[Reader-list] Fwd: Toward an Ideal Antiwar Movement: Mature, Legitimate, and Popular

Shekhar Krishnan kshekhar at bol.net.in
Sun Dec 1 01:11:20 IST 2002

Toward an Ideal Antiwar Movement: Mature, Legitimate, and Popular

Michael Berube
The Chronicle of Higher Education
November 29, 2002


Toward an Ideal Antiwar Movement: Mature, Legitimate, and Popular


Now that Iraq has agreed to allow weapons inspectors back
into the country, opponents of war with Iraq will have to
begin fine-tuning their arguments against invasion. Do we
approve of the United Nations Security Council resolution that
is sending inspectors in, or do we dismiss the U.N. vote as a
mere fig leaf for American hegemony? If we agree that the
viability of the United Nations depends in part on its
willingness to enforce its own resolutions, do we continue to
oppose a war if Saddam does not disarm by February? Beneath
those questions simmers a debate that has been nagging leftist
and liberal intellectuals in recent months: What should we
make of recent charges that our largest rallies and
demonstrations to date have been led by unreconstructed
Communist-front groups?

It's an important debate, even if the politics are arcane and
the accusations overdrawn; the legitimacy and the direction of
the antiwar movement are at stake. To answer the questions is
to define what the antiwar movement is for.

The charges of Communist infiltration give me a poignant sense
of deja vu. One fine day in June of 1982, I was sitting with
nearly a million people in New York City's Central Park,
demonstrating in favor of a "freeze" on nuclear weapons.
Although I was only 21 at the time, I had a somewhat elaborate
position on nuclear policy for my age cohort: I agreed with
most antinuclear activists that the MX missile was expensive
and useless except as a first-strike weapon, but I departed
from antinuke orthodoxy in believing that nuclear weapons
launched from submarines were a good deterrent. A Soviet
strike could knock out land-based missiles in their silos, I
reasoned, and Reagan's plan to deploy Pershing missiles in
West Germany would give Moscow only minutes to respond to an
attack -- or to determine that their launch-detection systems
were in error.

The MX and Pershing missiles, therefore, seemed to me to be
destabilizing weapons systems. By contrast, submarine-based
weapons were a good deterrent force: too inaccurate to be
reliable first-strike weapons, but impossible to locate and
pre-empt, and, therefore, perfect as retaliatory weapons. If
the United States would vow not to initiate a first strike and
would maintain a credible submarine deterrent, I thought, that
would be good enough for me.

Needless to say, that position put me at odds with many of my
fellow demonstrators, who were carrying signs like "One
Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day" and "Arms Are for
Hugging." Young thing that I was, I was fairly proud of the
fact that my position on nuclear arms couldn't fit on a
placard. At the time, however, there was no need to rehearse
my differences with anyone on the antinuclear left. The
previous year, the Reagan administration had announced that it
would consider launching a "warning" nuclear strike from
Europe if the U.S.S.R. invaded West Germany, and defense hawks
were arguing that we should embark on an aggressive
anti-satellite program, even though the United States relied
more heavily on satellite information than did the Soviets.
The times were urgent, so my friends and I went to Central
Park to demonstrate, and we didn't think too much about who
was organizing the rally.

Of course, we had read in The New York Times that Secretary of
Defense Caspar Weinberger had dismissed the demonstration
before it had even begun on the grounds that the
nuclear-freeze moment was led by Soviet agents and
sympathizers. But that dismissal was a source of much
amusement in my crowd, which did not, in fact, contain a
single Soviet agent or sympathizer. "Caspar, dude," said one
of my friends, taking an imaginary hit from an imaginary joint
and talking like a stoner trying not to exhale, "like, we're
just listening to some Jackson Browne, man."

Twenty years later, the left has begun organizing mass
demonstrations against a war in Iraq. But who's doing the
organizing? For the October 6 rally in New York, a group
called Not in Our Name, behind which one can find Refuse and
Resist!, which in turn has ties to the Revolutionary Communist
Party. For the October 26 rally in Washington, a group called
Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), run out of
Ramsey Clark's International Action Center, itself a front for
the Workers World Party. The groups involved in the
demonstrations thus carry some heavy far-left baggage.

The Workers World Party was formed in 1959 to support the
Soviet invasion of Hungary and protest Khrushchev's
revelations of Stalin's crimes. The Revolutionary Communist
Party is known for its support of Peru's Shining Path and of
the Chinese Communist Party's 1989 massacre of pro-democracy
demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Ramsey Clark himself, of
course, has become notable in recent years for being
co-chairman of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan
Milosevic, and his International Action Center is a strenuous
supporter of North Korea. Suffice it to say that these people
aren't just sitting around listening to Jackson Browne.

