PROTEST; A Smart Peace Movement Is MIA

By Marc Cooper

The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, CA.; Sep 29, 2002
(Copyright The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 2002. Allrights reserved.)

George W. Bush seems fixed on going to war against Baghdad no matter what. No matter if Iraq does or does not represent an actual threat. No matter whether Saddam Hussein allows weapons inspectors in. No matter what our allies think or what the regional fallout from such an intervention might mean. No matter what the staggering cost of an invasion would do to the U.S. economy. No matter how war with Iraq might distract from the unfinished war against Al Qaeda. And with Democratic opposition likely to evaporate--Al Gore's recent speech notwithstanding--Bush's reckless war juggernaut seems unhindered.

It sounds like a job for a peace movement.

This is, I suspect, one of those seminal historic moments when the American left can and should exercise an influence far beyond its small numbers. Just as during the battles for civil rights in the '50s and '60s and in the movement to halt the Vietnam War, the humanistic and cooperative principles of the left could undergird and lead the needed resistance to Bush's war plans.

The left, after all, holds the high moral ground on this issue. Long before either the current President Bush or his father discovered just how evil Hussein is, progressives denounced his dictatorial regime. During the 1980s, while Presidents Reagan and Bush were playing footsie with Hussein, providing him with U.S. intelligence and arranging weapons purchases for use in his war with Iran, it was the international and domestic left, not the White House, that was calling for "regime change" in Baghdad. No other Middle Eastern leader has butchered nearly so many domestic leftists as Hussein.

The left also made the defense and independence of the Kurds living under Hussein's heavy hand in northern Iraq a cause celebre. When thousands of Kurds were killed by poison gas unleashed on them by Hussein, the cries of protest from the Kurds' leftist supporters contrasted mightily with the silence of the White House.

So why is the left having such great difficulty responding properly to the current crisis? Why is a broad-based peace movement still struggling to be born? Why are we seeing such small and ineffective peace protests?

One problem is that too much of the American left has spent the last year wandering in a political and moral desert. When this country came together in shock and solidarity after Sept. 11, a portion of the left effectively divorced itself from the American body politic. Steeped in four decades' worth of a crude anti- Americanism, it believed that the use of any American military power was and would always be immoral. It couldn't accept, as other, more mature segments of the left did, that a proportionate American military response to Al Qaeda was not only justified but absolutely necessary--not as an act of revenge but as a measure of public safety. Any terrorist network that massacres massive numbers of civilians must be smashed.

Instead, the knee-jerk faction of the left came up with every possible bogus explanation for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Some said Osama bin Laden was purely an American creation, that the U.S. somehow "deserved" this barbaric attack. They refused to see the obvious: Sept. 11 was the handiwork of a conspiracy of bloodthirsty religious fascists.

Just days after the attack, with ground zero still smoking and the search for bodies barely underway, this unhinged faction of the left was already in the streets of Washington protesting the "racist" American war, a war in which the first shot hadn't yet been fired. And just about every dark prediction made by this faction a year ago has proved false: The U.S. didn't get bogged down in Afghanistan. The Taliban weren't 10 feet tall, and they folded after five weeks, not 15 years. American forces didn't carpet-bomb the Afghan countryside. The post-Taliban government is better, not worse, than the one it replaced. And not only were millions not killed, but some 1.7 million Afghan refugees have streamed back home to live under the U.S. "puppet government," the greatest inflow of refugees in decades.

Unfortunately, that same know-nothing part of the left is now trying to lead the movement against a war in Iraq. And so we are treated to the spectacle of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark (founder of a group called the International Action Center) pleading on national television for peace in Iraq, but steadfastly refusing to criticize Hussein when asked his opinion of the man. Indeed, twice during that appearance, Clark referred to "poor, little Iraq." But then again, why be surprised by these words from a man who is a proud member of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic?

Clark and his followers are entitled to defend whatever dictators they choose. But as the Beatles once warned, "if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone, anyhow." And carrying water for Milosevic or Hussein ain't gonna help build the peace movement we now so desperately need.

Fortunately, there are still a few progressives who can pat their heads and rub their stomachs at the same time, who can criticize Bush's single-minded push for war without becoming simple-mindedly soft on Hussein. And it is these people who should now step into the forefront of the peace movement and displace those who can only see evil in America.

To pose an effective, attractive and moral opposition to the administration's rush to war, one that resonates with the instincts and ideals of the American population, the full dimensions of the standoff with Iraq must be honestly acknowledged. Yes, Bush is exploiting war fever for domestic political purposes. But it's also true that Hussein is a bloody tyrant and that the Iraqi people would be much better off without him; he has violated many U.N. resolutions; he continues to try to develop horrific weapons of mass destruction; he cynically manipulated the U.N. weapons inspection program and might again attempt to do so if it is reinstated.

Furthermore, an effective peace movement must avoid linking opposition to the war in Iraq with opposition to the war against Al Qaeda. Just because Bush cynically folds one battle into the other is no license for the left to engage in the same moral dubiousness. The fight against Bin Laden's gang is necessary, and going to war against Iraq can only detract from it.

Likewise, an effective peace movement must get its story straight on sanctions. Clark calls them "genocidal." But the entire American left supported similar painful sanctions against the apartheid state of South Africa. If the left is not for war against Hussein and is also opposed to economic sanctions, what is it for? If the left is for containment instead of invasion, then isn't it the U.S. armed forces that must do the containing? And what about the Kurds who, under the umbrella of U.S. power, are now flourishing in one of the most open societies in the region? If, at the end of the day, Hussein does foil weapons inspections, what is to be done then? What are the responsibilities of the international community in countenancing or confronting a long-standing and dangerous dictator like Hussein?

These are devilishly complex questions that deserve much more meditation, debate and elaboration than the sort of bumper-sticker answers provided by the White House. Or by Ramsey Clark.