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Were the Anti Iraq War Demonstrations of 2003 Too Good to Be True?

May 10, 2011

(This article by Paul Street is re-posted by ZNet.)

I was never quite as excited as some of my fellow leftists seemed to be about the antiwar movement that developed in response to George W. Bush’s planned and then implemented occupation of Iraq. True, the anti-invasion turnouts in Europe and the United States were remarkable even before the actual fact of the “war.”  On February 17, 2003, more than a month before “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (quickly changed to “Operation Iraqi Freedom” [O.I.F] because the original brand name’s acronym [“O.I.L.”] was too suggestive of the invasion’s petro-imperial ambitions) was formally launched, the New York Times was so impressed by the global antiwar outpourings that it said the following: “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” Times analyst Patrick Tyler referred with respect to Bush’s “tenacious new adversary: millions of people who flooded the streets of New York and dozens of other world cities to say they are against war based on the evidence at hand.” 1

The people were out in mass opposition before the war actually commenced. This was a notable difference with the popular campaign that helped end the Vietnam War. The Vietnam-era peace demonstrations started out tiny.  It took the 1960s peace movement years of hard and dedicated organizing to become a genuinely mass movement and a force to be reckoned with in the corridors of power. It did not develop the capacity to put substantial numbers in the streets until long after the Washington had (under the John F. Kennedy administration in fact [2]) launched its attack on Vietnam.

Don’t get me wrong. I was one of Tyler’s millions on the eve of O.I.F, pinching myself in downtown Chicago on Lake Shore Drive (LSD) on March 19, 2003 as I took in the endless sea of humanity (quite ethno-racially and otherwise demographically diverse on the first night) chanting and marching against Bush’s criminal war. It brought tears to my eyes. There was another huge march the following night, after Bush unleashed his sickening campaign of “Shock and Awe” on Baghdad. It was a heady experience of popular, democratic activity in George W. Bush’s post-9/11 United States. I still remember the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) buses marooned on LSD by the flood of peace marchers on the 19th.  The black female bus drivers smiled and made the peace sign with both hands out of their windows. It almost brought tears to my eyes. Still, it all seemed too good to be true.

It was, in a sense. With all due respect for the dedicated work of many left activists across the country, the early pre- and anti-Iraq War marches of March 2003 were a largely spontaneous outpouring of middle class Democrats who sincerely wanted to prevent a Republican president’s stupid and criminal war from happening in the first place but who had little interest in fighting a difficult, long-term battle against that war and the broader culture and system of militarism once the invasion took place. I’ll never forget the comment of one nice, teary-eyed 50-something lady in the elevator of my mother’s downtown Chicago condominium complex after the second straight night of anti-war marching in the city: “Oh well, we tried.  We lost.” It was back to real life for this peace marcher, who harbored the fantastic belief that demonstrating against Bush’s war might have prevented it.

The marches of March 2003 were organized as much by the televised images of the boorish Bush and his loathsome, transparently arch-authoritarian Vice President (Darth Cheney) and Defense Secretary (Donald Rumsfeld)as by any sophisticated, impressive, in-place, and battle-steeled peace movement. And, as I worried at the beginning, it was all too partisan and Democratic, insufficiently able and/or willing to grasp the imperial and militaristic nature of the Democratic Party in connection with the Iraq War and more broadly. It was opposed not so much to criminal militarism as such as to the clumsy and boorish, and translucently blatant cowboy imperialism of a Texas Republican president, leaving one to suspect that many of its members would be far less likely to be hitting the streets if the wars they claimed to oppose were being conducted by supposedly kinder and gentler imperialists like Al Gore or John F “Reporting for Duty” Kerry.

This dark suspicion was born out by the retreat of the contemporary “antiwar movement” after the election of the militantly imperialist Democratic president Barack Obama. As Cindy Sheehan noted in 2009, thinking of all the liberals she could no longer interest in opposing Washington’s imperial policies, “Wars that were wrong under Bush become acceptable under Obama.”  Alexander Cockburn chimed with the observation that numerous supposedly left and liberal Americans who opposed criminal wiretappings, immoral and illegal wars, plutocratic bankers’ bailouts and other vile policies when they were implemented in the name of a white Republican moron from West Texas but who became all too strangely silent when those same policies were enacted under the portrait of an eloquent black Democrat from Chicago. Democrats can be very dangerous.