But does that mean that the anti-war-in-Iraq rallies
themselves are tainted by association with groups so bizarrely
far left as to be friendly to far-right mass murderers? Most
antiwar protesters say that only far-right hawks like David
Horowitz would think so. All the same, many liberals and
progressives I know have refused to have anything to do with
any event organized by ANSWER or Not in Our Name; many other
liberals, and many people farther left, have decried the
politics of such organizations but have argued either that (a)
extremist groups naturally leap to the fore at the outset and
then are superseded by more-mainstream forces; or that (b) it
doesn't matter who organizes a rally so much as who attends

Surely, they say, the 100,000 people who thronged the National
Mall in Washington on October 26 were a more powerful voice
against war than the two or three dozen Milosevic/Shining Path
fans in their midst. And who else is doing the labor to get
100,000 people in one place?

Personally, I find it disingenuous to argue that the politics
of a sponsoring organization are immaterial to the nature of
the event. Quite apart from the tactical questions of whether
a group like the International Action Center or Refuse and
Resist! will alienate mainstream Americans who are skeptical
about a war in Iraq, and whether the antiwar movement will
lack credibility as a result, it is hard to imagine that
serious leftists and liberals would make that kind of argument
if, say, a group called Nudists Against War were sponsoring
major rallies (you know, with slogans like "Say NAW to Bush").
Certainly any antiwar demonstration headed by NAW would lack a
certain, how shall I say, gravitas -- and yet the major
difference between the nudists and the Workers World Party, I
think, is that the nudists would be rather more benign and, of
course, would carry far less baggage.

Then again, antiwar activists don't always have the luxury of
waiting around until the right organizing committee comes
along. On college campuses, especially, groups like ANSWER are
sometimes the only antiwar game in town, and it's hard to
convince 21-year-old leftists -- versions of my younger self
-- that they should shun their local antiwar organizers
because cousins of the great-uncles of the organizers'
ancestors supported the Soviet crackdown on Hungary in 1956.
Campus leftists thus find themselves caught between two
competing and compelling injunctions. On one hand, antiwar
veterans like the sociologist Todd Gitlin have argued
persuasively that alliances with ANSWER and Not in Our Name
will only damage the antiwar cause beyond repair. On the other
hand, hardcore leftists like the writer Ron Jacobs, in an
article in CounterPunch, have argued that "Mr. Gitlin and his
compatriots, who, whether they like it or not, are today's
liberal establishment, are replicating the sins of their
fathers in their rebuke of any group with a red tinge in the
antiwar movement."

Most of the antiwar advocates I know are patriots who
sincerely believe that unilateral war with Iraq is deeply
inimical to the United States' short-term economic interests
and long-term national security, and none of us want to relive
the fate of the fence-sitting social democrats of the 1960s,
who divided their time between denouncing the war in Vietnam
and denouncing the denouncers of the war in Vietnam. Like
Kafka's hunger artist, the anti-antiwar left of the 1960s
never did find a food it would deign to eat. We do not want to
make the same mistake.

And yet I find that, even as I have deep respect for all the
tens of thousands of people who have signed a September
"Statement of Conscience," put out by Not in Our Name to
oppose war in Iraq, I cannot quite join them, even though I,
too, oppose the war (and endorse most of the statement).
Partly that's because the statement condemns the U.S. strikes
in Afghanistan, which (yes, I know) killed civilians and
failed to capture Osama bin Laden, but which also destroyed
the Al Qaeda terror camps, brought down the Taliban, and (even
more important) slowed down the growing radicalization of
Pakistan -- a radicalization that, ideally, should be opposed
by all secular democrats. It's on the latter grounds that I
supported the war in Afghanistan.

But mostly I cannot sign Not in Our Name's statement because
it declares, in its third sentence, "We believe that peoples
and nations have the right to determine their own destiny,
free from military coercion by great powers." It's a
euphonious phrase, to some ears, but what happens, may I ask,
when a "nation" decides that its "destiny" lies in the
extermination of a "people"? The sentence reads like a
leftover shibboleth from Kosovo, when one wing of the antiwar
left devised the argument that the United States and NATO had
no business intervening in a matter internal to Serbian
affairs. That antiwar faction crafted a new "sovereignty"
rationale that, in my opinion, turned its back on decades of
left internationalism in order to oppose U.S. military action
in Kosovo in whatever terms came most readily to hand.

The appeal to "sovereignty" sounds fine to many leftists when
it's a question of defending developing nations from the
United States (nations that should be "free from military
coercion by great powers"). But should that principle be
applied when Saddam Hussein kills Iraqi Kurds? Or when
Milosevic kills Kosovar Albanians? Or when Suharto kills the
East Timorese, or Rioss Montt the indigenous Guatemalan
Indians, or Hitler the Jews? Nazi Germany saw the killing of
Jews as absolutely central to its "destiny," but one would not
want to have seen a sane and serious left defending the
enterprise on those grounds. I would prefer to see great
powers exercising military coercion to prevent such nations
from determining their own destiny (especially in cases like
Suharto and Montt, whose regimes the United States had
supported), and I would be all the happier if the great powers
did so in my name.

