Which Way Forward for the Antiwar Movement?

I HAVE been asked to lay out the political rationale for a mass action strategy for the antiwar movement. To do so we must begin with the horror the United States has brought to the Middle East. The United States has nearly destroyed Iraq. Its invasion and occupation of a country of 27 million people has led to the deaths of well over 1 million Iraqis, the expulsion of 5 million refugees and internally displaced civilians, and the near complete wreckage of the economy. Nearly 70 percent of the population is unemployed.

The invasion and occupation outranks the worst horrors of European imperialism as one of the great war crimes and examples of state terror. The U.S. assault on Sadr City and Basra shows that with each passing day they commit atrocity upon atrocity.

But as Max Elbaum argued on his panel last night, far from fulfilling Bush’s neoconservative fantasies of U.S. domination over the Middle East, the invasion has, in the words of General William Odom, led to the “greatest strategic disaster” in U.S. imperial history. Why? Because the Iraqi people resisted the occupation and put a stop to the other regime changes from Syria to Iran the United States had planned.

The U.S. occupation is a failure. It is one of three failed wars Bush has conducted—Iraq, Afghanistan, and his proxy war carried through by Israel against Lebanon. The cost of these disastrous wars has led Bush into enormous deficit spending that has exacerbated the economic crisis the United States and world have entered.

Like some cursed mortal from ancient Greece, Bush suffers from a reverse Midas touch as everything he touches turns to lead. His popularity has plummeted from nearly 90 percent in the aftermath of 9/11 to now 28 percent. The only politicians who are less popular are in Congress; their approval rating hovers at about 22 percent. The majority of Americans have turned against the war and the Bush agenda.

Yet neither Bush nor the Democrats have a plan for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Last night Stephen Zunes and Max Elbaum laid out the reasons. The war was not about weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, liberation, or democracy. These were all smokescreens for the real ambitions of U.S. Empire in the Middle East. In truth, the Iraq war was part of a long-term and bipartisan plan to lock in U.S. dominance over a unipolar world order. Their goal in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq was to secure control over the key areas of the world energy system in the Middle East and new energy sources in Central Asia.

By dominating these regions the United States aimed to lock in their advantage against rising energy-dependent competitors, especially China. This imperial ambition explains their tenacity in the face of the utter failure of their invasions and their overwhelming lack of popular support.

Complicity of Democrats and corporate media

Too often this imperialism is passed off as a product of Bush and the Neocons. In reality, the Democrats voted for these wars and continue to vote for the funding even going so far in the most recent proposed bill to give Bush billions more than he requested. They also opposed immediate withdrawal in favor of redeployment that would leave thousands of “anti-terrorist” troops in Iraq, effectively extending the occupation in the guise of ending it. And neither Hilary Clinton nor Barack Obama could guarantee that they would even be able to implement this plan by the end of their first term.

Even worse, the Democrats have often positioned themselves to the right of Bush in the campaign against their next target in their battle for Mideast imperial dominance—Iran. Hilary Clinton just last week promised to “obliterate Iran” if it attacked Israel. She targeted not just the government but also the entire nation, a threat that can only be called a genocidal. While not sharing Clinton’s Bushite bluster, Obama has stated, “launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in” given the ongoing war in Iraq. “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.” Obama has also promised that military strikes on Pakistan should not be ruled out if “violent Islamic extremists” were to “take over.” And both have called for an increase of U.S. troops in occupied Afghanistan, the occupation they view as good and right.

Far from dissenting with this bipartisan imperial project of the so-called War on Terror, the corporate media has loyally parroted it. The corporate media has in fact been exposed as, for all intents and purposes, state-controlled in a manner reminiscent of Stalin’s Izvestia. As the New York Times reported, the Pentagon handpicked the military experts that the major media outlets used for “informed” opinion in support of the war on Iraq. One of the experts went so far as to say that he felt like a Pentagon puppet carrying their line right onto the pages and screens of the corporate media.

Antiwar public opinion

Despite this imperial unanimity of both corporate parties and their media, the U.S. public has overwhelmingly turned against the war and is increasingly moving to the left on most issues. Over 67 percent want to end the war. Sixty percent of troops wanted to be out of Iraq by 2007. Twenty-three percent of Americans want an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. And as the Pew Research Center documents, workers have moved dramatically to the left, the most left-wing they have been since the last upsurge in the early 1970s. These facts conclusively dash the myth of a “right-wing America” that many even on the Left believe.

