Why is the antiwar struggle weak today?

October 29, 2014

The antiwar movement must oppose U.S. intervention in every form--and support all the popular struggles in the Middle East and North Africa, writes Ashley Smith.

WHEN PRESIDENT George W. Bush launched his drive to war on Iraq, a mass antiwar movement erupted across the U.S. and around the world. On February 15, 2003, a million people rallied in New York City and London, and 3 million in Rome. All told, there were demonstrations in 600 cities around the world in the largest single day of antiwar protest in human history.

Shocked by this outpouring of opposition, the usually staid New York Times went so far as to declare that "the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."

Unfortunately, this was an exaggeration. Despite the size of the protests, they lacked the social force necessary to stop an empire intent on remaking the Middle East to control its oil reserves and enforce its rule around the globe against any and all comers.

To put a halt to that project would have required a much higher level of struggle--and a movement capable of organizing a general strike and a soldiers' revolt inside the U.S. military. Instead, Bush was able to ride roughshod over global public opinion and go to war. The outcome of that war created the conditions that led to the current crisis in the Middle East.

Barack Obama receives the Nobel Peace Prize
Barack Obama receives the Nobel Peace Prize

The reaction to Barack Obama's launching of a third war on Iraq--or perhaps a new stage in one continuous, 25-year war--could not be more different.

There are plenty of reasons to build an antiwar movement. His case for war is no better than Bush's. He claims that this is a humanitarian intervention to "degrade and defeat" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), saving Iraqis, Syrians and even people halfway around the globe, in the U.S., from a terrorist threat.

But the real reason he wants to defeat ISIS is that it is a challenge to American imperial domination of the region and its strategic oil reserves. Obama wants to shore up the reactionary order in the Middle East, an aim that places him on the side of the very regimes, from Egypt to Israel to Iraq, that hold the people of the region under brutal oppression.

Like Bush before him, Obama bypassed congressional approval for the war. Instead, he invoked the "Authorization for Use of Military Force," a controversial law passed in the days after the September 11 attacks, which gives the president sweeping war powers. Obama followed Bush's lead in ignoring the United Nations and constructing a new "coalition of the willing" to participate in the war.

But Obama's war has not stirred much protest. Within the establishment, there have been minor tactical differences within overall unified support for war. Liberals and the left have been unable to galvanize a new antiwar movement, save for a few small protests here and there. Why?

For one thing, Obama has been able to count--despite his liberal posturing as an opponent of prejudice against Muslims--on the twin paranoias of Islamaphobia and Terrorphobia to ensure, at least for now, general popular consent for his air war.

In this regard, ISIS itself has been an invaluable help. Its counterrevolutionary attacks on ethnic minorities, Shia communities and even Sunnis who don't share its extreme Wahabist ideology have provided the U.S. with plenty of fodder to tap into the deep reservoir of prejudices against Arabs and Islam that American imperialism has cultivated to legitimize its domination of the region.

Alongside this prejudice is the fear of terrorism carefully cultivated by the American state since the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. An NBC News poll this September reported that almost 50 percent of Americans think the U.S. is more vulnerable to terrorist attacks than it was before 9/11.

Still, public opinion could turn rapidly if the war goes badly. Already, CNN reports that a majority of Americans oppose the deployment of ground troops to Iraq and Syria. Thus, there is a basis to begin organizing an opposition. In order to do so, however, we have to face the two main weaknesses that have long plagued the U.S. antiwar movement.

The Limits of Liberalism

Liberal antiwar figures and organizations have consistently failed to grasp the nature of U.S. imperialism and the central role within it played by the Democratic Party.

The most important liberal antiwar coalition in the era of the "war on terror," United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), effectively closed up shop in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama--because its leaders believed that Obama and the Democrats would bring an end to Bush's wars.

Based on these illusions, it stopped organizing even before Obama withdrew from Iraq, failed to revive in opposition to his dramatic escalation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and did nothing to oppose his ever-expanding drone war. Today, support for Obama continues to paralyze many liberals from effectively opposing his imperialist policies.

