Regime change now? It would be wonderful if Saddam Hussein were gone, the miserable, old-style totalitarian thug. But do we want the new-style U.S. techno-thugs, smooth and increasingly precise, to take charge? Perhaps we’ll look back at communism and rogue states like Saddam’s and say, “What brutish amateurs!”
I am not saying that, in contrast, it’s the United States, with its part-illusion of an ever slicker war machine, that is the real evil empire. That’s too reductive a way to talk about the rival interests and motives that shape U.S. policy. But the United States makes no secret of its growing will and capacity to police populations at home and abroad by all sorts of mechanisms, from out-and-out war to repressive surveillance. “Regime change” and “preemptive strike” are the current Orwellian terms for the coming, expensive, overblown U.S. military buildup of the twenty-first century.
I’m one of those activists-and very out of favor we are now, in public discussions on both right and left-who think that the major work of the twenty-first century is not the war on terrorism but the establishment of a demilitarized internationalism. Our beleaguered group is skeptical that violence can deliver either safety in the long run or a polity we want. “Military solution” is our latest comic oxymoron, replacing the old one about “military intelligence.” Military power can never be the name of our desire.
Therefore, yes to disarming Saddam Hussein-but as a first step toward a far-reaching discussion of why disarmament is so important in general. By passing its recent resolution on Iraq, the United Nations bravely refused to grant the United States the free hand it wanted to start a war. But now the UN is itself on the line. If for any reason the weapons inspections of the coming weeks fail to convince, the UN has now taken responsibility to revisit the question of force and may well have to organize an international military intervention to make Iraq disarm.
But the process of making the world less dangerous can’t stop with military action. Thugs and rogue states will not disappear any time soon, and violent rage, fear of attack, and the desire for revenge will continue to be the structuring emotions of our period-at home as well as abroad. So we have a choice: Gear up for continuous war or plan for confronting bullies and achieving justice some other way.
IF THERE IS a war, would I join an antiwar movement? I never left. But my long-term commitment to demilitarization doesn’t necessarily mean satisfaction with past or current peace movements.
On November 8, 2002, an ad hoc group of seventy leftist activists met at Judson Memorial Church in New York City to “Take Back the Future.” This group was urgently seeking a coherent response to the threatening post-September 11 world. We were all, also, trying to come to terms with our invisibility in public discourse, particularly after the sweeping victories of the Republicans in the mid-term elections just three days before. The church was all echoes, and the left was lonely.
But by the end of our second meeting a week later, discussion was more focused and energy was returning. We began to rethink how to represent anti-militarism to people who are justifiably afraid in the rush of new realities. There was general agreement that right now we have, on one side, the militarist strategies of Bush and Company and, on the other, a peace movement that is too supine, or running on automatic, or not alert enough to the problems of post-cold war internationalism.
As the group’s initial conveners, Drucilla Cornell and I proposed the following list of caveats for a revitalized peace movement:
First, no to anti-interventionist talk. As the most powerful and richest country, the United States has enormous responsibility, which it has refused to shoulder. For example, we need peaceful U.S. participation in the Middle East and in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. An isolationist United States is selfish, ignorant, and dangerous. Rather, the United States must work toward more reciprocal relationships. Instead of “Hands Off,” we need a rhetoric of care, service, rescue, exchange, and mutual support. Although “aid” has been an instrument of U.S. business interests in the past, U.S. wealth might function quite differently in more collaborative economic partnerships. Does such a shift toward partnership seem unlikely, given the power of the right and the track record of the imperium so far? Yes. But international cultural and economic cooperation is the only long-term strategy for security. We must struggle toward it if we are to have safety in the future.
Second, no knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Since the 1970s, it has been a common stance of U.S. peace movements to hate America as the key source of all injustice. This automatic rejection of U.S. values as hypocritical or in bad faith has sometimes led to the romanticizing of repressive regimes elsewhere, as if all that is bad comes from us and from nowhere else. There’s an ethnocentrism in this idea, in spite of the terrible truths of U.S. world hegemony.
And so we come to the odd present moment. For multilateral relationships to work, some international agreement about shared values will be necessary. But George W. Bush’s Patriot Act cancels those basic values Americans hold dear. Rather than reject U.S. ideals as hopelessly compromised by our amoral exercise of power, the peace movement needs to fight against the loss of our traditional rights-habeas corpus, freedom from search and seizure, freedom of speech and assembly. However unequally they have been applied, these basic rights are American achievements, and loyalty to them is a passion broadly shared by Americans. This sort of patriotism is a precious resource for all resistance, not to be recklessly tossed aside.
Third, no return to macho-style radicalism. The left has mostly squandered the cultural capital of the mass feminist movement by not taking its insights seriously and not carrying them forward into current crises. For example, there’s little conceptual space now for building a practical, hard-headed peace movement that actively confronts the great pressure being put on masculinity since September 11. The U.S. fear of seeming weak receives no adequate critique. In our anxiety, rational assessments of Saddam’s strength become challenges quite beyond us-from left to right. The enemy strong man looms to an irrational size, an unknowable boogey man, while the U.S. strong man seems solid and necessary, a bulwark against humiliation.
Gender stereotypes sharpen during any time of threat, and women and men who fear or criticize war are named cowards, irresponsible, cozily hors de combat, or beside the point. Buried in this patronizing response is a sort of demotion of feminist thought that has happened in other times of war. Feminist analysis-say, about bullies and why we all love them, or about why sexual freedom makes everyone so anxious-gets dropped out of public debate and is belittled as only relevant to the dynamics of private life. Calls for multilateralism, respect for difference, criticism of repressive patriarchal institutions, defusion of false fears, rational long-term planning to address appropriate fears-all are labeled utopian, soft, a failure to face the hard truth of a new world order. But, on the contrary, so-called soft, creative rethinking is our best hope for security.
This list of correctives to various, current peace movements could continue, but it is not meant to discourage engagement with those movements. On the contrary. A critical-and self-critical-left should work to develop alternative movement strategies. (This is what Take Back the Future and hundreds of other fledgling groups demonstrating in the streets and on campuses are seeking to do.) An entire discourse is missing, an imaginative description of the range of institutions needed to support a genuine multilateralism. These new initiatives would establish a variety of respectful relationships to some of the very nations our public discourse is demonizing now, relationships that the UN and other international movements have been developing for fifty years.
Ann Snitow is a feminist activist who teaches literature and gender studies at New School University.