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The Anti-War Movement and the 2008 Elections

Max Uhlenbeck
Date Published: 
December 15, 2007

The campaigns begin earlier, the war chests grow larger, and just when you thought it had become impossible to do so—the Democratic and Republican platforms on the major issues of the day have become even more blurred. Welcome to the spectacle that is the US presidential elections. As we look towards a more hopeful 2008, one thing is for sure—Bush will be out of office, and that has to be a good thing for all of us. Beyond Bush, the Republican Party apparatus looks to be in a state of disarray, struggling to find a viable candidate for next summer’s convention.The campaigns begin earlier, the war chests grow larger, and just when you thought it had become impossible to do so—the Democratic and Republican platforms on the major issues of the day have become even more blurred. Welcome to the spectacle that is the US presidential elections. As we look towards a more hopeful 2008, one thing is for sure—Bush will be out of office, and that has to be a good thing for all of us. Beyond Bush, the Republican Party apparatus looks to be in a state of disarray, struggling to find a viable candidate for next summer’s convention. While the left cannot get too excited about Bush finally riding out his 8-year term, it does represent an important shift away from the far right’s stranglehold on the US political landscape, something which might hasten troop withdrawal out of Iraq. Still, what does it all mean? Consider that the 2006 midterm elections were above all else a referendum on the war in Iraq, a wholesale rejection of the Bush administration's policy, and in many quarters a call to start bringing home US troops. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, in particular the people of Iraq, all that this symbolic rejection at the polls translated into was that the power in the House and Senate shifted to the Democratic Party, most of whose members have been nothing if not consistent on voting for the initial war resolution, as well as subsequent spending bills to ensure its bloody continuation. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently made this clear: “We have to make responsible decisions in the Congress that are not driven by the dissatisfaction of anybody who wants the war to end tomorrow.” A little over a year removed from the so-called 2006 referendum, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of seeing the clear presidential front runners of each political party—Hillary Clinton and Rudolf Giuliani respectively—represent entrenched pro-war positions. Barrack Obama and John Edwards, the other two Democrats in the running, both seem intent on keeping a large majority of US troops in Iraq and its immediate surroundings until at least 2013. Where does this leave those of us who still see the occupation of Iraq as empire’s most vulnerable point—a key part in the puzzle to build a more just and sustainable world for future generations? After the start of the US invasion in 2003, polls showed that 23% of the US population opposed the war. Today that figure is conservatively estimated at 58%, a significant shift in public opinion considering the limited information most people get through the corporate media filters. Internal critique In this potentially “friendly climate,” it has been frustrating to many that we have not seen these figures translate into a more visible, coordinated, and effective anti-war movement—that is, a movement which truly moves. Most left organizations and anti-war pundits blame the malaise on the liberal sectors of the anti-war movement (i.e. those not firmly anti-imperialist in their eyes), specifically United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and their orientation towards the Democratic Party. Endless online articles posted on such websites as argue that if only “the movement” would take a stronger position on Palestine, if they would call for supporting the Iraqi resistance, or incorporate Katrina and racism more effectively into their work, that we would see a more powerful movement. Outside of cyberspace, already lengthy coalition meetings drag out even longer over tedious line struggles and empty sloganeering. Part of this phenomenon is that certain segments within the left are still convinced that, as Mao famously said, “the correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything.” I would argue that if it were merely a question of what slogans to bring to the demo or whether to include Venezuela and Haiti among our list of demands, this war would have been stopped a long time ago. Political clarity is important, and upholding an anti-imperialist pole is crucial within the broader range of forces, but it is unfortunately not the reason for our lack of cohesion. This is not to say that the largest anti-war coalition, UFPJ, is above critique in any way or that they have not made their share of strategic mistakes. They have made several crucial errors including relying on lawyers and cops too much to negotiate permits at key times, downplaying direct action and grassroots militancy in favor of the occasional Monday morning orchestrated civil disobedience, and being unwilling to rotate leadership at the top of the organization. UFPJ has taken a position of building a “left-center coalition around ‘Out Now’ and related slogans.” As a coalition they work to build unity for that bottom-line demand among a wide-ranging political spectrum. This at times includes large amounts of so-called “middle of the road” liberals and engages the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which presents them with several limitations. The coalition’s priorities coming out of their June 22-24, 2007, national assembly included “engaging in the 2008 electoral season to project a peace and justice