Even those liberals who do oppose Obama's new air war fail to recognize that fighting terrorism is an alibi for a deeper project of imperial domination of the Middle East to prevent imperial and regional rivals from controlling the region's strategic oil reserves. Instead, they accept the "war on terror" assumption that terrorism is the problem and the U.S. can be the solution. Because it was captive to this ideology, UFPJ's leadership fought for years to keep the coalition from endorsing the spreading sentiment among opponents of war for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Today, even some of the best liberal antiwar intellectuals fall for Obama's pretense that the new war is about combatting terrorist threats. Phyllis Bennis, for example, rightly opposes the war, but does so within the framework of recommending to the U.S. government other supposedly more effective and less violent means of "beating ISIS."

There is an ignoble precedent to such an approach. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, led by George Bush Sr., SANE-FREEZE, the predecessor organization of today's Peace Action, raised the slogan "Sanctions not War."

Disastrously, Iraq got both. The U.S. bombed Iraq to smithereens and then imposed sanctions that prevented its reconstruction. The sanctions became a notorious war crime in and of themselves, responsible for the deaths of nearly a million Iraqis.

Today, liberals are in danger of making similar mistakes--such as when they advocate turning to the United Nations as a solution. The UN isn't a global democratic body, but a collection of unelected representatives from the capitalist nations of the world. It is dominated by the most powerful governments, especially the U.S., through the UN Security Council.

The U.S. will use the UN when it can convince its imperial competitors like China or Russia to go along with its dictates--and sideline the UN when it cannot. Either way, as Lenin said of its predecessor, the League of Nations, the UN is a "thieves kitchen," not an ally for antiwar activists.

Perhaps the worst proposal made by liberals is for a negotiated solution to the crisis in Syria and Iraq. Peter Certo of Foreign Policy in Focus argues:

The Obama administration should work to ameliorate political conditions on each side of the border. In Syria, it should convene rebel groups, the regime, civil society activists, and regional players like Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Gulf States to restart negotiations for a political solution to the war. If there is a silver lining to these latest air strikes, it's that the administration can use them as leverage to get [Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad] and the rebels to the table.

To begin with, this is naïve. The idea that the U.S. and its imperial and regional rivals will negotiate an end to hostilities is unlikely since they are competing with one another for global and regional dominion. In the unlikely case that they did, it would be in a way that would strengthen the American grip over the region, shore up reactionary states and give them an increased capacity to repress the workers, peasants and students who just three years ago rose up during the Arab Spring with the aim of overthrowing them.

In Syria, this liberal pacifist position effectively calls for beleaguered revolutionaries to give up the struggle, cut a deal with the butcher Assad, and accept, at best, some kind of power-sharing agreement with the regime. This is similar to U.S. imperialism's preferred end game in Syria: the so-called "Yemen scenario," where a despised leader is pushed aside, but his repressive regime remains in place.

The fundamental mistake of antiwar liberals is their belief that the U.S and the existing states in the region and internationally can orchestrate a solution behind the backs of the people of the Middle East. Hamstrung by their organizational collapse, illusions in Obama, and misguided hopes in the possibility of a benevolent American imperialism, liberals have failed to pose an effective challenge to Obama's new war.

Faux Anti-Imperialism

If there were ever a moment for radicals to provide an alternative to liberalism, now would be that moment. But many on the left have put forward a faux version of anti-imperialism that is actually an obstacle to building the left and galvanizing broader antiwar opposition.

The first problem is that the forces on the left are scattered and divided. Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER), which at one point posed itself as an anti-imperialist alternative to UFPJ, has suffered a decline during Obama's presidency, like all antiwar formations. ANSWER also suffered from a split in the Workers World Party, the small group that maintained control over ANSWER. ANSWER is now dominated by one wing of that split, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL)

PSL and Workers World are both Stalinist groups. During the Cold War, Workers World sided with the Russian empire against the U.S., even going so far as to call the state capitalist dictatorships of the ex-USSR and the countries of the Eastern bloc socialist. It also supported various tyrants in the poor and developing world, like Saddam Hussein, because they were supposedly standing up to U.S. imperialism.

This position led Workers World to support atrocities against workers and peasants in the name of anti-imperialism, from Russia's brutal repression of Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Czechoslovakian Revolution in 1968 to the crushing of the Tiananmen Square Uprising in 1989 by the Chinese state capitalist dictatorship.