There is some new evidence on just how bad this problem was and remains. Consistent with Sheehan and Cockburn’s complaint and my own voluminous warnings on what Tariq Ali calls “the Obama syndrome,” a recent major study by University of Michigan political scientist Michael Heany and his colleague Fabio Rojas of Indiana University finds that the antiwar movement in the United States “demobilized” as Democrats withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, first with Congress in 2006 and then with the presidency in 2008. Democrats had been sparked to participate in antiwar activities when the war (the invasion and occupation of Iraq) they purported to oppose was being conducted by a Republican president. “As president,” Heany notes, “Obama has maintained the occupation of Iraq and escalated the war inAfghanistan…The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama’s ‘betrayal’ and reinvigorated its protest activity. Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions.” 3

Looking at Heany and Rojas’ study the other day, I was reminded of my futile counsel to the local campus antiwar activists with the University of Iowa Antiwar Committee (UIAC) in Iowa City in the summer of 2008: “protest at the [Obama-nominating] Democratic national convention in Denver, Colorado, not the [McCain-nominating] Republican national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Obama,” I told disbelieving students, is “the next president, the empire’s next and new clothes. He is very militaristic and imperial, as you would know if you studied his speeches and writings for the power elite. He will continue the war on Iraq and expand the one in Afghanistan.” The students were convinced that Obama could not win because of his skin color and what they thought was his “antiwar” position. We know what happened on that score.

There is no longer an antiwar group of any relevance in Iowa City.  The UIAC is dead, thanks to the departure of the best activists, the nefarious activities of an FBI informant, internal squabbles over personalities and Israel, and – last but not least – the significant demobilizing impact of a Democratic president who deceptively ran as an antiwar candidate. The kids in UIAC loved Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States but did not seem to grasp the radical historians’ counsel that “The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.” 4

The anti-Vietnam War movement may have started out small and weak but it built and expanded hard-earned capacity and legitimacy over time. And the popular struggle againstWashington’s Indochina wars did not discriminate between the two imperial parties, the Republicans and Democrats.  The biggest mobilizations followed the Republican war monger Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, but the movement reached critical mass and emerged as a truly mass phenomenon in opposition to a Democratic presidential war monger named Lyndon Baines Johnson, the most socially liberal U.S. president in American history.  Had the Democratic war hawk Hubert Humphrey defeated Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, the movement would have continued to expand through the end of the decade and beyond.

But, of course, the 1960s and early 1970s antiwar movement was the creation and creature of a different war and time. Negative comparison between contemporary peace movement failures and antiwar triumphs in the 1960s and 1970s can be significantly unfair. The earlier antiwar organizers both fed into and fed off broader and related currents of social protest and organization around race, poverty, sexuality, culture and the role of the modern university in American life.  They drew heavily on the fact that the Vietnam era-military drafted middle and even some upper class teenagers and young men into its ugly campaigns abroad. While the primary victims by far were Indochinese, the Vietnam War much more lethal for U.S. citizens than O.I.F, killing more than 58,000 Americans.

The U.S. imperial establishment learned from Vietnam to never again fight bloody colonial wars with a citizens’ army that includes the children of privileged classes.  It now kills official enemies in more technology-/capital-intensive ways and fills its mercenary (both uniformed and private-corporate) ranks with specialized, multi-tour gendarmes who are recruited mainly from the working class and who constitute something of a separate element – people who kill, torture, and maim to earn a living – within American society. To make matters worse for would-be antiwar organizers, the mass corporate war and entertainment media today is more consolidated and more adept at deleting, misrepresenting, mocking, and otherwise marginalizing those who dare to raise their voices in opposition to the U.S. imperial project [5]. And American “higher education” is now even more captive to the corporate and military establishment than it was in the 1960s.  Last but not least, Americans have much less free time and are more deeply in debt than they were in the 1960s – two related facts that work against mass participation in protest movements of any kind.

