The Anti-War Movement at the Crossroads
By Walden Bello*
(Long version of speech delivered at Anti-War Assembly, Hyderabad, India,
Dec. 17, 2004.)
We come together in this historic meeting confronted two historic developments: the Bush victory in the United States and the expansion of the war of national liberation in Iraq.
Let me address the Bush victory first.
There continue to be credible allegations of fraud, particularly in the vote count in the state of Ohio, but most of the United States, including the Democratic Party, has recognized that George W. Bush has been reelected to the presidency with a 3.5 million margin of victory over John Kerry.
The terrible truth, however, is that the Republican victory, while not lopsided, was solid. Another phase of the political revolution begun by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 2004 elections confirmed that the center of gravity of US politics lies not on the center-right but on the extreme right. Now, it remains true that the country is divided almost evenly, and bitterly so. But it is the Republican Right that has managed to provide a compelling vision for its base and to fashion and implement a strategy to win power at all levels of the electoral arena, in civil society, and in the media. While liberals and progressives have floundered, the Radical Right has united under an utterly simple vision the different components of its base: the South and Southwest, the majority of white males, the upper and middle classes that have benefited from the neoliberal economic revolution, Corporate America, and Christian fundamentalists. This vision is essentially a subliminal one, and it is that of a country weakened from within by an alliance of pro-big government liberals, promiscuous gays and lesbians, and illegal immigrants, and besieged from without by hateful Third World hordes and effete Europeans jealous of America¹s prosperity and power.
There are, indeed, two Americas, but one is confused and disorganized while the other exudes a confidence and arrogance that only superior strategy and organization can bestow. The Radical Right has managed, with its vision of a return to an imagined community‹a pristine white Christian small-town America circa 1950–to construct what the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci called a ³hegemonic bloc.² And this bloc is poised to continue its reign for the next 25 years.
The future of democracy, economic rights, individual rights, and minority rights seems bleak in the US, but it is perhaps only through a second shock therapy‹the first being Reagan¹s victory in 1980‹that progressive America will finally confront what it will take to turn the tide: an all-sided battle for ideological and organizational hegemony in which it must expect no quarter and it must give none, where it can no longer afford to make mistakes.
The Liberal Collapse on Iraq
The near future does not look good, though there are some signs of hope. For instance, some 20,000 activists gathered outside the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia on Nov. 21, demanding that the institution, now renamed ³Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,² be shut down. 20 people were arrested for civil disobedience while protesters listened to actress Susan Sarandon, actor Martin Sheen, and other speakers denounce the military school for training students to engage in human rights violations.
While progressives are fighting back, liberals have continued to unravel in the wake of Bush¹s electoral victory. Even as the shocking sight of a US marine shooting a wounded, defenseless Iraqi prisoner flashed on television screens globally, the New York Times ran a front page story on Sunday, November 21, depicting the marines as a band of brothers courageously taking Fallujah block by block from faceless Iraqi insurgents. “In Falluja, Young Marines Saw the Savagery of an Urban War,² by Dexter Filkins, is in the genre of macho war reporting by generations of civilian writers awed by the mystique of the elite of America¹s colonial legions. When a marine is hit by fire from fighters defending their city from the invading troops, Filkins recounts, with reverence, how “the marines’ near mystical commandment against leaving a comrade behind seized the group. One after another, the young marines dashed into the minaret, into darkness and into gunfire, and wound their way up the stairs.”
Simply change the place names and the account can easily be that of the ³leathernecks² taking pillbox after pillbox from tenacious ³Japs² in Guadalcanal in 1943. This genre of journalism is akin to what Edward Said called ³orientalist writing.² Places, events, and people may change but the categories or episodes remain eternal: Marines land, marines encounter heavy resistance, marines work their way forward inch by bloody inch, marines sacrifice themselves for their comrades, marines finally overcome, and the band plays Semper Fidelis in honor of the fallen heroes, who are awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Another glorious episode that reminds us that compared to the Army, the marines are no ordinary mortals. As for the enemy, its role is to fight bitterly and savagely in order to bring out the best in the marines.
With literature like this, who needs propaganda?
