Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 August - 3 September 2003
Issue No. 653
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Voices of dissent

Robert Jensen* addresses the challenges facing the anti-war movement in the US

Robert Jensen Three months ago George Bush made his "Top Gun" appearance on a US aircraft carrier to announce that the war in Iraq was over, and no doubt he assumed the anti-war movement was finished, too. Wrong, on both counts.

The US "liberation" of Iraq has given way to a guerrilla war against an occupation army that grows increasingly unpopular at home, while at the same time the lies, distortions and disinformation that Bush used to justify going to war are beginning to unravel. Americans haven't taken to the streets as they did before the war, but anti-war organisers are making progress both on long-term movement-building and planning for actions this fall.

Importantly, there continues to exist in the US broad space for dissenting political activity. While the Bush administration's abuse of the civil and human rights of prisoners at home and Guantanamo Bay goes on, the large-scale repression of civil liberties and free expression that many predicted after 11 September hasn't materialised. Arab, South Asian and Muslim men in the US still have reason to fear arbitrary detention and deportation, but most Americans -- especially white, middle-class folks -- who speak out risk nothing more than an unkind word from friends or co-workers.

Hany Khalil, the Iraq campaign coordinator for United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and a member of the collective that produces the national anti-war publication War Times summed it up this way: "After the invasion, people understandably were discouraged for a while, and the level of public protest naturally fell off. But there was still organising going on. People saw the need for a long-term, broad-based coalition, and UFPJ started the discussions and organising work to do that. Now people are seeing that Bush isn't invulnerable, that we have a chance to end the occupation if the global anti-war movement works together."

Khalil's optimism is supported by the results of the UFPJ organising conference in June, which demonstrated that this wing of the movement had a coherent critique of the many facets of the US empire: diplomatic, military and economic. The conference agreed on three priorities: a campaign to end the occupation of Iraq; a focus on immigrant rights and civil liberties; and a commitment to connecting the peace movement with the struggle against corporate globalisation.

For many, if not most, of the people associated with UFPJ, defeating George Bush in the 2004 presidential election also is an important goal. But the question of how central to make that project highlights some differences within the anti-war movement. In general, UFPJ has become the home to those with a more radical analysis -- but who don't identify with traditional left-sectarian political groups -- while the Win Without War coalition has been the base for more mainstream opponents of the war, many of who identify as Democrats.

Embedded in that question is a crucial issue: Does the Bush administration pose a unique threat that is qualitatively different from past administrations? It's easy to argue that the ideological fanaticism of the neo-conservatives who are steering the Bush ship (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz) is a serious enough threat to push everyone to vote Democratic.

Even many radical activists who typically see few meaningful differences between Republicans and Democrats are hinting they will offer at least some support to any Democrat who challenges Bush. But should this be the primary focus of the anti-war movement?

The difference between the two goes deeper than electoral strategy. For example, on its web page the Win Without War coalition states, "We reject the doctrine -- a reversal of long-held American tradition -- that our country, alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks. America is not that kind of country."

Throughout its history, of course, America has been exactly that kind of country. Built on the nearly complete extermination of indigenous people, the US went on to invade countless nations in Latin America to secure its hemispheric power, later extending that project to the whole world through direct and proxy wars.

The difference is not mere nit-picking over words, but highlights a fundamental question for organisers in the US today: Is it politically strategic to fudge about the fundamental character of the US, to play to mainstream America's distorted sense of itself and the country's history? Or, should the movement attempt to shift the framework in which most Americans understand the world?

One manifestation of this is a strange nostalgia for the Clinton administration, even among many progressives, based in the belief that Clinton was somehow an anti-imperialist who avoided unilateral action. Clinton, we might recall, was the president who launched illegal and unilateral missile strikes against Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, and whose UN Ambassador and later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, once announced the US would act "multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must".

Compared with Bush, of course, virtually any US politician looks attractive in international affairs. But it's crucial to realise that Clinton was engaged in empire-building every bit as much as Bush, just through different strategies. And we should remember that if Clinton, Gore or any other Democrat had been in office on 11 September, it's not at all clear that they would not have exploited the situation and used the military to expand US power.

Meanwhile, Bush's handlers keep the spin machine running at full speed: Whether or not the famed weapons of mass destruction are ever found, officials say, the liberation of the Iraqi people justified the invasion, and a stable peace is just around the corner.

As Bush's fairy tales wear increasingly thin for more and more Americans, the challenge for organisers is to be ready to channel that anti-Bush energy into a serious popular anti-empire movement.

* The writer is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2001).

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