On a positive note, I wanted Obama to win the presidential election in 2008 for what might seem to some as a strange reason. I thought there was radical potential in U.S.voters and citizens, especially younger ones, experiencing life under a Democratic administration.  I wanted Americans to come into more direct and visible contact with the bipartisan nature of the American imperial and business system and to confront the gap between their rising and ridden expectations and the harsh reality of persistent top-down corporate, financial and military rules with supposedly antiwar (in-fact highly militaristic) Democrats at the nominal helm of the ship of state. I wanted them to be subjected in a very dramatic war to the cold reality that (in Marxist writer Doug Henwood’s words) “everything still pretty much sucks” [6] when Democrats hold the top political offices – that the basic institutional reality stays the same. As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it on Facebook last year:  “I’m glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation. The modern nation-state was created by war, of war, and for war. That is its only real purpose, and all others are subordinate to it. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.”

Call me crazy, but I’m still clinging to this ironic version of Obamanistic hope.  We’ve yet to see much of what I (along with Henwood and Goff) dialectically dreamed of yet, but two years and four months is not a long period of time on the historical scale and my hope springs eternal in a time when surprises (e.g. the Republic Door and Window workplace occupation of December 2008 and the Arab democracy uprising of 2011) still take place and revolutions must occur if humanity is going to survive in a desirable form. In Madison, Wisconsin, we did briefly get to see a significant number of workers and citizens seem to momentarily grasp the wisdom of Zinn’s counsel in 2009 that the really critical thing isn’t “who’s sitting in the White House” but rather “who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency,” Zinn added, “that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.”[7] Dialectics aside, that is an existential fact that needs to be acted upon on a significantly expanded scale in the world’s only superpower if humanity is going to enjoy a desirable future.

Selected Notes

1.    Patrick Tyler, Patrick E. Tyler, “Threats and Responses, News Analysis; A New Power in the Streets,” New York Times, February 17, 2003 at

2.    Noam Chomsky. Rethinking Camelot: JFK, Vietnam , and U.S. Political Culture (Boston: South End Press, 1999).

3.     Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas, “The Partisan Dynamics of Contention: Demobilization of the Antiwar Movement in the United States, 2007-2009,” Mobilization: An International Journal, 2011, 16 (1): 45-64, read at As the University of Michigan press release explains: “Heaney and Rojas analyzed the demobilization of the antiwar movement by using surveys of 5,400 demonstrators at 27 protests mostly in Washington , D.C. , New York , Chicago and San Francisco from January 2007 to December 2009. The surveys asked questions on basic demographics, partisan affiliations, organizational affiliations, reasons for attending the events, histories of political participation, and attitudes toward the movement, war and the political system…In addition, the researchers observed smaller, more informal events at which antiwar activists gathered, including Capitol Hill lobby days, candlelight vigils, fundraisers, small protests, planning meetings, training sessions, parties, the National Assembly of United for Peace and Justice and the U.S. Social Forum. They also interviewed 40 antiwar leaders about their personal backgrounds, the inner workings of the antiwar movement, political leaders and the Democratic Party…Their study found that the withdrawal of Democratic activists changed the character of the antiwar movement by undermining broad coalitions in the movement and encouraging the formation of smaller, more radical coalitions…After Obama’s election as president, Democratic participation in antiwar activities plunged, falling from 37 percent in January 2009 to a low of 19 percent in November 2009, Heaney and Rojas say. In contrast, members of third parties became proportionately more prevalent in the movement, rising from 16 percent in January 2009 to a high of 34 percent in November 2009….’Since Democrats are more numerous in the population at large than are members of third parties, the withdrawal of Democrats from the movement in 2009 appears to be a significant explanation for the falling size of antiwar protests,’ Heaney said. ‘Thus, we have identified the kernel of the linkage between Democratic partisanship and the demobilization of the antiwar movement.’…Using statistical analysis, the researchers found that holding anti-Republican attitudes had a significant, positive effect on the likelihood that Democrats attended antiwar rallies. The results also show that Democrats increasingly abandoned the movement over time, perhaps to channel their activism into other causes such as health care reform or simply to decrease their overall level of political involvement.  ‘Overall, our results convincingly demonstrate a strong relationship between partisanship and the dynamics of the antiwar movement. While Obama’s election was heralded as a victory for the antiwar movement, Obama’s election, in fact, thwarted the ability of the movement to achieve critical mass.’”

4.    Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008)

5.    On the U.S. mass media’s terrible treatment of U.S. antiwar protest in the first decade of the 21st century, see Anthony DiMaggio, When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion and the Limits of Dissent (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Anthony DiMaggio, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Understanding the News in the War on Terror (Lexington, 2009); Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

6.    Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117 (March 2008).

