Whatever Happened to the Antiwar Movement?

Note: The following is the text of a talk given Oct. 25 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Whatever happened to the antiwar movement?

Remember all those marches, all those placards, those giant puppets and loud displays of moral outrage?

It’s vanished! Gone! Evaporated like morning mist!

At one point, millions were marching in the streets in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, people all over the world, and then – nothing! Never in the history of politics has a movement retreated faster and more completely – but in this case, it was a voluntary retreat, an act of self-abolition.

George W. Bush was the perfect hate object: obtuse, dogmatic in his ignorance, and boyishly uninformed, he had all the traits we loved to hate. It was easy to feel disdain for a President who seemed way in over his head. And his neoconservative advisers were almost caricatures of evil, such as Richard Perle, who looks and talks like a cartoon villain: or Donald Rumsfeld, whose blustering belligerence was easily parodied, not least of all by himself.

But now there’s a new warmonger in town, a new Caesar who is not quite such an easy target. As Medea Benjamin, noted peace activist and founder of “Code Pink,” put it:

“We don’t have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore. The issues have not changed very much. … Now we have a surge [in Afghanistan] that we would have been furious about under George Bush, yet it’s hard to mobilize people under Obama. We have the same anti-war movement and not the same passion.”

Indeed, most Americans who were marching in the streets, denouncing what they called “Bush’s war,” voted for Barack Obama for President. They supported him enthusiastically, a number of the activist types campaigned for him, and now that we’re living through what Bob Woodward calls “Obama’s Wars,” these former peaceniks have buttoned their lips.

When Obama was elected, the main peace coalition, which called itself United for Peace and Justice, congratulated him in a front page article on their web site – and then promptly dissolved! Oh, they still claim to oppose the wars we are fighting – in theory – but in practice they just aren’t all that interested in doing anything about it. And we’re not just talking about the limousine liberal set here: hard-line Marxists, who have always been involved in the various peace movements, are also going squishy. At a recent “antiwar conference” held in Buffalo, New York, which was dominated and largely organized by a Trotskyist group known as Socialist Action, the participants voted to pour their energy into building the October 2nd pro-Obama demonstration recently held in Washington, D.C., which dubbed itself “One Nation Working Together.”

Yeah, right, One Nation Working Together for the Democratic Party.

The rally, a left-wing version of the Glenn Beck pray in, was basically a get out the vote effort on behalf of the beleaguered Democrats. From the platform, speaker after speaker told the rather thin crowd that their moral duty was to go out and vote Democrat. That’s the ticket! And what did they get in exchange for acting as water boys for the union bureaucrats? Nothing – not a single speaker, not a single slogan, not a single antiwar placard onstage. Nothing, nada, zilch. There was no official antiwar speaker precisely because the rally was organized and controlled by the Obama-crats, who all support their commander-in-chief as he wages a war of conquest in Afghanistan and extends it into Pakistan. However, the party hacks lost control of the stage, at one point, when Harry Belafonte shattered the silence.

Charging that “the wars that we wage today in far away lands are immoral, unconscionable and unwinnable,” the famous musician delivered a stunning denunciation of the war – a moment you can bet was not supposed to happen. Belafonte then started railing about how we’re headed for “a totalitarian state in America,” which kind of made him seem like a tea partier – except that in the next breath he accused the tea party of being the “villainous” force behind this sinister trend. Go figure.

According to more than one eye witness, the reception to Belafonte’s antiwar message was “muted,” at best. But of course it was. The Democrats don’t want to bring up the war issue, because it’s just another reason for their base to stay home on Election Day. The only other reference to the military — aside from some patriotic comments to the troops — was Jesse Jackson’s call to “Cut the military budget.” A few moments out of hours. Big deal.

Speaking of Democrats and Election Day, you have a perfect example right here in Michigan of how the Democrats have now become the War Party. A look at the web site of congressman John Dingell, another beleaguered Democrat who’s in fear of losing his seat, has this to say about the war in Afghanistan, and I quote:

“While Congressman Dingell was against the Iraq war from its inception, he believes President Obama is rightly focusing on the United States’ daunting mission in Afghanistan. Congressman Dingell supports the Obama Administration’s plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 30,000, bringing the total to near 100,000, and to begin a responsible drawdown in 2011.”

