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NEW MOMENT, NEW MOVEMENT: Ideas about Antiwar, Antimilitarist Strategies for the Years Ahead

As the global and U.S. political landscape shifts, a new round of strategic discussion is taking place in many sectors of the antiwar movement. Below are the key assessment points and questions used by War Times to kick off our collective's effort to (1) take stock of the current volatile moment and (2) look for effective paths forward. The third part of this discussion paper is a short essay on antimilitarist strategies by War Timer Lynn Koh that expresses some of what we felt were the most useful ideas coming out of our deliberations. We are sharing this material in hopes of pushing forward a much-needed dialogue not only among activists who are focused mainly on antiwar and international solidarity efforts, but also with grassroots organizers whose work is mainly in other movements but who see the importance of making opposition to war, empire and militarism an integral part of a revitalized U.S. progressive movement. –Max Elbaum, Francesca Fiorentini, Rebecca Gordon, Hany Khalil and Lynn Koh for War Times

1. Taking stock of the big picture: What can we expect on the war/peace/militarism front in the post-Iraq War, new-U.S.-military-doctrine, continuing-Great-Recession years ahead?

The U.S. is an empire in decline. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, intended to be the first steps in securing a whole new level of U.S. global hegemony (and right-wing rule at home) instead over-stretched Washington militarily, financially and politically and accelerated the empire's downward trend. In the wake of these wars and the 2008 financial-then-economic crisis, the U.S. elite is adjusting its strategies to maximize U.S. clout in the period ahead.

The elite is united on the maintenance of U.S. military superiority over all rivals (combined) and the willingness to employ force and threats of force as a key part of its global arsenal. But it is badly divided over how adventurous to be in waging war (especially regarding deployment of ground combat troops) and how unilateral to be. The new military doctrine initiated by Obama, which stresses "rebalancing" toward Asia and use of drones and special operations over deployment of ground troops represents the "realist" strategy for the next stage. The Neocon faction, now out of power, wants much more aggressive use of force particularly in the Middle East; and their crusade is bolstered by the fact that a significant swatch of the white population has embraced a racist 'clash of civilizations' zealotry which sees white Christian-Jewish civilization pitted against a whole range of dangerous anti-American, anti-Western Civilization, anti-Israel "others" ranging from Al-Qaeda to Obama.

Under these circumstances, "low level" wars, expansion of military bases and threats against other countries (in Africa and Latin America as well as in the Asia/the Pacific region and the Middle East) will likely be constant features of the decades ahead. And there will be a near-constant danger of larger scale wars pushed by the far right as well. The kind of push is taking place right now with the right's crusade for an attack on Iran.

Simultaneously, the military-industrial complex and the militarist approaches to human relations it advocates will buttress regressive policies and structures on all fronts of social struggle. Military spending and militarist hostility to "enemies" drain resources from social programs; bolster the elite's austerity-for-the-masses program; distort the economy generally; foster racist, anti-immigrant and sexist views and practices; are key excuses to curtail civil liberties, and are a major force in continuing dependence on fossil fuels and threatening environmental disaster. In other words, militarism as both an institutional reality and set of ideas is an obstacle not only to peaceful relations among nations and peoples but to all social progress.

Questions: What do things look like on the war/peace/militarism front over the next 5-10 years? What impact will the 2012 election campaign, and its potential outcomes, have on what lies ahead?

Readings:

Bob Wing, The Arab Spring and the Changing Dynamics of Global Struggle

Max Elbaum, Fighting for Peace Against an Empire in Decline

Tom Hayden, End to Long War Doctrine?

 

2.  Antiwar/antimilitarist strategies for the period ahead: What kind of strategies and work priorities will most advance antiwar/anti-militarism goals going forward? Where are existing forces in relation to that kind of work? What is our take on public sentiment?

