How to Kill a War in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps

Desperate times call for desperate measures—like talking to lobbyists

Three days before Saturday's big anti-war march, members of the City Council were standing on the City Hall steps, calling for a resolution making New York City a "peace zone." The five councilmembers on hand read the proclamation aloud as a dozen fellow protesters stood behind them and a handful of reporters—none from the major media—looked on. They might as well have been reading silently.

The scene wasn't a make-or-break moment for the anti-war movement, but such a moment approaches. With polls showing rising opposition and with congressional races looming, peace activists have their best shot yet of ending the war—and they know it. Judith LeBlanc, national co-chair of the umbrella group United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), tells the Voice, "We have to utilize the opportunity of the midterm elections as a referendum on this war and its impact on our communities."

The question is how to translate the growing opposition to the war into an actual change in U.S. policy. More than three years of demonstrations hasn't done it, and a City Council resolution won't get a single G.I. out of harm's way. "I wish," one frustrated anti-war activist joked last week, "that we had $50,000 to hire a lobbyist and say, ' You tell us what to do.' "

No rest for the teary: Carlos Arredondo mourned his soldier son at Foley Square during Saturday's anti-war protest.
photo: Charles Lavoie
No rest for the teary: Carlos Arredondo mourned his soldier son at Foley Square during Saturday's anti-war protest.

It turns out the bag of cash isn't necessary. Some of New York's veteran lobbyists and political consultants are willing—for no more than the price of a phone call—to map out the advice they'd give if the peace movement walked into their offices, plopped down its placard, and asked, "How do we stop the war?"

1. Keep it simple: At marches against the war, the message is not just "get out of Iraq." It's get out of Haiti, Palestine, Afghanistan; hands off Cuba and Hugo Chávez; single-payer health care now; repeal the Patriot Act; and 9-11 was an inside job. War opponents justifiably see Iraq as part of a network of detestable policies. But the official message has to be streamlined. "Part of winning over the blue-collar workers and the middle class is the language that you choose," says Evan Stavisky, a lobbyist with the Parkside Group, a powerful lobbying firm. There's a danger in having too many messages and an art in how you phrase them. The problem in the 2004 election, says Stavisky, was that "the [anti-Bush] message was geared at people who thought like them. You've got to stop preaching to the choir and start preaching to the public."

2. Cut off the money: At its heart, a war is just another government program with a funding stream that can be cut, as it was in Vietnam. Of the 535 voting officials on Capitol Hill, only a very few wield real control over the budget. "I'd target the funding sources in the appropriations committees in Congress, their key members," and the armed-services committees too, says Queens-based political consultant Michael Niebauer. Every House seat is in play this year, and at least seven members of both the key Senate committees will face voters in November.

3. Connect the dots: "The traditional weakness of progressive activists is an inability to make an economic message that resonates with blue-collar voters," says Stavisky, recalling 1960s images of construction workers beating up peace demonstrators. Voters are naturally motivated by self-interest, and those who don't feel that the war is morally wrong need to be told why the war hurts them.

4. Pick the right target: In a string of recent Gallup polls, around 60 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling Iraq. The dislike of Bush, however, is stronger than support for troop withdrawal. So instead of using the war to taint Bush, the peace movement might use the growing revulsion toward Bush to kill the war. "You need to freeze your target, always," says Stavisky. "The goal of political communication—generally—is not to change minds. It's to ride the wave of public opinion to reach your goals. By focusing on Bush and his cronies in Washington, you're able to separate the discussion from 'supporting the troops.' "

5. Scare someone: Among the senators seeking re-election who sit on the key committees are Democratic hawks Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman. Both are being challenged by anti-war candidates, a tactic that has its pluses and minuses. "The big pro is you put your money where your mouth is," says Scott Levenson, a lobbyist with the Advantage Group. "The inherent problem is the lack of distinction between the major parties on their ultimate position. So the consequence is, you're left with third-party candidates." On the upside, the anti-war movement wouldn't have to defeat every pro-war incumbent to get results. Says Niebauer: "If you defeat one or two or a few of them, I think the message will be loud and clear."

6. Go local: The truism of lobbying is that there are votes that you'll always get, votes you'll never get, and votes that are up for grabs. The anti-war movement needs to identify who's who now that opinion about the war seems to be shifting. "It's no different if you're trying to win a legislative vote in the halls of Congress," says Stavisky. "The challenge for the anti-war movement is to get that middle group and put the right pressure on them, understand the dynamic of each member and their district." In some reps' districts, a faith-based appeal might work, while in others, letter-writing campaigns or strong rivals will do the trick.

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