United States

SO MUCH FOR THE PEACENIKS

Why the anti-war movement is political poison

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE October 24 2005
United States

SO MUCH FOR THE PEACENIKS

Why the anti-war movement is political poison

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE October 24 2005

SO MUCH FOR THE PEACENIKS

Why the anti-war movement is political poison

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

United States

NOT SO LONG AGO, to question the Iraq war in America was to offer up one’s patriotism for vivisection on cable TV talk shows. Public opinion was rallied around the flag, the President, and the 2003 invasion. But with the number of American troops killed in Iraq approaching 2,000, a majority of Americans have begun telling pollsters that they don’t think their country will win the war. Nearly two-thirds say some or all of the U.S. troops should be withdrawn. A slight majority of Americans want to cut spending on the war to pay for hurricane relief, according to a recent Gallup poll, and a Pew Research Center sùrvey showed a record number—60 per cent—now say it was a mistake to invade in the first place.

More than 150,000 people marched on Washington last month in support of pulling American troops out of Iraq. Pre-hurricane, the national news was fixated on Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who was camped out in front of George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Posthurricane, reporters asked whether National Guard units deployed in the desert should have been in the bayou instead.

And still, the anti-war movement has not managed to push its way from the unshaven fringes of activism to the political centre stage. Activists say they are frustrated with their elected leaders. Never mind Republicans—they mean the Democrats. “There is not a major figure in the Democratic party who is pushing to end the war and bring the troops home now,” says Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, the largest U.S. anti-war coalition. “It’s going to take a carrot and a stick,” to change their minds, he said.

On the day of the Washington demonstrations, Democratic heavyweights such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry were notably absent. Several pieces of legislation calling for withdrawal plans languish in Congress. One proposed Senate resolution calling on the Bush administration to devise a plan for ending the war has only two co-sponsors. “Beyond people having polite meetings, we have not seen any big swing in direction, even though public opinion has shifted dramatically,” says Ted Lewis, the human rights director for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based international human rights organization.

Sheehan herself has written that the “War-Hawk Dems” she has met with were “equally, if not more, disheartening” than the Republicans. “Although my meeting with Senator Clinton went well, I don’t believe she will do anything to alleviate the suffering of the Americans in Iraq or the Iraqi people,” she complained last month. Clinton, like some other centrist Democrats, voted to authorize and fund the invasion, and has called for increasing the number of American troops in the region to quell the insurgency.

Even the anti-invasion hero of last year’s primaries, Howard Dean, has struck a more measured tone since becoming chairman of the Democratic National Committee, argu-

ing that “now that we’re there, we’re there, and we can’t get out.” Some of Dean’s followers have joined with other liberal Democrats to create Progressive Democrats of America, a group intended to counterbalance the more centrist influence of the Democratic Leadership Committee. This summer they presented Dean with a petition signed by 200,000 Democrats disagreeing with his position. “We are frustrated that the continued rhetoric of‘cut and run’ keeps coming forward. It’s giving the Bush administration the okay that we invaded,” says Kevin Spidel, the group’s deputy director.

On one level, the divide between the party’s leadership and base reflects a genuine split between those who believe the American presence in Iraq inflames the insurgency, and those who argue that a departure would be irresponsible and destructive until Iraqi security forces are strengthened. But it also reflects a deeper debate about the soul and future of the Democratic party, which has been shut out of the White House for two terms and faces an uphill battle to regain control of Congress in next year’s mid-term elections. “There is a lot at stake here,” says William Galston, a one-time policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and now the director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland. In a 70-page memo to Democrats analyzing voting trends and strategizing the path back to power, he and fellow Clinton White House alumnus Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, advised the party to avoid pandering to its base. No matter how many liberal Democrats turn out to vote, the party still needs independent and moderate voters to win, they said. To woo those voters, Democrats need to shun a peacenik image. “Democrats must emphasize the importance of the American military as a potential force for good in the world, and in so doing they need to engage ‘Michael

DEMOCRAT heavyweights like Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton aren’t helping. The party needs to woo moderates, and history favours the hawks.

Moore Democrats’ who instinctively view American power as suspect,” they wrote.

History appears to be with the hawks. Despite the enthusiastic support of peace activists, Senator Eugene McCarthy and his anti-Vietnam war platform won less than a quarter of the votes at the party’s 1968 convention. Anti-war candidate George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972 on a platform of withdrawal from Vietnam, but was defeated by Richard Nixon in a landslide. And Democrats are still paying the price for their association with the anti-war counterculture crowd of the 1960s, insists Galston. “Democrats are consistently disadvantaged in areas of defence and foreign policy, and that is a direct legacy of the Vietnam era,” he said.

At the 1972 convention, the anti-war message became entangled with broader antiAmericanism. “It’s one thing to say Vietnam was a mistake, but a different thing to march around yelling ‘Ho-ho, Ho Chi Minh,’ and a lot of people crossed that line in ways that were damaging to the party and inflicted long-term damage that we are still trying to overcome,” Galston says. It was déjà vu all over again at the September demonstrations. Some participants complained that the outof-Iraq message was all but obliterated by a cacophony of other causes. It was no surprise that Hillary Clinton and company didn’t want to share a stage with speakers from the Socialist Front of Puerto Rico, the defenders of Cuba’s Communist regime, or one-time U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, who has joined the legal team that will defend Saddam Hussein before the Iraqi Special Tribunal.

Yet there are stirrings that portend a deeper split to come. Over the summer, more than 60 liberal Democrats in the House formed the Out of Iraq Caucus, a group dedicated to developing an exit strategy. There are also bills in Congress that range from calling for withdrawal by October 2006, to ruling out the creation of permanent American military bases in Iraq, to forbidding schools from giving student information to military recruiters without explicit permission. They have yet to draw much support, though the withdrawal resolution is co-sponsored by North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, who led the charge to rename French fries in the House cafeteria to “Freedom Fries” in protest of France’s opposition to the Iraq invasion. His district contains military bases that have been hit hard by losses in Iraq.

Activists admit it’s a tough fight, but they vow to shake up the party by running antiwar candidates against mainstream Democrats next November. The Democrats will still have to decide whether to make the war an election issue. There’s little reason to, says Washington-based Democratic strategist Steven Rabinowitz. The war is not a voting priority for “the middle” of the country. “While they are pretty much against the war, it’s not their most important issue,” he says. Nor is there any reason for Democrats to fight amongst themselves while Bush’s popularity sags and the GOP is mired in controversy over the hurricane response, indictments of its House leader, and a split with its own base over judicial appointments. As Rabinowitz puts it: “There is the classic advice not to get in front of your opponent when they are driving off a cliff.”