The media, however, squelches these opinions as well as the developing forces of the antiwar movement. For example, the corporate media conducted a virtual blackout of Iraq Veterans Against the War’s (IVAW) amazing Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality the corporate media, we must recognize, is owned by the same corporate power that led the war charge into Iraq.

Far from expressing this overwhelming antiwar sentiment, the presidential candidates either oppose it or attempt to co-opt it. John “McCentury” McCain threatens to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for 100 years if that’s what it takes to “win.”

Now Obama and Clinton, in order to get elected, have had to posture as antiwar. But, in truth, both oppose immediate withdrawal. Both are for retaining “anti-terrorist” forces of thousands after “withdrawal.” Both are hawks on Iran. Both are unflinching advocates of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Both are for increased intervention in Afghanistan. They are in fact presenting themselves to the real power brokers, the American ruling class, as competent managers of the empire. While they may have this or that tactical difference with Bush, they share his commitment to U.S. dominion in the world system. They boast that they can do this more effectively.

We already have tested the Democrats and found them wanting. The American public swept them into power in Congress in 2006 with the expectation that they would end the war or cut the funding. Instead they have continued to fund the war and offered only verbal opposition to Bush.

Antiwar strategy

As a result, an enormous gap has opened up between, on the one hand, the people and, on the other, the corporate politicians and the corporate media. The question we confront in this situation is what strategy the antiwar movement should pursue to win our demand for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

The mass action strategy remains the only viable means to win. It will take the mass mobilization of workers, soldiers, and students in solidarity with the resistance of occupied people. Stephen Zunes was right last night when he invoked the mass struggles that it took to end the Vietnam War—rebellion of the troops; campus strikes; mass demonstrations; and large-scale civil disobedience. Given the stakes for U.S. imperialism in the Middle East, it will take an even more militant mass movement to drive the United States out of the region.

Now the mass action strategy is very different from the dominant liberal strategy in the antiwar movement and the common sense of the vast majority of people opposed to the war. Co-chair of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Judith LeBlanc describes this strategy as “creating a peace block in Congress.” The argument is essentially that yes, we should build the movement, yes, we should call demonstrations—but all with an aim of electing Democrats who are thought to be the vehicles, the means, of ending the war.

Inevitably then, the Democrats, who have been pro-war, begin to shape the demands and protests of the antiwar movement. Demands and issues and speakers that might offend the so-called “peace block” get dropped. Protests that might step on the toes of the Democrats don’t get called. During the elections the movement gets funneled into the election in the vain hope that the Democrats will do what they say they will not do—bring an immediate end to the war.

The main antiwar coalition, UFPJ, has thus demobilized the movement. UFPJ opposed united mass demonstrations on the fifth anniversary of the war, saying they would never work with the other antiwar coalition, ANSWER. Nearly every email I get from UFPJ is about phoning congress, voter registration and education, or lobbying.

The combination of the pull of the election on mass antiwar sentiment and UFPJ’s liberal strategy of orienting on Democrats has precipitated a crisis in the antiwar movement. At a national level, it is really the weakest it has been since the beginning of the Iraq war. It is in near collapse. Even at a local level there are real weaknesses in antiwar organizations on campuses, in cities, and at workplaces. Thus there is an enormous gap between consciousness and the organized movement.

We have to be honest and sober about that. The last thing we need is drunken driving in the struggle. But we also cannot be bearers of doom and gloom or give up on building a mass movement. We have to nurture the small, local coalitions in workplaces, among soldiers, and on campuses. These are the first shoots of a future mass movement.

We can organize excellent local antiwar actions and educational events. We have the powerful examples of Winter Soldier and the very successful regional conferences of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) as well as conferences like the one we are holding this weekend. We have to build on these new foundations in every way possible at the local level. At the same time we have to develop a strategy that can forge a stronger national movement.

Avoidable traps

In developing a new strategy there are some traps we should avoid that will prevent the development of a new mass movement. Some have wrongly argued that movement tactics like mass demonstrations are a thing of the past and no longer work. They argue we need savvy media strategies instead. Now I am in favor of using the media as best we can, but as the New York Times article demonstrated, the corporate media is the voice box of the Pentagon and the White House. It is occupied territory. The very corporate backers of the war and the two mainstream parties own the media and will be on the whole unfriendly to the movement we must build. This should come as no surprise; they have been hostile to every progressive social movement in history, at home or abroad.

