Why the Anti-War Movement Doesn't Embrace the Iraqi Resistance: A Response to Cockburn

This is a response to criticism raised by Alexander Cockburn in his article in the July 30 issue of The Nation titled "Support Their Troops?" You can read Cockburn's piece here.

Alexander Cockburn (helped by Lawrence McGuire) makes three major points* in his "Support Their Troops?" column in The Nation. In my view one is right, one is wrong, one is preposterous, and linking the three of them only confuses the issue. His first point is that the U.S. peace movement doesn't embrace the Iraqi resistance. Right. The second is the U.S. peace movement is "pretty much dead." Wrong. And the third is that publicly sympathizing with the Iraqi resistance fighters will somehow create the still-missing "necessary critical mass to have a real movement."

Cockburn spends much of his article waxing eloquently - and rather nostalgically - about the days of earlier peace and solidarity movements, particularly Viet Nam and Central America. Although I seem to be his apparent poster girl for our movement's refusal to support the Iraqi resistance today, I share his nostalgia (I would have included the South African anti-apartheid movement as well). I was part of the side of the Viet Nam anti-war movement whose favorite chant was "One side's right, one side's wrong. We're on the side of the Viet Cong!" During the Central America years my part of the movement didn't only oppose U.S. intervention, we also supported the FMLN in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And throughout the anti-apartheid years, I supported the African National Congress.

But that was then. This is now. I have spent the last five years opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and before that, a dozen years opposing an earlier war and genocidal U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq). I spent - and still spend - weeks and months on the road, speaking at huge demonstrations and in tiny church basements, writing articles and talking points and whatever to help build and strengthen our movement. But I never supported Saddam Hussein, who was "resisting" the U.S. during the sanctions years, and I didn't -and don't--support what is called "the Iraqi resistance" today.

What's the difference? It's not only about what will expand our movement. In retrospect, our principled support for Vietnamese independence forces strengthened the broader "troops out now" movement's understanding of imperialism, but probably did little to increase the critical mass of the peace forces. We supported the NLF in Viet Nam, and later its Central American and South African counterparts out of principle, because we supported the social program they were fighting for. We may not have agreed with every position or every tactic, but we shared not only what they were fighting against - U.S.-backed dictatorships or U.S.-paid contra guerrillas or the devastation of apartheid - but what they were fighting for as well. Independence and socialism in Viet Nam, self-determination and social justice in Central America, a non-racial South Africa.

Unfortunately that's not the case with Iraq. Certainly the Iraqi people have the right to resist an illegal occupation, including military resistance. And certainly there are Iraqi people, organizations, movements that many of us do support. (The work of U.S. Labor Against the War in supporting the Iraqi oil workers unions is one of our best examples.) But as a whole, what is understood to be "the Iraqi resistance" against the U.S. occupation is a disaggregated and diverse set of largely unconnected factions, in which the various often-antagonistic armed movements (including some who attack Iraqi civilians as much as they do occupation troops) hold pride of place. There is no unified leadership that can speak for "the resistance," there is no NLF or ANC or FMLN that can claim real leadership and is accountable to the Iraqi population as a whole. There is no unified program, either of what the fight is against or what it is for. We know virtually nothing of what most of the factions stand for beyond opposition to the U.S. occupation - and from my own personal vantage point, of the little beyond that that we do know, I don't like so much. Real internationalism means making good on our own obligations to end the U.S. war and occupation, and recognizing the Iraqis' international law-sanctioned right to resist. Internationalism does not require us to embrace any particular resistance forces that happen to be in motion today regardless of what they may stand for.

That is why I believe our movement's strength is in focusing on the costs of war and occupation - the cost first to ordinary Iraqis, then to ordinary Americans, including American troops, as well as to the Arab world, the environment, international law, the UN, and others around the world. Are Iraqi resistance fighters also victims of that war? Yes they are - but recognizing that is not the same as "support." And I don't think we gain strength by making sympathy with resistance fighters a demand of our movement.

I think we build the strongest movement by keeping our focus on the U.S. occupation, maintaining our demand to bring all the U.S. and "coalition" troops and mercenaries home, dismantle the U.S. bases and give up control of Iraq's oil industry. When I am asked who I think will then take power- often after I've described my view that the current U.S.-backed Iraqi government will likely not survive a U.S. troop withdrawal - my usual answer is "I don't know." Then I go on to say that the only thing I can anticipate with any confidence is that first, I probably won't like them very much because they're likely to have a far more religious orientation than I like but that second, it's not up to me to choose who governs Iraq. I'm not Iraqi. I don't get to choose.

As to our movement. Cockburn is wrong when he claims the peace movement is dead. How does he think that 70% anti-war opinion he notes was created? Certainly spontaneous opposition has played a part, based on rising casualty figures from Iraq (unfortunately only U.S. casualties seem to have this effect, not the enormously larger Iraqi casualties) and the lengthening litany of Bush administration outrages. But the peace movement's work has been critical as well. Not only the powerful global mobilizations of the pre-war period that culminated in the historic protests of February 15, 2003 and the large national mobilizations that followed, but the smaller, more local, less nationally visible work that has gone on since.

I'm not so sure if a Sister Cities program has taken off in occupied Iraq, but I do know that there are now 300 cities across the U.S. where local activists of what Cockburn would have us believe is a "dead" movement have forced city councils and/or mayors to pass resolutions demanding that troops and National Guard be brought home, that money funding the war and occupation be brought home and reallocated to education and infrastructure and health care. Many of those city councilmembers and mayors will be in Washington DC on July 31 for Cities for Peace Day to march to the White House, meet with congress, to make their demands heard. I don't think the bulk of the peace movement has become "subservient to the Democratic Party and to the agenda of its prime candidates for the presidency in 2008, with Hillary Clinton in the lead." I haven't gone anywhere in the last years, speaking at campuses, community centers, universities and churches, where peace activists have suggested accepting the Clinton agenda - or indeed the agenda of any candidate (except perhaps that of Dennis Kucinich).

Certainly some in our movement sometimes forget that Congress is not the peace movement. The sense of betrayal when congress again and again collapses and rejects the idea of simply refusing to put Bush's war-funding request to a vote at all, is often based on an idealized vision of what Congress is. But mostly our movement is more sophisticated than that - struggling to figure out the strategic answer to a situation our earlier movements against wars in Viet Nam or Central America never faced: how do we deal with the consequences of a strategic victory? The strategy of our movement from before the invasion was to win public opinion to oppose the war (remember only 22% opposed the war when it began). We have largely succeeded in helping that happen; now 70% of the population is against the war. Our movement is very much alive. It is nowhere near as strong as it should be, given that level of public support, and nowhere near as strong as it must be if it is to succeed in forcing an end to the U.S. occupation. But we are alive, searching for a clearer strategy, a strategy to transform that anti-war public opinion into real political power, and even further, to bring that 70% with us to support an entirely new U.S. foreign policy based on justice, not power.

We haven't figured out that new strategy yet. I certainly hope Alexander Cockburn has some better ideas to help us. Somehow I don't think that a public embrace of the Iraqi resistance is going to do the job.


* I am not going to address here some of the article's other claims, including that concern about global warming is nothing but "whining" and that Central America solidarity activists went to Nicaragua primarily for romantic liaisons with Sandinistas.

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