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Lee Siu hin
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Eleanor J. Bader
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The Election & the Antiwar Movement
S ome of the more enthusiastic moments at the March 20, 2004 antiwar rallies around the country occurred when speakers raised the specter of President Bush being given the electoral equivalent of a one-way bus ticket back to Craw- fordsville next November. It’s an understandable reaction. The Bush administration is arguably the single worst thing to happen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the British torched it in 1812.
It’s unfortunate that the upcoming U.S. presidential election offers no likelihood that an antiwar candidate will be elected who will end the U.S. occupation of Iraq—at least not of their own initiative. Apparently, Senator John Kerry’s run-away Democratic primary campaign has emboldened the Massachusetts politician only in the sense that he has stepped up his efforts to win support from those who share his friend Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) view that the occupation of Iraq remains a “noble cause.”
As Tim Russert noted on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kerry sounds a lot like Bush these days when he talks about Iraq. Asked if he thought the Iraq war was a “mistake,” Kerry would only say that it was the way the president went to war that was a mistake. As he earlier declared in a February 2004 speech at UCLA, “Whatever we thought of the Bush adminis- tration’s decisions and mistakes— especially in Iraq—we now have a solemn obligation to complete the mission, in that country and in Afghanistan.”
Kerry’s stay-the-course stance on Iraq is becoming more ironic by the day as support for the occupation plummets, both domestically and in Iraq. A recent New York Times /CBS News poll found 46 percent of U.S. citizens believe the United States should get out of Iraq. In Iraq, a poll taken by western news services just prior to the outbreak of violence in Fallujah found a majority of Iraqis—57 percent—want the U.S. military and its occupation allies out of the country “in the next few months.” Where the subsequent violence has since driven Iraqi opinion is not hard to surmise.
Actually, Kerry is somewhat less inclined on the war issue than the president to engage in all the rhetoric about bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to Iraq. His declared concern now is more the establishment of a stable, pro-U.S. (i.e., compliant) Iraqi government. The same “concerns” for pro-western stability once led President Carter and the CIA to support the 1979 internal Ba’ath party coup that originally brought Saddam Hussein to power. The same concerns led the Republican administrations of Presidents Reagan and later Bush Sr. to remain steadfast in their fidelity to Hussein’s dictatorial rule throughout the 1980s (the decade of his greatest military power and human rights crimes).
The same concerns also led President Bush Sr. to hold back from seeking the dictator’s overthrow in 1991, even after a mass Shi’ite rebellion in the south, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, threatened just that. Likewise, concerns for regional stability, not “freedom” and “democracy” or even “weapons of mass destruction,” motivated President Clin- ton’s unflinching support of UN economic sanctions against Iraq, designed as they were to weaken, but not destroy, the central government while creating devastating conditions for the civilian population.
Accordingly, it is no surprise that while President Bush and apologists for the occupation blather on about bringing “freedom” to Iraq, occupation authorities are also moving to bring back into the fold former Ba’ath Party officials and military officers, to collaborate in the rebuilding of what is destined to be a new repressive political-security apparatus not essentially different from what Iraq has already known for decades.
What’s a Progressive to Do?
T he Massachusetts senator’s “Bush-lite” foreign policy undoubtedly disappoints many among the broad left-progressive milieu, such as it is, that supports him. Unless one believes criticizing the president’s lack of “boldness” in rallying international allies to the occupation cause is somehow a galvanizing message, Kerry is offering “Anybody But Bush” supporters a rather tepid foreign policy “alternative” to rally around.
Kerry’s hawkish views should not do is shock. He has in his
recent history been far more consistently conservative on military
and security issues than the Republicans would like voters to believe:
- Kerry voted for the 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing the assault on Iraq
for the uncivil assault on civil and constitutional liberties
legitimized under the
- Kerry has been saying for a while that more troops are needed in Iraq—approximately 40,000 more, for now
- Kerry expects at least a six-figure presence of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq a year from now—when he hopes to occupy the White House
Nonetheless, the presumed Democratic nominee says we must elect him because he will do a better job at “internationalizing” the Iraqi conflict and mending relations with European allies and the United Nations for the imperial mission.
Of course, no matter how disappointing Kerry’s campaign—Ruth Coniff writes for The Progressive that this may be the year Kerry finally loses the liberal label for good—the desire to defeat Bush will not deter many who have marched against the war from also voting for Kerry. Nor will it prevent some in the progressive media from creating their own spin machine on the Democratic candidate’s behalf. “The right to choose, environmental sustainability and economic justice will all be hanging in the balance on Nov. 2, 2004,” wrote Don Hazen and Tai Moses for Alternet (March 5), the progressive, San Francisco-based news service. “With positions, messages and values this starkly opposing, there won’t be many undecided voters in this race.”
