Turning Around the
Antiwar Movement

The neocons are still winning. Four and a half years after the neocons tricked the nation into launching the most foolish military adventure in its history, the U.S. military continues to execute their policies. The occupation of Iraq and the six-year occupation of Afghanistan continue with no end in sight, and preparations for war with Iran continue. If events proceed on their current course, the U.S. will occupy large swaths of the Middle East for decades – spending trillions of dollars, losing thousands of additional lives, and feeding the regional instability that gives rise to terrorism.

We in the antiwar movement are still losing. Dozens of major protests, hundreds of Web sites, thousands of vigils, and millions of e-mail messages have had little impact on war policies. The lame-duck Bush administration confidently ignores us, most Republicans rail against us, and most Democrats take us for granted. While polls show increasing public opposition to the war, the movement has failed to translate this mood swing into a tangible result.

While there are a number of reasons why the neocons continue to defeat us, the most important one is that we lack a coherent, unified strategy for winning this debate. If we hope to reverse this situation, we in the antiwar movement need to do an honest appraisal of where we are and what we should do next. The aftermath of the Oct. 27 regional protests is a great time for this reappraisal. My contribution to this discussion follows.

Just Getting Out There Isn’t Enough

Too many of us take unearned pride in our accomplishments. We need to face the cold, hard fact that we’re failing in our efforts to end the war. The best athletes, artists and professionals are their own harshest critics. They don’t accept mediocrity. We shouldn’t either.

If you organize a vigil that is attended by a handful of people and is noticed by no one who can change the situation, you have made yourself feel better, but you haven’t meaningfully contributed to the prospects for peace. If you host a low-traffic Web site or post to a rarely visited blog that preaches only to the converted, you have also failed to move the dial.

Instead of dissipating energy on thousands of small, poorly organized, invisible activities, we need fewer, larger, and better-planned initiatives. Benchmarks for success should include an accurate estimate of attendance (rather than the inflated numbers we often publish), media attention and impact on people with decision making power.

Recent examples of actions that were successful in my view are the Jan. 27, 2007, United for Peace and Justice march on Washington and Code Pink’s Camp Pelosi action. (I cite these examples because I observed them but didn’t participate in organizing them – so I believe I can be objective. My choosing to omit other actions may be more a reflection of my unfamiliarity than of a negative opinion.) The Jan. 27 march was well-attended, attracted numerous congressional speakers, and received good media coverage. While only a small number of people participated in Camp Pelosi, it generated substantial media coverage and attracted multiple comments from the speaker of the House – who could almost unilaterally end the war by holding up a future funding bill.

Setting a Goal

Most activists participating in antiwar organizing are also concerned with many other issues. Among the most common are holding Bush and Cheney to account through impeachment, fighting racism against Arabs and other minority groups, ensuring that adequate funds are available to help the disadvantaged, preventing global warming, and learning the truth about 9/11.

These other concerns are important and each can be readily linked to the war. But focusing on these other issues during antiwar organizing has disadvantages. A multi-issue platform may narrow the number of individuals and groups available to support a given action. It may also dilute the message being sent to the public via the media.

The question that peace activists should ask themselves is whether ending the war in Iraq is, itself, a sufficient goal. If so, they should participate in the broadest possible antiwar movement and leave other issues aside when doing coalition organizing. If they don’t think opposition to the war is a sufficient basis for protest, I hope they organize outside the antiwar movement.

There is a strong counterargument against single-issue antiwar organizing. Some peace activists argue that certain communities will participate in antiwar protests only if their issues are added to the protest agenda. In certain cases, the addition of an issue to a protest platform may attract more new protesters than the number of demonstrators deterred by the addition. In this case, a multi-issue protest may make the most sense. But activists should take care before coming to this conclusion, because the new source of protesters is usually much more apparent than the potential attendees being driven away.

The San Francisco Oct. 27 coalition employed two creative ways of dealing with the multi-issue conundrum. Interest groups organized smaller protests and feeder marches to the larger demonstration. At the end of the main march, protesters had the option of visiting a "Peace and Justice Convergence" at which they could learn more about the ideas and activities of groups that supported the protest.

This accommodation has a couple of disadvantages that coalitions need to be aware of and try to ameliorate. First, the action was less cohesive than usual. Protest speakers at the initial and closing rallies spoke to relatively small audiences because of the number of alternative activities under way. Only the march was well-attended. We were fortunate that the media counted the larger number participating in the main march rather than focusing on the poor attendance at the rallies. Second, a lot of the limited volunteer energy that may have been available to maximizing turnout at the larger protest was instead spent on the smaller sub-actions.

