Is the Antiwar Movement Waking Up?

Not quite yet…

by , August 31, 2009

Like Rip van Winkle, it seems that the American antiwar movement is – finally – waking up, although, like the original Rip, it doesn’t seem to have changed its idle ways. "A restive antiwar movement," avers the New York Times, "largely dormant since the election of Barack Obama, is preparing a nationwide campaign this fall to challenge the administration’s policies on Afghanistan." Just how restive, however, is a matter of some ambiguity.

No real national protests have been called by any significant antiwar grouping. Instead, we are to be treated to scattered local protests. The Times reports that, in response to the administration’s announcement that they’re sending 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan,

"Antiwar leaders have engaged in a flurry of meetings to discuss a month of demonstrations, lobbying, teach-ins, and memorials in October to publicize the casualty count, raise concerns about the cost of the war, and pressure Congress to demand an exit strategy."

Oh, but there’s a slight problem: that old reliable "lightning rod for protest," George W. Bush, is gone, replaced by a liberal icon whom "progressives" are loath to criticize. Antiwar organizers, we are told, "face a starkly changed political climate from just a year ago," but what the article fails to mention is that this change has taken place among a very narrow group of people. Progressives who were jumping up and down denouncing Bush’s war are silent – and even, in the case of groups like VoteVets, enthusiastic supporters – when it comes to Obama’s wars.

Yet the real change, and far more significant, is the one taking place in the population at large, among Republicans as well as Democrats. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds, for the first time, that a majority of Americans think the Afghan war is "not worth it." The breakdown is even more ominous for the Obamaites: of the antiwar contingent, 41 percent feel strongly, while on the other side, only 31 percent feel that way. The belief that the U.S. and its dwindling band of allies can reasonably expect to win the war is similarly wavering.

What support the president has managed to maintain on this issue has a soft underbelly highly vulnerable to continued bad news from the battlefield – which is one reason why the administration has hired the Rendon Group, whose marketing job for Ahmed Chalabi worked out so well, to vet "embedded" reporters in Afghanistan. The Obama crowd, like its predecessors, knows full well the value of controlling the narrative. Now if only they can declare a "cyber-emergency" and seize control of the Internet, as Jay Rockefeller’s bill envisions!

Yet not even that would succeed, I’ll wager: the American people are sick and tired of constant wars, and it doesn’t matter if the commander in chief is a Democrat, a Republican, or a Vegetarian.

This is a reality the War Party has had to contend with ever since the Founders’ time, and as our old republic morphed into an Empire, it has been increasingly a problem for our rulers. Americans have a natural antipathy to meddling in the affairs of other peoples, a sentiment often derided as obstinate "isolationism" by our all-knowing elites, who, of course, know better. More bad news for the War Party: hostility to overseas adventurism is amplified in times of economic trouble, when it seems – to any ordinary person, that is – as if we have enough problems to deal with right here at home. Why, they want to know, are we engaging in "nation-building" in Afghanistan, of all places, when our own country seems to be literally falling apart at the seams?

This is precisely why the New York Times piece rings so hollow when it gets to enumerating reasons for the general lack of enthusiasm among progressives for opposing the Afghan war: you see, "The health care battle is consuming the resources of labor unions and other core Democratic groups."

Is it really necessary to point out that funding for the healthcare programs these groups say they want is being diverted into the Afghan money pit? Congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican whose anti-interventionist views set him apart from the other GOP presidential contenders, rightly argues that if we would "just get rid of the Empire" we’d have enough to subsidize healthcare for every American – and then some.

Of course, Rep. Paul, being a libertarian, opposes government-subsidized healthcare, but I’m just sayin’ – if American progressives really, really want these programs, then why aren’t they fighting for them by demanding an end to a war that will wind up devouring any chance for a fiscally feasible national healthcare system?

The reason, I believe, is because, as Jon Soltz, leader of VoteVets.org, puts it, "People do not want to take on the administration. Generating the kind of money that would be required to challenge the president’s policies just isn’t going to happen."

It’s fascinating to watch "antiwar leaders" like Soltz – who openly supports the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan – move in the opposite direction from the rest of the country. What "people" don’t want to take on the administration? Why, Soltz and his oh-so-progressive friends who run Democratic front organizations, that’s who.