Why was Iraq a bad war, and Afghanistan the good war? We’ve been in Afghanistan for going on ten years – and what, if anything, have we accomplished? And of course Obama’s extension of the war into Pakistan – a country that has nuclear weapons – goes entirely unmentioned. But that’s not the worst of it. Dingell’s web site also has the following to say:

“On March 10, 2010, the House considered House Congressional Resolution 248, a resolution directing the President to remove the United States Armed Forces from Afghanistan pursuant to section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution. Though he voted against bringing the troops home immediately as the resolution called for and instead favors President Obama’s plan for a responsible troop drawdown, Congressman Dingell was pleased that Congress was able to have a full debate in front of the American people on our nation’s course in Afghanistan.”

Here is Dingell, congratulating himself on granting us the privilege of having a real debate in Congress over the necessity of this costly and futile war – and touting his own vote to keep us there. According to him, we ought to be grateful that the princes and princesses of Washington even deigned to discuss the possibility of getting out. We’re supposed to be content with that. Well, guess what – we aren’t!

People like Dingell want to have it both ways: they want to appeal to their liberal constituents, who perhaps voted for Obama because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and they want to placate the Obama administration, which is not only sticking with George W. Bush’s agenda of endless war, but is intent on escalating it. We are now fighting a not so secret war in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with a very shaky government that is supposedly allied with us, and yet is accused of trying to undermine us at every turn.

Indeed, according to Bob Woodward’s recent book, Obama’s Wars, the presidents of both Pakistan and Afghanistan believe that the US government, and not the Taliban or Al Qaeda, is launching terrorist attacks and trying to destabilize their governments. Yet we are giving both of these characters billions in US tax dollars, and sacrificing the lives of our sons and daughters, to rescue their corrupt regimes from a well-deserved oblivion.

Let’s take a look at the strategy the US has developed to fight and win the war in Afghanistan: we have a new counterinsurgency strategy that can be summed up in three words: “Clear, hold, and build.” The idea is that the troops will live “among the people” – among the very people whose country they are occupying, and who hate them – and in this way we’ll win “hearts and minds.” Well, during the Revolutionary War – our Revolutionary War – the redcoats were indeed quartered in American homes: the Brits just came in and said: we’re bunking here. The colonists had no choice – just as the Afghans have no choice. This is hardly the way to win “hearts and minds.” It is, instead, a good way to inflict lots of casualties on your own troops.

What we are doing in Afghanistan is often described as “nation-building.” But that’s not quite accurate. I would call it colony-building. No “nation” can be built from the outside, by outsiders, funded and defended by allies: however, that is precisely how you establish a colony, or a protectorate. What we’re doing in the wilds of Central Asia is building an empire – or, rather, adding on to our empire, which already extends all over the world.

This empire of bases and protectorates is hugely profitable for politically connected corporations, what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.” Actually, if you go back and see what Eisenhower originally wrote about this, he called it the “military-industrial-congressional complex” – because it was Congress, which holds the purse strings, that made it all possible. While the armaments industry keeps their pet congressmen rolling in dollars, they reap mega-profits in no bid contracts – and all to support a foreign policy that is premised on America as the policeman of the world.

This role as world policeman is as useful to Democratic party politicians of a “liberal” bent, such as President Obama – and John Dingell – as it is to ordinary Republican warmongers – and perhaps it is more useful for the Democrats. Because military spending is just another “stimulus” package. According to the Keynesian geniuses who have run our economy into the ground, the only way to fix what they broke is to keep spending. And it doesn’t matter, according to them, what we spend the money on: it could be building pyramids. It could be a chicken in every pot. It could be simply throwing freshly printed dollars out of airplanes. Or it could be a war, one that requires the production – and destruction – of lots of planes, tanks, and other materials. Think of war as just another “stimulus” program, and you’ve got a handle on how a liberal Democrat who ran on his antiwar credentials could learn to love perpetual war.