Admittedly, Hazen and Moses penned these words in early March, when some of the free-for-all rhetoric of the primary campaigns, with multiple candidates raking Bush’s handling of the economy and WMD issue, was still fresh. But flash forward two months and Hazen is now interviewing a linguistics expert on the problem Kerry is having finding a defining theme for his campaign. Such is the Unbearable Lightness of Being a Progressive Apologist for Anybody But Bush.
Kerry’s preeminence as the party’s front-runner has had some time to hang in the air, enough to smog up some of the hype of pro-Kerry groups like MoveOn.org with the grimy reality that the election is shaping up as a choice between a bad pro-war candidate and a really bad pro-war candidate. Of course, there are differences on issues (there are always differences). Kerry is pro-choice and Bush is not, for example. On the war issue, there’s not much difference at all. It’s also unlikely the great wash of non-voters (somewhere in the range of half the adult population) will be so motivated by the program of either of the two parties to begin an unprecedented rush to the ballot box.
If Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be illusory, so will the fantasies of some in the Democratic Party that the Iraqi occupation can be transformed into a “socially responsible” occupation—United Nations sanctioned or not. In this way, Democrats like left-leaning Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, who ran in the state’s primary boasting of his antiwar credentials, are selling something even more insidious than the rank Republican rhetoric. These are the “antiwar” Democrats whose opposition in the build-up to the war melted into air the moment U.S. troops crossed the border into Iraq.
Now they attempt to paint an increasingly brutal military occupation with the veneer of hopes for resuscitated U.S. good intentions. As if it’s possible for the U.S. presence in Iraq to transform into a benevolent mission. As if the United States (or the United Nations) has a track record of supporting democratic revolutions in the Middle East.
Of course, the wild card in the western debates over the fate of Iraq is the Iraqi people themselves. When asked in the New York Times/ CBS poll if they saw the U.S. military as “liberators” or “occupiers,” 71 percent of Iraqis said occupiers. Yet the architects and apologists for the war cling to the delusion that the resistance reflects only politically isolated “regime remnants” and “terrorists.” But then winning the hearts and minds of the locals can become problematic when you’re also dropping 500-pound bombs on the neighborhood.
Internationally, the United States has never been more isolated before the court of world opinion. Spain has announced it is withdrawing its troops, while six other countries are restricting their small regiments to their bases. Nor does the United Nations show signs of becoming anything more than what Naomi Klein in The Nation calls “the political arm of the continued US occupation.” The desire by many Democratic critics to push the United Nations, or even a NATO intervention, as some kind of salvation for the U.S. war (as a desperate Bush also turns to the UN) is, under the circumstances of the nationalist uprising, unlikely to succeed. As Klein notes, “The post-June 30 caretaker government being set up by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be subject to all the restraints on Iraqi sovereignty that sparked the current uprising in the first place.”
You Get What You Pay For
T he Anybody But Bush vision now has most of the progressive milieu in its trance, but it is not a vision as much as it is a paucity of vision. Faced with a war sparked by the extremist right-wing politics of the Bush administration, the best so many otherwise articulate and powerful voices for justice can muster is an insistence on supporting whoever happens to win the Democratic nomination. It’s revealing just how desperate progressives are that a return to the Clinton-style politics Kerry embraces is now considered almost a godsend.
In fact, the social policy of the Clinton administration was the most conservative of any Administration since the end of World War II, as historian Howard Zinn reminds us in the revised edition to A People’s History of the United States . The entire tenure of the Clinton administration was defined by erosion of New Deal social policy, gutting welfare and other safety net programs, deregulating industries, undermining union and environmental protections, and generally cozying up to the interests of silver spoon investors and corporate executives—the principal beneficiaries of the era’s market prosperity. The campaign slogan of 1992, “Putting People First,” came to mean “putting the bond market” first, as Edward Herman remarked a few years ago in a Z M agazine round-up on the Clinton legacy.
Is the only choice now one of the speed of the retreat from the promise of a better, more just society? Unfortunately, if the possibilities for political change are viewed only through the lens of Bush versus Kerry in November, then that is the sorry reality. But it’s a mistake to view the election as the be-all and end-all of our hopes. Let’s instead get heretical in our thinking and declare that a neo-con Republican in power is not inherently less responsive to pressure from “the street” than a liberal Democrat.
Historically, when has progressive social change ever depended more or even mostly on whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, rather than on what happens outside the corridors of power, in the workplaces, campuses, and neighborhoods, among the officially voiceless and disenfranchised or excluded? This is the story of the Civil Rights movement, when sit-ins and marches and a growing, relentless dissent compelled a bipartisan power structure, long comfortable with Jim Crow racism, to finally sit up and take action. This is also the story of woman’s suffrage, the Vietnam peace movement, and labor’s quest for the eight-hour day, benefits, and such radical ideas as vacations. This is the story of the movement for democracy.
