which can only be solved by complete Iraqi self-determination. This kind of “redeployment” will not win America any more friends, either in Iraq or the rest of the world, and could simply set a process of “re-invasion” into motion all over again. The only guarantee of saving face in Iraq would be a withdrawal of U.S. troops and bombers from the region, and a guarantee that the U.S. would not keep control of Iraq’s oil economy or military bases, or interfere in its internal reconciliation.

The “Shi’ite bloc” argument

A new argument that is being heard from both conservative and liberal circles is that the Shi’ites have become the main threat to U.S. interests in the region. The argument is based on a truth, that Arab Iraq is falling under theocratic Muslim rule, and is moving away from any prospect of secular democracy. The recent election results lend support to this view of Iraqi politics.

Yet some Fox News commentators are claiming to see an emerging “Shi’ite bloc” of Iran, southern Iraq, Alawite-ruled Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah. Some Republican neo-cons may even urge Bush to pull back support for elected Iraqi Shi’ite leaders, as he takes a harder line on Iran’s nuclear and human rights policies. They are being joined by some Democrats, who criticize Bush for choosing the “wrong target”-invading Iraq instead of Iran. They also rightfully criticize Bush’s invasion for inadvertently strengthening the hand of Iran in the region.

Yet the risk is that they may be steering Bush toward just what he desires: the expansion of his war into Iran, the second pivot of his “Axis of Evil.” Destabilizing Iran, or Iraq’s Shi’ite parties, would not lessen the level of violence in the region, but increase it. Already, the war in Iraq’s Shi’ite region is bleeding over into Iran’s Arab Shi’ite province of Khuzestan. A military strike against Iran (whether for its nuclear program, its support for Iraqi Shi’ites, or oppression of its own Arab minority), will doom any democratic aspirations in Iran or Iraq.

The “Shi’ite bloc” argument is based on a false premise: that Iraqi Shi’ite parties are merely puppets of Iran. Iraqi Shi’ite clerics distance themselves from the Iranian model. They understand from Iran’s experience that clerics should not run a government, because misrule could alienate reform-minded youth from religion. The argument also fails to grasp the lasting animosity of the Iran-Iraq War, in which state loyalties trumped religious and ethnic loyalties.

The argument revives the fear of Shi’ite revolution that caused the U.S. to back Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship in the 1980s. If the U.S. shifts back to favoritism toward the Sunnis, such as rehabilitating some hated Ba’athist party hacks, it will simply generate more religious conflict. It is too late to correct the mistakes of the past, by making new mistakes. The best help that the U.S. could offer to secular parties is to end the Occupation and the war.

Iraqi Arabs are rejecting secular politicians not simply because they are secular, but because they view many many of the former exiles as American stooges. They are voting for the parties they see as most likely to push for U.S. withdrawal. American neo-cons are opposing Iraqi Shi’ite rule not because Shi’ite parties are religious or tilt toward Iran, but because they may eventually call for a full U.S. withdrawal.

If the new Iraqi government kowtows to the Americans, it may be ousted by the Iraqi people. If it confronts the Americans, and calls for full Iraqi control over the country’s oil economy and military bases, it may be destabilized by Washington. Everyone in the region knows that the CIA ousted Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh in a 1953 coup because he had nationalized Iran’s oil industry.

A U.S. intervention against Iraqi Shi’ites is not a far-fetched prospect. In fact, it has already happened. In 2004, U.S. troops were locked in battle with the militia led by the nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is now cooperating with the Shi’ite-dominated government. In 2005, British troops in Basra clashed with Shi’ite police, whom they had earlier trained. As Bush and Blair accuse Iran of aiding Iraqi Shi’ite parties and militias, they are setting the stage for war against the new Iraq that their invasion created.

In the Philippines in 1898, the U.S. invaded the country to “liberate” it from oppression, but then ended up fighting against the very Filipinos it had “liberated.” In Iraq in 2003, the U.S. invaded to “liberate” the country from Saddam, but has ended up fighting against Saddam’s worst enemies. If the identity of America’s “enemy” shifts from Ba’athists and Sunni Islamists to the Shi’ites, the war in Iraq will grow and mutate beyond anyone’s control.

It is one thing to point out that the current war has failed to bring democracy to Iraq, and has increased the risk of civil war in Iraq. But the peace movement should not let criticism of the invasion become a justification for increased U.S. interference in Iraqis’ internal affairs, nor for a troop redeployment that would step up the bombing and claim more Iraqi lives. It is one thing to point out that the Occupation has heightened the regional ambitions of Iran and prospects for theocratic rule in Iraq. But we should not inadvertently let our criticisms of the last war to become the seeds of a new war.

Dr. ZOLTAN GROSSMAN is a member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He earned a Ph.D. in Geography at the University of Wisconsin, and is a longtime peace and justice organizer. His other writings can be found at

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Zoltán Grossman is a Member of the Faculty in Geography and Native American and Indigenous Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin in 2002. He is a longtime community organizer, and was a co-founder of the Midwest Treaty Network alliance for tribal sovereignty. He was author of Unlikely Alliances: Native and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands (University of Washington Press, 2017), and co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012). His faculty website is at