agenda.” The bottom line though is that UFPJ is not the movement’s problem; it is if anything a symptom of the political times we find ourselves in. It would be convenient to place the blame on one organizing body, since this seems like something that can be rectified with a few meetings or the occasional “open letter to the anti-war movement,” but the reality is far more complex. Unique challenges Learning from history, we saw the Vietnam War end due to a series of interconnected and overlapping factors: the Vietnamese resistance itself, the mandatory draft and the development of the GI movement inside the US military, and finally mass protest domestically—which took many forms, but were often centered on or around college campuses. These three key factors led US planners to conclude that the price was becoming too high to pay for their aggression in Southeast Asia. In the 1960s and 1970s there were plenty of large center-left coalitions and organizations mobilizing against the war, playing more or less the same role as UFPJ does currently. The difference being that political and social activity was at such a high level across the board that it created a healthier dynamic between the larger peace movement and the explicitly anti-imperialist and anti-racist poles within left, which pushed and pulled the movement in different ways. The armed resistance in Vietnam, led by the NLF, was easier to identify with for the US anti-war movement than the myriad of groupings—recently estimated at over 130 clearly distinct factions—that currently make up the Iraqi resistance for a number of reasons including Islamaphobia in the US left. With the abolition of the draft, organizing inside the professionalized military ranks has become much harder, even as opinion within the armed forces continues to shift against the war. Notwithstanding the impressive efforts of emerging organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), we are likely still a long way away from a soldiers’ movement that would refuse to fight as we saw in the early 1970s. It bears repeating that every activist and organizer today also operates in the context of a 30-year neoliberal backlash ushered in by the Reagan administration, which was largely a response to many of the gains won by social movements during the previous two decades. Without being defeatist, we need to acknowledge that we are not in the same position of strength as previous movements. The US ruling class—learning their lessons from the Vietnam War—has shifted their strategy in an effort to fight “quicker, cleaner wars,” aided as always by the increasingly obedient corporate media systems. The anti-war movement will not overcome these conditions on its own and should not be blamed for failing to do so. A significant cultural and political shift will have to take place within the US, moving larger and more diverse communities into the political arena together, as we saw in previous decades. It is important to remember that underlying many of the social and political relationships that formed into a mass movement to stop the war in Vietnam was the power and vision of the Black Freedom movement coming out of the 1950s and the 1960s, which set the tone for the next two decades. Over the past 16 months we have seen some hopeful signs of larger movement, articulated most clearly by the massive (predominantly [email protected]) immigrant rights mobilizations of 2006 and the impressive Black-led marches in the heart of Jena, Louisiana, over the summer. Our vision, not theirs They say that in times of war, the first casualty is truth. I would add that the first casualties of the presidential election cycle are often the grassroots opposition movements that find their mission statements sidetracked, their organizations de-funded and their messaging pushed even further to the margins. There are already significant center-left institutions within the “Netroots” like that focus on electoral strategy and working inside the Democratic Party on the local and national level. UFPJ would do well to stay away from that game, but it is one that many of their member groups gravitate towards. Organizations like ANSWER, which are not real coalitions, and do not function democratically, do not have the pressures of responding to a base and so will continue to radical bait UFPJ at every turn under the guise of “unity in the movement.” These practices, along with their non-strategic calls to action every few weeks in Washington, DC, should caution radicals that their attractive anti-imperialist messaging is often an empty promise in this context. The most encouraging anti-war work outside of the military families organizing over the past two years has been the re-birth of Students for a Democratic Society which combines an anti-imperialist orientation, a democratic organizing practice, and a real base on campuses and high schools across the country. The new SDS has been able, in two short years, to build an all-volunteer organizing framework on the national level that is truly impressive. Along with a very action-oriented platform, SDS members are clearly invested in long-term strategy discussions for “what it will take to win.” The central organizational document coming out of their national convention in Detroit, “Who We Are, What We Are Building,” is now available on their website ( as part of their detailed convention bulletin and is well worth the read for anyone looking to be inspired by what young people are doing and thinking about in terms of organizing and movement building. Moving beyond the false dichotomy of getting out the vote for pro-war politicians or allowing a combination of cynicism and sectarianism to take hold, SDS serves as a hopeful reminder that a new generation is not content with failure even if our candidates are. Max Uhlenbeck is a member of the Left Turn editorial collective.