In 1970, labor activists helped secure passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, viewed by many as “the most important pro-worker legislation of the last 50 years,” as Steven Greenhouse noted in a 2002 New York Times profile of veteran labor leader Tony Mazzochi. Notably, the OSHA legislation was passed under a Republican administration. Those same Nixon years also saw an end to the military draft and legal recognition of a woman’s right to choose. Again, no thanks to Nixon or even to a “progressive” Supreme Court (it didn’t exist), but to the popular, organized activism and mobilization of public opinion of millions of U.S. citizens. In this context, the million-plus March for Women’s Lives on April 25 did more to secure women’s reproductive rights than anything that will happen on November 4.
It might similarly be easy to credit President Clinton for passage of such legislation as the Family Medical Leave Act, but the real impetus came from women’s groups and unions, who had pushed for such legislation for years. Likewise, the belief that Clinton’s early health care reform initiative failed because it was too liberal or visionary turns reality on its head. The proposal failed because whatever reformer’s vision it could claim sank in the bog of endless reassurances by the Administration to sectors of the insurance industry that their profits would remain sacrosanct. But without a mobilized public movement, even that was not enough to ensure passage of the health-care reform. This was not the case in Canada, where historically active public support for the independent, union-based New Democratic Party helped to eventually win passage of a single payer health system.
If Ralph Nader, an early endorser of the small Labor Party group founded by Mazzochi, was actually running a campaign advocating Mazzochi’s idea of truly independent, working-class campaigns for office, in opposition to the corporate-dominated two parties, it could at the very least set an example of the direction grass-roots organizing needs to go if independent political action is ever going to gain momentum in this country.
Unfortunately, that is not what Nader is doing. The Nader campaign seeks to oppose the Democratic Party while ostensibly trying to boost the Party, hoping to pressure Kerry from the grass-roots left to take better positions on a host of issues. Accordingly, Nader thinks he can pull large blocs of disillusioned non-voters, independents, and even Republicans into voting booths; blocs otherwise beyond Kerry’s reach, who, the thinking goes, will then invariably translate part of their presence in the voting booth into backing for various progressive Democrats running for local and state offices. It’s a confused, ambiguous strategy and it makes about as much sense as Michael Moore’s endorsement of General Wesley Clark, who led NATO in bombing civilian targets in Belgrade in 1998, as a “peace” candidate for the Democratic nomination.
The problem now with all the elite debates about the future of Iraq is the thorny problem of the Iraqi insurgency, which, in one way or another, is likely to continue growing. Of course, it’s possible the U.S. military may perpetrate a repression so thorough and bloody that it effectively puts down the rebellion—for now. But weapons can never obliterate the spirit of human resistance. They also cannot kill everyone. The spirit of nationalism is such that the Iraqi people will, in the long run, never countenance the ongoing occupation of their country, puppet government or not, especially with the current atrocities and killings becoming part of their collective memory. They will, one way or another, be the final arbiter of the future of Iraq.
A s a labor organizer, Tony Mazzochi understood that the type of progressive social change that endures always originates and grows from the grassroots, from the cellar floor, challenging the existing status quo as well as whatever conventional wisdom tells us about the limits of what is “practical” to achieve. Social change happens when the dissent in the air gets organized and visible and takes to the streets as well as the ballot box. Getting organized has never depended on “lesser-evils” or benevolent elites. Our battle now is not just against a military occupation, but against militarism itself.
Undoubtedly, last year’s antiwar protests lost some of their urgency following the quick military victory by U.S and British forces over Saddam Hussein’s government. Yet mainstream U.S. politics is as much a creature of paradox as it is an exercise in sound bites and personality contests. It was thus, perhaps, at the moment of President Bush’s most triumphal war posturing that when he paraded macho style in full flight uniform on the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, celebrating “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq—that a sense of the seismic credibility chasm the Administration was about to plunge into began to edge into fuller view.
What is unfolding now in Iraq is a political disaster for the United States. The evidence mounts of the utter moral collapse this war represents for the government of the United States.
The beginnings of a classic nationalist rebellion against occupation by a foreign power are now underway. Think Vietnam. Think Algeria. With the infrastructure still in crisis, electricity spotty, hospitals in disrepair, cities under siege, unemployment over 50 percent, union rights denied under the same Hussein-era laws, and world opinion largely in opposition to U.S. policy, the corporate CEO- think that defines the Bush mind-set has proven its profound inability to lead; if political leadership still has anything to do with social justice, peace, and prosperity in the world. The Democratic front-runner John Kerry equally shows no signs of a fundamentally different mind-set.
The antiwar marches before the war and most recently on March 20 sent a vibrant, defiant message that international and domestic opposition to the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq runs deep. They must continue. Now more than ever. Louder than ever. Bigger than ever. No matter who is in office. The killing must stop.
Mark Harris is a Chicago-area journalist. He’s been a contributor to Utne Reader , Z Magazine , Alternet, and other publications and online journals.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.