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Cindy Sheehan and the antiwar struggle

June 8, 2007 | Page 5

TODD CHRETIEN is a former Green Party candidate whose Senate campaign in California was praised by Cindy Sheehan for offering an alternative to Washington's war policies. Here, he looks at Sheehan's angry reaction to the congressional vote to fund the war in Iraq, and her decision to step back as the "face" of the antiwar movement.

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CINDY SHEEHAN caused a sensation on Memorial Day when she announced that she was stepping down as a primary spokeswoman of the antiwar movement.

Certainly few people are more deserving of some rest and recuperation. Her decision prompted a flood of open letters from antiwar organizations across the country and the world, offering thanks for her courageous work and asking her to come back.

No doubt, Cindy will appreciate the support and all the kind words. However, if you really listen to what she said in her last letters, as well as her interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! on May 30, it's clear that Cindy doesn't simply want personal sympathy--she wants to provoke a root-and-branch discussion about the state of the antiwar movement.

The mainstream media were happy (a little too happy) to publicize Cindy's decision to step out of the spotlight, but none of them covered her decision to quit the Democratic Party, announced just two days earlier.

What else to read

Read and hear Cindy Sheehan's interview with Amy Goodman at the Democracy Now! Web site.

For two perceptive analyses of Sheehan's decision and the questions facing the antiwar movement, read "The Exit of Cindy Sheehan" by Ron Jacobs, and Gary Leupp's "Appropriate Disillusionment: The Despair of Cindy Sheehan and Andrew Bacevich."

 

In fact, it seems that harsh attacks on Cindy by pro-Democratic Party liberals were at least partially responsible for her decision to change course.

"I was the darling of the so-called left as long as I limited my protests to George Bush and the Republican Party," she wrote in her "resignation" letter. "However, when I started to hold the Democratic Party to the same standards that I held the Republican Party, support for my cause started to erode, and the 'left' started labeling me with the same slurs that the right used...It amazes me that people who are sharp on the issues and can zero in like a laser beam on lies, misrepresentations and political expediency when it comes to one party refuse to recognize it in their own party."

The backdrop of Cindy's decision, of course, is the war spending vote by Congress. After sweeping to a majority in both houses of Congress after last November's election, the Democrats finally forced a showdown with the White House by insisting that the money be tied to a withdrawal deadline--only to surrender and give Bush what he wanted before the Memorial Day recess.

"The capitulation of the Democratic Party's congressional leadership to the Bush administration's request for nearly $100 billion of unconditional supplementary government spending, primarily to support the war in Iraq, has led to outrage throughout the country," Middle East analyst Stephen Zunes wrote.

"In the Senate, 37 of 49 Democrats voted on May 24 to support the measure. In the House, while only 86 of the 231 Democratic House members voted for the supplemental funding, 216 of them voted in favor of an earlier procedural vote designed to move the funding bill forward, even though it would make the funding bill's passage inevitable (while giving most of them a chance to claim they voted against it)."

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NO DOUBT Cindy honestly needs a personal breather, but her actions cannot be reduced to emotional exhaustion.

Instead, Bush's escalation of the war and the Democrats' complicity led the antiwar movement to a roadblock, and rather than closing her eyes to that obstacle, Cindy has decided to reevaluate her strategy and tactics. This is an eminently reasonable decision.

Some in the movement would rather ignore Cindy's political conclusions, even as they praise her activism.

For instance, the national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) rightfully thanked Cindy for her past efforts and promised to keep up the fight. But the next day, UFPJ co-chair Judith LeBlanc told Britain's Observer that "Vietnam was not ended with one vote. It took five votes to withdraw funding and, during that time, [President Lyndon] Johnson began bringing the troops out. I think the Democrats are using the politics of reality."

But it is LeBlanc, and not Cindy, who is misjudging reality.

Cindy's critique didn't stop with expressing her anger at the congressional Democrats. She challenged the movement to develop "long-term solutions to the stranglehold that the corporations have on our government...Ending the Vietnam War was major, but people left the movement. It was an antiwar movement, but they didn't stay committed to true and lasting peace and justice."

From very early on in her activism, Cindy has always insisted on seeing the bigger picture--even as some in the movement shied away from discussing American policy beyond the borders of Iraq, for fear that it would "alienate" more conservative forces.

Back in April 2005, before Camp Casey put her in the national spotlight, Cindy told a group of antiwar students at San Francisco State University, "What they're saying, too, is it's okay for Israel to have nuclear weapons, but Iran or Syria better not get nuclear weapons. It's okay for the United States to have nuclear weapons. It's okay for the countries that we say it's okay for...

"It's okay for Israel to occupy Palestine...and it's okay for the United States to occupy Iraq, but it's not okay for Syria to be in Lebanon. They're a bunch of fucking hypocrites!

"And we just need to rise up. We need a revolution--and make it be peaceful and make it be loving. Let's just show them all the love we have for humanity, because we want to stop the inhumane slaughter."

None of this is to say that Cindy has all the answers. Her frustration sometimes leads her to chastise the mass of the American people for not translating their opposition to the war into an organized movement, capable of ending the war and addressing the systemic problems.

Yet as Cindy knows better than most, the problem of the antiwar movement--as well as the fight for immigrant rights, access to abortion, rebuilding our unions, etc.--cannot simply be a question of putting more effort into the same old failing strategies.

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PERSONALLY, I don't think Cindy will be gone all that long. Her sense of justice and outrage will not allow her much rest. But for now, the rest of us have a responsibility--to neither bury, nor praise Cindy with platitudes. Rather, we have to take her ideas seriously.

We have a lot of work to do. Grassroots pressure and the horror in Iraq have finally made even hawks like Hillary Clinton sing a new song. However, even Barack Obama's plan for withdrawal from Iraq would leave tens of thousands of "non-combat troops" (whatever that means) in Iraq for the better part of the next decade.

More to the point, we can't wait for 2008. At the current rate, there will be more than 5,000 dead American troops and well over 1 million dead Iraqis by then.

It's been a terrible six years. But the tide is finally turning. The Bush administration has plummeted to Richard Nixon-like lows in popularity, the Democrats are under fire for their surrender on war spending on a scale that they never expected, and there are signs that the antiwar movement is gaining new strength at the grassroots--that at last, the overwhelming public sentiment against the war can be translated into active opposition.

We owe Cindy, and her son Casey, a debt of gratitude in helping spark the painfully slow combustion of the neocons. But more than that, we owe Cindy and all the other military family members, our troops in Iraq, the Iraqi people and ourselves a movement that is stronger, louder, better-organized and more self-confident--so we can welcome Cindy back with open arms in the months ahead.

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