We’re not doing enough. That much is clear. With every other month bringing a tightening of the noose on Iran (via U.S. sanctions) and mid-2013 promising U.S.-Israel military action, there can be little doubt that all the momentum at this time sides with the belligerents. Even now, as the U.S., Europe, and Iran gear up for what could be a final round of talks, we’re hearing the incessant clamoring for war, all with the aim of making dialogue and compromise impossible between the parties. It looks increasingly like no deal will be had and the red-line will be reached and war will be provoked.
This is our problem. In the run-up to the Iraq War, the U.S. peace movement organized a mass demo in New York City and other major cities across the country and the world. Many consider February 15th to be the largest day of action ever recorded in human history, as literally millions the world over rose up to express their deep-rooted opposition to military conflict with Iraq. However, it was too late. The U.S. public had already been prepped for war and little could stop the single-minded focus of the Bush White House from carrying out their long-planned takeover of Iraq. Without an active and robust peace movement already in existence, the narrative for war could not be effectively challenged and war could not be averted. It’s time the lesson was learned. It’s time the belligerents calling for war on Iran – many the same exact people who led us into war with Iraq – face an organized opposition with a long reach in cities and communities throughout the country.
Not long ago, the U.S. peace movement was putting in place exactly this kind of opposition. United For Peace and Justice, the largest of the U.S. antiwar coalitions, was composed of national, regional, and local groups, including church and labor, racial justice and student organizations, with a presence in almost every urban area of note. Programmatic work was being developed to aid local groups in building bases of support. In Washington D.C., some of the long-time inside-the-Beltway peace groups had won over significant numbers of Congress in opposition to the Iraq War’s continuance. Mass rallies were planned. Local demos were supported. The U.S. public started to reject endless war and put their votes in candidates calling for the troops to come home. The tide was changing, and the kind of institutional base the peace movement needed to sustain itself over the long term was taking shape.
But the shift in public attitudes towards the war in Iraq came with a cost. First, the question of whether the peace movement could not just change attitudes, but provoke actual political opposition in the public sphere was left unanswered. While large majorities were seen calling for the immediate return of the troops in poll after poll, UFPJ’s demonstrations saw decreased numbers and local groups, burnt-out by the longevity of the war, fell by the wayside. Second, the more successful the peace movement was, the more its perceived use diminished in the eyes of many. With the tide having turned, lots of people stopped contributing to the peace movement and put their financial and political support elsewhere. This had its costs, both literally and figuratively, as the lack of full- or part-time staff made the development of program work that much more difficult. Third, the peace movement failed to develop a coherent response to the Obama campaign and, even more critically, the Obama presidency. Faced with one of the sharpest public-relations campaigns the world had ever seen, the incoherent messaging on the part of the peace movement left it out in the cold once Obama was elected and once his presidency started to codify the very policies that the movement had opposed over the previous eight years.
This is not an exhaustive list of the problems the peace movement faced and what ultimately caused its collapse on the eve of the Obama presidency. But what is enumerated above does deserve our serious consideration. How we go about rebuilding our movement will be critical to our potential for success. Learn the appropriate lessons from the past and we stand a chance of bringing into being the kind of long-term, well-connected (to the grassroots) movement we’ve been waiting to join all these years now.
Now is the operative word here, too. We need to start building this now. Tensions are spilling over with Iran as we speak, and unless there develops significant opposition to the U.S. approach to the Islamic Republic, we will bear witness to one of two things: (1) our country engaging in the slow and painful torture of another people via sanctions (as we saw in Iraq in the 1990s), or (2) our country unleashing its military prowess on one more Muslim-majority country in the Middle East.
Most of the groups that favor our approach (resumption of dialogue; good-faith negotiations aimed at a ‘Grand Bargain’-type deal; an end to economic sanctions and threats of war; etc.) only exist inside-the-Beltway. Judging by the votes cast in Congress, too, these groups are seriously outmatched in funds and resources and are losing badly. Not surprisingly, either. The chambers of the U.S. Congress have never been all that receptive to people-power. Especially when there’s very few people. But that’s where these groups stand today. Fighting for a cause without money, without staffing, and without the public support needed to overcome the former. Groups like the National Iranian American Council; Peace Action; Just Foreign Policy; Peace Action West; etc., stand little chance of success unless there develops a movement at the grassroots, building public knowledge and support for their positions and invoking in good-faith the people-power needed to overcome Congressional resistance.
That’s where we are needed today. We’re needed in building a base at the grassroots. To be honest, too, we’ve got advantages today that we didn’t back in February 2003. While lots of regional and local peace groups fell out of existence between the beginning and end of the Iraq War, burnt out from lifting the load all those years, so many contacts and connections were made during that time, all waiting to serve their use. This is one of the advantages of movement-building. We’re thrown into relationships with people we’d otherwise be strangers to, and these relationships can provide aid when we need it most.
We’ve also got some fantastic groups carrying out the hard and difficult work already. Havaar, a New York-based group of Iranian-American activists, stand opposed to war and sanctions and state repression in Iran, a trifecta that is not only principled but exudes an air of legitimacy to a movement that has to fight for it otherwise. Havaar has been behind several important actions, including: speaking on panels throughout the East Coast; staging sit-in rallies at Apple Stores to highlight how U.S. sanctions are target-less and permit the kind of discrimination Iranian-Americans have faced trying to purchase Apple products; performance art in front of the UN building to highlight the plight of ordinary Iranians under the stress of U.S. sanctions; etc. This is a collective of young people, teeming with new ideas of their own on how to shape a peace movement to public taste. Who wouldn’t want to join up with this?
I know we’re all busy with work elsewhere. The last time I spoke to them, Havaar was prepared to start up an organizing campaign aimed at tackling the U.S.-EU sanctions on Iran. But Hurricane Sandy hit, and the members of Havaar ran to the trenches to offer reprieve to the victims of the disaster and to help rebuild lives lost as part of Occupy Sandy. I suppose that campaign is still in the works, but we live in tough times where it feels as if we’re being attacked from all sides and distraction is inevitable.
But distraction’s not a problem when we have in place a movement. When we have people-power, we can afford all this. That’s the central point. These are the big questions we need to be asking. How do we build a Left movement, nonviolent but militant in character, that does not merely react to old and new events, but is already-existing, already in place when its calling arrives?
Look at us now, and the problem’s not hard to identify. We’ve been losing the war for public opinion when it comes to Iran for close to a decade now. Why? Because we have either (a) not been attuned to the problem or (b) not been a cohesive whole capable of challenging folks who have a lot more funds, a lot more resources, and a lot more access to people in power. We failed to sustain the movement we had built over the course of the Iraq War. For that perhaps, the people of Iran will be made to suffer the consequences – that is, unless we hobble onto our horse and turn the tide once more. When we turn the tide this time, too, let’s make sure we don’t run into this same problem next time. Let’s put our pedal to the metal and leave it there. Let’s build a sustainable peace movement.