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HOW THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT IS BLOWING IT

by Bill Weinberg

Raining on a parade--or, in this case, an anti-war march--isn't likely to win one popularity contests. But somebody has got to raise the alarm. The upcoming Oct. 25 march in Washington DC is being billed as a revitalization of the movement which made history with coordinated worldwide protests against the looming US-led assualt on Iraq Feb. 15. But the new mobilization actually represents a dangerous step backwards for the anti-war forces in the US.

This effort displays more sanctimony than analysis, and the sloppy thinking in evidence is unlikely to do more than further marginalize opposition to the occupation of Iraq. The new campaign is failing on three broad imperatives that are essential for an effective movement. Without principled alliances and moral consistency we have no authority to criticize Bush's policies. Without a realistic sense of our own power we are dooming ourselves to a cycle of empty (if self-righteous) enthusiasm followed by burn-out and demoralization. And without asking the tough questions we stand zero chance of ever coming up with meaningful answers.

1. Principled Alliances and Moral Consistency

One of the reasons Feb. 15 represented such an important step forward for anti-war organizing in the United States was the emergence of the new coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), which coordinated the protests nationally. Prior to this, most national anti-war organizing fell under the auspices of International ANSWER. The dirty open secret on the American left--universally, but rarely openly, acknowledged--is that ANSWER is led at its core by an outfit called the International Action Center (IAC), which is itself a front group for the reactionary and Stalin-nostalgist Workers World Party. What nobody wants to say out loud is clearly evident: IAC and Workers World support genocide.

IAC's frontman, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, is a founding member of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, and IAC routinely dismissed accounts of the atrocities against Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians as imperialist "lies." Even now, IAC supports Milosevic almost without reservation, portraying him as a defender of socialism. During the worst of the Bosnia bloodshed, IACęs Clark travelled to Bosnia to meet with Serb strongman Radovan Karadzic (now indicted on war crimes charges) and offer his support.

Workers World also supported Deng Xiaoping in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, portraying the protesters as "counter-revolutionaries." In 1991, Workers World split the movement against Desert Storm by refusing to condemn Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. In the ensuing years, Clark and IAC dismissed human rights allegations against Saddam as more imperialist propaganda.

Workers World Party--whose cadre such as Brian Becker are ANSWER's most visible spokespersons--is a vigorous apologist of mass murder.

The progress that was made in the Feb. 15 mobilization towards bringing legitimate leadership to the anti-war movement has now been reversed, as UFPJ and ANSWER have joined forces for the Oct. 25 rally.

The movement has squandered its moral credibility by accepting ANSWER's leadership. We have no authority to oppose US occupation and aggression in Iraq when we are literally rallying around leaders who actively supported occupation and aggression in Bosnia and elsewhere--even in Iraq, where Workers World has asserted that Saddam's gassing of the Kurds was just another imperialist lie.

The frequent response to this criticism is that nobody will notice that our movement is led by genocide-apologists, and it is more important to oppose the occupation of Iraq. This cowardly and hypocritical position undercuts our effectiveness by giving our enemies an iron-clad accusation of double standards to use against us. Moreover, the willingness to throw principles to the wind makes us look desperate--like what, in fact, we have largely become: a movement with no real faith in its own power.

2. A Realistic Sense of Our Own Power

The cynicism which has led to the tactically and ethically disastrous alliance with ANSWER is, paradoxically, the flipside of a naive utopianism. "People marched and demonstrated a whole lot to try to stop the war, and we weren't able to," UFPJ's Leslie Cagan was quoted in the Washington Post Oct. 19. "That had, I think, for some segments of the activist community, a little bit of a demoralizing effect."

The notion that the Feb. 15 mobilization was going to "stop the war" is a simple denial of political reality. Equally so is the notion that the mobilization was not worthwhile because it failed to "stop the war."

Millions worldwide in the streets clearly would not deter Bush, but it almost certainly helped sway others in positions of power to rein in the worst excesses of what Bush had planned. The "shock and awe" bombardment of Baghdad was to have dwarfed the massive aerial bombardment of 1991's Operation Desert Storm, with Pentagon officials actually calling it a "21st Century Blitzkrieg." In the actual fact, far fewer missiles fell on Baghdad in 2003 than in 1991. The London Times reported May 2 that the Pentagon cut the planned bombing campaign in half after the commander of British forces in the Persian Gulf argued that it would have disastrous political consequences. Many factors doubtless played into this thinking, including the threat of unrest in the Middle East, the risk of defection or destabilization of pro-West Arab regimes--and, we can safely assume, the global wave of protests.

The Feb. 15 mobilization probably saved countless Iraqi lives. And--if we could build on the progress intelligently--it would put us in a stronger position to oppose the current occupation.

By setting up unrealistic expectations, we assure our own demoralization and burn-out. We have to accept that the struggle against US imperialism will probably persist for generations, and we are in it for the long haul. This means resisting the temptations of self-delusion and easy answers.