The large antiwar movement that surged in 2002-2006, mainly in response to the Iraq War, has ebbed. A significant but not huge number of groups and activists have continued to make antiwar efforts a main (or at least important) aspect of their work. Most have adjusted their approaches given changed conditions: the official end of the Iraq War, and economic issues/social austerity replacing war/peace as the main axis of progressive activism and the main political issue for the population at large. Action campaigns and educational work on specific U.S. wars and war threats (Iran, Afghanistan, etc.) and key solidarity efforts (especially with Palestine) continue. But these are in a new context, where there is special emphasis on figuring out ways to make pro-peace perspectives and actions an integral part of popular movements and coalitions that are driven mainly by economic or other "domestic" issues. "Move the Money" efforts are one important approach folks are utilizing to try to accomplish this. Likewise, there is a new emphasis on peace activists supporting other movements in an ongoing way and, through ties built, over time working with others to embrace issues of war/peace. These practical shifts are paralleled and informed by a perspective that targets not just specific U.S. wars but U.S. militarism more generally.

The current state of public opinion provides a good deal to build on in conducting this kind of work. Substantial majorities have come round to the view that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are/were "not worth the cost in blood and treasure." The leadership of most large liberal-to-progressive organizations (as opposed to the liberal elite) now takes at least a nominal antiwar, cut-the-military-budget position, as does the Progressive Caucus in Congress. Even within the right there is skepticism and division about the Neocon all-war, all-the-time crusade: Ron Paul has won support for his brand of conservative isolationism; and sectors of the right that reject Paul as "soft" on U.S. enemies are dubious about paying for large-scale wars and skeptical about sending large numbers of U.S. troops to fight elsewhere. Of particular immediate importance, public opinion has swung substantially against continuing the war in Afghanistan, where the U.S./NATO position is rapidly unraveling in front of the eyes of the whole world.

Still, these pluses do not yet translate into the clout needed to halt U.S. interventions much less roll back the military industrial complex. Much antiwar sentiment is at this point passive: it does not translate into large-scale activity, either direct action or as key factor in deciding who to vote for or holding elected officials who run on some kind of peace platform accountable to a consistent antiwar stance. Most progressive organizations not focused on war/peace do not prioritize antiwar anti-militarist education or action, and often the leaderships are hesitant or even unwilling to allow this issue to be flagged in the course of their other (urgent) campaigns. And within the constituencies that are against wars with U.S. combat troops and in favor of cutting military spending, there is still a lot of work to do to get large numbers to oppose drone killings and covert actions; and the connections between war-making abroad and a host of injustices and inequities at home are not prominent in the thinking of millions. Meanwhile the right-wing isolationists do almost nothing to oppose U.S. wars and militarism other than campaign for Ron Paul (who will soon throw his weight behind a Republican hawk in the 2012 election).

This landscape implies several important tasks for antiwar anti-militarist activists:

*Work to strengthen commitment, energy, unity and analytic/strategic acuity within the ranks of those who focus on war/peace issues. A core of energetic activists and groups that prioritize antiwar, antimilitarist and international solidarity activism over the long term, and carry the lessons of each "flow" period through times of relative ebb, is a critical element in the U.S. progressive movement's capacity  to beat back the war-makers and military-industrial complex.

*Keep war/peace/militarism issues in front of progressive leaders and activists whose focus is on other fronts of struggle, constantly drawing linkages and showing how war and militarism prevents the realization of their goals while supporting other movements' efforts on their own terms.

*Beyond the activist ranks, conduct the kind of education work that expands the numbers who oppose war and militarism and embrace an internationalist vision, especially in the constituencies that are key to building a muscle for peace and justice: communities of color, labor, youth, and women.

*Find "pressure points" where actions can be taken that engage the immediate issues on the war/peace agenda and make a difference in their outcomes.  Right now, halting the drive for a war against Iran, and work to end U.S. blank check support for Israel, are key focal points where a lot is at stake and also where catastrophic events can be headed off and gains can be made. Down the road other such focal points might arise: perhaps opposing an AFRICOM-centered military adventure in Africa, mobilizing against a U.S.-backed coup in Latin America, or weighing in to help put nuclear disarmament back at the top of the international agenda, etc.

