Can Americans Who Oppose War and Empire Work Together?

Lindsey Graham, a war-supporting senator from South Carolina, said what he fears most is a Left-Right alliance against the Afghanistan War. He recognizes that such an alliance could stop war funding and force American troops to return home. But the masters of war may not have to use divide-and-rule tactics, because many war opponents on both sides of the political spectrum seem too willing to divide themselves.

The recent war funding vote in Congress, while showing some progress in legislators voting against war, also showed that a Left-only antiwar movement will never succeed in achieving its ends. The Democrats were divided, but that was not enough. Despite broad opposition among Americans to the Afghan War, widespread evidence of its failure, and leaks of tens of thousands of military documents showing that as bad as the war has been reported, it is worse, the Congress voted by a landslide to pour tens of billions into the failed war.

Antiwar activists should have learned from the buildup to the Iraq War that a Left coalition is insufficient to stop a war. Record-size demonstrations opposing the Iraq War were held throughout the country. And even though it is easier to prevent a war than to stop one, we failed. What lessons do we learn from the experience? Do we rebuild the same failed strategy, or find another way?

What can Americans who oppose war, militarism, and empire do to change the course of the country? This is no easy task. The U.S. military is the strongest in world history and deeply embedded in the American psyche from its roots in Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War, and the war in the Philippines. The hubris of American exceptionalism seems to block rationality. Today, the government keeps investing more and more borrowed dollars into making the world’s strongest military even stronger – something for which the leaders of both parties do not mind borrowing hundreds of billions. The U.S. keeps building its military despite spending as much as the whole world combined on weapons and war, even if it is at the expense of the rest of the U.S. economy.

And, the U.S. empire is far reaching, with more than a thousand military bases and outposts on all corners of the earth. Yet, most Americans do not think of the United States as an empire. Euphemisms, such as the U.S. is the policeman of the world, falsely describe the U.S. role as a benevolent rather then self-serving one. The corporate media rarely mentions the word “empire” when describing U.S. foreign policy, thereby keeping most Americans unaware of this reality. Education across the political spectrum is needed.

Thus, the task of those who oppose the weapons and war policy of the United States is a great challenge. It is easy to get frustrated by the challenges of undoing America’s militarist foreign policy. But there are unique opportunities right now to confront the American war machine. The economy is in the worst shape it has been in decades, and more see the direct connection of how military spending undermines the civilian economy. The public debt and deficit are at record highs in large part due to trillion-dollar wars and record military budgets. The Iraq and Afghan wars, the opening rounds of what some describe as the multi-generational “long war,” are going poorly. And the already stretched-to-the-breaking-point military is seeing the potential of new wars in Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Latin America, and Africa. Thanks to WikiLeaks and other sources, more and more Americans see the ugly reality of U.S. war. This is an opportune time for peace activists to have an impact.

But so far we have been unable to take advantage of the opportunity. There are many obstacles for the peace movement not of our own making, but some are our own fault. Too often those who oppose war and empire argue with each other rather than work together for peace. It is time to find areas where we can unite so that a strong American peace movement can develop, get the truth out about U.S. militarism, and create a political environment where a paradigm shift away from weapons and war is possible.

It can be challenging for some antiwar activists on the Left and the Right to put aside prejudices even though none of us are the cardboard-cutout stereotypes that the other side sometimes imagines.

Recently I had the chance to participate in what I hoped would be a reasoned discussion of how to build a broad-based antiwar, pro-peace movement at a left-leaning national peace conference. I participated in a panel titled “The Rise of Right Wing Populism and the Tea Party: Do We Need a Right-Left Antiwar Coalition?” The panel was inspired in large part by my writing and organizing on the issue. But I should have known from the title that it would not be as useful a discussion as was needed.

The area of potential for a Right-Left alliance is with traditional conservatives whose opposition to war and empire goes back decades. These conservatives do not feel an alignment with the militarist neocons who dominate the Republican Party, and most are curious observers of the Tea Party. They see neocons as destroyers of real conservatism and worry about the Tea Party being co-opted by them. From the Left perspective, if you do not want to reach out beyond those who already agree with you, it is much easier to create a straw man like the most extreme elements of the Tea Party as the focus of debate than to wrestle with the real question of forming a broad-based antiwar movement not limited to the “Left.”

From the conservative side, labeling those on the Left as socialists, Trotskyites, Maoists, or whatever other red-bait label they want is the easy way to marginalize the “left- wing” peace movement. Red-baiting has been a decades-long attack approach by the Right. Rather than talking about specific issues and whether they are better handled by government or private industry, or whether employee ownership or cooperatives are more effective than capitalist ownership, just putting a red label on it is a way to avoid discussion.

My hope is that we are at the beginning of opening lines of respectful communication between those who oppose war and empire, who want to see the military budget cut and re-investment in the U.S. economy. Unless we find a way to get antiwar advocates from all across the political spectrum working together, we will never challenge the American empire.

While the American empire is an empire in its own special, American way, empires are not new, nor is ending them. E.P. Thompson, an influential British historian who was editor of the New Left Review, wrote about the downfall of Rome and the importance of slave and peasant revolts: “Empires only fall because a sufficient number of people are sufficiently determined to make them fall, whether those people live inside or outside the frontier.”

It is time for those inside the American empire to join together and demand its end: empire undermines the economy, weakens security, increases racial divisions, destroys the rule of law, and creates failed democracies. Isn’t that enough to unite around?

Click here for video of the debate at the National Peace Conference on a Right-Left antiwar coalition.

For more, see Justin Raimondo,“Why Is the Antiwar Movement Stalled?and Come Home America.