3. Asking the Tough Questions

Sound-bite pseudo-analysis is an inherent danger of activism, which must be guarded against at all times. Slogans like "Bring the troops home" and "US out of Iraq" are handy for fitting on a placard, but they inevitably dodge the really tough questions. Having now plunged Iraq into social entropy, destroyed the country's infrastructure and brought to a boil myriad ethnic and religious conflicts which had been simmering under the Saddam dictatorship, it might be the height of irresponsibility for the US to just unilaterally withdraw. It would, in fact, be a violation of the responsibilities of an occupying power under international law.

We must be clear that US imperialism will never act in the interests of the Iraqi people, whatever rhetoric about "freedom" and "democracy" is cynically employed. Empires act in the interests of empire: they always have and always will. But a unilateral withdrawal which allows genuinely freedom-hating jihadis to take power would not be in the interests of the Iraqi people either. "US out of Iraq" only works as a demand if we have some kind alternative to offer.

We are not going to arrive at answers to such difficult questions merely by thinking about them--and we have largely failed to do even that. We can only begin to find alternatives to support in Iraq by opening a dialogue with pro-democracy, anti-occupation Iraqis, either on the ground in Iraq or in exile. The work of the San Francisco-based Open World Conference of Workers to seek out and support dissident unionists in Iraq is a step in this direction. So is the Independent Media Center network's effort to support a Baghdad IMC. But the mainstream anti-war movement has dodged its responsibility on this front, the leaders being apparently too pre-occupied with maintaining and strengthening their own position of leadership.

Whatever happened to CARDRI, the Committee Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq, the progressive London-based exile group that opposed both the Saddam dictatorship and US imperialist designs in the 1980s? Does CARDRI still exist? Are any of its members still vocal and active? It is from such voices that we must seek leadership--not from the self-appointed cadre of Workers World, or even the comparatively innocuous Leslie Cagan.

I offer that the alliance with ANSWER may actually make the Oct. 25 mobilization more counter-productive than worthwhile, but I am aware that many dedicated and sincere activists will be attending despite misgivings. At a minimum, I hope I have provided some fodder for serious discussion on the bus ride to Washington.

Oct. 23, 2003

See also " Ramsey Clark: Stalinist Dupe or Ruling Class Spook?", The Shadow

HOW THE ANTI-WAR MOVEMENT IS BLOWING IT: REVISITED

by Bill Weinberg

Well, it's a good thing I meant it when I said I wasn't trying to win any popularity contests. Even I failed to anticipate the vitriolic reaction to my essay How the Anti-War Movement is Blowing It, which attempted to call the movement out for unprincipled alliances (particularly the presence of Workers World Party cadre in the leadership), unrealistic expectations and lack of real analysis. Sadly, most of the responses have been personal attacks on the author, rather than actual replies to my arguments. In responding to the three most egregious attacks against me, I will attempt to bring the discussion back to the actual issues.

1. I am Red-Baiting

This one is predictable, but misses the point. I didn't make the standard liberal critique that Workers World is Communist (as if this were some brilliant revelation). While I dislike Lenin and despise Stalin, Communism per se is sort of like Christianity, producing figures as favorable as Rosa Luxembourg or as unfavorable as Pol Pot depending on the interpretation.

I am not even opposed to the participation in the anti-war movement of Marxist-Leninist groups that do not support genocide and do not seek to dominate coalitions--such as the Socialist Workers Party (from which Workers World broke off in 1956 because SWP failed to support the Soviet invasion of Hungary!). I disgree with SWP about almost everything except opposition to the occupation of Iraq, but I wouldn't call for kicking them out of a coalition. In fact, I wouldn't even call for banning Workers World and their front groups from tagging along at demos the way SWP, anarchists and others do now. (What can we do to stop them, after all?) But I insist that they have no place in the leadership.

My fundamental opposition is not to Communism, but to fascism--and, like Stalin between 1939 and 1941, Workers World has made an alliance with fascism, in one of its contemporary guises (that of Milosevic's violent ethno-nationalist extremism).

Some have also assumed that because I have strong feelings about the genocide (or near-genocide) in ex-Yugoslavia (some of which was also carried out by US-backed Croatian neo-fascists, I readily acknowledge), then I supported the US military strikes against Serbia. This assumption is really utterly demoralizing. The "ethnic cleansing" of the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Alabanians was wrong for the very same reason that the US bombardment of Serbia was wrong, and vice versa: because attacks on civilians are not acceptable. Why is this so hard to understand?

Some also pointed out (in an actual argument, rather than a shoot-the-messenger attack, to their credit) that since the Democratic Party largely supported the Yugoslavia and Iraq bombardments, and the Iraq sanctions, that it is also "genocide-apologist"--and there are Democrats among the leadership of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the anti-war coalition which I consider minimally legitmate. Could be, but as far as I know there are no groups in the UFPJ coalition that are organizationally linked to the Democratic Party, and no leaders who are full-time party hacks. Going through the UFPJ member organizations (listed on ther website), the only parties or party-linked groups I see are local Green Party chapters and the Young Communist League, USA.