*Finally, there is the key strategic task of interacting effectively with the motion currently underway toward reconstructing a dynamic and durable multi-issue, multi-sector U.S. progressive movement.  Right now we observe a host of different social forces moving (at different paces and with different degrees of commitment and energy) toward constructing the kind of mass-based, durable jobs-justice-environmental protection-peace bloc that could become a serious force in U.S. politics. Activists and groups that focus on ending U.S. wars face the challenges of doing what we can to help such a bloc come into being and working to make sure that demands to end wars and militarism are an integral part of its program, texture and political culture.  This key strategic point is elaborated upon in some detail in the essay by Lynn Koh which follows.

Questions: What do we think of the shift from an "antiwar" framework to an "antiwar/anti-militarism" framework to provide guidance to our efforts in the period ahead? What are different groups in the peace movement doing, what work do we think is most promising? (What do we assess are prospects for building a powerful progressive current in U.S. politics that includes an end to wars and shift away from militarism in its core outlook and actions?

Readings:

Clare Bayard, Demilitarization as Rehumanization:

New Priorities Network website

 

3. PATHS FORWARD FOR ANTIWAR ORGANIZERS: Making Antiwar Politics Integral to a New Progressive Alliance –Lynn Koh, War Times/Tiempo de Guerras

For some time, the antiwar movement has been struggling to find its political bearings, as street demonstrations decrease in size and frequency.  Obama's election, the Great Recession, the explosion of the Occupy movement, as well as the noxious Republican primary campaign, have created a markedly different political terrain.  This essay is intended as a contribution to the debate over the antiwar movement's strategic direction, and its significance for progressive politics in the U.S.

A look back at the last decade of the antiwar movement[1] helps us understand the challenges and tasks before us.  In the long stretch from 2001 to 2008, what now stands out is what all movement activists then took for granted - that we had a central political demand immediately comprehensible to those within our orbit, as well as the general public.  We wanted to stop the wars, end the wars, and then end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The sides were clearly defined, and we were focused on winning public opinion over to our side.

While antiwar organizing involved diverse constituencies and practices, most antiwar groups converged in efforts to mobilize as many opponents of the wars as possible in street actions and other public demonstrations across the country.  The immense protests of 2003 made a deep impression on me; it was the first time I felt part of a group so massive as to constitute - so I thought - an historical subject.  After a period of disorientation brought about by Bush's decision to invade in the face of active global opposition, there followed a 500,000 person protest at the 2004 RNC under the banner of 'The world says no to the Bush Agenda', and in 2006 UFPJ worked with Rainbow/Push, NOW, and environmental groups to organize a 200,000+ peace-and-social-justice march in NYC.  No other movement was able to put hundreds of thousands of people into the streets during the entire span of the Bush administration, or to draw in mainstream liberal organizations as well as staunchly progressive outfits, and these large demonstrations served as a focal point for the national movement.

In 2005, we experienced a turning point in public opinion and mainstream press coverage of the occupations.  When the invasion of Iraq started in 2003, 75% of the public supported it.  But after Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and the intensification of sectarian violence, antiwar sentiment surged.  The Bush administration's criminal neglect of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita generated the widespread feeling that desperately needed human resources and finances were funneled into an unnecessary war.  The question of war and peace was at the center of the overall progressive political motion, which mainly took the form of an anti-Bush front.

At the same time, the deepening of outrage against the occupations fueled innovative and inspiring community-based organizing linked to the national antiwar movement.  Of these, I am most familiar with counter-recruitment efforts, which I covered for War Times when I first joined the collective.  In schools across the country, students and veterans, community activists and peace organizers joined to organize military-free zones or to provide an honest description of the military experience.  While these efforts in some cases pre-dated the 2001 antiwar-movement, they were undoubtedly buoyed by the increased momentum and consciousness from 2005 on.  The 2006 Military Out of Our Schools conference in Berkeley, California was a high-water mark in this sector.