But Filkins is not alone. Thomas Friedman, the Times¹ foreign policy columnist, is also eager to show that he is one of the guys. In fact, so eager that he has replaced his intellectual faculty and moral compass with the gut feel of the ³grunts.² In a column titled ³Postcards from Iraq,² Friedman writes, “Readers regularly ask me when I will throw the towel on Iraq. I will be guided by the US Army and Marine grunts on the ground. They see Iraq close up. Most of those you talk to are so uncynical–so convinced that we are doing good and doing right, even though they too are unsure it will work. When a majority of those grunts tell us that they are no longer willing to risk their lives to go out and fix the sewers in Sadr City or teach democracy at a local school, then you can stick a fork in this one. But so far, we ain’t there yet. The troops are still pretty positive. So let’s thank God for what’s in our drinking water, hope that maybe some of it washes over Iraq and pay attention to the grunts. They’ll tell us if it’s time to go or stay.”
The Times¹ editorial board seems determined to compete with Filkins and Friedman in compromising journalistic integrity. Like defeated presidential candidate John Kerry, the venerable Times does not believe that it was right for the US to invade Iraq. But instead of following this logic to its inescapable conclusion ethically, which would be to call for a withdrawal of US troops, the Times, like Kerry, calls for an increase in troop levels. In an editorial dated November 22, the Times demands that 20,000 to 40,000 more troops be sent to Iraq. This will require ³a significant, permanent increase in the regular army,² though not, it assures us, a draft. The Times is unapologetic about the rationale for this recommendation, which is to secure Falluja and drive ³the insurgents out of other strongholds.² That the insurgents are on the right side on this one, that they are simply fighting to end an occupation that the Times had earlier condemned as an unjust war waged on false pretexts by the Bush administration never seems to enter the equation.
No wonder many voters otherwise disenchanted with the war did not go with Kerry and the Times: Bush came across as morally and politically consistent and clear, while Kerry and the Times projected‹and continue to project–moral and political confusion.
In calling for 40,000 more troops, the Times is not only displaying moral inconsistency; it is also being appallingly naïve. One is talking about a national liberation movement that, albeit decentralized, has made some 55 cities and communities throughout the country ³no go² zones for US troops. At the start of the war, then Army Secretary Gen. Eric Shinseki said one would need at least 200,00 troops to invade and pacify Iraq. Today, simply to fight a burgeoning guerrilla movement to a stalemate would probably require at least 500,000 troops. That is simply impossible without a draft.
The Times¹ strategy amounts to throwing good money after bad, and if only for pragmatic reasons based on the national interest (which is always a far more powerful incentive than principle to US policymakers), it should be advising Bush to cut his losses and run, like Ronald Reagan did from Lebanon after 241 marines were killed by a suicide bomber in October 1983. The Times may find it hard to muster the courage to justify withdrawal as morally correct, but it can still counsel Bush that retreat in this case makes sense and that it is not dishonorable.
Liberal democrats are scrambling in the wake of Bush¹s victory to recast themselves as a loyal opposition, but this enterprise comes through as desperate, unprincipled, and confused. The Democratic, liberal establishment, of which the Times is one of the chief pillars, may be in the final phase of a political unraveling that began with the Vietnam War four decades ago.
Crisis of the Empire
But while the liberal establishment is collapsing and America marches
rightward, it fails to drag the rest of the world along with it. Indeed, most of the rest of the world is headed in the opposite direction. Nothing illustrated this more than the fact that in the very week Bush was reelected, a coalition of left parties came to power in Uruguay, Hugo Chavez, Washington¹s new nemesis in Latin America, swept state elections in Venezuela, and Hungary served notice it was withdrawing its 300 troops from Iraq. Although the American Right is consolidating its hold domestically, it cannot halt the unraveling of Washington¹s hegemony globally.
The principal cause of what we have called the crisis of overextension, or the mismatch between goals and resources owing to imperial ambition, is the massive miscalculation of invading Iraq. This crisis is likely to continue, if not accelerate, in Bush¹s second term. The key manifestations of the imperial dilemma stand out starkly:
– Despite the recent US-sponsored elections in Afghanistan, the Karzai government effectively controls only parts of Kabul and two or three other cities. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, despite the elections, ³without functional state institutions able to serve the basic needs of the population throughout the country, the authority and legitimacy of the new government will be short-lived.² And so long as this is the case, Afghanistan will tie down 13,500 US troops within the country and 35,000 support personnel outside.
– The US war on terror has backfired completely, with Al Qaeda and its allies much stronger today than in 2001. In this regard, Osama bin Laden¹s pre-election video was worth a thousand words. The invasion of Iraq, according to Richard Clarke, Bush¹s former anti-terrorism czar, claims, derailed the war on terror and served as the best recruiting device for Al Qaeda. But even without Iraq, Washington¹s heavy handed police and military methods of dealing with terrorism were already alienating millions of Muslims. Nothing illustrates this more than Southern Thailand, where US anti-terrorist advice has helped convert simmering discontent into a full-blown insurgency.