Another arrow in the War Party’s quiver is political correctness: we supposedly have a moral obligation to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan and the region, to free them to be able to go to school, to free them from the harem and the bride price. That recent Time magazine cover with a picture of an Afghan woman who’s had her nose cut off was a powerful piece of war propaganda – and yet the government that we support in Afghanistan is doing exactly the same thing. And the truth of the matter is that even if we had a million troops in Afghanistan, we could not change the culture of that country. They’ve been doing what they’re doing for thousands of years, and no one has been able to tame them – not the British, not the Russians, and not us.

So why has the left been silent on the war issue? What happened to the grand tradition of Eugene Debs, or the Vietnam war protesters, or Martin Luther King who was stalked by the FBI for his key role in building mass opposition to the conflict in Southeast Asia?

A couple of reasons. One, the left has long since given up its old time populist anti-imperialism in exchange for identity politics. Obama is an African-American, and, as far as certain sections of the left are concerned, nothing more needs to be said. For them, this is enough. Enough for them to overlook quite a lot, including a brutal and immoral war that is draining the lifeblood out of us, and indeed draining the resources we need for the very social programs liberals say they want at home.

Progressives have made a deal with the devil. And the bargain is this: they’ll shut up about murdering innocent Afghan and Pakistani civilians, about US assassination squads, and about the wholesale assault on our civil liberties, if they can get the goodies they want here at home: more government spending, more government employees, and more government period. After all, who cares if a lot of foreigners get killed? As long as they get theirs.

The transformation of the American left really is a sad and pathetic process to behold, and I’ve been watching it unfold for some time now. You know, during the 1960s, the New Left solidarized with the people of the Third World, whom they – rightly – saw as victims of US imperialism. Their slogan: “Bring the war home!” Today, the unspoken slogan of the left is: Bring the bacon home – and to hell with everybody else!

This indifference to the fate of faceless foreigners is today translating into open hostility to foreigners: has anybody noticed that the Democrats are now emphasizing this anti-foreigner theme as Election Day gets closer? We have the President and his minions in the media railing against “foreign money” that is supposedly pouring into Republican coffers – with no proof, no evidence, just a wild assertion.

And we see that China-bashing has now become another major theme of Democrats running for office: back in California, we’re being subjected to blizzard of ads accusing Republican Meg Whitman of “shipping OUR jobs to China.” Both Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown are running anti-Chinese ads, evoking the old image of the Yellow Peril – which is a tradition in California. During the 19th century, the labor movement in the Golden State was viciously anti-Chinese, and anti-Japanese. There were anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco, and the state legislature passed a law forbidding anyone of Japanese ancestry from owning land. Boxer and Brown are shamelessly appealing to this racist tradition.

A trade war is just one step away from a shooting war – but isn’t it funny that they want to take on China. Because without China, which has been buying up our debt, the Democrats wouldn’t be able to launch all these spending programs. In any conflict with the US, the Chinese don’t have to take out Washington – they could take out Wall Street without firing a shot by simply dumping all their American securities.

So-called progressives are making their peace with interventionism, and even getting quite comfortable with it, because it is quite compatible with their philosophy of Big Government. If the US government is the answer to all our problems here in America, then why not the world? If the poor and the oppressed in this country can be uplifted by the actions of government, then why not the whole world?

Our foreign policy of global intervention is the natural outgrowth of Washington’s culture of arrogance: the inhabitants of the Imperial City believe that they have not only the ability and the right but the moral duty to bring order to a chaotic world. Modern warfare, especially the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that is now popular with our generals, is nothing but social engineering on an international scale.

Let every Afghan have Obamacare! And while we’re at it, let’s bail out the Afghan banks.

It’s a long way from the distinguished left-wing tradition of opposition to US imperialism. It’s a long way from the anti-draft and antiwar movements of the 1960s. On their way into the corridors of power, via the Democratic party, the left abandoned its principles and the moral high ground.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time raking the Democrats over the coals, but they, after all, are the party in power, at least for the moment. So they are, by definition, the War Party. But the Republicans are so far from being innocent bystanders, when it comes to the crimes of US imperialism, that the distance can only be measured in light years.