During this upsurge, the antiwar movement achieved significant political results - it was able to raise the question of war funding repeatedly in Congress, undercut the credibility of the Neoconservatives, slowed down recruitment into the military, and drove the national electorate away from the right-wing.  The movement's power was supported by a temporary, often fragile alignment of interests between elite Democrats seeking to turn antiwar sentiment into electoral gains; a new crop of Democratic activists seeking the Party's return to progressivism; antiwar organizers, and public opinion.  The young Democratic activists would prove crucial in Obama's victory in Iowa and the overall sense that a candidate who pledged to end the Iraq War was viable.

At the same time, the trajectory of large chunks of the mobilized antiwar base into electoral politics presented fresh challenges for the national movement.  Undoubtedly, it reflected the belief that the sentiments which drove people into the streets and the anti-Bush front could be turned into a broader progressive political force.   But it also drained street protest of an energized (albeit largely white and middle-class) base.  In fact, this move into electoral politics began in 2004 with the Kerry campaign, and continued in 2006 through 2008.   Other problems emerged: the escalation of the war - dubbed 'the surge' '- coincided with the winding down of sectarian violence, although not due to American military efforts but rather because major areas had effectively been segregated along religious and other lines.  This created the impression that the situation was manageable - and thus forgettable - once again.[2]

RECALIBRATING FOR A NEW MOMENT

Nonetheless, the crisis of global capitalism and Obama's election have forced the antiwar movement to recalibrate its strategy.  Economic inequality and jobs have become the front-and-center issues for the vast majority of the antiwar movement's constituency.  Meanwhile, Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan (which was no surprise to War Times readers) broke the temporary alignment between the Democratic leadership, Dem activists, and peace forces.  It became clear even to those that hoped otherwise that the 'realist' wing of the ruling class, which came around to the view that the Iraq fiasco was a terrible mistake, and which strongly backed Obama, remained committed to U.S. military hegemony pursued through all manner of practices short of massive ground troops:  aerial bombardment, drone attacks, the proliferation of bases, assassination, covert ops, and proxy wars.

In short, the antiwar movement now finds itself in a difficult political situation:  where war and peace is not the pivotal issue for progressives, where even small victories will be much tougher to obtain, and many of the key issues the movement hopes to raise are not necessarily understandable to the general public.

These challenges suggest that, first, a durable antiwar movement will require a long-term base-building and community organizing approach.  One example is what Iraq Veterans Against War has done with its 'Operation Recovery' campaign; another is US Labor Against War's work with the key constituency of labor unions, of which more below.  Developing a broader framework around militarism rather than war as it is conventionally understood, and growing an activist core without relying on momentum gained from news headlines, is impossible without ongoing work and political discussions with an active base aimed at achievable, concrete victories. [3]

Furthermore, base-building alone will not suffice, especially when economic issues are first and foremost on the public agenda.  In this period, it is even more important to find ways to integrate the politics of war and peace into the broader progressive alliance that is emerging to challenge both the insanity of the right-wing and the most dangerous tendencies of the Democratic leadership.  Such an alliance would bring together the key organizations and constituencies with the breadth, power, and activity needed to lead a real struggle within our dysfunctional political system for a program of democratic rights, economic and social justice.

The past few years has seen a number of attempts to build a cohesive alliance among forces to the left of, and with varying degrees of independence from, the Democratic Party leadership:  One Nation, Rebuild the Dream, the Wisconsin uprising, and most recently the confluence of forces around Occupy.  While it would be fantasy to expect an alliance to materialize out of thin air (or a few meetings) with organizational and political unity, the on-the-ground solidarity, as well as tension, among combative sections of the labor movement, grassroots organizations rooted in communities of color, and civil rights groups which we've seen in those efforts means we are living through a moment of possibility. The rest of this essay will attempt to flesh out how the antiwar movement can relate to these broader political developments.

