Monday, April 26, 2004

Out Now -- Before It Is Too Late

Now that resistance to the US occupation of Iraq has begun to unite Sunni and Shiite Iraqis across the allegedly deep religious divide and to show the sign that it may grow into a viable national liberation movement sooner than many outsiders -- including myself -- anticipated, US public opinions, in turn, have begun to change. According to the Pew Research Center, "Just 50% of Americans favor keeping troops in Iraq until a stable government is established there, while 44% support bringing the troops home as soon as possible. In January, the public by nearly two-to-one favored maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq until a stable government is formed (63%-32%)" ("After Falluja," April 5, 2004). In coming weeks and months, the proportion of Americans who favor immediate withdrawal of US troops is likely to become larger, as 52% of Americans are more concerned that "the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw its troops from Iraq," while only 36% say that they are more concerned that "the U.S. will leave Iraq before a stable democracy is in place" ("After Falluja"). Nevertheless, the Newsweek poll released around the same time revealed that a whopping 63% of Americans say that they would "support increasing the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq, if necessary, in response to the recent attacks on coalition forces by Iraqi militants," more than twice the proportion (31%) of those who would not support it ("NEWSWEEK POLL: Sixty Percent Say Bush Administration Underestimated Terrorist Threat Prior To September 11," April 10, 2004). What are anti-occupation activists to make of seemingly contradictory US public opinions?

On one hand, we have good news: "'There's a lot of sentiment against the war,' said Eric Swank, who has been studying the peace movement as a sociologist at Morehead State University in Kentucky. . . .'[T]he protests respond more to the political climate [in the United States]. Republicans and Democrats are starting to challenge the president more,' Swank said. 'It gives clues that if you're doing activism, someone's listening to you'" (Sam Tranum, "Small Group in West Palm Answers National Call from Anti-war Groups," South Florida Sun-Sentinel April 14, 2004). Though the anti-war movement predictably lost its momentum after the invasion began, its core organizers never disappeared, and the movement has been steadily rebuilding itself, having already organized two sizable mobilizations (a protest in D.C. on October 25, 2003 and an international day of action on March 20, 2004) and planning more. Continued dissent at home, in addition to Iraqi resistance, has made it possible for pundits and politicians to challenge the president from left and right; and even though much of the mainstream pundits and politicians' challenges concern only how the invasion and occupation has been handled, rather than whether Washington should have invaded Iraq or should continue to occupy it despite Iraqis' resistance, the very fact that the president's wisdom is being questioned publicly, as Swank notes, validates concerns about the occupation and allows more Americans to speak out.

On the other hand, the high level of support for the idea of "increasing the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq" to defeat the Iraqi resistance is worrisome. The US power elite -- committed to defense of the "credibility" of US imperial might and therefore unable to countenance any possibility of appearing to retreat in defeat -- may very well market the escalation of counter-insurgency by exploiting ambivalence in the public's fear of "quagmire." Their propaganda might go like this: "Without more troops to defeat Iraqi terrorists decisively, the occupation would become a bottomless quagmire. We must strengthen our military presence in Iraq, so we can support our troops, put down the terrorists, provide security to the people of Iraq, and help them establish a stable democratic government. Only by sending more troops now can we end the occupation and bring them home soon." Given that much of the questioning of the Bush administration in the mainstream media has focused only on the hows of the occupation, rather than the whethers and whys, it won't be easy for the anti-occupation movement, itself ambivalent on the question of lack of security, to counter such propaganda sharply.

How can we effectively fight the seductive propaganda that says, "Send More Troops Now to End the Occupation Sooner"?

First of all, activists need to begin demolishing the bipartisan consensus that "we cannot fail" in Iraq. John Kerry has asserted repeatedly: "Number one, we cannot fail. I've said that many times. And if it requires more troops in order to create the stability that eliminates the chaos, that can provide the groundwork for other countries, that's what you have to do" (Meet the Press, April 18, 2004). Who are the "we" in the bipartisan assertion that "we cannot fail"? And "stability" for whom? Most activists readily recognize that Bush and Kerry's concern is to make Iraq stable for multinational investors and corporations, even at the cost of killing many unarmed Iraqi civilians along with Iraqi combatants, but do they also realize that their desire to protect "good" Iraqis from "bad" Iraqis or to prevent "internal struggles, including armed struggles and possibly civil war" in Iraq (Ted Glick, "The United Nations and Iraq," August 29, 2003) makes it difficult to build on the already widespread concern that "the U.S. will wait too long to withdraw its troops from Iraq" and may end up amplifying the idea of "keeping troops in Iraq until a stable government is established there," rather than increasing the number of Americans who favor "bringing the troops home as soon as possible"? To counter the bipartisan consensus clearly, activists will have to begin by overcoming their good intention to see to it that "good" Iraqis prevail "peacefully" and establish "democracy," preferably through "free elections" in a "safe" environment. The more conditions Americans set for withdrawal of the US troops, the longer the US troops must stay in Iraq, because it is not possible for US troops -- or any foreign troops for that matter -- to bring about them anyway (to say nothing of the fundamental contradiction of wanting to see Iraqis exercise democracy and to make sure that "good" Iraqis win -- preferably peacefully -- at the same time . . . the contradiction on which imperialism thrives).

