Global Policy Forum

The Peace Movement After the Invasion of Iraq


By Felix Kolb and Alcia Swords

April 17, 2003

March 19, 2003 will become a historical date. On this day the Bush Administration began to impose its imperial claim to control the entire Near East through a preventive war of aggression. We should not forget that whatever the final outcome, the war was illegal and unnecessary and grossly violated international law and the UN Charter. Propaganda from the US corporate media was so effective in manipulating the American public that even many opponents of the Iraq war have been surprised that (at least so far) no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found in Iraq at all. Or, as Susan Wright, a disarmament expert at the University of Michigan was quoted in the British newspaper, the Independent: "This could be the first war in history that was justified largely by an illusion."

The disgust and unbounded outrage against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq made hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protest against the war on the streets of Amman, Berlin, Damascus, Paris and Mexico City, as well as London, Sydney, New York, San Francisco and Washington. While no one wondered about the people in the Arab world who displayed their feeling of impotent rage, the continuing and even intensifying protests in the USA have surprised commentators. In general, one would have expected that the long series of demonstrations and actions in the USA would come to a quick end as soon as the war began. And indeed, opinion polls showed an increase in public support for the war shortly after it started. But unlike past wars, where even most opponents rallied behind the president after the war started, a considerable minority of American people resisted this impulse. Contrary to what many people feel and think these days, the fact that protests continued during the war is a reason for confidence, and is only one of several indicators that the global peace movement, with its unprecedented strength, has had important successes and consequences.

Admittedly, the peace movement could not prevent this war from happening, although many of us devoted all our energy and spare time to opposing the war for many months. As exhausted and depressed as we may be, if we compare the peace movement's main goal - preventing this war - with the cruel reality, it seems just natural to conclude that the peace movement failed and thus that we wasted our time. While compelling at first glance, this conclusion is false. There is of course no question that President Bush and American corporate media won't do anything to contradict this conclusion, because it is very convenient for them. However, in order to really understand and to be able to appreciate the impact of the peace movement we need to take a different perspective. First, we must imagine how the Iraq conflict would have unfolded without the actions of the peace movement. Second, we must ask what the likely long-term consequences of the recent peace movement will be.

Counterfactual reasoning is always difficult, but we feel safe enough to propose several alternative outcomes in the absence of strong global peace movement. In the first place, Bush probably would not have attempted to gain a UN mandate at all, which would not have paved the way for the return of the UN weapons inspectors. This process gave the peace movement critical time to continue to organize and mobilize. World-wide rejection of war on Iraq dashed the Bush administration's hopes for gaining international legitimacy by bribing countries to pass a UN resolution for an invasion. The global rejection of war prevented the war resolution from gaining the necessary majority in the Security Council, as the demonstrations on February 15 made absolutely clear. Without the pressure of the German and French peace movements especially, Schrí¶der and Chirac might have relented and the Iraq War could have been legitimised by a UN mandate, which would have been extorted by the USA. A similar argument can be made for other important swing vote states in the UN Security Council as Mexico, Pakistan and Chile.

In addition, there may be long-term implications of these protests that we cannot yet measure, but should not underestimate. For emphasis, let's look at historical examples of long-term impacts of peace movements:

- The creation of the League of Nations a decade after activists efforts to prevent World War I

- The U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear arms reduction negotiations starting in 1970, after the big anti-nuclear demonstrations of the late 1950s and early 1960s

- The U.S. "Vietnam syndrome," a reluctance to intervene militarily, after massive protests against the Vietnam war

The current global peace movement has helped significantly to elevate the barrier for future military interventions. We hope this can thwart the plans of the neoconservative hard liners in the White House. At the beginning of April British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, signalled that Britain would have "nothing whatsoever" to do with any military action against Syria or Iran. Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, faced with a 91% majority of his people opposing the war, is likely to lose next year's elections because of his support for President Bush, and thus probably won't be willing to support another aggression.

However, we still may not be strong enough to stop the Bush administration from launch its next "preventive" attack against Syria, Iran or North Korea. But the international support in subsequent wars will be even smaller than it was this time and that will strengthen the US peace movement. As the Washington Institute for Political Studies (IPS) has documented, the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" is composed of just 46 of 191 UN member nations - representing 19% of the world's population. Yet even in the countries of the "Coalition of the Willing," public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq War. Although we cannot be sure, the most likely next target of the Washington Hawks seems to Syria. Right now the US threats could be seen as a strategy to force Syria not to support any public resistance against a military occopuation government in a de facto re-colonized Iraq. Unfortunately, the chances are that a war could distract the American public from the devastating economic situation in the US and from the problems in establishing American freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or, to put it more brutally, assuming that Bush Jr. had learned his father's lesson, if the US economy is not recovering in the next couple of month, a new war might seem the only way to secure his (re-)election in 2004.

In order to be prepared to prevent further wars, it is not enough to recall the peace movement's achievements, but we must also ask ourselves why the peace movement wasn't able to prevent the Iraq war and what lessons can be learned from this experience. There is a series of fundamental reasons, which we probably won't be able to change in the short run:

- The warmongers did not even hesitate to use false evidence to make their case for the war. One of the most shocking examples was the information obtained by the C.I.A. about supposed Iraqi sales of five hundred tons of uranium oxide from Niger. The faked documents, which were later proven to be falsified by the International Atomic Agency, were presented to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of couple of days before the Senate approved the war resolution.