Rank-and-file progressives, however, have a very different view. The Washington Post/ABC News poll shows almost eight in ten self-identified liberal Democrats saying the war isn’t worth it, a precipitous 22 percent decline in support since March from that particular demographic. A development with even more potential significance is the lack of support among reliably pro-war Republicans: a mere 58 percent say the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan. As the pollsters put it [.pdf]:

"The changes have not come in Obama’s base alone. Looking just by partisan affiliation, support for decreasing the U.S. deployment has risen by 20 points since January among Democrats, but also by 15 points among independents and by 12 points among Republicans. Since March, views that the war’s been worth fighting have lost 14 points among Democrats, but also 7 points among independents and Republicans alike."

The major rationale – a purely political one, I might point out – for the Afghan war among Democrats, and the argument advanced by "centrists" against the antiwar base, is that exhibiting "weakness" in foreign policy matters opens the administration and the party in general to attacks from Republicans. Yet if a good part of the GOP’s own base is increasingly disenchanted with our Afghan adventure, then that excuse becomes ever less credible. This just adds to the irony of the "official" antiwar movement’s notorious left-sectarianism, which effectively excludes conservative and libertarian speakers at antiwar events and refuses to address the concerns of ordinary, middle-class Americans.

Contra Soltz, while money is an important factor is building an effective antiwar movement – we’ve just finished a particularly grueling fundraising drive, as I probably needn’t remind you – it is hardly decisive. What’s more important is the depth of commitment, and that is what seems truly lacking in what passes for the antiwar movement these days.

The Times cites Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, as saying "’most liberals ‘want this guy to succeed’" and fear the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan "could be a devastating albatross around the president’s neck." Whether this is a prescription for picking up the pace of liberal antiwar protests, in order to alert the Obama administration to the danger, or a rationale for inaction, so as not to have that albatross weigh even heavier around the Dear Leader’s neck, is not at all clear – although I rather suspect the latter.

A visit to the Web site of the main antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, reveals little urgency when it comes to the Afghan war, and I note the only national actions scheduled for fall are being launched by groups other than UFPJ. Evidence of those "local actions" calling for an end to the Afghan war is scant: a search of their events calendar notes very few.

Of course, since UFPJ is dominated by the old Commie network – the remnants of the CPUSA and its social democratic split-off, the Committees of Correspondence – this is hardly surprising. These people have long been a drag on the antiwar movement, stifling the creation of a broad-based anti-interventionism in favor of saddling protests with the familiar litany of liberal demands. Now Obama’s campaign for free ice cream has totally eclipsed the ostensibly antiwar aims of the movement, inducing near complete paralysis.

While the "official" antiwar movement – which most certainly does not include this Web site – is sleepily rubbing its eyes and reluctantly responding to the president’s alarming escalation of the "Af-Pak" war, the determination of some elements of the movement is admirably unequivocal: "In the next year, it will more and more become Obama’s war," says Perry O’Brien, president of the New York chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "He’ll be held responsible for the bloodshed."

Really? While I wouldn’t hold my breath, I’d love to be pleasantly surprised. I should point out, however, that it isn’t just the president who makes our wrong-headed foreign policy, it’s the Democratic Party establishment, in coalition with its Republican equivalent. The entire apparatus of the party machinery, its leaders, and a great many of its most active foot-soldiers – including those in the media – are beholden to the War Party and amenable to its decisive influence in the world of Washington politics. As long as the "official" antiwar movement is merely the tail on the Democratic donkey, there will be no effective opposition to our war-crazed foreign policy, at least not in this country.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Our summer fundraising campaign, as I mentioned above, was particularly brutal this go-round. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever be over – and I’ll bet you were, too. Okay, well, it’s over and done – but that doesn’t mean we get to slack off here at Antiwar.com, either in the fundraising department or in any other aspect of our activities. For all the reasons advanced above, and a few others I didn’t have time or space to go into, the antiwar movement in the Age of Obama is in some pretty dreadful shape. What’s more, the danger of war – of a horribly destructive world-destabilizing war – has never been greater. No, not even under Bush.

The reason is that the Afghan operation – which the more honest military analysts and policy wonks are admitting will take at least a decade, perhaps two, before "victory" can be safely declared – is opening a huge can of worms in Central Asia, one that I’m afraid future historians will liken to Pandora’s box. The various post-Soviet republics that surround the battlefield on the "Af-Pak" front are fragile, without much legitimacy, and potential cauldrons of Islamist extremism. Our foray into this region is likely to bring us into conflict with the two other major players, Russia and China. And as the key role of oil interests in determining our aggressive Eurasian policy becomes more widely known, anti-Americanism and its attendant terrorist manifestations is bound to go on the upswing.

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Correction: This article originally referred to United for Peace and Justice by the name of one of its member groups. We regret the error.

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