– With its full embrace of Ariel Sharon¹s no-win strategy of sabotaging the emergence of a Palestinian state, Washington has forfeited all the political capital that it had gained among Arabs by brokering the now defunct Oslo Accord. Moreover, the go-with-Sharon strategy, along with the occupation of Iraq, has left Washington¹s allies among the Arab elites exposed, discredited, and vulnerable. With the death of Yasser Arafat, Tel Aviv and Washington may entertain hopes of a settlement of the Palestinian issue on their terms. This is an illusion.
– The Atlantic Alliance is dead, and in the coming period, trade conflicts will combine with political differences to push the US and Europe even farther apart. Europe is key to the sustainability of the American empire. As the neoconservative writer Robert Kagan notes, ³Americans will need the legitimacy that Europe can provide, but Europeans may well fail to grant it.² But the widening Atlantic gulf is not only one based on different approaches to securing global stability; Europeans increasingly fear that the an aggressively militaristic US is the greatest strategic threat to their regional security.
– Latin America¹s move to the left will accelerate. The victory of the leftist coalition in Uruguay is simply the latest in a series of electoral victories for progressive forces, following those in Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil. Along with electoral turns to the left, there may also be in the offing more mass insurrections such as that which occurred in Bolivia in October 2003. Speaking of the turn towards the left and away from the empire, one of the US¹ friends, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, assesses the situation accurately: ³America¹s friendsŠ are feeling the fire of this anti-American wrath. They are finding themselves forced to shift their own rhetoric and attitude in order to dampen their defense of policies viewed as pro-American or US-inspired, and to stiffen their resistance to Washington¹s demands and desires.²
Fallujah: Crucible of Global Resistance
Iraq, of course, is the main source of the empire¹s unraveling. The Iraqi people¹s resistance has not only frustrated a US colonial takeover of their country. Equally important, it has shown a new generation of anti-imperialists all over the world for whom Vietnam is ancient history that it is possible to fight the empire to a stalemate and eventually to victory.
It is unlikely, however, that the Bush administration will acknowledge the handwriting on the wall any time soon. It ordered the assault the city of Fallujah with the desperate illusion that this would destroy the operational center of the insurgency. Fallujah, however, was not an operational center but a symbolic center that had already played its role, and its ³fall¹ is not going to stop the spread and deepening of a decentralized resistance movement throughout Iraq. Moreover, as some had predicted, most of the Fallujah insurgents retreated, trading, as in Samara, a conventional defense of a city for a guerrilla presence that harasses and pins down the US army and its Iraqi mercenaries.
As the days wore on, the reality emerged that the retreat in Fallujah was part of a brilliant strategic counteroffensive on the part of the guerrillas which saw the resistance stage uprisings in Mosul, Ramadi, and other cities. And even in retreating from Fallujah, the guerrillas did not make it easy for US forces to retake the city, with a small rearguard of a few hundred guerrillas forcing the Americans to scores of street battles for every inch of urban ground. Indeed, three weeks after the assault was launched on Nov. 8, US marines‹today¹s equivalent of World War II¹s SS military units‹are still being killed, and 50 percent of the houses in the city still have to be ³cleared.² The whole thing is Tet, 1968, all over again.
The stated objective of the assault was to pave the way for the coming elections, but what political gains the US had hoped to score were dissipated by the destruction and indiscriminate killing of civilians causedc by its firepower and the ghastly television footage of a marine killing an unarmed, wounded Iraqi prisoner. As the Financial Times put it, hopes for an electoral exit to the Iraqi tragedy ³may now lie buried in the rubble of Falluja.²
With 55 cities and towns already classified as no-go zones for US troops, the Bush administration will soon realize that retaking and occupying urban centers en masse simply will not work. There are some 130,000 US troops in Iraq today. Simply to fight the guerrillas to a stalemate, one would need at least 500,000 troops for the level of resistance that one finds in Iraq today. That will not be possible unless Bush brings back the draft, and this will surely produce the civil disorder that would threaten the current Republican hegemony.
Washington¹s alternative will be to withdraw to and dig in behind superfortified bases and sally forth periodically to show the flag. While this would mean de facto defeat for the US, it will also mean that the Iraqi people¹s resistance will not have de jure territorial control from which to declare sovereignty and begin the process of coming up with a truly national government.