In my view, the war is an overriding issue because it involves immediate life and death, and because it has long-term implications for the economic health of this nation. To stop this war, I choose to work with others with whom I disagree on many other matters. I view coalition actions through the prism of whether they help end the war. Anyone who participates in a peace coalition should be honest with themselves and others about their overall political goals and their reasons for working in a coalition. Assuming their goal is an end to U.S. wars in the Middle East, they should welcome any opportunity to enlarge the coalition and bring in new protesters

Broadening the Coalition is the ANSWER

In the western U.S., ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) is the dominant antiwar protest group. Only ANSWER has the experience, discipline and volunteer strength to organize large antiwar marches in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. (In the eastern part of the country, both ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice [UFPJ] are capable of organizing large-scale antiwar protests.) In working with ANSWER activists, I have found them to be serious, committed, and very good at what they do.

ANSWER is a multi-issue coalition consisting of "organizations that have campaigned against U.S. intervention in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia, and organizations that have campaigned for civil rights and for social and economic justice for working and poor people inside the United States."

ANSWER-organized protests typically reflect this multi-issue orientation, with some of the ill effects noted earlier. For example, strong condemnations of Israel at ANSWER protests have alienated many progressive Jews, including those associated with Tikkun. It has even generated counter protests from at least one San Francisco group.

Since Census reports (at http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/tables/07s0075.xls and http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-23.pdf) indicate that Jews outnumber Arabs in the United States by five to one, the inclusion of anti-Israel rhetoric in antiwar protests is not consistent with the goal of maximizing attendance at these demonstrations.

ANSWER’s multi-issue focus may be a factor in the shrinking turnout at antiwar protests in San Francisco and nationally. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that ANSWER’s fourth-anniversary Iraq War protest in San Francisco on March 18, 2007, attracted only 3,000 demonstrators. Although this estimate was effectively refuted by ANSWER’s western regional coordinator, Richard Becker, I’m quite certain, having attended both, that the turnout was far below that of the first-anniversary protest in 2004.

Perhaps realizing that multi-issue actions were turning off potential demonstrators and splintering the antiwar movement, ANSWER published an open letter to antiwar activists in May 2007 calling on peace activists to join together under the banner of "End the War Now" to build a series of single-issue protests.

This letter was followed by ANSWER’s efforts to work with UFPJ and other groups to organize regional, single-issue antiwar protests on Oct. 27, 2007. Roughly a dozen such protests were organized nationwide. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that 10,000 attended the San Francisco protest. Although I don’t believe that it exceeded the size of the March 18 protest by a factor of three as Chronicle reporting would suggest, the better press coverage would indicate that the peace movement benefited by working together toward a single goal.

Positive press aside, the protest was not as large as organizers had hoped. A key factor driving this shortfall was a lack of advance publicity for the protest, which, in turn, stemmed from a lack of volunteers participating in the outreach effort and a lack of funds to purchase paid advertising.

The reasons for the lack of money and volunteers are complex. While over 150 groups endorsed the protest, most did not contribute funds or activists. Organizers of the non-participating groups may have chosen to remain aloof because they do not believe that building large-scale, single-issue, antiwar protests is the best use of their time and energy. Or, they may not have wanted to participate in activities that they didn’t control. Or, they may not have trusted an effort led by ANSWER.

I’ve learned that many peace groups are reluctant to work with ANSWER. While some of this reluctance is rooted in the anti-Israel tone of some ANSWER protests, there is another cause.

The leaders of ANSWER are members of the Marxist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), a group that splintered from the Worker’s World Party in 2004. The Marxist orientation of ANSWER’s leaders deters some on the Left from becoming involved in ANSWER-led protests, for fear of being dismissed as "communists" by their opponents on the Right.

While ANSWER invited other groups into a broader coalition, it didn’t quite roll out the red carpet. The ANSWER-organized initial meeting for the Oct. 27 San Francisco protest was held on July 12. Although no one was turned away from the meeting, it did not appear that ANSWER sought out, contacted, and invited every antiwar group in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the meeting, irrespective of ideology. ANSWER formed the coalition subcommittees, selecting chairpersons from the ranks of ANSWER activists.

In offering this critique, I want to be very precise: It is to ANSWER’s credit that they did allow politically diverse outsiders (such as me – a libertarian) to become involved in the coalition and play significant roles (in my case, administering the protest Web site). ANSWER’s leadership also made an extra effort to involve local UFPJ and labor unions. Finally, to their credit, they reached out to some religious groups – Marxist atheism notwithstanding. But, in my opinion, other outsiders like me needed to actively insert themselves or they didn’t get involved at all. ANSWER should have gone the extra mile to include us.

