In the glow of the Iraq war's initial military success, most American peace activists felt profoundly demoralized. Between the war's portrayal as a glamorous spectacle and Bush's seemingly overwhelming support, many who'd recently marched by the millions felt isolated, defensive, and powerless, fearing their voices no longer mattered.
Now, as Bush's occupation faces a deepening quagmire, shifting public sentiment opens up major new opportunities for activism. Just two months ago, the national mood felt so resistant that it was hard to raise the most cautious dissenting questions. But polls now suggest the beginning of a very different national mood, where large numbers of Americans are having significant doubts. This gives us a chance to challenge the core fallacies of Bush's foreign policy, revitalize peace movement activism, and perhaps change our national direction. We can do this by launching a grassroots campaign to replace the US control over Iraq with an international transitional authority under United Nations command -- an authority that would control not only military operations, but also Iraq's political and economic affairs, including its oil-fields. We can work to transform a beachhead for American empire into an interim government that would actually have a shot at bringing democracy.
The shifts in the polls are staggering, even if most peace activists haven't yet noticed them. Driven by the steady US casualties in Iraq and continuing chaos, a July Gallup poll found 43 percent of Americans believing things are going badly in Iraq, up from just 13 percent in early May. In a mid-July Washington Post-ABC News poll, six in ten of those surveyed said the war damaged the image of the United States abroad, half said the conflict permanently damaged U.S. relations with key allies, and 52 percent considered the level of US casualties "unacceptable." A Zogby poll around the same time found a one percent majority actually saying it was time for someone new in the White House. These shifts all emerged before Congress's recent questioning of the occupation's political, economic and human costs.
Before the war, we had a clear goal in trying to stop it. Once it started, this drastically limited the peace movement's options. We could bear witness for the future, but it was hard to influence the war's immediate outcome. Now the landscape has shifted again, to one far more hospitable toward dissenting views. Americans are developing significant reservations despite what until recently has been scant critical media coverage, minimal questioning by Democratic leaders, and little presence from the peace movement since late February. If we can begin coalescing public concern around an alternative to US troops remaining indefinitely in Iraq, we have a real chance to influence national debate.
Although the war has created precisely the kind of mess we predicted, we need to do more than just repeat, "I told you so." Or gloat about how Bush's imperial dream is unraveling. It's important to keep pushing on the ways Bush lied to Congress and the American public. We also need to offer our own vision of what needs to be done. We can do this by supporting European initiatives to end US control over Iraq's political and economic future, and instead place the country under UN charge, policing it with a multinational force with significant Islamic representation.
To most Iraqis, US troops have become symbols of colonialism and chaos. The longer they stay, the more they become targets, and the more Iraqis will resent the US for imposing our will and grabbing for oil while failing to secure basic needs like electricity, clean water, and physical safety. Because the UN represents the entire international community, including eighteen Arab states, a UN administration, in contrast, would be far less likely to be seen as a foreign military occupation. Although the new forces would probably still face some opposition, both armed and unarmed, they won't be tarred with the same neocolonial agenda. Iraqis wouldn't view them as simply in it to dominate their country or project American power. Without the disruption of a growing armed insurgency, efforts at restoring basic services, maintaining stability, and setting up a democratic and representative Iraqi government would be far easier. A UN Mandate might even allow a similar transition to when UN forces finally ended Indonesia's bloody occupation of East Timor and supervised that country's return to democracy.
A shift away from unilateral US control already has broad potential support. In a late-June Knowledge Network poll, 64% of Americans wanted the UN to take a leadership role in Iraq, up from 50% in April. Pushing for such a shift will also let us reach out to American soldiers who are increasingly frustrated at being given a mission with neither a defined end nor any clear boundaries between friend and foe. And to military families angry that they see no clear timetable for the return of their loved ones. We could contrast Bush's chickenhawk bluster of "Bring them on," with our own call to "Bring them Home," and include a vision that demands more than just abandoning Iraq to chaos.
Ideally, this campaign would be as broad-based as possible, encouraging citizens to reach out both in our communities and to elected officials. We'd circulate petitions, table, canvass, and vigil in local neighborhoods, write letters to local papers, pass civic resolutions, and resume all the other kinds of outreach we began so successfully on the eve of the war. We'd build to more visible rallies and marches. We'd work to ensure the Iraqi quagmire remains a front-and-center issue, so the Bush administration can't just move on and ignore it.
