Grading the Peace Movement

Did activists stop a world war?

Photo by Sean DuFreneIf you wanted to evaluate the peace movement's recent performance, you could begin and end with the armless, legless Iraqi kid made famous by Time magazine. Or you could note that despite their failure to stop George W. Bush's war on Iraq, American anti-warriors scored several successes. We spoke with local activists and scholars about what went right—and wrong—for the American peace movement.

FOREIGN RELATIONS. Grade: A. Massive American peace rallies made it safe for U.S. allies around the world to dissent. "By Feb. 15, the movement had become so widespread and so demographically diverse that it simply became impossible for the news media and the White House to ignore," says Cal State Fullerton professor Jarret Lovell. "Attempts by the White House to dismiss the movement as a 'focus group' were laughable. France and Germany didn't ignore it." PLANNING. Grade: F. Lovell says activists should have predicted the fall-off of support during the early stages of the war but didn't. "The peace movement became so focused upon stopping the war that it didn't effectively devise a game plan of what to do after the war started," he says. "This is rather ironic given that the movement has been and continues to be critical of the Pentagon's lack of a game plan for what to do after regime change in Iraq was accomplished." STOPPING WORLD WAR. Grade: A. American demonstrators may not have stopped the war on Iraq, but it's possible they stopped a world war. "The power of the peace movement was crucial in keeping anti-war sentiment in the Muslim world—for example, in Pakistan—from turning into anti-Western/Christian discourse that could have led to massive calls for jihad," says Mark LeVine, an associate professor of history at UC Irvine. He says a senior Pakistani intellectual told him "that at most of the demonstrations [in Pakistan], the signs were almost identical to the signs in the demonstrations in the U.S. or Europe—no blood for oil, no war, etc.—rather than some kind of jihadist discourse, and the only reason for that was the continual pictures of millions of Americans demonstrating against the war, which told people that Americans were not united behind Bush." GETTING ALONG WITH OTHERS. Grade: A. "The peace movement expanded far beyond the usual 'lefty' suspects," says Gordon Johnson, an activist and principal organizer with the Orange County Peace Coalition (ocpeace.org). "People we had never heard of were starting their own anti-war protests in twos and threes in their own neighborhoods. Republicans were giving us money for printing signs, and The Orange County Register was printing anti-war editorials. All this is new ground that was broken." Just as important, says LeVine, was the peace movement's rapid integration with anti-corporate globalization activists, a merger with world-wide implications. RHETORIC. Grade: D. Lovell says peace activists "could have done a better job avoiding the demonization of President Bush and instead focused [their] criticism upon those in both the White House and Congress for leading us down this road. The public was constantly told that Saddam was the enemy. But to respond: What did the peace movement do? Raise Bush to the level of Saddam. Not only did this reduce debate to a clash of two personalities, but it failed to direct attention toward the hundreds in Congress—Democrats and Republicans—who joined ranks with Bush. Simply put, the problem is much greater than Bush; the problem also lies with the Democrats." CREATIVE THINKING. Grade: F. Unhappy with UN sanctions against Iraq and opposed to war, LeVine says, peace activists "did not offer a coherent, practical alternative to the Bush war doctrine" and failed to show that "it is impossible to bring peace, democracy, freedom or development to the region unless we change not just the foundations of U.S. foreign policy but also our hyperconsumerist culture as well. There was a teachable movement here I don't think was taken advantage of." PHYSICAL EDUCATION. GRADE: C. Peace is like urban warfare—time-consuming, labor-intensive, house-to-house—but "a lot more people were willing to march in the street than to walk door to door," says Johnson. "That door-to-door, grassroots work is what we haven't had much because the peace movement has been in emergency mode for the past few months, thinking the war will start any minute unless we make a huge show of resistance right now." Nevertheless, Johnson concludes, the Iraq war spurred the development of networks that will come in handy in the event of another White House adventure: "If Bush makes a move toward invading Syria, for instance, all the personal connections, the mailing lists, the vocabulary of tactics, the known meeting places, everything about a culture of resistance is already in place and will still be usable for any future actions."
 
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