Challenges to the Movement
Supporting the Iraqi people¹s struggle to create the sovereign space to create a national government of their choice continues to be one of the two overriding priorities of the global anti-war movement. The other is ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the trampling of the Palestinian people¹s rights. At a moment marked by the conjunction of a resurgent Right in the US and a continuing crisis of empire globally, what will it take to advance this goal?
First of all, the movement has to graduate beyond spontaneity and arrive at a new level of transborder coordination, one that goes beyond synchronizing annual days of protest against the war. The critical mass to affect the outcome of the war will not be attained without a rolling wave of global protests similar to that which marked the anti-Vietnam war mobilizations from 1968 to 1972–one that puts millions of people in a constant state of activism. Coordination, moreover, will mean coordinating not only mass demonstrations but also civil disobedience, work on the global media, day-to-day lobbying of officials, and political education. More effective coordination and, yes, professionalization of the anti-war work must not, however, be achieved at the expense of the participatory processes that are the trademark of our movement.
Second, in terms of tactics, new forms of protests must be engaged in. Sanctions and boycotts are methods that must be brought into play. At the Mumbai World Social Forum earlier this year, Arundhati Roy suggested starting with one or two US firms benefiting directly from the war such as Halliburton and Bechtel and mobilizing to close down their operations worldwide. It is time to take her suggestion seriously, not only with respect to US firms but also with Israeli firms and products.
Moreover, the level of militance must be raised, with more and more civil disobedience and non-violent disruptions of business as usual encouraged. We must tell Washington and its allies that there can be no business as usual so long as the war continues. The kind of debate taking place in Britain, whether to push peaceful demonstrations or civil disobedience, is fruitless, since both are essential and must be combined in innovative and effective ways..
In the US, activists can draw on the immensely powerful tradition of disobedience to unjust law that motivated people such as the abolitionists, Henry David Thoreau, the Quakers, and the Berrigan Brothers. Indeed, this kind of resistance might be the key in stopping not only the imperial drive but also the rush to restrict political liberties and democracy. At no other time than today, when the electoral option is gone, is it more necessary to resist the imperial writ nonviolently by invoking a higher law.
Third, it is clear that Great Britain and Italy‹Britain especially‹are the principal supports of Bush¹s war policy outside the United States. Bush constantly resorts to invoking these governments to legitimize the US adventure. What happens in Italy, in turn, affects what happens in Britain.Both countries have solid anti-war majorities that must now be converted into a powerful force to disrupt business as usual in these countries ruled by governments complicit in the American war. Both countries have the hallowed tradition of the general strike that, combined with massive civil disobedience, can significantly raise the costs to their government of their support for Washington. When asked why the demonstrations of March 20, 2004 drew significantly fewer people than those of February 2003, many activists in Britain and Italy respond: because people felt their actions were not able to prevent the US from going to war anyway. That sort of defeatism and demoralization can only be countered not by lowering the demands on people but by upping them, by asking them to put their bodies on the line through acts of nonviolent civil resistance.
Fourth, with the Middle East being the strategic battleground of the next few decades, it will be essential to forge links between the global peace movement and the Arab world. The governments of the Middle East are notoriously supine when it comes to the US, so that, as in Europe, it is forging the ties of solidarity among civil movements that must be main thrust of this effort. This will actually be a courageous and controversial step since some of the strongest anti-US movements in the Middle East have been labeled ³terrorist² or ³terrorist sympathizers² by the US and some European governments. What is important is not to let US-imposed definitions stand in the way of people reaching out to one another to see if there is a basis for working together. Likewise, it is critical for the Palestinian movement and the Israeli anti-Zionist and peace movements to get beyond the labels imposed by governments and find ways of cooperating to end the Israeli occupation. Process has a way of bringing people together from seemingly non-reconcilable political positions. In this regard, the Beirut Anti-War Assembly that took place in mid-September 2004, with strong representation from the global peace movement and social movements from all over the Arab world, was a significant step in this direction.
But even as the global peace movement focuses on Iraq and Palestine, national and regional movements must continue to intensify existing struggles or open up new fronts against US hegemony in their areas. Indeed, there is a dialectical relationship between global and local struggles against imperialism. Weakening the US base structure in East Asia, for instance, will affect US military operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, a quagmire in Iraq for the US may contribute to a mood of isolationism in the US that will also translate into pressures to withdraw from bases and facilities in East Asia.
As it enters its second term, the Bush agenda remains the same: global domination. Our response is also the same: global resistance. There is only one thing that can frustrate the empire¹s dark aims in Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere: militant solidarity among world¹s peoples. Making that solidarity real and powerful and ultimately triumphant is the challenge before us.
*Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip on 1/14/2005