If there were any doubt that the current opposition to U.S. military action against Iraq doesn't amount to very much, consider this: There isn't even any factionalism besetting the movement this time around. There's opposition to the prospect of bombing, of course, and, if you know where to look, that opposition is visible. But so far, the total number of participants in the anti-war movement of 1998 appears to be in the low hundreds, all from a small handful of groups – nothing like the number of people or organizations that opposed Operation Desert Storm nearly eight years ago.
The biggest local protest to date mustered what its organizers say were about 200 people, on February 4, at the usual location: the Westwood Federal Building. The demonstration's chief sponsor was the Save the Iraqi Children Coalition, an ad hoc organization that includes, among others, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark's International Action Center and the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee.
Even with the impending hostilities, however, organizers hesitated to predict more than 400 attendees at the Federal Building demonstration scheduled for Tuesday night, February 17. The question remains: Why the low interest in protest against a U.S. military action that could easily cause the deaths of thousands – among them probably a high proportion of civilians?
For many, the situation lacks the moral clarity that galvanized the protest against the Vietnam War. “There's a popular president, and this is a popular war,” says Occidental College professor and social-movement scholar Peter Dreier. Saddam Hussein's no Ho Chi Minh, and because of his nose-thumbing at arms inspectors and the threat his chemical and biological weaponry pose to his neighbors, Dreier says, “The argument about the peril to [Iraqi] civilians is obscured.
“What's amazing is the absolute silence right now as to whether [to bomb],” Dreier notes.
Longtime Westside activist Jerry Rubin adds that the situation is fundamentally different from the Gulf War because there's no longer a Republican in the White House – and that Clinton's latest scandals have only made the task of mobilizing an opposition even more complicated. “It seems to me there's less protest than there ordinarily would be, because people don't want to seem to be against Clinton,” he says. “And that's a sad thing.”
One group that apparently suffers from no such reservation is the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action (SCADA), whose president, Lila Garrett, says there's “nothing to be gained from the bombing except more war and a distraction from the president's scandal.” Still, SCADA is focusing more on building a mid-April conference of Democratic Party liberals than on any immediate anti-war action. “In order to put coalitions together, you have to get the word out, and with the media we have, that's not easy,” Garrett says. “Forming a coalition is a very slow, difficult task.”
Other veteran protesters say that the anticipated duration of the coming conflict makes any demonstration a mere exercise in symbolism. “If it's going to be over in 10 days,” says one anti-Gulf War activist, “what is the scenario by which any protest can change the course of events?”
To date, the largest group mobilizing people against military action is the Save the Iraqi Children Coalition, which was founded not to protest military action, but rather to protest the embargos the U.N. has leveled against Iraq until it complies with the agreements on dismantling its chemical and biological weapons. “We started in December, before the military actions were looming, to protest the sanctions that have been ongoing since the Gulf War,” says Michel Shehadeh, chairman of the committee.
Lifting the sanctions has become a priority within sectors of the Muslim community. Salam Al-Marayti of the Muslim Public Affairs Council argues that 4,500 children are dying every month as a result of the sanctions. “While Saddam bears the brunt of the responsibility, the people bear the brunt of the punishment,” he says. An interfaith rally against the sanctions has been planned for Sunday, February 22, at the Islamic Center on Vermont.
Occidental's Dreier says the relative dearth of activity may simply be because peace movements have trouble surviving in times of peace. According to Dreier, “Movements ebb and flow. In the past, there has usually been a halfway house [of activism], a place with a mimeo machine and people with smarts.” For years these resources would be handed from one generation of activists to the next. Now, Dreier suggests, the continuity has broken.
Dreier notes that in the '50s, '60s and '70s, there were certain individuals continuously in opposition to official policies in many areas. Some, like Bayard Rustin and Dave McReynolds, have since become historic figures. “They knew who to organize and who to call, networking from 10 people to 100 to 1,000. We saw this in the early 1960s when the anti-nuclear-testing and civil rights movements evolved into the anti-war movement, which in turn in part became the anti-nuclear-power movement of the '70s.”
With the end of the Cold War, some once-prominent anti-war organizations have scrambled to reinvent themselves. SANE and the Nuclear Freeze organizations have merged to form Peace Action. To the founders of Beyond War, one of the groups prominent in the 1991 protests, it has since seemed natural to move toward a more proactive and academic stance, reflected in its new name, Foundation for a Global Community.
To be sure, the foundation's president, Rich Rathbun, doesn't support the administration's actions. But “our primary focus,” he says, “is now our Center for the Evolution of Culture.” His Palo Alto foundation studies cultural differences and supports the increase of intercultural contacts. But it doesn't do demonstrations like it used to.
But why the specific lack of activism in the nation's second largest city? In Northern California, protest against the U.S. military posture has been building for days. Joanie Tyson of the San Jose Peace Center notes that there was a simultaneous candlelight vigil held on February 11 in Berkeley, Sacramento and San Jose. She says a mass action is planned for Saturday, February 21, at the San Francisco Federal Building.
On February 10, a full-page ad sponsored partly by Peace Action ran in the West Coast edition of The New York Times, touting these demonstrations and others slated for Seattle, Salem and Eugene. But there was no mention of anti-war events south of San Jose. Tyson says she knows of nothing of the sort going on anyplace in Southern California.
Jerry Rubin thinks the local movement will grow as war becomes more imminent. “I'm sure the demonstrations will get bigger,” he insists. If they don't, there remain the protests of moral witness from pacifist groups. For Sonia Tuma of the American Friends Service Committee's regional headquarters in Pasadena, continuing anti-war protest “is in the tradition of Quakerism.” Her group posts vigils of 20 or more people on the corner of Garfield Avenue and Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena every weekday at noon.
Meanwhile, some would-be protesters are still seeking outlets for their convictions. Mary Olson, a longtime Ventura activist, called the Fellowship of Reconciliation offices in New York, fruitlessly seeking information on what the peace movement's plans were in Greater Los Angeles. “Even Pax Christi [the long-established regional Catholic peace group] seems to have disappeared,” she says. “I'm still looking for some peace activity here or in Santa Barbara.”