7.    Quoted in “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” (November 2, 2010) at

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Benjamin David Steele permalink
    October 21, 2011 11:20 pm

    Let me respond as someone who was involved in the anti-war protest movement in Iowa City. I’m a liberal and I admit I haven’t protested the war recently, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Obama.

    There are many factors to consider.

    I’d first point out that the anti-war movement was never just about liberals, especially not just liberal Democrats (I’m a liberal who isn’t a Democrat and who didn’t vote for Obama). What about all of the other groups involved? Why did the Ron Paul libertarians abandon the anti-war movement in order to campaign for Ron Paul and then later to join the Tea Party?

    There are many explanations. The anti-war protests started in 2002 and gained their strongest momentum in 2003. Why would anyone reasonably expect the movement to sustain that same energy for the 9 years following those first protestst?

    The anti-war protests began as an attempt to stop the invasion in Iraq from happening at all. It failed in that, but certainly the protesters can’t be blamed for what has followed since the invasion. Being against the invasion and being for pulling out are two separate issues. I was against the invasion and yet I believe we should fix what we break. The challenge, however, has been that if we don’t try to fix it the problem could get worse and if we try to fix it the problem might get worse. There are no clear answers at this point. The only clear answer that ever was a possibility was to never invade in the first place. Once the Iraq War was started, there was little hope that protesters could hold onto. Protest increasingly became symbolic rather than pragmatically effective toward some positive end. Worse just leads to worse.

    The other purpose of the anti-war movement was to sway public opinion. It is a fact that public opinion has turned away from supporting the wars, and so on that account the anti-war movement has been an unqualified success. The public has become demoralized with the wars just as the anti-war protesters have become demoralized. Everyone has become demoralized by everything that is going on: endless and pointless wars, crony capitalism, a co-opted democracy, and on and on. Even as public support turns away from the wars, there is no sense of having won anything in the process. The public support has turned away from lots of things (the drug war, the culture war, etc) and yet it feels like nothing changes. The media and the government go on as if everything is the same.

    What more is expected of the anti-war movement? Protesters can’t force the government to do anything and protesters can’t solve the problems caused by the very war they’ve been against. Many people have continued to protest against war, but people have had their lives and energies focused on the other issues such as the economy for reasons beyond their control. With many people hurting (growing poverty and shrinking middle class, unemployment or underemployment, house foreclosures, debt, lost life savings, struggling small businesses, etc), and so people have joined other causes and movements (fighting the Patriot Act, ending Gitmo, and freeing Bradley Manning; election reform, healthcare reform, tax reform, and regulatory reform; Tea Party, Coffee Party, and Occupy movement; etc) which has diffused the energy of the anti-war movement.

    If you’re interested, here is a good response to the exaggerated death of the anti-war movement:

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    October 22, 2011 12:50 am

    Benjamin, thanks for your comments. Your responses underscore my points about why there is no substantive anti-war movement during the Obama administration.

    First, you ask where are all the Ron Paul anti-war activists? While there may have been some of those voices involved the bulk were clearly people who identified with the Dems & MoveOn who made it their mission to hate Bush.

    Your second point about why this effort has not sustained over this many years seems weak, since the anti-war movements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine have been sustained this whole time and longer. Why is it that the citizens of the country responsible for the invasion/occupation and war crimes in countries like Iraq can’t sustain resistance to the kind of brutality the US has exerted in Iraq?

    The third point is a classic liberal response that “we have to fix” the mess we made. The Iraqis have been saying for years that they want us to leave, so they should have the primary say in this matter. More importantly, the US has never had any intention of “fixing” Iraq. US policy put Saddam Hussein in power, funded his war with Iran, provided him with the WMDs, invaded and bombed Iraq in 1991, imposed the most brutal sanction regime on any country in history for 12 years, then invaded/occupied again in 2003. During this current occupation the US has set up permanent military bases, privatized much of the economy, including oil as a means to have greater longer term influence on Iraq’s economy……see Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.”

    It is true that many people have become demoralized over the past decade, but part of that demoralization is that when Democrats took control of the House in 2006 they did not reduce funding for the war, even though they were elected under that premise. The same is the case with the election of Obama, since he was perceived as an anti-war candidate. This is unacceptable. People in my community told us that we should stop protesting the war in 2007 and put our energy into electing a Democrat. Many people listened to this and where did it get the anti-war movement?

