Where the Peace Movement Went Wrong

Where the Peace Movement Went Wrong

When U.S. troops entered Baghdad, I was very glad to see the pictures of Iraqis celebrating freedom from Saddam’s dictatorship. Not because they changed my view that the war was wrong, but because they meant that for some Iraqis the death and devastation of the war would be offset by their freedom from Saddam’s yoke.

The problem for the peace movement is that its activists failed to argue persuasively that war was not the best way to achieve this goal, leaving many Americans with the sense that the choice was between fighting and doing nothing-which ended up tilting moderates reluctantly toward the war camp. For them, the war involved fighting a brutal regime that abused its own people and invaded its neighbors. That the Bush leadership had other, nastier intentions is another question-since progressive people could see the Bush administration doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. So the antiwar argument had to be about alternative ways to achieve the goal of a freer and more democratic Iraq-and about the unlikelihood that Bush and Co. would actually do that.

The antiwar movement lost the argument on the efficacy of alternative means partly because of its simplistic choice of “no war” unity over a more sophisticated and positive message-which also would have required more outreach to people who don’t go to rallies (and probably less focus on rallies). And when we allowed groups such as the Workers World Party, which had defended the Hussein regime in the past, to lead some of the antiwar rallies, many folks might rightly have thought that such a movement had no real plan to challenge Saddam’s regime.

If we want to oppose war effectively, we need to provide a far clearer roadmap showing how we plan to support those who resist oppression. Mouthing lines about national sovereignty in cases like Iraq is as hollow as Bull Connor’s using states rights rhetoric to justify keeping the National Guard out of the South. There is absolutely nothing wrong with humanitarian intervention in principle. What should be opposed is the use of military force when nonviolent solidarity is more likely to lead to a just result and to impose much lower costs on the population. But in the case of Iraq, the lack of an articulated plan to help those resisting Hussein is exactly what strengthened the argument of the hawks that their method was the only way to “liberate” Iraq. There was no counter-argument from the antiwar movement about how it was acting, or could or would act, in solidarity with the oppressed people of Iraq. That was the fatal flaw of antiwar organizing.

The left cannot plead lack of time, because it had all the time necessary between the Gulf War and the Iraq War to mount a public education campaign in defense of Kurdish and Shia human rights and for nonviolent strategies that could have served as an effective alternative to war. It was the first Bush administration...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels