Michael Neumann: Now What?
- Now what, by Michael Neumann
Where Does the Anti-War Movement Go From Here?
April 11, 2003
Where Does the Anti-War Movement Go From Here?
by MICHAEL NEUMANN
When the antiwar movement didn't prevent the war, it failed. The
movement's talking heads will deny it. Like the CEO of a chronically
unprofitable company, defeat incites them to recycle the same old
wishful thinking. They will talk about how the struggle has just
begun, how you, you out there, built an incredible movement, how they
had personally witnessed this or that inspiring or heartwarming scene.
More than likely, they will tweak Dubya with some Bush/bush joke.
Earnest plans will be made to stop this war in its tracks, and yet
again we will hear about the web of lobbies, oil interests and
Christian fundamentalists who run things. Yet again we will be told
that these people are very bad in an astounding number of ways.
But we're not attending a children's birthday party: it doesn't
behoove us to think we're all winners. If I try to prevent a murder,
and the murder occurs, I'm not supposed to congratulate myself on
giving it the old college try. The same goes for multiple murders
conducted by nation states. Guilt and shame, not pride in my
'achievement', would be a more appropriate response. Yet on the left
such responses, and even the notion that you ought to attain your
objectives, are almost unknown.
Like many people, I half-thought the protests just might turn the
tide. Now, on reflection, I wonder whether the protest movement was
really trying to succeed. It did try, very hard, to oppose the war,
but that's not the same thing.
This isn't splitting hairs. To their organizers and participants, the
antiwar protests were not part of some imagined sequence of events
leading to a reversal of US policy. It was merely imagined that there
might be such a sequence. The protests, however inspiring, always
looked more plausible as mere opposition to war--"we say no"--than as
some phase of a strategy to prevent it. Bush was set on his course, no
one expected Congress or the Republican party to revolt, and it wasn't
as if the left would bring America to a standstill. No one saw a road
to victory. No one had in mind some sequence of actions beginning with
the protests and ending with an order to send the troops home.
Now that the troops are actually fighting, the left faces problems it
barely recognizes. They have to do with patriotism. This ain't the
sixties. During the Vietnam war, thousands of leftists openly wished
for a communist victory and an American defeat. The idea that we were
all somehow good Americans, guided by bittersweet passions through a
tragic collective drama, is a recent invention. And while there was
sympathy on the left for America's conscript cannon fodder, this
certainly did not extend to the volunteer special forces, or to the
American pilots to whom the North Vietnamese were so inexplicably
unkind. The left, frankly, looked on these people as murderous creeps.
These sentiments, if they exist today, are murmurs. We have come a
long way from the sixties in another sense. We may be kinder, gentler
leftists now, but we are also cowed. We talked a lot of treason back
then. Now, we wouldn't dare. We do not expect to be indulged like the
college kids of yore; we expect to be imprisoned.
The left responds to this changed environment with a vaguely plausible
pretense to patriotism. It is said we support the troops; we want to
bring them home. And we are careful. We crow about US 'setbacks' or
'miscalculations', but not about US fatalities. We spare a tear for
our dead and captured professional soldiers; we tremble for the MIAs.
Or do we? The problem isn't just that we're operating in a more
repressive climate; it's also that, with the start of fighting, a
serious gap has opened up between ourselves and the rest of America,
one which we do not acknowledge. Yes, we want to bring the troops
home; so did the anti-Vietnam war protestors. But this is a phoney
objective. We know damn well that one or both of two things will end
the war: victory or heavy US casualties. For all the sound and fury of
the sixties, it was the Vietnamese who brought 'our' troops home by
killing 50,000 of them. If anyone will bring the troops home before
the US government is good and ready to do so, it will be the Iraqis,
not the protestors.
As well as a phoney objective, we have phoney attitudes. Suppose we do
prefer, like most Americans, that all American troops return from Iraq
without a scratch. Does that mean we 'support' the troops? Let's see,
which do you prefer: the death of a hundred Iraqi civilians, or the
death of ten American soldiers? If you say you 'can't weigh one death
against another', that means you don't prefer one alternative to the
other, and vice versa. But that fits the classic definition of
indifference between the alternatives. No matter how you reject
weighing lives, the fact is that you do not prefer sparing the
American ones. And the questions have just begun. What if it were 50
Iraqi civilians? or Iraqi soldiers? Or ten, or five or one? Difficult
questions, because we believe, don't we, that the invading troops have
no right to be there, that they are violating international
conventions and standards of justice? that they serve a bad cause? We
may tell ourselves that we are basically on the same wavelength as the
American people, but we're wrong.
What are the strategic implications of this? We seem to have a choice
between dishonesty and suicidal frankness. But our dishonesty is too
obvious to be a viable option; we will be found out. What the left
needs is something to offer. Since we can't in fact succeed in
bringing the troops home, we have nothing, unless you can keep a
straight face when you hear that we're going to build a just society.
Sorry, I just don't think we will. If we couldn't even stop a really
quite unpopular rush to war, how the hell are we going to accomplish
this much harder task?