This is far more than a mere point of courtesy. By not inviting a broader array of activists into the early planning process, ANSWER increased the chances that the Oct. 27 protest would look much like previous ANSWER-sponsored protests, as it ultimately did. If, instead, ANSWER leaders had courted progressive Democrats and Greens, attendance may have been much larger and protest content may have been more representative of mainstream Bay Area opinion.

The question left in my mind is one of whether ANSWER’s leadership really wants an early end to the war. Marxist theory, as outlined on PSL’s Web site, suggests that the worker’s revolution will occur amidst a crisis in the capitalist system. U.S. wars in the Middle East, by creating regional instability, driving up oil prices, and exacerbating deficits that reduce the dollar’s value heighten (the extremely small chance) that a revolution-provoking crisis might occur here. If the war ends, support for protest and radical change will ebb, so peace in our time would seem contrary to the interests of a Marxist revolutionary.

While I harbor this doubt, I will say that ANSWER activists I met seemed consistently sincere in their desire to see an early end to the suffering of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers caused by the war.

Perhaps they realize that a revolution is not in the cards any time soon. If that’s the case, ANSWER activists and other socialists participating in the antiwar movement should be more open to the strategy of pressuring elected officials to end the war. If a worker’s revolution is not on the immediate horizon, the electoral process is the only mechanism that can translate majority opposition to the Iraq War into a near-term U.S. withdrawal.

If ANSWER’s leaders sincerely want the war to end, and they believe that large protests can accelerate this process, they need to become part of a broader protest coalition that truly represents – and can thus attract – mainstream antiwar opinion in the U.S. The lead organization for such a coalition should be MoveOn.org, which, with its 3 million members and substantial financial resources, could take the antiwar movement to the next level.

We Can’t Be a Wholly Owned Subsidiary of the Democratic Party

A coalition centered on MoveOn.org would be heavily influenced by the Democratic Party. That would be fine, since Democrats have the nation’s largest political party and are poised to both strengthen their hold on Congress and take over the presidency in 2008.

But the peace movement must remain independent of the Democratic Party establishment. The Democrats have not only failed to end the Iraq War, they have also financed the surge and have done little to prevent an attack on Iran. Even if failed Democratic "redeployment" legislation had passed, tens of thousands of U.S. occupying troops would have remained in Iraq indefinitely.

An antiwar movement that shills for the Democratic Party would also exclude the growing number of antiwar Republicans and Libertarians, as well as the Greens, Socialists, and Independents who have been involved in peace activism for many years.

An independent antiwar movement would oppose Democratic Party candidates who support the war or who have been insufficiently opposed to it. MoveOn.org’s defeat of Joe Lieberman in last year’s Democratic senatorial primary is a heroic example of its independent antiwar activism.

Unfortunately, MoveOn.org has been less heroic on other fronts. Their public antiwar actions thus far have consisted of widely dispersed peace vigils and in-home movie screenings that don’t garner national publicity. Even worse, they chose to support the House Leadership’s toothless timetable and war funding legislation back in March. MoveOn took this position after running a membership e-mail poll that received a relatively small number of votes and did not give members a full array of possible strategy choices.

With last spring’s failure of the congressional Democratic strategy, MoveOn appears to have learned its lesson and is taking a harder line against the war. However, it did not support the Oct. 27 mobilization – perhaps for fear of being associated with ANSWER.

In the crucial election season coming up, peace activists need to apply pressure to all candidates – including Democrats – who do not support a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq and who do not oppose an attack on Iran. We should be sending them letters, calling them out by name at protests, and criticizing them in the media.


Between now and January, peace activists will assess recent events and make their plans for protests to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq next March. If we have a good strategy and we execute it well, there won’t be a need for sixth-anniversary protests in 2009 and we can all go about our other business.

In my view, the best strategy will be carried out by a broad coalition led by groups that represent large slices of American public opinion. Large, single-issue protests should be our core tactic, but a limited number of smaller actions should also be included as long as they are strategic – like Camp Pelosi was. Random, unfocused actions should be opposed.

Political leaders who aren’t ending the war, like Nancy Pelosi, should be challenged, as Cindy Sheehan is doing. The goal of these challenges need not be to defeat the incumbent. We win by simply forcing leaders like Pelosi to explain their positions to their constituents, as she has failed to do by not holding a town hall meeting in her district since January 2006.

The neocons are a small group, yet they have controlled U.S. military policy for the last seven years. They obtained this control in part because we who oppose the unjustified use of military force have been unfocused, undisciplined, and un-united. On Oct. 27, 2007, this began to change, but we have a very, very long way to go.