    A lot more can be expected of the anti-war movement, as has been done in the past. Effective campaigns to reduce military recruiting, target war profiteers and support US soldiers who have turned against the war are key actions that have only been embraced by a small number since 2008.I agree that people have focused energy on other issues, but all these issues, especially the economy, can be directly linked to military spending and funding the wars. People clearly understand the link, but it is not part of the economic discourse of the day, except in a few small circles of organizing.

    I read the Common Dreams piece, which is typical of most of the liberal notions put forth on that blog. I in turn would suggest you read Paul Street’s book, The Empire’s New CLothes, which lays out the problem of the current lack of an anti-war movement since Obama was elected.

  3. Benjamin David Steele permalink
    October 22, 2011 12:11 pm

    I find myself in an odd position. I have no desire to defend Democrats, especially those who abandoned the anti-war movement for Obama. As a good liberal, I had no lack of hatred for Bush but it was not from the perspective of a Democrat. I voted for Nader and I generally can’t stand Democrats, although there are a few of them that I like.

    A number of things frustrate me. When I voted for Nader, I was attacked by Democrats. I was attacked for voting my conscience instead of going along with the crowd by voting for the lesser of two evils. This is annoying because I know I’m not alone in being tired of the Democrats, but so many people seem afraid to vote otherwise. If you look at the data (i.e., Pew’s Beyond Red vs Blue), what is apparent is that almost 1/2 of liberals identify as Independents and so the other 1/2 of liberals only end up making up 1/3 of the Democratic Party. But of course Obama’s empty rhetoric and lies did end up deceiving enough of those Independent liberals into voting Democratic.

    As you can tell, I have no love for Democrats or for liberals who vote for them. At the same time, it is for this reason that I defend my liberalism. The Democratic Party doesn’t represent liberalism because it isn’t the liberal party. If you want to find a liberal party, you have to look at third parties. So, just because Democrats left the anti-war movement, it doesn’t mean all or even most of the liberals in the anti-war movement stopped protesting and stopped funding anti-war groups. To speak of Democrats isn’t necessarily to speak of liberals.

    I must admit that I don’t get the point of the criticism you are making. The support for Bush’s wars was bipartisan. Bush and his policies gained public support after 9/11 and the American public wanted revenge. When the anti-war protests began, most Democrats weren’t involved in it. Certainly, Democratic politicians weren’t involved in those early anti-war protests. I doubt that a majority of Democratic voters have ever been involved at the same time in the anti-war protest movement. It’s too simplistic to speak about Democrats hating Bush. Most Democrats, like most other Americans, were more bothered by the Patriot Act than by the wars. As I pointed out above, most Democrats aren’t liberals.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to judge anti-war activists. I looked at the research by Heaney and Rojas. I’m not sure it supports your conclusion. First, the Independents (which would include the liberal independents) have maintained strong involvement in the anti-war protests. Second, Democrats decreased involvement by half, but that still leaves 20% involved which is still a fairly large proportion and which is more than the approximately 0% of Republicans involved..Third, as Democrats involvement decreased, third party voters increased by the exact same percentage which could imply that many of the anti-war Democrats didn’t actually stop being involved but simply became third party voters. So, the overall participation percentages all balance out to about the same over the two year period, the only clear change being the label by which the anti-war activists identified themselves.

    It’s not as if the anti-war protest movement has died. I still see people in downtown Iowa City with signs protesting the war. Also, I was just talking to a friend the other day. He went on a road trip and stopped by an anti-war protest where some people were arrested for stepping onto a military base.. I think it might be this protest:

    Just because the national mainstream media doesn’t report on all of these protests around the country, it doesn’t mean they aren’t happening all the time. Just because a few Democrats you knew left the anti-war movement while campaigning for Obama, doesn’t mean that all or most people left the anti-war movement and it doesn’t even mean those Democrats didn’t later return to the anti-war movement.

    “Oddly, the polls are sometimes cited to prove the ineptitude of the peace movement. With so many Americans against the war in Afghanistan, why isn’t the peace movement stronger? A fair question, yet one that omits the possibility that the efforts of local peace groups have contributed to that public skepticism.

