Blogs > HNN > A Wasted Opportunity for the Peace Movement to Transform America's Political Discourse

Sep 26, 2005 12:16 pm

A Wasted Opportunity for the Peace Movement to Transform America's Political Discourse

There's a good chance that most of the more than 100,000 protesters in Washington and other cities last weekend believe that the Bush Administration won the propaganda war leading up to the invasion of Iraq because of its now discredited arguments that Iraq possessed weapons and mass destruction and had strong ties to al-Qa'eda. Sadly, they're wrong. Yes, the "fixed" intelligence was necessary to win acquiescence, if not widespread support, from an American public still shell-shocked from September 11. But as important was the positive vision articulated by the Bush Administration in the lead-up to war--bringing a ruthless, mass-murdering dictator to justice, creating a bastion of democracy in a region desperately in need of one, and through both making America safer from terrorism.

In comparison, the peace movement deployed an almost uniformly negative message, which largely ignored the need to do something about Saddam (or any of the other despotic rulers in the region) in favor of harsh and seemingly anti-American rhetoric. Not surprisingly, such a discourse had little chance of persuading most Americans to oppose a President imbued with the post-9/11 mantle of Commander-in-Chief of the war on terror.

Today the President's positive vision stands in a shambles, but the Administration's narrative of fear and violence remains, sadly, more powerful than its doppelganger deployed by the peace movement in its massive protests last weekend. Yes, half of the country now believes that the Iraqi invasion was a mistake and the occupation is making us less secure; but even more still think that withdrawing will only exacerbate the situation and, in President Bush's words, "make the world more dangerous, and make America less safe."

It is crucial to understand why this is. Even if Americans increasingly distrust the Bush Administration's ability to keep the country secure, more so do they fear and distrust a Muslim world that for centuries has successfully been depicted as filled with irrational and hate-filled religious zealots who are incapable or unwilling to join the modern world. Never mind that the Defense Department's own Science Review Board rebuked the President' claim (uncritically parroted by much of the mainstream media) that "they hate us" in favor of the more accurate explanation that "they hate our policies." As long as Americans remain ignorant of the often disgraceful history and present realities of US foreign policy in the region, and as important, the innumerable and complex ways Muslims have responded to it besides terrorism, they will remain stuck in a mindset that when push comes to shove that too many of "them" hate "us" (now perhaps with good reason) to risk losing Iraq to al-Qa'eda and its--rather than our--brand of globalized chaos and violence

Those who doubt the power of this dynamic only need to look at Israel to see how well it works, as the same argument has been used by the country's security establishment to convince a majority of Israelis that military victory over Palestinians rather than political compromise, is the only way guarantee their security. Every act of Palestinian violence reinforces it while every act of Israeli violence is justified by it, just as in the US occupation of Iraq.

And so the President is now forefronting past examples of American "defeatism"--withdrawing troops from Lebanon or Somalia after attacks on our soldiers, not decisively answering the first attack on the World Trade Center--to argue that our lack of response to these incidents emboldened al-Qa'eda to plan the 9/11 attacks. The Administration is clearly betting that as long as it can manage the American body count and sell bonds to Asia to finance its adventures at little apparent cost to citizens, "Win the War on Terrorism" will trump "End the War Now" in America's increasingly divided public sphere.

It doesn't have to be that way, however. What Americans need most from the peace movement today is hope and empowerment. The polls show that people increasingly understand the dangerous combination of greed, half-truths and ideological zealotry behind Bush Administration policies. But what most have yet to hear from the peace camp is a positive alternative vision and strategy to get the US out of the mess the country allowed itself to be dragged into--not just by Bush, but by every Administration of the last sixty years, all of whom routinely sacrificed peace and democracy at the alter of strategic and corporate interests.

Indeed, in meetings with congressional staffers and intelligence officers in the week leading up to the protests I was struck by the unanimity with which they assessed the President's policies a failure and were openly searching for a strong and positive alternative discourse to it. While some speakers last weekend articulated such a vision, the overwhelming message--with organizers on record silencing any argument that would dilute it--ultimately differed little from the negative discourse of three years ago: no to war, no to American empire, bring troops home, free Palestine, impeach Bush and other head on attacks on the Administration.

Of course these are important slogans that few progressives would disagree with (although it's hard not to wish, as founder William Rivers Pitt blogged during the protests, that "someday the Left will come up with new slogans. Hey hey, ho ho gets really tiresome after four or five hours"). And no doubt when enough soldiers die and enough money is wasted, they'll convince enough Americans to leave Iraq to force whoever is President to withdraw all our troops. But as Vietnam showed, without fundamentally transforming the strategic and economic bases of American foreign policy--in fact, our culture--such a victory will be temporary at best, overturned as soon as the Right finds a new (or perhaps old) bogeyman on whom to focus Americans' fears and tax dollars.

How little thought has been given to developing such a message is evidenced by the website of the main organizing coalition, United for Peace and Justice, whose "strategy and vision" section hasn't been updated in well over a year. The protests' organizers would have been wise to read the great Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who understood almost a century ago that slow and patient education at the grass roots level, coupled with a positive vision that speaks specifically to the religious world-view of most citizens, is likely the only way to win enough support to overcome policies that progressives have no chance of defeating with the kind of negative, head-on assault still favored by the peace movement after innumerable defeats.

In contrast, the great political advances of the last century--civil rights, labor rights, women's liberation, peaceful decolonization in India and other countries--were achieved precisely because the leaders of these movements offered a compelling, affirmative vision of their societies that convinced a majority of their fellow citizens to support their causes despite the risks of social chaos and violence that came with them.

In Iraq and the larger war on terror, the Left could offer such a vision; first, by calling on the US to walk the talk of support for democracy, peace and justice and adopt one standard for our dealings with all the countries and peoples of the region. Second, by refusing to accept oppression and exploitation--not just when sponsored by the US or Israel, but in Saddam's Iraq, Asad's Syria and the Ayatollahs' Iran as well. Third, by joining evangelical churches and conservative synagogues and beginning the hard but crucial work of dialoguing with, and through it educating and learning from, the majority of Americans who'd like to believe another world is possible but are still too scared to imagine it could be. Fourth, by traveling across the Middle East and reaching out to the innumerable activists who are, too often, literally dying for real support from and solidarity with Americans.

The more we can help provide activists the space to challenge repressive systems with a progressive, non-violent and democratic message, the sooner Americans will be disabused of their medieval fantasies about Islam and the Muslim world. Indeed, as I traveled through Iraq last spring in the midst of rapidly escalating violence, I heard such pleas and the outline of such a strategy from the Iraqi academics, artists and even religious leaders with whom I met. They called to mind the insight of the great French philosopher Emanuel Levinas, whom the trauma of the Holocaust taught that only a fearless openness to, empathy with and respect for the Other could build a movement powerful enough to challenge existing systems of domination and violence. Too bad he or my friends in Iraq weren't in Washington to deliver that message last weekend.

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Sergio Ramirez - 9/30/2005

"[Israel's] security establishment to convince a majority of Israelis that military victory over Palestinians rather than political compromise, is the only way guarantee their security. Every act of Palestinian violence reinforces it while every act of Israeli violence is justified by it, just as in the US occupation of Iraq."
So why then did Israel withdraw from Gaza?