Even after the end of the Cold War, these groups have preserved the methodology of "campism": Supporting whichever "camp" opposes the U.S., even when it has no pretensions to socialism. For this reason, PSL and Workers World continue to consider U.S. rivals like China and Russia and various Third World dictatorships like North Korea to be "anti-imperialist." By siding with these oppressive states, they fail to side with the oppressed people who live under them.

This is actually imperialist politics disguised as anti-imperialism. Genuine anti-imperialism does not choose between rival states in the capitalist system, but supports national liberation struggles against all imperialisms as part of the international workers' movement to get rid of capitalism and its system of states. That means standing with mass democratic revolts, regardless of whether the regime is an ally or opponent of the U.S.

This faux anti-imperialism of Workers World and PSL poisoned their reaction to the Arab Spring. They didn't support the uprisings across the board, but only when they challenged allies of the U.S. state. Thus, they cheered the Egyptian revolution against U.S.-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, but not the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad, because his conflicts with the U.S.--though the Assad regime has managed to collaborate with the U.S. in numerous cases throughout the last few decades--supposedly made him an anti-imperialist.

Workers World and PSL backed Assad's brutal repression of the Arab Spring protests and his subsequent murderous war on Syria's people. Workers World went so far as to send "election observers" to provide celebrate Assad's "re-election" earlier this year.

Just like the liberals, the campist left tries to deal with the crisis by looking for solutions from above. Workers World and PSL back Russia, China, Syria and Iran against the U.S. and its allies. In reality, no solution will come from either the American camp or the Russian/Chinese camp, because both have predatory aims in the region.

Two disastrous consequences flow from left campism. One is that it isolates the left from the only force that could provide a solution to the crisis--the workers, peasants and oppressed peoples of the Middle East. From Syria to Bahrain to Iran to Palestine, they are fighting for liberation from states that U.S. imperialism supports, as well as those that Russia and China support. The left ought to stand with those struggling for revolution from below against the existing states no matter which camp they are in.

The second effect is that these politics alienate the newly radicalizing students and workers who are the potential base of the antiwar movement. Many are still influenced by liberal ideas, but they can be won to an anti-imperialist movement that meets their desire to see justice and democracy. They won't be won to one that champions tyrants like Assad in the name of anti-imperialism.

Building an Antiwar Opposition

Obama's new war will likely be a protracted one, and it may eventually require the deployment of significant numbers of U.S. ground forces.

Antiwar activists, both liberal and leftist, need to begin building an antiwar opposition today. While understanding the large differences among the forces that would compose it, we can unite on core positions we can agree on: "U.S. Out of the Middle East" and "Money for Jobs and Education, not for War and Occupation," for example.

Inside that effort, socialists can attempt to win larger numbers of activists to an alternative to both liberalism and left campism. We must persuade people away from the liberal idea that the U.S. can somehow play a benevolent role in the world today. The U.S. is, as Noam Chomsky puts it, the biggest terrorist state on the planet. We should oppose any and all American intervention, whether military, economic or political, including its use of the UN.

We should also oppose intervention by U.S. rivals like China and Russia, as well as the various states of the region involved in the crisis. From Iran to Saudi Arabia, these states have proven themselves to be sectarian and only interested in regional power, not the liberation of the workers and peasants of the Middle East.

By opposing all imperialist intervention, we can hope to provide space for the region's masses--from Syria to occupied Palestine to Iraq--to rebuild their organizations and movements, overcome sectarian divisions, overthrow the autocracies, end their neoliberal policies and free themselves from imperial domination.

The only answer to the rise of ISIS that wouldn't reinforce the forces of reaction in one way or another is a revolutionary challenge to the sectarian dynamic encouraged by those very forces. If such a challenge seems depressingly distant in the current turmoil of the Middle East, remember that one of the most inspiring aspects of the Arab Spring, just a few years ago, was the bonds of solidarity forged in places like Tahrir Square, which broke down historic divisions among workers and the poor.

Here in the U.S., we must start, best as we can, building a new and genuine anti-imperialism that opposes American intervention and builds solidarity with the popular movement for the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East and North Africa.

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