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Where is the antiwar movement headed?

March 10, 2006 | Page 8

ELIZABETH WRIGLEY-FIELD, a member of the national coordinating committee of the Campus Antiwar Network and of the International Socialist Organization, looks at the state of the antiwar movement as activists build for March 18 protests across the country.

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MARCH 20 will mark the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Three years of occupation have devastated a country already crippled by a decade of deadly U.S. sanctions and war.

Every justification used by the Bush administration to sell the war--from imaginary weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein's nonexistent links to al-Qaeda--has proven to be a lie.

The biggest lie of all has turned out to be the administration's claim that the U.S. military would "liberate" the Iraqi people. Instead, the U.S. has used torture, death squads and a colonial strategy of divide-and-conquer to crush all resistance.

Ordinary people in the U.S. have also paid a price for three years of war. More than 2,300 U.S. soldiers have been killed, and tens of thousands more are severely injured. Economists project the war will wind up costing over $1 trillion.

This human and financial cost has turned growing numbers of people against the Iraq war. Despite the complete failure of the Democratic Party to challenge the U.S. occupation of Iraq on anything but the narrowest tactical grounds, a majority of Americans have joined the vast majority of the world in opposing the war on Iraq.

This discontent with Bush's war is the primary reason that his popularity has plummeted to new lows. But this mass sentiment against the war and the war-criminal-in-chief hasn't been matched by the emergence of a more visible and confident national antiwar movement.

There have been exciting initiatives at the local level over the past year--especially on campuses, where students have kicked military recruiters out of a dozen schools and defended their free speech rights when they faced repression for doing so.

New student antiwar groups have sprung up around the country, and in some places, they helped win important victories off-campus--as in San Francisco, where activists won passage of a College Not Combat ballot referendum against military recruiters in the schools with 59 percent of the vote. Also, a new movement of antiwar veterans and GI resisters has taken steps forward over the past year.

Despite such advances, however, the antiwar movement nationally remains defensive. On March 18, while the international antiwar movement is building protests around the world, the anniversary of the U.S. invasion will pass unmarked by a national--or even a major regional--demonstration in the U.S.

Activists are organizing important protests locally, which are sure to bring out people ready to take up activism against the war. But it remains the case that mass, national sentiment against the U.S. occupation and for bringing U.S. troops home won't be reflected in a national show of strength by the antiwar movement.

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FOR SOME in the antiwar movement, though, this situation is taken as a good thing--part of a necessary "reorientation."

One example is a recent cover article in the Nation magazine declaring that "help has arrived" for progressive students--in the form of Campus Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank. With former officials from the Clinton administration on staff, the group is using its projected $1.25 million budget to fund campus activities in line with mainstream Democratic Party politics.

One of the founding statements of the group argues that instead of fighting for "utopian visions," student activists should "see the world for what it is...and choose the best course of action, based on decidedly American values."

Unfortunately, these "values" turn out to be those of the Democratic Party--for whom the continued occupation of Iraq, agreement with the "war on terrorism," and a retreat on other issues like abortion rights are justified in the name of "pragmatism." The experience of the antiwar movement over the past three years is that the liberal politics of "loyal opposition" disorient the movement, and encourage passivity rather than struggle.

For instance, some antiwar voices have portrayed calls in Congress--coming from both mainstream Democrats and even Republicans--for the "redeployment" of U.S. troops in Iraq as genuine antiwar initiatives. They aren't. Instead, such calls amount to a repackaging of the U.S. occupation and "war on terror."

Criticizing Bush's occupation strategy in Iraq without rejecting the U.S. right to rule the Middle East can lay the basis for greater violence. This became clear at the Campus Progress national conference last summer, where the keynote speaker was none other than Bill Clinton--whose brutal sanctions regime killed 1 million Iraqis.

In a panel discussion on "Stronger and Smarter National Security," all three speakers condemned Bush's handling of the war--by arguing for expanding the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The effort to blur the line between Democratic "opposition" to Bush's military strategy and a real antiwar position for complete withdrawal from Iraq and Iraqi self-determination disarms our movement.

This helps explain some of the weaknesses of the antiwar movement today, including its "now you see it, now you don't" character.

The antiwar organization United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), for example, declined to organize protests on the anniversary of the war. UFPJ opted instead to co-organize a broad, multi-issue demonstration on April 29, along with organizations such as the National Organization of Women, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition/PUSH, and U.S. Labor Against the War.

The protest's demands rightly call for bringing all U.S. troops home now. But the overall conception of the demonstration risks subordinating the effort to build the largest possible antiwar turnout to a strategy of electing Democrats. Thus, the demonstration call states, "It is important for our movements to help set the agenda for the Congressional elections later in the year. Our unified action in the streets is a vital part of that process."

By diluting specifically antiwar demands, protest leaders aim to focus on general condemnations of Bush's policies--without challenging the Democratic Party's support for continuing the occupation under a different guise.

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UNDERLINING THESE weaknesses is the failure of much of the antiwar movement to challenge racism against Arabs and Muslims.

In the last month, racist caricatures of the prophet Mohammed have been republished across the world under the phony guise of "free speech." Meanwhile, the Democratic Party led a campaign to prevent the United Arab Emirates-owned Dubai Ports World from running six U.S. ports--with the blatantly racist claim that any Arab-based company is inherently a national security threat.

It is striking that the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) is the only major national antiwar organization to release a statement condemning this undisguised racism.

This deafening silence is the latest example of much of the movement's acceptance of major components of the "war on terrorism"--those that Democratic Party leaders promote.

With this acceptance comes a willingness to censor ideas that challenge this world view. As David Halperin, director of Campus Progress, acknowledges, "We'd have a problem if students were writing editorials in support of the Iraqi insurgency or calling for the elimination of the state of Israel."

Unwillingness to consider challenges to the fundamental precepts of U.S. rule in the Middle East can also prevent the movement from responding effectively to the Bush administration's arguments to stay in Iraq.

As CAN's statement on racism against Muslims and Arabs puts it, "All of these stereotypes are part of an ideological offensive, aiming to justify occupation by dehumanizing and infantilizing people from the Middle East. The arguments that the U.S. must stay in Iraq to 'fight terrorists' in the country, or to bring 'democracy' to a population assumed unable to do so for themselves, are directly buttressed by these racist caricatures of Muslims."

If the antiwar movement as a whole doesn't challenge racism and Islamophobia, we are conceding central justifications of the U.S. empire.

Campus Progress shows how the Democrats and their liberal allies are actively organizing themselves to intervene in and influence the political direction of the antiwar and other movements. The effect of their influence is to restrict what political ideas are considered to be part of an acceptable opposition.

But the bankruptcy of their own ideas reveals the need for a coherent alternative that takes as its starting point opposition to U.S. imperialism in any guise--and is committed to building mass struggle from the bottom up to defeat it.

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