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Why you can't be antiwar and pro-occupation

April 1, 2005 | Page 3

TWO YEARS into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, opinion polls show that opposition to George Bush's war for oil and empire is wider than ever. According to polls taken this month, 53 percent of people say the war wasn't worth fighting, 57 percent say they disapprove of Bush's handling of it, and 70 percent say the number of U.S. casualties--including more than 1,500 deaths--was an unacceptable price to pay.

Yet within the antiwar movement, some voices say they support continued occupation.

Erik Gustafson, executive director of Education for Peace in Iraq Coalition (EPIC), said in a statement that the March 19 antiwar protests across the country were "about pulling U.S. forces and abandoning the Iraqi people...The only responsible way out of Iraq is through nation building."

EPIC's statement also implied that those fighting U.S. forces--rather than the occupation itself--are the source of violence in Iraq. It quotes Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, as saying: "The Iraqi population, who suffered through multiple wars and years of sanctions, cannot be abandoned to a small and violent minority which makes targets of children and civilians."

By lending credence to the Bush administration's characterization of the Iraqi resistance as "terrorists," EPIC's statement breathes life into Bush's last justification for the occupation--that the U.S., whatever its mistakes, is creating a better regime than Iraqis, under the control of a "small and violent minority," could do for themselves.

Almost without exception, the antiwar movement recognizes that Bush's war on Iraq was about oil and empire, not democracy--designed to expand U.S. power in the Middle East and beyond. But formulations like EPIC's accept the racist assumption that lies beneath both conservative and liberal brands of U.S. imperialism--the belief that Iraqis are not capable of determining their own future, so the U.S. government must take charge of "nation building."

Whatever language is used to justify it, this is American chauvinism. There is no way to be antiwar and pro-occupation.

Such views are not unique. Recently, the liberal Internet network abandoned opposition to the occupation--even though the Iraq war was the very issue that brought it to prominence--supposedly to focus its energies on opposing the Bush administration's domestic agenda. In reality, this was a capitulation to the pro-war Democratic Party establishment, which says it opposes Bush's handling of the war, but supports the overall strategic aim.

Hostility to the Iraqi resistance to occupation exists within the national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), as well. For example, UFPJ leaders in New York City refused to endorse the March 19 demonstration in Central Park--the main protest in the country's largest city on the second anniversary of the invasion--in part, they said, because "some of the early materials for this protest" contained "language about supporting the Iraqi resistance...a position strongly opposed by some groups in our coalition."

Such statements ignore that Iraqis' resistance to the U.S. not only takes many forms--from street protests against unemployment, to union organizing, to guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces--but that its various tendencies have also generally condemned the tactic of targeting civilians and kidnapping journalists.

Moreover, this view places conditions on what forms of Iraqi resistance are "acceptable." In the abstract, most antiwar groups support the idea that Iraqis should have the right to self-determination, and even the right to resist occupation. But the practical consequence of EPIC's statement is to oppose Iraqis actually resisting their occupiers.

What is given in the abstract is taken away in the concrete. This is not support for Iraqi self-determination, but the opposite.

Some forces in the antiwar movement say that they agree with the right of Iraqis to resist, but that we should stay quiet about it because our potential audience isn't ready for such an "extreme" point of view.

That shows a lack of faith in this audience to understand why a resistance has developed--and pessimism about activists' ability to make our case by asking people to imagine what they would do if the U.S. were invaded and occupied, and their neighbors or family members killed by the tens of thousands.

Organizers of the March 19 protest in Fayetteville, N.C., outside Fort Bragg, spent months saying that such an argument is impossible to make in a military town. Yet an article included in the newspaper they printed for the demonstration made that very argument.

"The Iraqi people have to be free to make [decisions about their country] on their own, no matter how complicated and potentially chaotic this may be," wrote Ajamu Dillahunt of Black Workers for Justice. "In understanding this right, we have to accept that the struggle to achieve it takes all forms, and we cannot make the decision for the Iraqi people as to which ones they should use. They are responding to the challenge of their sovereignty in ways employed by people in all places and in all eras."

Such a defense of Iraqi self-determination--including the right to use any means necessary--isn't "splitting the antiwar movement." Actually, it is UFPJ leaders who are splitting the movement's forces--by imposing conditions on what demonstrations they will support, depending on their attitude to the resistance.

As socialists and internationalists, we want to see a progressive, secular resistance that puts women's and workers' rights at the top of its agenda. But to withhold our support from Iraqis who resist the U.S. because they don't measure up to some political or philosophical test means accepting that the U.S. government should have the right to crush some opponents of its rule--and can lead to the conclusion of the EPIC statement that an immediate U.S. withdrawal is to be opposed.

The antiwar movement has been in disarray since last year's presidential campaign, when many leading figures and organizations in UFPJ threw their energies into supporting John Kerry and the Democrats. The movement came to a standstill, failing to mount any large regional or national mobilizations, with the exception of a demonstration against the Republican National Convention in New York, which didn't challenge the Democrats' support for the war.

This retreat from activism is the biggest reason why the March 19 protests this year were mostly smaller than last year's demonstrations on the first anniversary of the war--even though opposition to the occupation has grown massively, including among GIs and military families.

In a replay of the early anti-Vietnam War movement, some forces in the antiwar struggle are now trying to isolate the left--using the question of support for Iraqi self-determination and the right to resist as a litmus test to define who is outside the "acceptable" bounds of the struggle.

The attempts of liberals to impose limitations on the developing movement failed during the Vietnam era, as organizations like Students for a Democratic Society arose to champion the principles of non-exclusion and self-determination. The U.S. war on Vietnam was finally defeated by the combined force of the Vietnamese resistance, the GI revolt in the U.S. military, and mass protests at home that demanded immediate withdrawal.

Today's antiwar movement hasn't reached this level. But that doesn't mean we should abandon our uncompromising opposition to the U.S. occupation--or shrink from the challenge of persuading more people of this position.

Every major organization active in the antiwar movement agrees formally on the demand for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a point of unity. But this has been undercut by those who criticize anyone who publicly supports the right of Iraqis to fight the occupation. The health and the future of the movement depend on an open discussion of this crucial question--not on artificial limitations on what political issues are acceptable to raise, and what are too "extreme."

Being opposed to the U.S. war on the Iraqi people must mean demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces--and support for the right of Iraqis to fight their occupiers and determine their own future.

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