So where are we? We had no concrete strategy for preventing the war,
and now we are its pawns. The anti-war movement will grow and shrink
in proportion to Iraqi victory and defeat; we have become a mere
effect rather than a cause. Many people will be quite content with
this status. It fits that very popular leftist ethos according to
which our task is to talk and gesticulate. We protest, proclaim our
opposition, bear witness, stand up and be counted, denounce, speak
out, send a message, express solidarity, support, say no, but never
actually try to do something. But really, this is not good enough: the
purpose of having a conscience is not simply to tell the world that
you have one. Whether or not preventing the war was the real goal, it
ought to have been. And while stopping the war is not a genuine
objective, we can do better than trying to sell painting-on-velvet
visions of world peace and social justice. It is still possible to
turn US foreign policy around, just as it was possible to do so before
the war started.
This ambitious goal calls for an ambitious strategy, and one hears the
sarcasm rumbling just over the horizon: are we to seize important
highway junctions, airports and power stations? do some suicide
bombing, American style? smash the state in a workers' revolution? But
the left does not need dramatic tactics; it needs a dramatic
alternative. The left needs to propose a way for America to achieve
its basic objectives without incurring hatred.
To come up with a proposal, the left would have to get beyond its
obsessive moralizing. No real change, and therefore no good, can come
of calling for moral redemption. Americans do not lust to become
morally good. They want instead to be secure. To them, a left that
distinguishes itself by incessant sermons and disquisitions on
international jurisprudence doesn't quite seem to be the answer.
Americans, being rational if not very moral, would rather hear of
something that will address their concerns.
By now it could hardly be more obvious what that something is. Before
the war, it seemed as if international pressure might deter the US
from policies that lead to ever more insecurity. This has proven a
false hope. Only one fundamental shift in US policy can both undo the
damage being done, and rapidly address America's security concerns.
Proposing this shift is the only way the left can address the real
concerns of the American people. The left needs to demand, as it
should have demanded a long time ago, that the US switch sides in the
Israel/Palestine conflict. This means that the US should ally itself
with the Palestinians and with the Muslim world, against Israel, to
secure prompt, unconditional and complete Israeli withdrawal from the
"Against" means "against", not "not with". It implies a commitment to
meet Israeli intransigence with increasingly severe responses, as
severe as the United Nations will endorse. A posture of benign
neutrality would hardly, in the post-911 sense, 'change everything',
but switching sides would undoubtedly do so. No one needs shout "no
war for oil": changing sides would bring no war *and* oil. It would
also instantly reconcile the US with the UN and with its estranged
European allies. The war on terror would fight itself;
anti-Americanism would go out of fashion in Islam. The civil rights of
Arabs and Muslims in America would no longer be an issue. There would
be no problem with the US having an inconsistent position on weapons
of mass destruction. Even without pure intentions, even without
consciousness-raising, the US would recoup everything it has lost
since 9-11. Last and least, the clash of civilizations would become an
illusion: suddenly it would transpire that Muslims are not really that
much more upset about skin on MTV than half the American population.
It is not that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the only important
issue in the world; it is just that it is the crucial one. Until the
US reconciles with the Islamic world on Palestine, it can never
demonstrate a commitment to international conventions, or change the
tenor of its self-destructive war on terror, or overcome the petulant
bitterness that now poisons any attempt to develop a fruitful foreign
policy. Get on the right side of this issue, and there is still much
to do, but the way is open to doing it.
How would such a proposal be received by the American public? We don't
know; it's never been tried. But what would block its acceptance? This
doesn't require sacrifices. No one who wants America to be powerful,
no one who wants America protected against terrorism, no one who wants
cheap gas for SUVs, will find anything unpalatable here. Sure, there
is the obstacle of prejudice anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice, but
this prejudice does not run very deep. It has not prevented the US
from allying itself with the Gulf States, Pakistan, and Indonesia: why
should it prevent the US from forging more and stauncher alliances
with other Muslim societies? Americans are used to thinking of Israel
as their dear friend, but they are also used to thinking of Syria as
their mortal enemy. That didn't prevent the US and Syria from forming
a military alliance hardly more than ten years ago. Of course there
would be tremendous opposition from Jewish organizations,
neo-conservatives and others, but this would be a real fight for a
real objective, with a real chance of victory. At worst it would
greatly increase the pressure for peace in the Middle East.
The biggest obstacle to the proposal, however, is the left itself.
Many leftists, with admirable moral courage, have indeed put the
Palestinian issue front and center. But as what? One of those
never-ending charitable campaigns? Yet another example of US perfidy?
The problem here is not insufficient concern but, once again, a lack
of ambition, an inability to conceive of any strategy that could
actually put an end to the Israel/Palestine conflict. In the name of
political realism, the pro-Palestinian left promotes the most
dangerous of illusions: that the US could stop the killing merely by
toying with the Israel aid spigot.
