Monday, August 27, 2007

The War, the Elections and Impeachment

Two months ago I attended the national assembly of United for Peace and Justice in Chicago. Whatever it’s shortcomings (think: too white and too old), participants shared a general sense that the anti-war movement was once again on the rise, and positioned to make real advances come the fall.

Today I would argue that the anti-war movement is actually somewhat weaker than it was then. Several dedicated activists I have spoken with recently share this concern, and tend to raise problems like activist burnout, a fall calendar chock full of scattershot and all-too-disunited demonstrations, decreased media coverage of the war, the confusion sewn by the administration’s spin doctors, and lack of leadership from the Congress that was elected to end the war.

True, every point true. But the real problem, I would argue, lies elsewhere. The momentum of the anti-war movement is being slowed and distorted by the pull of powerful gravitational fields from a pair of forces that have greatly increased in strength in the last two months. These are the Democratic Party’s 2008 campaign and the grassroots movement to impeach Bush and Cheney.

In the left liberal blogosphere, these two social currents tend to be seen as opposites, pitted against one another on an empty field, and their effect on other social movements is ignored. (The flareup around the occupation of Congressman John Conyers’ office and accompanying discussion of racism is a recent exception.)

Let me lay out as clearly as I can where I stand—I am an anti-war activist first and foremost these days. In part that’s because, as an American, if I fail to do as much as I can to stop the war, I own it. In part that’s because this unjust and unjustifiable occupation is the number one issue facing the American people. (The war is the central reality of American political life and people know it: Gallup Polls says it’s been on top of their “most important problem list since March 2004”).

The great majority are well and truly sick of this war and what it’s doing to the country. They want it over with, and they want it over with yesterday. That’s not going to change. Does anyone here believe that Bush’s poll numbers have plummeted so drastically because of Valerie Plame or White House emails on Republican Party accounts?

Those Darned Democrats

Here’s how I see the dynamics. First, the Congressional majority that was elected to end the war has done a piss-poor job of it, for a variety of unattractive reasons that have been hashed over here ad nauseam. Second, the major Democratic presidential candidates are all pushing ghastly “triangulated” positions on Iraq, proposals whose implementation would extend the occupation, in modified form, for years.

Even so, some folks are inclined to think that too much else is at stake in the coming elections--the survival of Constitutional democracy and the habitability of our planet, to cite two—to allow Democratic officeholders recalcitrant about ending the war to be the targets of protest and criticism. The liberal punditocracy and many important powers in and behind the Democratic Party have taken this stand.

It is presented seductively. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI), for instance, has been running a very well-funded (thanks to the Service Employees union and others) campaign targeting Republican Congresscritters exclusively, demanding that they stand up against the war. A worthy cause, no? Why not put a hurting on the weasels?

But, as I am hardly the first to note, this is mainly a part of Campaign 2008. Those behind it don’t expect to win many Republicans to the kind of gutsy stance Walter Jones (R-NC) has taken against the war, they just want to soften them up for challenges from Democratic candidates next year. And they sure don’t expect to shake those Congressional Democrats who continue to cast votes enabling Bush and the Pentagon, because they’re not even trying to.

“Well, maybe that’s a job somebody else should do,” I hear you mutter. Correct, and that somebody else is the anti-war movement, which has been hitting elected officials from both parties hard through efforts like the Occupation Project and letter-writing, phone-calling and lobbying campaigns. But the AAEI and similar efforts tend to pull angry, activist-minded folks away from gearing up for a battle royale next month over the next $100 plus billion in appropriations Bush is demanding to pour down the rathole of the war.

(In the meantime, election-related waffling has also helped muddy the hard-won clarity of virtually all sectors of the anti-war movement that our central demand must be “End The War Now! Bring The Troops Home Now!” Suddenly we are back in 2004-5, having to explain and debunk nonsense about “phased withdrawal” and “timelines and benchmarks” and “residual forces,” and “Iraqi political realignment” all over again.)

Well, Why Not Impeachment?

Okay, having pissed off many honest progressive Democratic Party stalwarts, let me see what I can do with the Impeachment activists. Their position is in one sense a mirror image of the election-centered forces. They too are desperate about the grievous harm that Bush and his co-conspirators are doing—to Iraq, the environment, democracy and civil liberties, etc. So intense are their concerns that they feel that waiting 17 months is courting disaster. And, after watching this Congress, many understandably suspect that even a substantial Democratic win might not do much to reverse the damage.

Friends have told me repeatedly in recent months, “We will never get this war ended until we’ve impeached Bush and Cheney.” What this amounts to is saying that the anti-war movement must refocus on the struggle to impeach.

I would argue that this is wrong. Unlike many who have challenged the impeachment enthusiasts, I don’t argue, “It’s not practical.” That argument is predicated on things staying just as they are. Suppose Bush orders an attack on Iran, to global condemnation and deep, visible resistance in the High Command. Suppose a scandal more readily comprehensible than the US Attorney firings erupts. Suppose a major stock market crash gets the Katrina treatment from administration incompetents. Suppose Bush moves toward postponing the elections. Might not impeachment become the order of the day in a real hurry (even if some Democratic strategists would still rather keep it off the table to improve the odds for a November blowout)?

Folks who have been pushing impeachment for years, like After Downing Street, have performed an invaluable service by raising the issue and building extensive popular sentiment for it at the grassroots level, and have done so with a tiny fraction of the resources going into various Democratic campaigns. They have created networks, conditions and consciousness that may yet bear fruit in impeachment and conviction.

But the pull on the anti-war movement to make “Impeachment Now” its central demand has, again, an unfortunate and distorting effect on the movement’s momentum. Folks who have been driving forces in building opposition to the war have set it to the side for the sake of this cause, or tried to shift the focus of organizations and coalitions they are in.

To be sure, many of the best organized and most effective anti-war forces have impeachment as part of their program, like United For Peace & Justice and Veterans For Peace, so I may seem to be splitting hairs here, but I think not.

Tackling the “Order of Magnitude Gap"

My point is a simple one, but one that bears repeating. It is Iraq that’s the main issue among the people of this country. Ending the war should be the main focus for progressives and activists. The way to do that is to face up to the “order of magnitude gap" we face: 60% of the people may want the war over, but perhaps 6% has ever done anything about it—worn a button, signed a petition, stood in a vigil, called a Senator’s office, voted in a referendum, anything. We aren’t going to get the whole 60%, but reaching solidly into the two digit range will make a huge difference.

That calls for concentrating on outreach, for organizing at a very local level, and for keeping the threshold of entry low so people who are against the war don’t sense barriers when we encourage them to act against the war. This is the idea behind, for instance, the Iraq Moratorium, scheduled to kick off September 21.

If the big issue is the war, that means keeping the demand to end it front and center in our agenda. The main strategic target of the movement is the Bush/Cheney gang who started the war and are glad to continue it indefinitely. But if other folks insist on gluing themselves to the target, and this includes elected Democrats, that’s no reason for us to hold our fire. And our tactics must be flexible, including ones that isolate and put maximum pressure on any Democrats who don’t dare to stand against the war when crucial votes come before Congress.

The efforts of the anti-war movement may lead to impeachment. Or they may not. They may well lead to a Democratic blowout in 2008. Or they may not.

But they will lead to a more rapid end to a criminal war which continues to be a catastrophe of almost unimaginable magnitude for the people of Iraq and has done incalculable and permanent damage to our own country.