Secondly, activists must extricate themselves from the self-inflicted constraints of the Anybody But Bush ideology. The time to begin attacking Kerry's Iraq policy is now, not after the election day. If activists let Kerry get away with saying that Washington must send more troops, if necessary, to stabilize Iraq, terrified that any disruptive opposition to Kerry now may help elect Bush, they will likely see the anti-occupation movement demobilize after the elections -- because of demoralization in the event of Bush's triumph and liberal illusion in the event of Kerry's victory, seeds of both of which are now being fertilized by the idea that everything depends on defeating Bush as a particular politician rather than the bipartisan goal of keeping and expanding the empire which Bush and Kerry espouse.

Both of the above obstacles -- many activists' desire to make Iraq safe for "good" Iraqis and their overwhelming fear of Bush's re-election -- are not easy to conquer and may continue to hobble the anti-occupation movement, making it incapable of helping nearly half of all Americans who favor immediate withdrawal find their voice and become politically active. If the obstacles are considerable, however, the movement does possess an unprecedented advantage.

What distinguishes today's movement from the movements that opposed the first Gulf War and the Vietnam War is a swift emergence and rapid growth of a well-organized group of military families against the Iraq war: Military Families Speak Out, perhaps the most crucial member of the Bring Them Home Now coalition. Frank Rich takes note of the powerful cultural impact of TV images of anxious, grieving, and sometimes even angry military families, a constituency that even the most cynical hawks find it difficult to ignore and impossible to dismiss:
Bush knows how to defend himself against journalists -- by shutting them out and demonizing them as elites out of touch with Joe Public. He tries to limit troubling pictures, by either forbidding them (soldiers' coffins) or superseding them with triumphalist tableaux of his own (that aircraft carrier). But faced with a revolt of The Families, he buckles.

The Families are Joe Public, and you can see his fear of them from the timing of the sudden prime-time news conference that materialized on April 13. For days, TV had been overrun by the families, and on April 12 the phenomenon was at full tilt. All three morning network news shows, the programs that reach a vast audience of American women of voting age, had reports on the families or interviews with them or their immediate neighbors: either the families of 9/11 victims, the families of American troops (whether those killed in Iraq or those forced to extend their stay there) or the families of Americans taken hostage in Iraq.

These families, with their tales of dead or absent fathers and children, tear up the audience, and the White House, which made the strategic error of keeping the president away from mourning families at the war's outset, is now desperate to get with the program. In his reluctant press conference, Bush didn't seem in command of much once he was forced to improvise, but he knew to hit his rehearsed talking points about the families -- a half-dozen times. "I feel incredibly grieved when I meet with family members," he said at one point, adding, "and I do quite frequently." (Message: I care -- more than my father ever seemed to.) . . .

Yet the news conference hasn't stopped the steady flow of families onto television, and Iraq mints new cast members by the day. . . .

. . . [T]he historian Niall Ferguson wrote in The New York Times that it was "chilling" to look at polls showing that the number of Americans who think the situation in Iraq was going well had fallen from 85 percent to 35 percent in only a year, with half of Americans already wanting some troop withdrawal. American approval of the Vietnam War, he noted, fell below 40 percent only in 1968, when the American body count was topping 20,000, not the 700 in Iraq to date.

There are many political reasons for this acceleration in national disenchantment in the months of postwar war, most of them visible on the ground in Iraq. But the cultural component cannot be underestimated. In our new living room war, the media battlefield has extended to the actual living rooms where The Families sit for interviews when the networks come calling. Those families may yet prove harder for the administration to pacify than the insurgents in Falluja. ("The Gunning Up of a New News Culture," April 23, 2004)
The power elite thought that an all-volunteer military would help them avoid the problem of active and passive resistance of GIs and Veterans that overwhelmed them during the Vietnam War, but what they could not foresee was that a volunteer military may come with its own demographic problems. Most importantly, "In the Army, about 25 percent of enlisted men were married in 1973. Today that figure has almost doubled" (David M. Halbfinger and Steven A. Holmes, "Military Mirrors Working-Class America," New York Times, March 30, 2003). Hence the prevalence of the tales of "dead or absent fathers" -- and mothers, too. Soon, Washington will become dependent on a not-quite-volunteer military of family men and women who only signed up to be weekend warriors, not career soldiers -- citizen soldiers whose families rarely live near bases but are scattered in communities nationwide, thus spreading the direct impacts of the war far beyond military towns: "In the first year, Guard members and reservists accounted for about 25 percent of the 135,000 troops serving in Iraq. Now heading into the next phase of the operation in Iraq, the National Guard is expected to make up closer to 40 percent of the ground forces" (Jill P. Capuzzo, "Boots on the Ground, and Anxiety at Home," New York Times April 25, 2004). Military Families Speak Out already claims "a nationwide membership of 1,500" (Andrew J. Baroch, "Military Families Group Protests Iraq War," Voice of America, April 21, 2004). The MFSO membership will probably double or triple in the near future, expanding and energizing the anti-occupation movement as well. As the movement gains more participants who have the most stakes in bringing the troops home, I hope it will be able to articulate its demand clearer than before. Otherwise, our window of opportunity to prevent escalation may be closing fast -- the Selective Service System will be ready for the first draft lottery "as early as June 15th, 2005" (Connor Freff Cochran, "The Coming Draft," AlterNet March 25, 2004).

Out Now -- Before It Is Too Late.

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