The War Is the Question

The largest anti-war demonstration since the invasion of Iraq came and went in Washington this past weekend, but the peace movement remains adrift. The post-demonstration debate is all about media coverage. Were there 100,000 marchers or 300,000? Why didn’t the networks show more aerial shots? Why were the small groups of pro-war counterdemonstrators given so much airtime? Those are the wrong questions.What’s missing in the debate is what is always missing: a focus on strategy. Drum circles, bare-breasted guerrilla theater and giant puppets aside, there are only two ways the anti-war movement can achieve its goals. Either by what the Europeans call “extraparliamentary” methods — rendering the country ungovernable. Or through a political/electoral strategy that reorders national priorities. Going way out on a limb, I’d say the former option — the collapse of the American government via street demonstrations — is rather a long shot. The peace movement can achieve its goals only by building a political coalition broad enough, forceful enough and credible enough to provoke a policy sea change.A huge proportion, if not the majority, of the Democratic Party has to be onboard. Unfortunate but true. The war could be “nationalized” in the November 2006 election if the movement were broadened sufficiently. An upset in the midterms could force the Bush administration to change course or could lead to a Democratic victory and a change in war policy in ’08.Yet not a single top Democratic official publicly came out to last weekend’s protests. Not just the Kerry and Clinton types were AWOL, but also outspoken critics of the war like Howard Dean, Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy.One of the reasons that the peace movement’s organizational logistics remain tightly locked in the hands of shrill fringe groups like ANSWER is, precisely, because they fill a gaping void left by more-moderate forces. Democrats and liberals have not stepped forward — so they get trampled by the few dozen fervent comrades from the fundamentalist-Leninist grouplet that runs ANSWER, the exotically named Party for Socialism and Liberation (no, I’m not making this up).There is a competing coalition that helps organize the peace rallies, United for Peace and Justice. Somewhat more moderate than ANSWER, UFPJ nevertheless has few, and only tenuous, links with mainstream political forces. At various times over the last few years, UFPJ has threatened to resist bullying by the cultish members of ANSWER, but in the end it always capitulates.Who could so much as imagine a nationally known Democratic pol showing up at one of last week’s rallies unless moti­vated by some sort of electoral death wish? Show up to be joined on the stage by Ramsey Clarke, reminiscing about his new client Saddam? Or by George Galloway, wearing a Pales­tinian kaffiyeh? Or by the kaffiyeh-draped leaders of ANSWER, shouting out how they stand for the Cuban Revolu­tion? Indeed, the kaffiyeh was the de rigueur accessory worn by countless speakers — speakers from little-known and tiny solidarity groups loudly condemning U.S. policy not only in Iraq and Cuba, but also in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Haiti, Puerto Rico and, alas, New Orleans. This, along with an obsessive number of speakers slamming Israel but omitting any criticism of suicide bombers. You don’t need so much as an abacus to figure out that with each of the above-named planks, the anti-war platform receded rather than widened. As discontent over the war grows, there ought to be one issue alone that admits someone to this movement: You oppose Bush policy in Iraq. Period.Instead, the organizers of the protests exploited the good faith of the crowd and imposed upon it a narrow, dogmatic agenda that ordinarily wouldn’t get a nod from 500 followers, let alone a couple of hundred thousand.The peace movement needs to be built from the sidelines inward, not the reverse. I have no idea if under different circumstances, with a different cast onstage, a few senators might have been lured into the mix. I do know that the current configuration makes that impossible — for now and for the immediate, crucial future.This is a failure not only of the Democrats themselves, but also of the clearer-thinking folks inside the peace movement who ought to know better. These more-moderate voices need to resist the political blackmail of true believers of the ANSWER variety and simply push them out of the leadership of the movement. At least, they must if they want that movement to be something beyond an impotent theater of self-expression.I can anticipate some of the reaction. Stop the bellyaching, I’ll be told. Nobody really listens to those boring speeches, any­way. What matters most is the fact that people showed up.Indeed. But wouldn’t it be nice if there were anti-war speakers on that platform — just two or three instead of the usual cavalcade of 50 Nobodies — whose words could not only inspire the protesters, but also move the other millions watch­ing on C-SPAN into some deeper sort of reflection and action?Wasn’t that the case in the 1963 civil rights march on Wash­ing­ton? Have you ever met a single person silly enough to say that the only important thing that day 42 years ago was merely showing up in D.C., because it really didn’t matter what Martin Luther King Jr. actually said? That no one was really listening?Why do we accept such a miserably low standard for the anti-war movement?

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