There is much to build on from the work of antiwar organizers since 2001, but we are a long ways from gaining real traction within an emerging progressive alliance.  There are two key developments that are crucial for this to happen.  The first is for the antiwar movement to push harder on outreach towards the main sectors within that alliance (a community-peace coalition).  The second is for the organizations and constituencies that are providing the main energy and dynamism within the progressive alliance to foreground antiwar and antimilitarist politics.  In my view, pursuing both of these lines is necessary for success.

The New Priorities Network, highlighted in War Times, is one example of antiwar organizers developing solid coalitions with community groups and unions; its key work has been in winning passage of local resolutions demanding funding for jobs and social needs by ending occupation and reducing military spending.  Its success indicates that the main way the U.S. public will relate to an antimilitarism message is via the military budget.

Antimilitarism also provides a framework for connecting the antiwar movement with other community struggles in new ways.   LGBT bullying, police brutality, border drones, and gun violence are all issues where what is at stake is the question of how conflict is resolved and order created -- based on cooperation rather than force.  It is up to us to seize the initiative and build the bridges.

Much more difficult will be consistently and explicitly inserting antiwar and antimilitarist politics within the leading sectors of progressive politics.  The iconic example of this remains Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'Beyond Vietnam' speech, which sharply divided his inner circle and allies.  Today the challenge is not so much ideological - most individuals that would identify with racial, gender, economic, and social justice would support some kind of antiwar stance - it is rather that 30 years of movement silos and fragmentation of the left has taken its toll.

The work of US Labor Against the War, which moved historic antiwar resolutions in both Change to Win and the AFL-CIO, shows that success is still possible today.  In general, however, we must admit that today even leaders within the progressive movement would be hard pressed to explain how war and militarism shape the overall possibilities for U.S. progressive politics; below, I highlight three dynamics I believe are important to consider.  Without this understanding, we are left with either an ideological or humanitarian commitment to internationalism, difficult to rely on given the dominance of pragmatism within our movements.

1.  The Military Budget and Social Change

So far, the U.S. ruling class has proved incapable or unwilling to address the structural issues that led to the 2008 crash.  The result has been probably the weakest economic recovery in recent U.S. history, and continuing devastation of our communities in terms of unemployment, foreclosures, increased poverty, and intensification of racism.  Mass resistance is in its first stages, utilizing tactics ranging from building takeovers to ballot initiatives.

I assume that for this audience I do not have to make the case for cutting the military budget in order to fund jobs and social needs; a politics that is serious about addressing the long-term problems of the economy must - at a minimum - demand a dramatic increase in the social wage, including rights to jobs, housing, higher education, health care, and other public goods.  Organizers that want to move beyond single-issue demands and build a movement for broader social transformation will, sooner or later, have to tackle head-on the issues of tax policy, skyrocketing health care costs, and the military budget. [4]

2.  Militarism as the cornerstone of authoritarianism

As many others have written, the ascendancy of what's widely termed neoliberalism has not meant the retreat of the state from civil society, but rather an expansion of the state's coercive apparatus.  However, the world's purest form of bourgeois democracy - who today could deny that the U.S. ruling class serves the interests of the wealthy - persists as what Sheldon Wolin called, in 2003, 'inverted totalitarianism.'  By this Wolin meant that while the fascism of Italy or Germany needed "a continuously mobilized society that would not only support the regime without complaint and enthusiastically vote 'yes' at the periodic plebiscites, inverted totalitarianism wants a politically demobilized society that hardly votes at all."[5]

Thus, futility and distraction for the masses - and intensified punitive measures and dehumanization for any that break the mold.  Increasingly, these practices are borrowed from the repertoire of techniques used by the U.S. military against so-called foreign threats.  Drones now fly over the southern border; Congress legislates indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, the White House prosecutes whistleblowers in record numbers, and the Justice Department defends the assassination of U.S. citizens as consistent with U.S. and international law.  The normalization of a 'state of war' mentality is at the center of attempts to narrow the limits of legal, democratic struggle.