    “If the continued existence of the peace movement is unrecognized, how can this be explained? One is the complete freeze-out by the mainstream media. Since 2003, there have been no fewer than four national demonstrations attended by more than 100,000 people, yet the only one to receive coverage was the huge New York City gathering in the run-up to the Iraq War. The others were so many trees falling in the forest, which nobody could hear or see unless they were personally marching.

    “But while the silence in the mainstream media is perhaps predictable, more surprising and less excusable has been the failure of progressive news outlets to provide positive attention to peace organizations. Since 2001, these alternative outlets have done an extraordinary job of reporting American actions abroad and providing sophisticated analysis of international events that are elsewhere ignored. Barely mentioned have been the mass antiwar mobilizations of the past eight years, the ongoing campaigns to move the Congress, or the steady, creative work of antiwar activists in towns and cities across the United States. The demoralizing result is a constant imbalance between the depressing news about U.S. foreign policy and the apparent lack of resistance here. Individuals who are not already part of the existing peace networks often conclude there is nothing useful to be done and focus elsewhere.

    “In recent weeks, the silence has been broken by a handful of articles lamenting the absence of a peace movement and attributing its collapse to a misplaced enthusiasm for President Obama and the Democratic Party. In this narrative, the antiwar movement is characterized as nothing more than a partisan club to beat George W. Bush over the head with. Therefore, the story goes, once this particular “evildoer” had retired to Texas, the peace activists simply folded up their tents and abandoned the field. But this description takes no account of the thousands of people across the country who have organized protests for the past decade out of the conviction that the wars are wrong.”

    Now I’ll respond to some of your other points.

    “you ask where are all the Ron Paul anti-war activists? While there may have been some of those voices involved the bulk were clearly people who identified with the Dems & MoveOn who made it their mission to hate Bush.”

    I always had the sense that a fair number of libertarians were involved in the anti-war protest movement, but I’ve never seen specific data. Is there a source of data you are basing your opinion on? Why would you assume many libertarians weren’t involved? Libertarians have tended to be anti-war for a long time. The oldest and most prominent anti-war website ( was started by a libertarian in 1995. The most well known libertarian (Ron Paul) is vocal about being anti-war. Certainly, libertarians hated Bush (with his policies such as the Patriot Act) about as much than liberals. It is true, though, that libertarians haven’t been known for their supporting the activism that liberals are involved in. As one article stated it:

    “For that matter, where was the libertarian right during the great struggles for individual liberty in America in the last half-century? The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, voting rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion — issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.”

    Even so, I’m not the only person on the left who recognizes the role libertarians have played in the anti-war movement. Thaddeus Russell said:

    “I’m a man of the Left. I was raised by socialists in Berkeley. I’ve always been on the Left. But I stumbled upon about three years ago and was blown away. I said ‘This is what the Left should be doing! This is what the Left should be saying!’ Libertarians and sort of paleocons–but especially libertarians like . . . like Ron Paul–have been the leading voices of the anti-war movement. They’ve been the most principled–the most consistent–no matter who’s president. They’ve been saying again and again and again, ‘These wars are disasters. The Empire must end.’”

    On the other hand, there are libertarians who mistrust and denounce the anti-war protests as being merely ‘liberal’. In response to such a libertarian, here is what one self-identified “anti-war liberal” (username Southern Guardian) said in a forum discussion:

    “I never saw the anti-war protests as a political movement, and it’s very interesting that you label the anti-war protests as purely those of liberals. Are you admitting that you and other Ron Paul supporters/libertarians never participated? The protests in 2003-2005 were anti-war, that’s it. I never saw myself apart of any political movement, infact I never even saw myself as anti-war as I personally believe it is necessary at times. My stances along with others were rather a protest against the governments campaign against Iraq specifically and lies contained within. Myself and many others supported Afghanistan efforts until the recent capture of Osama Bin Ladin. ”

    He expresses my own view. I’ve never been a partisan. In fact, I can’t stand party politics. When I was involved in the anti-war movement, I never thought of it as being a movement of only or mostly Democrats. There definitely wasn’t any Democratic Party material lying around or anything. It always seemed a diverse group to me. At the Iowa City peace camp, there were students, non-students (like me), hippies, veterans, and even some homeless kids. I never asked anyone who they voted for and it didn’t seem to matter since no one asked me either. I knew Republicans were against the peace camp since at one point they temporarily set up a counter-protest camp, but at no point did I ever get the idea that libertarians weren’t welcome in the peace camp. The anti-war protest movement was a part of the protests against Bush policies in general, and it was out of that defense of civil libertarianism that the Ron Paul libertarian movement gained momentum.

