Rally Recipe Wins No Prizes

It was, as the saying goes, all good. The weather was great. The crowd was pissed but in a cheerful, spirited way. The Washington, DC cops, though fully in thrall to their Powellesque doctrine of completely unnecessary and overwhelming force, more or less just lined up in their cruisers, saddles, motorcycles, dirt bikes, bicycles and black boots and watched the proceedings. The A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition and United for Peace and Justice, the two organizers, had obviously mended fences after some squabbles earlier in the year, so that was nice.

In fact, except for its totally unfocused message and the fact that organizers missed a golden opportunity by not holding it three weeks earlier, the anti-war rally in Washington, DC on Saturday was a tremendous success.

At about 11:00 a.m., the rally's scheduled start, a festive but relaxed crowd of 5,000 or so gathered on the north side of the Washington Monument, ostensibly to register their disapproval of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. People were still streaming toward the site at that point; next-day estimates by media put the number of people who marched on the White House several hours later at 10,000 to 20,000 -- far closer to reality, by my lights, than the estimate of 100,000 claimed by some overenthused organizers at one point.

It is always good to see people fired up about something and doing something about that something; it's even better when that something is the Bush administration's voluminous catalog of misdeeds, missteps and misstatements of the truth. But if anyone -- a Democratic party strategist, let's say -- wanted to gain some understanding of the hurdles faced by the left between now and November 2004, this would have been the place to be. This is going to be a hard group to pull together into a viable force.

The first thing such an observer might have noticed is that the rally's message was an omnibus, diffuse expression of dissatisfaction on many fronts. While that is an important thing for a constituency to communicate, it fails as a strategy for making a coherent point engineered to ignite change, which is, I believe, what a rally is supposed to do. This was a cupboard casserole of a demonstration, something thrown together with whatever was on hand. The main ingredients were "end the occupation now" (mushroom soup),"Bush is a liar who should be impeached" (noodles) and "bring our troops home safely" (tuna fish). That is a fairly harmonious combination, one enhanced by "Dude, Where's My Country?" (salt) and "Osama bin forgotten" (pepper).

Unfortunately, other, less compatible, ingredients worked their way in: "support to the Palestinians" (beets), "no to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas" (pickle relish) and "does your food have a face?" (Apple Jacks). These points of view were expounded both by speakers and by the placard-bearers in the crowd, to the detriment of the rally at large; worthy though each may be as an independent concern, their addition to the mix confused the message hopelessly and probably made it just a little too easy for anyone peering out the windows of the West Wing (not the president; he was in Camp David) to dismiss the whole crowd as a bunch of wackos.

Granted, a rally like this is tough to pull off. In the run-up to the war, it was easy to gather people for the no-invasion-of-Iraq cause. People's reasons for opposing the war didn't matter as much as the fact that they didn't want it and they poured out by the hundreds of thousands to say so. This was much trickier. Occupation is more abstract, and it doesn't come with the same package of grisly images that war does.

However, our fictitious political operative might have seized on another, more fundamental, problem than that the demonstration-as-casserole tasted weird. The real problem is that the base ingredient, the mushroom soup -- "end the occupation now" -- is basically void of the nutritional content that for the purposes of this argument could be called a savvy and intellectually rigorous position.

"Ending the occupation now" is not just an idea that will never see fruition, it's a bad, irresponsible, naïve one that would have disastrous consequences if it were carried out. Many of us -- not enough, but many of us -- think the United States never should have invaded Iraq. Now that it has done so -- and yanked out the indigenous civil administration by its roots, fired the entire army and left Sunni snarling at Shiite and vice-versa -- it, or someone, has to stay until the Iraqis themselves are on their feet. That means a civil service that can make sure the 60 percent of Iraqis who were fully dependent on U.N. food aid before the war get food, water and power. That means a national police force that can keep score-settling, theft, abductions and rape in check. That means a parliamentary structure that is representative enough and acceptable enough to citizens that they will allow differences to be settled in the political arena and not the streets.

And this is where the organizers' great missed opportunity comes in. This demonstration should have taken place three Saturdays ago, prior to the U.N. resolution that passed Oct. 15. And instead of calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, demonstrators should have thrown their full weight behind U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's proposal, still on the table at that time, that the Coalition Provisional Authority give a "greater role" to the United Nations and, more importantly, set up a process for establishing an Iraqi government similar to the one put in place in 2001 for Afghanistan.

That plan would have provided the cover needed to get international peacekeepers in (they currently number 8,000, and there is little hope now of getting troops from major contributors like India and Pakistan), which would have made U.S. withdrawal more of a possibility. Such a multinational force would have filled the requirement, the absolute requirement, for a stabilizing force to keep at bay the worst human impulses that tend to surface in a security vacuum while Iraqis set about the business of rebuilding their government. One need only look at Afghanistan -- where the government has been politely screaming for more peacekeepers to quell warlords, marauding militias and common criminals -- to see what happens when no one is around to make certain elements of society behave.

More importantly, Annan's plan would have set up a provisional, broadly representative Iraqi government (not the CPA-picked Governing Council) within three to five months and handed power to it right away. This government would have appointed a commission to start drafting a constitution on a timetable that would allow for some deliberation, with national elections to follow the new constitution. The idea is that Iraqis would have time to decide what they want and do it correctly. It's more or less the Afghanistan model, which left two and a half years between the installment of the provisional government and first national elections -- and in that country even that is not seeming like enough time to take into account what citizens want and what can feasibly be accomplished.

What the United States wanted, and what it got, was the opposite: It will not hand over power to the Iraqis until they have a constitution and national elections, which will inevitably rush both processes. There have been rumblings from the administration about elections by the end of next year -- hardly enough time to make the psychological, much less political, shift from life in a totalitarian state to democratic self-rule.

Annan's plan died a too-early death, replaced by a watered-down Franco-Russo-German version that failed anyway. Twenty-thousand demonstrators carrying "U.S. Out, U.N. In" signs -- instead of the lone soul I saw doing so on Saturday -- might not have won the day, but at least they would have been rallying behind a single compelling idea that would have produced progress instead of mayhem had it reached manifestation. That kind of demonstration could have been a powerful show of unity that showed progressives as a discerning group grounded in political realities. And all would have been spared picking through that bizarre casserole in search of something substantial.

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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