I have dear and trusted friends who tell me that I'm reading
the Not in Our Name statement far too closely, that I'm
turning into a caricature of a literary theorist parsing the
textual resonances and antecedents of a document whose primary
purpose is simply to rouse people to action. The charge hits
home: Perhaps I am just an armchair activist, sitting at home
in my study, jawing over the fine points of texts, when I
should be organizing teach-ins and rallies. After all, I know
the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era began with a handful
of loopy Maoists and did not win the hearts and minds of most
Americans until the early 1970s. And we forget all too easily
just how courageous it was for Martin Luther King Jr. to
declare that he wasn't gonna study war no more at a time when
the declaration placed him far to the left of establishment

But sometimes even armchair activists have their place. I
believe the legitimacy of the leading antiwar groups is a real
issue, for two crucial reasons. The first is pragmatic: The
antiwar movement is never going to be a mass movement if it is
led by defenders of Milosevic and the Shining Path. The second
is moral: It would be a terrible dereliction of duty if
American intellectuals, whether in their studies or on the
streets, failed to ask about Americans' rationale for opposing
this war.

It is true that, if we set forth everyone's last scruple and
caveat about Iraq (just as if we had laid out our positions on
nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, nuclear power, and
nuclear subs 20 years ago), the left would find itself
demonstrating in groups of two or three. And it is true that,
at the moment, there are powerful temptations to finer and
finer parsings of differences internal to the left, whereby
some leftists can craft "pure" and/or "pragmatic" positions by
criticizing other leftists' excessively "pure" and/or
"pragmatic" positions. That seems an especially pointless
enterprise today, when the truly significant danger, for any
antiwar advocate, isn't the Workers World Party or
Revolutionary Communist Party: It's the fact that the
Republican Party controls the White House and Congress, while
the Democratic Party is rudderless and leaderless -- "in its
worst shape since 1928," as the historian Sean Wilentz wrote
recently in Salon, "and there's no FDR even remotely in

But there is also a powerful temptation for left-liberal
intellectuals and activists, when they are as marginalized as
they are today, to become indiscriminate about whom they hang
out with. So while there is a crying need for a broad-based
antiwar movement that mobilizes against the Bush plan for
unilateral pre-emptive action anywhere in the world, there is
also a crying need for a principled, rigorous antiwar
rationale that pays Iraqi dissidents-in-exile the respect of
taking seriously their longstanding desire for "regime
change," and, likewise, takes seriously the possibility that
Saddam Hussein will not really cooperate with United Nations
inspections and will seek to develop and deploy weapons of
mass destruction.

Such an antiwar movement would argue against an arrogant and
counterproductive U.S. unilateralism. It would distrust U.S.
claims to be acting on behalf of oppressed Iraqis, on the
grounds that the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Perle axis showed no interest
in oppressed Iraqis before now and has already demonstrated
its remarkable indifference to nation building on behalf of
oppressed Afghans in Afghanistan. But the movement would base
those arguments on an appeal to internationalism, rather than
on appeals to national sovereignty. Thereby, it would insist
that the best alternative to war, an alternative that would
accurately and appropriately express international opposition
to Saddam Hussein's regime, would consist of the "smart
sanctions" that Colin Powell had championed -- to little
fanfare and less avail -- in the early months of the Bush
administration. As for those pro-war advocates who claim that
Saddam cannot be effectively "contained" because he is so much
more irrational than Stalin and Mao, my sense is that those
critics have far too high an opinion of Stalin and Mao.

Clearly, the Persian Gulf war sanctions against Saddam have
failed on every count, since they have hardened Arab opinion
against the United States even as they have allowed the
dictator to starve his people and smuggle in military
equipment. Just as clearly, the "no war, no sanctions" faction
of the antiwar left is operating under the delusion that all
of Saddam's past crimes can somehow be laid at the feet of the
United States. The ideal antiwar movement, for me, would be
one that could answer both the claims of ANSWER (by offering a
principled opposition to U.S. hegemony) and the demands of
pro-war liberals (by insisting that Iraqis would benefit more
from peaceful "regime change" than from invasion and bombing).
The movement would consist of people who oppose U.S.
unilateralism strongly enough to denounce it, and those who
oppose Saddam Hussein strongly enough to want to depose him by
nonmilitary means. Such an antiwar movement would be, I
believe, mature, legitimate, and defensible. And it might just
be broadly popular as well.

Michael Berube is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State
University at University Park.

Shekhar Krishnan
9, Supriya, 2nd Floor
Plot 709, Parsee Colony Road No.4
Dadar, Bombay 400014

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