3.  From Wall Street to the Military Base

Finally, taking on the power of the financial elites and shifting our economy away from neoliberalism will be extraordinarily more difficult without a politics against war and empire.   In the 1970s, the U.S. elites settled on a new economic model to resolve the crisis of 'stagflation'.  This system depended on breaking working class power to lower wages in the U.S., restructuring the global division of labor to facilitate low-priced commodity imports, and a volatile but dynamic expansion of the powers of the financial sector and 'free market' relations throughout the globe.  Key to all this was the ability to draw capital from around the world to the U.S., eventually buttressed by the guarantee of low inflation and long-term stability, in order to finance our deficits and inflate asset bubbles. Why worry about deindustrialization and U.S. workers' mounting debts when you can privatize water in Latin America, grab land in Africa, manipulate currencies, and make money hedging risk for multinational corporations?[6]

This model, now generally termed 'neoliberalism,' coincided with the U.S. elites' development of close military ties with other states that fell within its imperial embrace.  In fact, the U.S. imperial project was essentially to foster close linkages with other economies, the better to induce neoliberal restructuring, while resorting to force to deal with recalcitrant or outright hostile states.  The Neocons wanted to go further - fuelled by hallucinations that a remade Middle East would guarantee U.S. control of energy supplies, and thus eliminate any potential challenge to U.S. global leadership of the capitalist system.  The 'realists' among the U.S. elites, however, remain committed to imperialism lite, namely the use of military hegemony to integrate rising economies into the U.S. orbit (in Southeast Asia, for instance).

For us, the crucial fact is that the imperial aspects of neoliberalism also reflected the deep-seated resentment of U.S. elites toward any solution to the economic crisis that would increase the sense of power of their own working class and exploited communities.  In this they followed British and other imperial ruling classes in looking overseas for profit and growth rather than give up class privilege vis-à-vis their own people.

We face a similar situation today, where the cracks in the neoliberal project are more evident than at any other time in the past 30 years.  But we must recognize that the capacity of finance capital to shape the global economy in the interests of accumulating greater wealth means that it will be loathe to accept reality, and will continue to believe it can prop up a dysfunctional system through an expanding empire.  Dismantling the military hegemony of the U.S. is crucial in undermining the arrogance and power of finance capital and the breaking with neoliberalism.  We cannot occupy Wall Street without decolonizing the globe.

[1]  I recommend looking at the excellent snapshot of the antiwar movement on fellow War Timer Jan Adams' blog, http://happening-here.blogspot.com/2008/04/stalled-us-peace-movement-antiwar.html

[2] I owe the points made in this paragraph to Bob Wing

[3] See Clare Bayard's article "Demilitarization as Rehumanization" at Left Turn http://www.leftturn.org/demilitarization-rehumanization

[4]  Check out "Bombs and Budgets" put out by War Resisters' League and Ya-Ya Network, www.war resisters.org

[5]  Inverted Totalitarianism, The Nation, May 19, 2003

[6]  See, for a clearer and more in-depth explanation, Panitch, Leo and Gindin, Sam "Global Capitalism and American Empire" in Socialist Register 2004, Dumenil, Gerard and Levy, Dominique "The Economics of U.S. Imperialism," and Harvey, David The New Imperialism.

War Times

War Times/Tiempo de Guerras was started to help broaden and deepen the fight against the Bush Administration response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. We believed then - and believe today - that the regime of permanent war begun under Bush cannot and will not prevent terrorist attacks. We believed then - and still believe - that civilians abroad and poor and working people and communities of color in this country would take the most casualties in a so-called "War on Terror."

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