The other major coalition, ANSWER, is led at its core by the International Action Center, which is an organ of the Workers World Party. Which is why I oppose the UFPJ-ANSWER alliance. I want an anti-war movement which is independent of all political parties. We currently don't have that.

2. I am a Government Agent

This accusation borders on the hilarious, given that I have spent the last several months risking my butt to report on US imperialism's war crimes in Colombia and elsewhere in the Andes. But unfortunately it is no laughing matter. People have been killed over such allegations. I invoke the memory of Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet and revolutionary who was assassinated by his own fellow revolutionaries in 1975 following completely spurious charges that he was a CIA agent. If anyone has any evidence that I am a government agent, I'd like to see it. Otherwise, I will thank them to eat their malodorous canards.

Using these kinds of bullying and dishonest tactics to suppress dissent is typical of the very totalitarian bent that I decried in my essay. The fact that these accusations came from several people (not just a lone crank) makes me even more convinced that the anti-war movement has become an ethical sewer.

3. I am a Neo-Interventionist

I acknowledge that I gave my opponents easy fodder by playing Devil's Advocate in an effort to make people think. Perhaps my words were (uncharacteristically, I hope) ill-considered in failing to make sufficiently clear that that's what I was doing. I thought that the subhead "Asking the Tough Questions" would make clear that I was not putting forth actual positions, and the context of the rest of the piece would make clear that I am anti-occupation. But some people whose intentions I trust (and who agree with me about Workers World) misinterpreted me, so I guess I was wrong.

So to clarify: The disaster in Iraq is largely a creation of US imperial machinations (including a decade of support for the Saddam dictatorship), and I always say you can't sober up by drinking martinis. It is also a fundamental principle that nobody (least of all an illegitimate president) has the right to send economic conscripts from the Bronx, East Oakland and Appalachia into harm's way halfway across the planet. If I supported the occupation, why would I give a shit that the anti-war movement is blowing it? Nuff said? My lack of clarity is the only thing I apologize for. I have called upon others to eat their ill-considered words; I now do so myself. (See? It isn't that difficult.)

What was I trying to say? The first, and lesser, point, is that if we don't grapple with the arguments of the interventionists, we aren't going to come up with convincing counter-arguments. Not everybody who "supports the troops" supports Bush and is a war-monger. Relying on sanctimony and dogmatism instead of argument will only further isolate us.

The more important (and related) point is this: Iraq is destroyed--by the Saddam dictatorship, by the long war with Iran, by the economic sanctions, and, most significantly, by two huge US-led military assaults. The power stations, water treatment plants, irrigation systems and other infrastructure are all in a shambles, and depleted uranium has been spewed all over the place. Leaving the Iraqis to deal with this mess on their own, with practically no resources to do so, is obviously unacceptable. Simply advocating that the US pull out doesn't address this situation. Yet any US-led reconstruction effort will only be imperialist colonization (as I acknowledged). Should the UN assume this responsibility? The UN is now actually reducing its committment in Iraq following the suicide attack on its Baghdad headquarters (carried out by the same probable jihadis that some of my critics glorify as the Iraqi "resistance").

These dilemmas are what make it a tough question. And we need to hear what progressive Iraqis have to say about it. Is the leadership of the anti-war movement making any effort to find them? Did a single Iraqi or Iraqi-American even speak from the stage on Oct. 25? (It's an honest question--obviously, I wasn't there, so I don't know.) Although for the past several months I have been concentrating on finding pro-autonomy, anti-militarist elements for us to support in Colombia, I pledge to make a similar effort on Iraq in the months to come (although I don't have the budget to go there), lest I be accused of complaining without being willing to do any work.

Opposing the occupation necessarily implies finding Iraqis we can offer some concrete solidarity to, and hearing what they propose for rebuilding their country. Iraqi Kurdistan--where the ethnic interests of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen have been cynically exploited by the US, Saddam and Turkey--could become the next Bosnia. In central Iraq, the power of the jihadis is undoubtedly fed by the presence of US troops--but the threat they represent is real. It is sadly ironic that the same American lefties who apologized for the Saddam dictatorship by pointing out that it had granted some elementary rights to women are now denying the reality of (if not actually cheering on) forces who would dramatically repeal those rights if they acheived power. A Sunni-Shiite civil war for control of southern Iraq is also a possibility.

"US out of Iraq" is, once again, handy for fitting on a placard, and is an essential starting point. But, alone, it offers little solidarity to Iraqi women, progressives, ethnic and religious minorities, etc. We need to find those in Iraq who can try to move things towards some kind of grassroots democracy and multiculturalism instead of the orgy of ethno-religious violence that looks increasingly inevitable, and find some way to support them. This work is no less important than demanding an end to the occupation--and it is our responsibility precisely because the US holds the greatest responsibility for the mess that Iraq is today.

I would like to live to see a movement which is based on consistent anti-imperialist principles and analysis, not a mere Oedipus complex against Big Daddy US Imperialism. If my cranky little essay has helped spark the long-overdue debate that can help move things in that direction, then it is worth all the abuse I am taking.

...


Reprinting permissible with attribution.