    “The third point is a classic liberal response that “we have to fix” the mess we made. The Iraqis have been saying for years that they want us to leave, so they should have the primary say in this matter. More importantly, the US has never had any intention of “fixing” Iraq. US policy put Saddam Hussein in power, funded his war with Iran, provided him with the WMDs, invaded and bombed Iraq in 1991, imposed the most brutal sanction regime on any country in history for 12 years, then invaded/occupied again in 2003. During this current occupation the US has set up permanent military bases, privatized much of the economy, including oil as a means to have greater longer term influence on Iraq’s economy……see Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.””

    i’m familiar with all of that. You seem to have misunderstood me. My point was that, if the US destroys the infrastructure of a country in a pointless and unjustified war, then it would be fair and just for the US to at least rebuild that infrastructure to some extent (make roads passable, make water and electric plants operable, etc). I wasn’t talking about nation-building.

    I end this response to you with the feeling that my basic argument still stands. You haven’t refuted any of the main points I’ve made. I would say don’t judge all Democrats based on what a few Democrats you know did and certainly don’t judge all liberals and all anti-war activists based on what a few Democrats you know did. Sure, judge those few people, but there is no justification for broad sweeping generalizations.

  4. October 22, 2011 1:59 pm

    Ben, I’m not trying to “refute” your argument. It’s not a pissing match. The original article was not mine, but by Paul Street, as stated at the top of the article. We are going to have to agree to disagree on this one. When Obama announced the 30,000 additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan in December of 2009, there was only 2 of us in Grand Rapids that were willing to protest and occupy Senator Levin’s office since he supported the escalation. This was a radical departure from the Bush years where we would always get no less than 100 people to any anti-war event. Since then we have organized speakers, films and anti-war marches on Iraq and Afghanistan and we never had more than 25 to any one event. This was a direct result of the Democrats supporting the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and a demonstration that the ones in my community never were really against the Iraq war, but rather they were against Bush.

    However, I would encourage you to communicate with Paul Street, who wrote the original article you responded to. He lives and teaches in Iowa City, so having this conversation with him might make more sense, since that is where you live.

  5. Benjamin David Steele permalink
    October 22, 2011 9:03 pm

    I understand that you didn’t want to be involved in a debate. I was just responding to Paul Street’s dismissal of the hard work done by anti-war activists and the false declaration of the movement being dead. You seemed to be agreeing with him and defending his position, and so I then responded to your comment. It’s not a matter of a pissing match.

    I get tired of how the left is often its own greatest enemy. To the right, their leaders and activsts can do no wrong. But on the left, what anyone attempts to do is never good enough. We attack each other out of frustration, but such in-fighting just further empowers the right.

    On a humorous note, the exaggerated claims of the death of the anti-war movement remind me of this Monty Python clip:

    Yes, everyone loves getting carried away in big protest movements, but it has to be understood that isn’t the norm. Even the Vietnam War with its draft didn’t lead to major protests until years and years of soldiers fighting and dying. Most protests are small, but that doesn’t mean they are insignificant. Small gatherings of people in cities across the country is how change always happens. The big protests are nice because the MSM loves them, but they aren’t where grassroots activism begins or ends.

    You can have the largest protest in the world and it won’t necessarily change anything. Or you can have a movement of many small protests that has major impact. An example of the latter is the Tea Party movement which mostly involved small rallies. The difference is that the right has a major operation that works to promote their causes. We on the left dismiss it as astro-turf and in many ways that is true, but their highly organized style is effective in its own way. Democracy, even on the grassroots level, isn’t merely about the group with the most people winning. Besides, protests are only a small part of grassroots activism.

    As for Obama, he promised that he would withdraw troops and that is what he is doing. I realize he didn’t do it as quickly as his critics would have preferred, but this seems to prove valid the anti-war protesters who decided to support Obama. If McCain had been elected, maybe there would have been no troop withdrawal at all. i’m not a fan of Obama, but I try to be fair in my assessment of his presidency.


  1. Death of Anti-War Movement is Greatly Exaggerated « Marmalade

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