The Republican party, which used to stand for limited government and avoiding foreign entanglements, was taken over, in the 1980s, by a clique of ex-leftist intellectuals and activists: these are the neoconservatives. Now I won’t go into a long and detailed historical account of where they came from, and where they’ve wound up: this history is well-known. Starting out in the Democratic party, the neocons who came to exercise such influence in the administration of George W. Bush – such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz – started out as aides to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Democrat of Washington. Known as the Senator from Boeing, Jackson was a cold war liberal who supported the war in Vietnam to the very end. As the party’s base began to turn against the war, the neocons grew restless, and finally walked out. Some of them secured low level appointments in the Reagan administration, especially in and around the newly-created “National Endowment for Democracy,” an organization created by the US government in order to meddle in the affairs of other nations. According to the neocons, democracy had to be “exported” to the rest of the world, just as the Soviets had tried to export their system.

This emphasis on foreign policy is what the neocons are all about, and have always been all about. The founding fathers of the neoconservative movement had been leftists, many were former Trotskyites whose hatred of the Soviet Union for “betraying” the revolution had taken over their politics and their lives. They lived to see their old enemies, the Stalinists, taken down, even if they had to ally with the hated enemy – American capitalism – to do it.

Of course, it wasn’t this crudely stated, and certainly the neoconservative odyssey from left to right didn’t happen overnight, but that’s what it boiled down to: the former communists became the most fervent anti-communists, who advocated a relentless war against the Soviet Union. Many of the original editors of National Review magazine were ex-communists of one sort or another, and didn’t care much about free market economics or the concept of limited government. Their main goal was to wage a war of extermination against the Soviet Union, and this was the thrust of their politics. Oh, on occasion, they would wheel out the gods of the market and offer up a few prayers, but this was somewhat half-hearted, because they didn’t know much about economics and didn’t much care. The founder of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol – father to Bill – wrote a book entitled “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” and that about sums up their stance. According to the neocons, capitalism was good, as far as it went, but it was also inherently corrupting. The affluent society, in their view, made possible by capitalism, inevitably gave rise to moral corruption: these were “the cultural contradictions of capitalism,” which, they claimed, had to be tamed by a strict discipline, lest Americans go soft. And of course they couldn’t be allowed to go soft, because in that case they wouldn’t be up for the neocons’ main goal and joy in life: war. A war against the Soviet Union, a war to establish a worldwide American-led democracy, and, in the end, war for the sake of war.

As the neoconservatives took over the conservative movement, it was stripped of its former identity almost completely. Whereas conservatism had once stood for limited government, the neocons invented a new concept, which Fred Barnes, in an article in the neocon house organ, The Weekly Standard, called “big government conservatism.” And he didn’t mean it sarcastically, but as a positive program, a governing program for conservatives who had made their peace with the welfare-warfare state.

In a generation, conservatism was transformed, from a philosophy of limited government to a scaled down version of the New Deal: from a foreign policy stance that abhorred overseas entanglements and sought to preserve and protect American interest first, conservatives became the advocates of collective security and global intervention. William F. Buckley made the point quite explicitly in a 1956 article published in Commonweal magazine, in which he wrote that the “thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union” imminently threatens American security, and that therefore “We have to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

Forget about opposition to confiscatory taxation: conservatives, Buckley wrote, must become apologists for what he called “The extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,” not to mention the “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all.”

The conservatives of the postwar era had opposed NATO, opposed the Marshall Plan, and warned that Truman’s aggressive foreign policy would lead to domestic tyranny at home – and when Truman tried to nationalize the steel mills, in the name of “national security,” they were proved right. The conservatives of the Buckley era became the champions of NATO, the biggest advocates of “foreign aid,” and had no objections to domestic tyranny – as long as they got to be the tyrants.

Conservatism, in short, had become unrecognizable: it had turned into its opposite. Conservatives still paid lip service to the ideas of the free market and individual liberty, but this was only for ceremonial purposes and to keep the contributions coming in. When they got into power, they promptly abandoned their program and their alleged principles, and got in on the Washington gravy train, just like their liberal counterparts.

What really underscored the complete bankruptcy of the Buckleyite conservative movement was the implosion of the Soviet Union. When the Berlin Wall fell, and the Communist empire caved in on itself, they were quite taken aback. Over at Commentary magazine, Norman Podhoretz, the crusty old neoconservative warhorse, was convinced it was all a game of deception. The Communists, he was convinced, were trying to lull us into a false sense of security. At the first sign of Western weakness, the Kremlin would regroup its forces and catch us off balance.

