Why has the American peace movement been so ineffective in opposing the War in Iraq?

by David C. Schwab:

First of all, it has failed to capitalize on widespread anti-war sentiment in America. In part, this is because the stubborn refusal by Washington politicians to change course perpetuates the illusion that this war still enjoys popular support in our country. A February 2008 CNN poll reveals the reality of the situation: 64% of Americans now claim to oppose the war, as compared to only 34% who support it. In an election, numbers like that would mean a landslide for the peace movement – but the federal government has continued to resist the will of the people. Moreover, a January 2008 Bloomberg poll showed that 20% of Americans support immediate withdrawal and another 43% want to be out within a year. Interestingly, a poll taken one year earlier in January 2007 showed a nearly identical result: 19% of Americans favored immediate withdrawal, with another 46% supporting withdrawal within one year. After the vaunted Democratic takeover of Congress, troop levels in Iraq, rather than going down, increased significantly. This shows a surprising level of disregard for the 65% of voters who said, in January 2007, that they wanted the war to be over by now.

The peace movement is partially to blame, having marginalized itself by its use of ineffective tactics. The preferred tactic to date has been the anti-war march, meant as both a show of strength and an attention-grabber. During the Vietnam War, these marches helped turn public opinion through media coverage and the participation of thousands of young Americans, mobilized by their opposition to the draft and to militaristic foreign policy. In our era, however, both the media and the masses of young people are gone, the former no longer interested in protest marches, the latter emotionally detached from the fate of an all-volunteer military. Just as generals who insist on fighting by the rules of foregone wars often find themselves relegated to the dustbin of history, a peace movement that fails to change its tactics with the times renders itself ineffective.

One major opportunity that the peace movement has overlooked is advocacy of the causes of veterans who have been victimized by the Iraq war. Every reasonable peace activist knows that American troops are as much the victims of this unnecessary war as anyone else. Yet we allowed ourselves to be gagged by the slogan of “support the troops”, mouthed by warmongering politicians who thought little of using our armed forces in an aggressive war to enrich their campaign donors with no-bid contracts. While they forced soldiers to return to Iraq time and time again, ignored the urgent healthcare needs of wounded vets, covered up the evidence of deep psychological damage and homelessness, refused to meet with family members of soldiers killed in combat, and saved pennies by denying soldiers body armor and educational benefits, we allowed them to cover their shameful conduct by “supporting” the troops with empty words. Members of the Minnesota National Guard had their tour of duty extended for a period of two years minus one day, so that the government wouldn’t owe them education benefits after their time in Iraq. What’s worse, servicemembers seriously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were asked by the Pentagon to repay part of a $10,000 bonus they received for enlisting. Despite this outrageous treatment of our armed forces, the peace movement has been slow to spearhead the cause of these Americans who have given so much for so little.

“If you want to pull the major party that is closest to your way of thinking to the way you’re thinking, you must – you must – show them that you’re capable of not voting for them. If you don’t show them that you’re capable of not voting for them, they don’t have to listen to you, I promise you that. I worked within the Democratic party; I didn’t listen, or have to listen, to anything on the Left while I was working within the Democratic party, because the Left had nowhere to go.”

-Laurence O’Donnell, political analyst

Perhaps the primary reason for the failure of the peace movement to end the War in Iraq has been its undiscriminating reliance on the Democratic Party. In 2006, the Democratic takeover of Congress was widely interpreted as reflecting the American public’s disenchantment with the war and desire for peace. When President Bush sent even more troops to Iraq, however, Congress’ only reaction was a non-binding resolution criticizing how the administration was conducting the war – which failed. While Democrats stepped up their criticism of the president to keep pace with the polls, most continued to vote for hundreds of billions of dollars to fund the war, including Senator Clinton, a vocal supporter of this war from the start, and Senator Obama, who has benefited from a reputation as an anti-war candidate based on his opposition to the Iraq invasion before his arrival in Washington. Their timid conduct is understandable: if Democrats were to take a strong stand against the war, it could remind Americans of the fact that a majority of Democrats in Congress voted to give President Bush unlimited authority to invade Iraq, which could make them less than credible in the eyes of voters. In fact, the only Democratic incumbent to lose in the 2006 congressional elections was Rep. Cynthia McKinney, one of Congress’ most outspoken advocates for peace, who was defeated in a Democratic primary by a candidate who promised to be less “divisive”.

As anyone with a political science degree could tell you, the Democratic strategy is not hard to figure out – suck up the anti-war votes by claiming to oppose Bush, then vote as conservatively as the base will tolerate in order to attract swing voters. Although a sizeable majority of Americans are already impatient to get out of Iraq, the Democrats envision a larger win for themselves if they waffle on Iraq and lay out vague plans for an eventual drawing-down of troops. With John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich out of the race, the last Democratic candidates who would pledge not to install permanent bases in Iraq are gone. After Kucinich’s withdrawal in order to fight a Democratic challenge to his congressional seat, don’t expect to hear any more mention of Iraq’s oil, which Bush promised to the Iraqi people numerous times before auctioning it off to multinational corporations. “Anti-war” candidate Obama promises a withdrawal that sounds rather like Nixon’s 1968 campaign promise of “peace with honor” – which resulted in 5 more years of senseless fighting and death.

For the Democratic Party, then, the peace movement is at once both a gold mine of votes and something of an embarrassment. Like Representatives McKinney and Kucinich, idealistic peace activists hurt their credibility with corporate media conglomerates, swing voters, and big campaign donors from Wall Street and K Street. Democrats would like nothing more than to hide peace activists in an undisclosed secure location until election day, when they are expected to dutifully vote for the lesser of two evils, just like last time and the time before. The only thing that could force Democrats to oppose the war in actions to match their words would be if the unheeded majority of peace voters pledged to vote only for candidates who would bring all the troops home as soon as possible. The only presidential candidates running with such a platform are in the Green Party. The choice is yours – just remember: if the American peace movement doesn’t figure out American politics, it will continue to wither, along with the hope of a future without war.