Others argue that instead of mass actions we need small direct actions. Now I’m in favor of direct action and civil disobedience as a tactic in certain circumstances. After all, mass and illegal factory occupations helped build the trade unions in the 1930s. Similar tactics of mass civil disobedience like the Montgomery bus boycott and the wave of sit-ins built the civil rights movement. But direct actions that are small, secret and not oriented on winning over a sympathetic mass audience can and will backfire. Moral witness can make us feel good but fail to galvanize mass struggle.

Mass action alternative

These are not strategies but tactics. Our alternative strategy to UFPJ’s must be independent mass action. Our movement must be independent because the electoral cycle must not set our agenda. That does not mean excluding forces and people who are going to vote for the Democrats. Yet we must be clear that our movement’s goal is not electing Democrats but the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. The Democrats and the election cycle cannot shape our demands or actions. We must fight for our demands no matter who’s in office, and we must fight for our demands right through the election cycle.

Our organizing must aim for mass collective action. Why? Because that is the lesson of history. Change always comes from below through the mass mobilization of the exploited and oppressed. As Howard Zinn has said, “the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in.” Mass organizing is what built the unions, won civil rights, ended the war in Vietnam, and won abortion rights. Mass independent, collective struggle won everything we cherish today. As the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”

That strategy in turn shapes our tactics. Our strategy of mass collective action must include a wide variety of tactics. We must be incredibly flexible in tactics, always with a mind of leading the activist minority to win over the sympathetic majority. So we should organize mass, legal demonstrations in some circumstance. In others, mass direct actions like those that shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999 are vital.

But I want to defend the tactic of demonstrations in particular since many have grown disillusioned with their utility. Demonstrations help to build the base of the movement. In the process of organizing for demonstrations, coalitions grow in size and sense of purpose. The preparation offers an opportunity for coalitions to educate new layers of activists in the politics of the struggle. On the demonstrations themselves, activists new and old feel the power of their forces. And after effective mobilizations, activists can reach out to include wider layers of new activists, thereby building larger local organization. In and of themselves, demonstrations are not adequate. But they are a decisive component for building organization for even more militant struggle.

Lessons of the Vietnam era

To really understand the kind of mass struggle we must aim to build, we should draw on the lessons of the movement against the war in Vietnam. It was not the president or Congress that ended that war. Instead it was the dynamic interaction of three militant mass struggles. The mass civilian antiwar movement staged mass marches, mass civil disobedience, and a wave of campus strikes that shut down the universities and colleges of the United States.

On top of that, the U.S. troops revolted against the war. As David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt describes, civilian activists in collaboration with vets and GIs set up coffeehouses where soldiers could organize their antiwar movement and build Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In Vietnam itself, the U.S. troops refused to fight, organizing “search and avoid” missions and even threatening their officers with fragmentation grenades to prevent officers from sending them into combat. This GI rebellion essentially paralyzed the American military in Vietnam.

Finally and most importantly, the Vietnamese people themselves forged the National Liberation Front that fought for their own emancipation. They proved especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968 that the United States and its puppet government had no support in the Vietnam and that the people were committed to driving the U.S. out of Southeast Asia. This three-dimensional, militant movement won the liberation of Vietnam.

These three interrelated movements should also give us ideas for devising the strategy of our movement. To be clear, the movement of the 1960s is not a blueprint for today and we cannot simply reproduce it. We must find our own way. But we can draw from its lessons.

In reality, we will need an even strong mass movement this time. Why? Because the geostrategic stakes for the United States in Iraq are far higher than they were in Vietnam. Former Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan finally admitted the “unfortunate truth”:  It really is all about the region’s oil. Whoever controls that oil controls the world economy. And the U.S. has no intention of leaving Iraq or the Middle East as a whole. They want to lock in a unipolar world order against rising global powers like China as well as eliminate regional challengers like Iran and Venezuela. We thus have an even bigger fight on our hands than activists in the 1960s.

The movement today

We are, however, far from the kind of mass movement we will need to win Iraq’s liberation. As I have said, the national movement is in sorry shape. While there are inspiring flashes of local struggle and organization, it too must be built or re-built.

This is challenged by the election year, but not in a fashion that much of the Left thinks. The pull of the election is obvious. Yet at the same time, the election is raising hope—expectations for change and a host of reforms from ending the war to addressing social inequality, racism, and sexism. I do not have hope in Obama to really address these realities, but I have hope in the people who have hopes in Obama.