- Unfortunately instead of asking hard questions, the corporate-owned mass media has everything it could to provide a broad audience for the Bush Administration's propaganda and lies. Paul Krugman was right in pointing out that the American public opinion support for war was largely a consequence of the biased US media. 71% of the American public believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a majority did not know that none of the hijackers were from Iraq.

- When it comes to war, the US doesn't have an opposition party. The Democrats feel that they cannot challenge Bush on national security issues. And indeed they don't have an alternative conception for foreign and national security policies. This is been made worse by the increasing power of the presidency in conducting foreign policy.

- Many people are confused about what democracy means and how it is achieved. US foreign policy uses "promoting democracy" as an excuse to intervene to gain control of resources and strategic influence in the Near East. At the same time the US has no problem supporting dictatorships in countries where it suits US interests - as for example in Kuwait, Saudi-Arbia and Usbecistan. A large segment of the American public is not aware of this hypocrisy and therefore buys into the "promoting democracy" rhetoric.

These problems are so deeply rooted in the American political system and the political economy of mass media that only long-term solutions can bring about the necessary fundamental changes. In the long-term, we must work for changes in campaign financing and the electoral system to increase the chances of dissent and to prevent trade-offs between supporting third parties and the Democrats. We need alternative mainstream news sources. The radio program 'Democracy Now' is great, but too radical to appeal to the American mainstream. The idea of MoveOn Media Corps to hold mass media accountable to fair reporting and basic journalist standards is important, but won't transform US news media in the ways needed. We need more thinktanks and more coherent conceptions of foreign policy to counter the neoconservative elites and to convince the American public that "promoting democracy" does not justify killing innocent people. The proposal for 'Global Action to Prevent War' is one promising long-term strategy for the implementation of political peace agenda. These long-term strategies are necessary, but in the current situation we also need more short-term approaches. We offer the following list of ideas as a beginning, to begin debate.

- Be cautious with civil disobedience. There is no doubt that civil disobedience to protest against an illegal war is morally legitimate and often strategic and necessary. However, that does not mean that it is the most effective strategy to use at the moment. Several authors have suggested that since the vast majority of the American public supports the war, civil disobedience can alienate potential supporters of our cause.

- Have a clear message. Even when a movement is able to get public attention and influence the public agenda, on the local, national or international level, it will never be able to convey a long and complex message. Linking up all sorts of grievances with the call for peace makes it possible for the media to portray the movement as having no clear message.

- Start to work on a positive agenda. In the long run it is not enough to be against war. The peace movement must address both ways to resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner and the underlying causes of wars. While the global justice movement could pickup the second concern the peace movement should support initaitives as the 'Global Action to Prevent War'.

- Reach across the divides. War has the potential to unite groups that have traditionally been divided in the USA. Because war only benefits a small elite, there is great potential to build a strong movement across distance, race, class and ethnicity. One strategy might be to support a "Peace Summer," to educate people thereby build popular resistance to war. For example, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union is calling for a Poor People's March for Economic Human Rights this summer to continue where Martin Luther King left off when he was killed in building a united movement for peace and against US wars.

- Be Early: An achievement of the recent peace protests is that they started and reached a considerable momentum long before the war started. Next time we must be even earlier. We may gain the greatest leverage in the US if we target Congress now about opposing new war resolutions. Recognizing that our elected representatives may not be listening to us, and that lobbying may be one of many necessary activities, we should start early to lobby our Senators and congress people to give them the message that attacking other countries would be devastating.

- Be the media: The corporate media is concentrated in 3 major networks which are owned by many of the same corporations that profit from wars. The current movement has taken advantage of the Internet, through listservs and Indymedia, but our alternative media must reach a mass public, not just those who have easy computer access. Therefore more traditional techniques of leafletting and door-to-door canvasing might be more effective for reaching people we could not reach in the past.

- Be international: Of all the demonstrations the February 15th ones had the greatest impact, not only because of the sheer number of demonstrators, but also because demonstrations were taking place at more than 600 cities all over the world.

- Don't forget the Iraqi people. The peace movement should work very hard to prevent the US from exerting colonial power in Iraq and so that Iraqi people are not betrayed and forgotten as the Afghans were. Bringing stability and eventually democracy to Iraq at least means replacing the American and British forces by a UN peace keeping forces, allowing the UN to take the lead and working for a solution in agreement with neighbouring countries,especially Syria, Iran and Turkey. And it means to stopping the Bush administration from turning Iraq into their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business. It would be outragious if the key economic decisons would by made by the occupying forces before the Iraqi people are free to choose their own government.

- Recognize the emotional work we have to do: We need to recognize that a huge part of our work is to counter the hopelessness and despair that bombard us from the mainstream media. Fear is one of the most powerful weapons of those who benefit from war. This means that it is actually part of the work of our movement to bring people together, to help people notice that they are not alone, to listen to each others' fears and doubts, and to support each other in thinking clearly about how we can work together.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.