With enough grassroots momentum, we could begin pressuring key elected officials to take a stand in favor of a shift to full UN control. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has recently spoken out in favor of major US troop withdrawals. John Kerry has spoken more generally about the need for greater UN control. It will take work to get the more conservative Democratic candidates and elected representatives to follow suit (and maybe even some independent minded Republicans) to take as strong a stand as is needed. But given the shifting polls, if we muster enough citizen pressure, at least a few will decide that the political risk is worth it. We'd want to offer even those who supported the war the opportunity to say: "I backed Bush in good faith and I'm glad Saddam Hussein is out. But now the WMD evidence still hasn't surfaced. We've alienating the rest of the world by going in alone. And I don't like having been lied to. Since the Iraqis want us out, it's time to stop putting our brave young soldiers at risk."
Could this campaign actually force Bush to turn Iraq over to UN administration? Assuming that the situation continues to be a morass, Bush will face increasing pressure to cut his losses, declare victory, and leave. Although some in his administration are ideologically opposed to any major UN role whatsoever, with enough pressure and media debate the pragmatist wing might actually view withdrawal as politically preferable to facing an election year with American soldiers continuing to come home from Iraq in body bags.
This raises a difficult question. Is it the job of the peace movement-or the global community--to help Bush clean up the mess that he's created? Shouldn't we simply let him stew in it?
If Bush quickly shifted Iraq to UN administration, it might raise his re-election prospects. But it's extremely unlikely that his administration will readily accede to this demand. Powerful economic, strategic and ideological motivations led them to attack this oil-rich nation to begin with. These motivations make it extremely unlikely that they'll give up the opportunity to try to control Iraq's political and economic future without a fight. And the more they dig in their heels and resist, the more time the peace movement will have to expose the ways in which this war was not about bringing freedom and democracy to a long-oppressed people, but about controlling the future of Iraq's natural resources and projecting American power in the world. Forcing the US genuinely to release control over Iraq would be a major setback for the politics of empire.
Working to bring the troops home will also give us a chance to address related questions, like the missing WMDs, America's long tradition of arming dictators, the key role of oil politics, and the lies and manipulations that fueled our rush to war -- including the notion that we'd be universally hailed as liberators and the attacks on generals who accurately warned of massive post-war troop deployments. Raising these issues will lead to larger questions about the dangers of Bush's belligerent unilateralism, and the contrast between the four billion dollars a month he's spending in Iraq and his total neglect of a sinking domestic economy. The more we succeed in this task, the more we have a chance to breach Bush's image as national protector.
If Bush does withdraw after sustained citizen pressure, his administration will have been significantly tarnished. And we'll have a major peace movement victory, which will itself empower further action. A key value of this campaign would be its ability to help recover activist momentum and morale-giving people a concrete focus for their actions. There's a huge reservoir of citizens who became active in the opposition to the war, but who've since melted back to private life. If we can get them re-engaged at this point, they have a chance to become long-term activists. They may not yet have taken up the particular issue of troop withdrawal, but that's because most were so demoralized by the war's quick initial progress and seemingly overwhelming support that they felt that what happened was totally out of their hands. Now it isn't. Citizens once again can begin to have a voice, in a far more potentially receptive environment.
During the countdown to the war, the clock was running against us. Our movement grew at an amazing pace, but ran out of time before we could become powerful enough to reverse the administration's course. Now time should work in our favor. Unless Iraq suddenly becomes miraculously pacified, the longer our troops are there, the more casualties they'll take, and the stronger the case for withdrawal. As we continue to raid houses, round up civilians, and generally stoke resentment, Iraqi resistance is unlikely to die down. Bush is already calling for increased military deployments. Although we'd want to launch a campaign for withdrawal well before the November 2004 election (to avoid diverting resources and energy), if we do our work well, it could play a major role helping unseat George Bush.
If we build sufficiently broad coalitions for this effort, we have a chance to make a major impact on national debate. Whether or not we can actually convince the administration to pursue a wiser course, taking up this issue gives us the chance to get people moving again, challenge the core politics of empire, and support policies that would actually make for a safer world. It gives us the chance once again to do more than watch from the sidelines as passive spectators.
Paul Loeb, is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time , and board chair of Peace Action of Washington.
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