A movement on hold?

January 18, 2008

FIVE YEARS of U.S. occupation. One million Iraqis dead. Nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead. And a cost of more than $8 billion each month.

The U.S. war in Iraq grinds on, and yet the antiwar movement seems to have ground to a halt. Since January 27, 2007, when some 250,000 marched in Washington, D.C., national and regional mobilizations have diminished in size, and the vibrancy of local and campus organizing efforts has waned.

How did this happen?

The problem isn't the indifference of the American public. Despite the media cheerleading for the alleged success of Gen. David Petraeus' "surge" of U.S. troops in curbing violence, opinion polls show a steady and significant opposition to the war.

According to CNN, 65 percent of adults oppose the U.S. war in Iraq, a number that hasn't changed significantly in at least eight months. CBS/New York Times polls show that half the population wants U.S. troops home in less than a year.

But much of the antiwar movement greeted the new year by sounding the retreat. Why? Because the presidential primary season is in full swing, and the conventional wisdom holds that it's time to put the movement on hold and focus on the voting booth.

After the Super Tuesday primaries on February 5, "[t]he victorious Democrat in particular will want nothing to happen in Congress that could possibly jeopardize winning back the White House," wrote Salon.com columnist Walter Shapiro. "And congressional leaders (along with most back-benchers) will be shrewd enough to understand that electing a Democratic president is the only surefire route to ending this debilitating war.

"This is not the moment for guerrilla theater and mau-mauing the moderates...The coming battleground instead is the familiar terrain of Ohio and Florida--and the hearts and minds of the swing voters who will decide the 2008 election."

UNITED FOR Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the largest national antiwar coalition, is already on board with this approach. With the fifth anniversary of the war approaching, UFPJ called for protests in all 435 congressional districts--ensuring dispersed, small and ineffectual actions that will only serve to further reinforce the sense of isolation and disorientation among activists.

UFPJ has set the stage for a dismal rerun of its 2004 disappearing act, when its leading voices fell in line behind the pro-war Democrat John Kerry, and the coalition's only mobilization was for a demonstration outside the Republican National Convention.

UFPJ's failure to address the sentiment among activists for a mobilization on the fifth anniversary of the war created a vacuum that other forces, including the national antiwar group ANSWER and peace activist Cindy Sheehan, tried to fill.

But their joint call for a March 15 demonstration in Washington, D.C., has collapsed for several interrelated reasons.

One is that ANSWER's credibility as an antiwar force has been damaged by its sectarian behavior toward other forces in the movement--and more recently, its insistence in inflating the success of its recent mobilizations and the potential for future ones.

In December, Sheehan made a proposal for unity among national antiwar groups. But without a grassroots base of support, her proposal amounted to a plea--which UFPJ, claiming to represent the majority of the movement, felt no pressure to honor.

Sheehan and ANSWER's unity proposal was further hampered by their attempt to hitch the Washington protest to an Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) initiative organized for March 13-16--the Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI), named after a dramatic event featuring antiwar vets during Vietnam--without discussing the matter with the IVAW.

It was irresponsible for Sheehan and ANSWER to unilaterally announce an event in the middle of Winter Solider--supposedly in solidarity with it--without having an agreement with the IVAW.

On the other hand, the IVAW is discouraging antiwar activists from making the Winter Soldier event a focus for wider organizing, apparently because some leaders of the group believe the IVAW will be better served if it maintains a distance from the larger antiwar movement.

This makes little sense to the great bulk of antiwar activists who want to support the IVAW's efforts--and who thought they could do so by attending the Winter Soldier event and then participating in a demonstration at its conclusion.

In the end, the IVAW's request that no actions be held in Washington during the weekend of their event was the final blow to the proposal from Sheehan and ANSWER. Winter Soldier will take place, but the IVAW isn't making provisions for large numbers of activists to attend. And there will be no national antiwar demonstration on the anniversary of the war.

This outcome represents a missed opportunity--for the IVAW and the antiwar movement as a whole.

The most famous GI protest of the Vietnam era--Operation Dewey Canyon III, a week of actions in 1971 that culminated with some 800 veterans tossing their medals onto the steps of the Capitol building--catapulted the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) to national prominence.

The next day, half a million people flooded onto the streets of Washington in one of the biggest marches in U.S. history to that point.

These two antiwar events reinforced each other, with GIs drawing confidence for their bold actions from the growing protests of that year, and the antiwar movement taking new energy from the high-profile participation of Vietnam veterans.

This history of the last antiwar movement has important lessons for the present--above all, that mass protest and solidarity are the key to building a movement strong enough to force Washington to pay attention to its demands.

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