Cutting off the aid will do nothing: Israel is determined to stand
pat. It will occasionally make noises about a Palestinian state and
negotiations, but we know very well that its 'generous offers'
consistently exclude vital chunks of the West Bank and many of the
settlements. We also know that Israel's current notion of adequate
security guarantees includes retaining control over every
strategically important feature of the occupied territories, including
the borders, major roads, and airports. And we know that even this
'generosity' would almost certainly be rejected by the Israeli electorate.
In other words, Israel has not the slightest intention of making peace
or agreeing to a Palestinian state. It is not about to cave in when
someone talks about cutting off aid. It doesn't need the aid: it is
already one of the world's leading arms exporters, and it would make
up for any aid shortfalls by expanding that business to now-prohibited
items. Should the US make timid noises about reducing support, Israel
will threaten to sell cutting-edge weapons to US enemies and rattle a
nuclear sabre: keep arming us or the Arabs will attack, and we'll have
to nuke 'em. Israel could be restrained and isolated only by what
would form instantly were the US to switch sides: a coalition of the
whole world determined to call Israel's bluff. Not coincidentally, a
coalition of the whole world is just what the US needs right now.
Meanwhile, as the left knows all too well, the killing goes on. While
leftists agonize about the problem, they apparently cannot embrace the
solution. Like the US itself, they can't bring themselves to switch
sides, to embrace the very objective that would also solve America's
security problems. They can't manage to say: "I want the US to ally
itself with the Palestinians and the Muslim world. I want the US to
see Israel, not as a naughty child to be deprived of military goodies,
but as an adversary. Like the majority of people in the Muslim world,
perhaps in the world at large, I applaud, without qualification, the
resistance of the Palestinian people." Whatever the causes of this
reluctance to take sides, its effects are fatal. It is fiddling while
Palestinians burn, it is abandoning the best chance to prevent more
Iraqs, and it is a refusal to bridge the gap between the left and the
Morality aside, the left has a choice. It can go on demonstrating in
an atmosphere increasingly hostile to dissent. This essentially
reduces to waiting until rising US casualties or world outrage does
our work for us.(*) The alternative is give Americans an actual
alternative to current policy, and that means working to turn the US
against Israel. To promote this, you don't have to scold or moralize,
and you can offer genuine hope for genuine change in the post 9-11
world. Opposing Israel is no longer just a moral obligation; it is the
only realistic way to deflect America from its destructive and
self-destructive path. It was something not considered worthy of
consideration before the failure to stop the war. Perhaps that failure
will open minds to new ideas.
Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in
Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann's views are not to be taken as
those of his university. His book What's Left: Radical Politics and
the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He
can be reached at: mneumann@....
(*) A perfect sample of the pathetic arm-waving that comes from
refusing to deal with the Israel issue can be found in a letter,
signed by everyone who's anyone on the left from Michael Albert to
Howard Zinn, which contains the following profession of faith:
"I stand for peace and justice.
I stand for democracy and autonomy. I don't think the U.S. or any
other country should ignore the popular will and violate and weaken
international law, seeking to bully and bribe votes in the Security
I stand for internationalism. I oppose any nation spreading an ever
expanding network of military bases around the world and producing an
arsenal unparalleled in the world.
I stand for equity. I don't think the U.S. or any other country should
seek empire. I don't think the U.S. ought to control Middle Eastern
oil on behalf of U.S. corporations and as a wedge to gain political
control over other countries. I stand for freedom. I oppose brutal
regimes in Iraq and elsewhere but I also oppose the new doctrine of
"preventive war," which guarantees permanent and very dangerous
conflict, and is the reason why the U.S. is now regarded as the major
threat to peace in much of the world. I stand for a democratic foreign
policy that supports popular opposition to imperialism, dictatorship,
and political fundamentalism in all its forms.
I stand for solidarity. I stand for and with all the poor and the
excluded. Despite massive disinformation millions oppose unjust,
illegal, immoral war, and I want to add my voice to theirs. I stand
with moral leaders all over the world, with world labor, and with the
huge majority of the populations of countries throughout the world.
I stand for diversity. I stand for an end to racism directed against
immigrants and people of color. I stand for an end to repression at
home and abroad.
I stand for peace. I stand against this war and against the
conditions, mentalities, and institutions that breed and nurture war
I stand for sustainability. I stand against the destruction of
forests, soil, water, environmental resources, and biodiversity on
which all life depends.
I stand for justice. I stand against economic, political, and cultural
institutions that promote a rat race mentality, huge economic and
power inequalities, corporate domination even unto sweatshop and slave
labor, racism, and gender and sexual hierarchies.
I stand for a policy which redirects the money used for war and
military spending to provide healthcare, education, housing, and jobs.
I stand for a world whose political, economic, and social institutions
foster solidarity, promote equity, maximize participation, celebrate
diversity, and encourage full democracy.
I stand for peace and justice and, more, I pledge to work for peace
Iraqis and Palestinians will doubtless thank the left for reciting
this pious mantra over their dead.
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The Unseen War
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Jeffrey St. Clair
Last Tango in Baghdad
Rumors of War
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