The Situation in the Middle East
The threat of a US attack on Iran has come to the fore again. The
forced retirement of Admiral Fallon as head of CentCom removes a leader
of the majority in the high command who think that any action to
broaden an already disastrous war is flat-out nuts. And Bush is
sending Cheney, a strong proponent of attacking Iran, to Israel for the
talks between Israel and Hamas.
Israeli Defense Forces have killed over 130 Palestinians, a quarter
of them children in attacks on the desperate, ghettoized people of
Gaza, carried out by US-supplied F-16s, Apache helicopters, and TOW
missiles. Even as this continues, Congress is debating increasing
military aid to Israel to $5.5 billion next year and leaked State
Department documents show the US actively promoted civil war between
the PLO and Hamas. The fruit of all this was evident at the recent Arab
League meeting where countries seen as pro-US were shamed and the
dwindling of US influence in the Middle East was obvious.
The Situation in Iraq
Iraq has been trashed. Unlike the US occupation of Germany after WWII, where de-nazification left most of German society intact, there is very little functioning civil society in Iraq. The professional strata in Iraq that can help to create a functioning society have been leaving at an alarming rate.
Bush’s surge of troops into Iraq has the appearance of working, and has been held up as a success. The reductions in levels of violence can be explained by a number changes more recently in Iraq. First, there are fewer ethnic clashes–because the entire country has now been broken up into ethnic enclaves.
Secondly, the US has bought off significant portions of the Sunni militias, which were previously the core of armed resistance to the US occupation. Over 80,000 militia fighters have been armed, paid and legitimized, and now have more of a central command. Between 2005 and 2007, some of the violence was driven by money. Militias as well as outright criminal gangs supported themselves through kidnappings and protection rackets. With the US paying the militias, that’s no longer necessary.
Thirdly, Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has extended a truce by the forces of his Mahdi Army, holding them in reserve for use against the US; the re-legitimized Sunni militias, and rival Shi’ite forces. Right now, everyone is happy to let someone else carry on the military fight against the occupation and bear the brunt, while the brass are under orders to keep US troop deaths to a minimum to pump up the idea back here in the US that some mythical corner has finally been turned in Iraq.
On the political level, the Iraqi government is better described as an entity that pretends to be a government but does nothing and, despite interests occasionally at sharp odds with those of the occupation, has little power to do anything in opposition to the US. The provincial elections legally mandated for last year were re-scheduled to October–and then postponed indefinitely again. Of the 18 “benchmarks for success” proclaimed in 2006 by Bush and Rice, a maximum of three have been accomplished. All of the major items on this US wish list–a new constitution, oil laws, and independent security forces–are as far away as they were then.
Meanwhile, Kurdistan–the Iraq “success story” of stability and economic growth–has seen Turkish attacks escalate from air attacks to full-scale cross-border probes by infantry and armor. To the extent that the US has aided or winked at these attacks, it has alienated the only section of the Iraqi population where it has any degree of popular support: the Kurds.
The State of the Movement
While the majority of the US people oppose the occupation, the anti-war movement is dealing with a sense of powerlessness, overused tactics, and the demobilizing pull of national elections.
It’s important to remember that the anti-war movement had millions of people out in the streets before the war started and was named the world’s second superpower by the New York Times. Bush ridiculed the demonstrations as “focus groups.” After a year the movement focused on electing a new president, and Kerry was defeated. Then after two years and a growing opposition to the war among the public, the Democrats were swept into control of Congress after a decade out of power on a tide of anti-war sentiment. But the Democrats were unable and unwilling to stop the war. So now, many think, let’s really elect an anti-war president like Barack Obama…
While there are many considerations for progressives in deciding whether–and how deeply–to support or organize for any presidential candidate, we believe it is a mistake to see supporting a presidential candidate as the major way to end the occupation.
Everyone knows that no Democrat really has to do anything to win the anti-war vote because any Dem is still better than McCain, who wants to stay in Iraq forever. Also, even if Obama or Clinton gets into office, there is no guarantee that either will make their first order of business an end to occupation. Both candidates have stated the need for residual troops to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
While enthusiasm for Obama has sparked hope and has drawn many new people, especially youth, into political participation, things won’t get better unless there are people in the street and a strong, independent movement keeping up the pressure on politicians. In that sense, our approach should not be to draw hard lines or pit ourselves against Obama enthusiasts but to say, “It’s great that you’re involved. So come out to a demo or a vigil against the occupation too. Because no president can actually carry out progressive reforms without a push from a strong anti-war movement.”
The Road Ahead
As is often the case, it’s easier to say what not to do than what to do in this situation.
Focusing on Congress this year doesn’t make too much sense. With Congress only in session for 55 days (bet your work year is longer!) due to their own re-election campaigns, House Democratic leaders have stated in closed-door briefings that they don’t intend to do much this year. To paraphrase their reasoning, “In 2007, we put forward a lot of legislation around timelines for withdrawal. Nothing passed. This made us (the Dems) look weak. Therefore, in order not to look weak, we’re going to do nothing for the rest of the year.”
For anti-war forces in this period, we think there are three key areas to focus on: building the student anti-war movement, which has the potential to bring new life to the anti-war movement; working with veterans and military families; and bringing pressure on Congress when they are up for re-election in close races around the country.
Immediately ahead, there are several strategic actions and campaigns:
Student organizations are planning direct action against the corporate headquarters of defense contactors in Washington, DC’s K Street corridor on March 19, the 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Employing a Seattle model with street blockades, banner drops and other creative disruption, these actions represent a significant rise in the level of anti-occupation militancy. Recently, student activists held a small downtown demo and then targeted a recruiting center, a rehearsal for the 19th. They got a fair amount of criticism, not only from the predictable mainstream media but even in some quarters of the movement. We think it’s crucial that all who oppose the war and occupation support the students against any repression and media slanders that may come at them.
On March 14th through 16th, Iraq Veterans Against the War held a Winter Soldier testimony in Washington, DC. These were modeled on the returning vets’ self-run hearings about atrocities and war crimes that did so much to de-legitimize the Vietnam War in the eyes of the US public. IVAW has asked supporters to respond to any spin in the media with letters to the editor to local papers. We should keep our eyes open for any further forms of support that IVAW may request as events unfold.
Finally, the Iraq Moratorium–on the third Friday of every month–can provide scaffolding for a broad and deep anti-war movement with diverse tactics, targets and organizational forms based on local conditions. It is beginning to tie together disparate elements of the movement across the US as more groups schedule vigils, demos, etc. on that day.Download this piece as a PDF