We have to be patient and determined through the election year and seize opportunities at the local level. It is simply not true that we cannot do anything during the elections. For example, just last week in Boston over 600 students came to hear Noam Chomsky lecture against U.S. imperialism. There are countless other example of hopeful small actions and educational events that embody the future of the movement.

Our key task is thus to rebuild the base of the movement. We have to initiate local organizations through educational events, actions, and all sorts of events from movie screenings to local Winter Soldier hearings. While I support the upcoming National Assembly in Cleveland, I do not think we are in a position to launch a new national formation. Cleveland will be a chance for activists to share ideas and initiate collaboration, but our key emphasis has to be on building the infrastructure of the movement.

We need to organize and build antiwar organization among students, workers, soldiers, and military families. We need to build existing and new chapters of the CAN, U.S. Labor Against the War, IVAW, and Military Families Speak Out. We must build the base for a future mass movement that will likely emerge in the aftermath of the presidential elections. As in the struggle against the Vietnam War, those organizations will be necessary to mobilize the social power to compel our rulers to get out of Iraq.

Demands for the movement

A key part of rebuilding the movement is figuring out the demands around which we must organize the coming struggle. I agree with Max Elbaum, who argued last night that demands are a tactical question. We must figure out which demands are necessary for the movement and will galvanize popular opposition and action. In doing so, we should avoid the trap of single-issue dogmatism on the one hand and on the other ANSWER’s endless laundry list of demands. Neither is a guide to building the movement.

Our central organizing demand must be the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But we should have important subsidiary demands that are necessary for preparing the movement to confront U.S. war plans. Thus, we must demand “no war on Iran,” since they are clearly preparing for a future confrontation with Tehran.

We also must put forth a position against anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia as that clearly is the legitimating ideology of the war and is responsible for horrific oppression of Arabs and Muslims. If we hope to build bridges of solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East and if we hope to bring Arabs and Muslims into the U.S. movement, this is a necessary demand.

Finally, we must put forward class demands such as “money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation.” This can broaden the movement among sympathetic workers who see the United States wasting $3 trillion on war and occupation while New Orleans gets washed out to sea, their homes are foreclosed, and their jobs are lost amidst the recession.

I also think it is important for the left wing of the movement to argue for including opposition to occupation of Afghanistan even though we may lose it. We should be clear that the entire War on Terror is united in the minds of our rulers from Afghanistan to Iraq and we ought to oppose it across the board—especially since the Democrats are campaigning for a surge in Afghanistan. Moreover, we should argue for speakers on Palestine to show how the Israeli occupation is a crucial component of U.S. dominion over the Middle East.

Flashes of the future

While we have many challenges today, we can see the first shoots of the new movement developing in smaller or larger scale around us today. The Winter Soldier hearings captivated the entire antiwar movement and projected a new and hopeful GI and vet resistance. The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) strike on May 1 represents a huge development where workers in an historic union are striking against the war to shut down all the ports of the West Coast, one of the busiest areas of trade in the world. We will need such class power to liberate Iraq from U.S. occupation. Also, new student activists in conferences and actions this spring displayed exciting new stirrings of youth resistance. These are early signs of forces stirring that have the social power to shut down the U.S. war machine through mass militant protest.

Through the election year we must be patient but also persistent and aggressive to cultivate each new shoot of resistance. Whoever wins this election—and I think the Democrats are likely to sweep every level of government—will have raised both people’s expectation for an end to the Bush regime and expectation for real change. However, they will preside over an economic crisis, two failing occupations, and deepening social inequalities inside the United States.

Today we must seize every opportunity to educate, organize, and act locally to establish vehicles to mobilize the growing sentiment for change; we must do so with the determination to provide an alternative means for winning change when the Democrats either fail to deliver or deliver inadequate solutions to the various crises we will confront. We do not know the timing of when people will become frustrated with the Democrats’ refusal to deliver what we want, when they will look for our alternative. No one has a crystal ball, but we must organize the bases of a future antiwar movement prepared to galvanize sentiment and lead a mass and militant resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

ASHLEY SMITH is a member of the ISR editorial board. This is the text of a speech he delivered at the New England United Regional Antiwar Conference, April 25–26, 2008, in Boston, Massachusetts. This speech is printed in the July/August Issue of the International Socialist Review (www.isreview.org).







Ashley Smith is a socialist writer and activist in Burlington, Vermont. He has written for various publications including Harper’s, Truthout, Jacobin, and New Politics.