Instead, the Kremlin fell, and so did the entire ideological rationale for neoconservatism. The great enemy was no more – and there was no more reason to spend a great deal of our wealth on the biggest military the world had ever seen. There was no reason to mount a worldwide ideological battle in defense of Western values, nor was there any reason for such pillars of the cold war order as NATO. If war is the end all and be all of your ideology, you have to have an enemy worthy of the name, but such no longer existed. What to do?

Out of power, and drifting, their years spent in the political wilderness during the Clinton years were not wasted. The neocons consolidated their hold on the Republican party and the institutions of the conservative movement, particularly the big foundations that dispensed large cash grants to favored scholars and causes. They retired to the academy, bided their time – and at last their moment came.

When George W. Bush went to Washington, a great many neoconservatives went with him, and took their places in the national security bureaucracy, and the upper reaches of the administration. So that when September 11, 2001, rolled around, they were in place, and ready to move.

They would have invaded Iraq even if 9/11 had never happened, but the terrorist attacks made it much easier for them. Indeed, 9/11 gave the neocons a new lease on life, and they took full advantage of the opportunity. It gave them what they most wanted and needed: a new enemy against whom a new ideological and military assault could be launched, with much fanfare and at great expense. Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and son of Irving, had once threatened to walk out of the Republican party because the congressional Republican caucus had nearly suspended funding for the Kosovo war. The Republicans, Kristol complained, were in danger of becoming “isolationists.” In other words, they had returned to the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers, and decided it was time stop meddling where we had no business meddling. Unfortunately, Kristol didn’t follow through on his promise, and, after 9/11, he would have no more cause to complain.

Eight years of neoconservative rule have brought us to this moment: bogged down in two wars in the Middle East, and on the brink of bankruptcy. The Bush administration implemented the neoconservative doctrine of “big government conservatism” with a vengeance – and the results you see all around you. Record deficits, a declining standard of living, a war that will wind up costing three TRILLION dollars, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and, in the end, the biggest bailout – and the greatest extension of government power – in American history.

And so a war-weary nation turned to Obama – and got more war, as well as the onset of an economic downturn that shows no signs of turning around.

Out of the ruins of the defeated GOP a new movement is emerging – the so-called Tea Party. Focused solely on economic issues, for the most part, the Tea Partiers will sooner or later have to face the issue of foreign policy, and there are many signs that they are rebelling against the neoconservative doctrine of perpetual war. Says John Raese, the Republican candidate for Senate in West Virginia:

“If you study Great Britain, which was one of the greatest countries in the world for a long time, they lost most of their monetary-most of their superpower-because they kept chasing things throughout the world. I’m more of a Ronald Reagan Republican than I am a Bush Republican to be up front with you. I think we have to take care of our nation, and we have to make our nation strong, and you build that nation from within.”

And here is Ken Buck, running for the Senate in Colorado:

"We can’t nation build in Afghanistan, the way we did with the Marshall Plan in Germany. It’s a fundamental mistake to assume that a people as backward as the Afghans are going to be able to build the industrialized nation and the democracy that it takes to be able to achieve what we would consider a Western-style democracy. And we have to be realistic about our goals. I think we have been there far too long. I think we have to give our troops an exit strategy, and get out of there when we can.”

I could cite more such statements, but suffice to say here that many grassroots tea party candidates and activists are supporting the anti-interventionist views that Ron Paul has been putting front and center since the very beginning of the tea party rebellion. Conservatives are beginning to realize that you can’t have limited government and a policy of unlimited war: you can’t have small government and a huge empire; you can’t remain within the bounds set by the Constitution and project American military power all over the world. It is one or the other.

The conservatives of the 1930s and 1940s understood this: the conservatives of today are beginning to relearn that lesson. But libertarians must work to bring these lessons home to them, to offer the kind of consistency that alone can lead us out of bankruptcy and increasing government control over our lives. That’s why I am going around the country speaking to groups like this: because we must provide leadership to a mass movement that is growing in this country and is seeking to break the chains of Big Government – we must show them that the Empire is an albatross hung ’round our necks, and we won’t break our chains until we are free of it.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].