Once upon a time in Amerika, the left was on the move. Recall the halcyon summer of 2001, when global-justice activists were gearing up for massive fall protests in Washington, anti-racists were embarrassing U.S. officials from afar in Durban, South Africa, and immigrant advocates had even pushed amnesty onto the American agenda. A string of imperious decisions by George W. Bush—from rejection of the Kyoto agreement on global warming to the revival of Star Wars—had made the president a favorite object of opprobrium overseas, while polls found that tens of millions of Americans considered his election illegitimate. Those were the days, cracked comic Lewis Black the other night, “when Bush was still an idiot.”
Then came September 11, and war. Anti-globalization actions were scuttled, the Durban agenda was moved to the back of the bus, and immigration reform became a distant memory. Now it’s Bush who is, in the words of a senior aide, “on a roll.”
Polls show overwhelming satisfaction with the war. And with Attorney General John Ashcroft suggesting that critics of his domestic crackdown on civil liberties “only aid terrorists,” state prosecutors saying they will seek 10-year sentences for peace marchers in Connecticut, and school administrators suspending a 15-year-old West Virginia girl for trying to start an “anarchy club” and sporting a T-shirt that said “Against Bush, Against bin Laden,” officialdom and its mainstream media detachment have made great strides toward stamping out doubt.
Small wonder that progressives have seemingly been unable to mount a coherent response to the war—let alone influence its course. Meanwhile, liberal critics of the hastily assembled peace movement have been prominent; their progressive dissent from progressive dissent might be louder if it weren’t drowned in the tsunami of patriotic gore. Central to the criticisms have been the charges that peaceniks have not fully reckoned with our legitimate need for justice and the threat of a truly vile enemy, and that the anti-war side has not put out an alternative to war, other than the kind Alice Walker proposed: reminding bin Laden “of all the good, nonviolent things he has done.”
The peace movement’s troubles—as ever with the left, somewhat self-induced—contain instructive lessons and shouldn’t be minimized. But neither should the odious ambitions of our high-flying regime. Hawks inside and outside the Capitol are pressing for a war that, as Dick Cheney put it, could embroil “40 or 50 countries,” and “may not end in our lifetimes,” while under military camouflage, the corporate pals of the government are enjoying an orgy of war profiteering. It becomes clearer every day that for the Bushites, war is global corporate politics by other means. So how can progressives fight back without taking on the war? A new progressive agenda inevitably must involve—for all its faults—the cause of peace.
Few notions rankle leaders of mainline anti-war groups as much as the idea that they have proposed no alternatives. Kevin Martin, head of Peace Action, the country’s largest anti-war network, with 85,000 members, notes that peace proponents have been campaigning for multilateral institutions like the International Criminal Court for years. Of course, the ICC—now ratified by 47 countries but pointedly ignored by the U.S.—would itself rely on police action, i.e., force, but Martin insists that “Peace Action is not pacifist.” Instead, the peace groups want to rope the U.S. into the community of nations and minimize the “obscenity of collateral damage.” Alternative approaches would require patience, says Martin, but “isn’t that what Bush is talking about with his permanent war?”
Indeed, criticisms of peace activists’ uncertain endgame gloss over the fact that warmongers don’t seem to have one either—unless serial wars to rid the world of “evil” qualify as conclusive policy. And liberal defenses of bombing—such as pro-war Nation lefty Christopher Hitchens’s conclusion two weeks ago that there has been “no serious loss of civilian life”—became a bit harder to swallow following a report last week by Marc Herold, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire. Herold, who says he got tired of the medium cool war that “ends as U.S. planes take off,” painstakingly compiled a database from cross-checked news reports and eyewitness accounts and found that more than 3700 civilians had been killed by U.S. bombs. (The report can be found at www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm.)
The mainstream media, says Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, submerged alternatives to “bombs or nothing,” just as it buried nuances in the public’s reaction to war. A widely cited University of Maryland poll found nearly unanimous support for bombs. Less well-noticed were the poll’s findings that similar numbers of Americans back the crafting of a solution by the UN and call for aid to poor countries, while more favor an international tribunal for bin Laden than unilateral U.S. proceedings.
Still, the left helped the media with its blinders. Early on, the peace movement was buoyed by an immediate influx of troops from the burgeoning anti-globalization and anti-capitalist movements. But anarchist sentiments and anti-imperialist distrust of U.S.-dominated multinational bodies blocked consensus on demands for justice. The largest September protest in Washington, organized by a coalition assembled by the International Action Center (itself a front for the Slobodan Milosevic-friendly Workers World Party), featured virtually no discussion of bringing the killers to justice, while its stultifying checklist of causes gave the event, in the words of activist chronicler Liza Featherstone, “the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.”
The effort to build a powerful anti-war presence has also been hampered by divides that have bedeviled the left for years. In New York, for example, there are now half a dozen peace coalitions, from the CHARAS-based War Is Not the Answer to the people-of-color-led Third World Within’s Peace Action Coalition. Let a hundred flowers bloom, certainly, but achievements have been thin. The latest public demo, assembled by the New York Coalition for Peace and Justice, drew several hundred largely white stalwarts to Rockefeller Plaza, where they were nearly lost amid a sea of shoppers.
On a national scale, September 11 exposed schisms on the left that have supposedly been closing since Seattle famously brought Teamsters and Turtles together. The AFL-CIO’s John Sweeney is now denouncing Bush’s “domestic war” against workers, though labor by and large backs the overseas version, while progressive organizations have had trouble thinking outside boxes. Organizer Ted Glick, who helped put together the 9-11 Emergency Network, proposed the idea of a broad anti-war umbrella for folks working on different issues to the National Coalition for Peace and Justice, but the peacenik group demurred, suggesting that it could be the peace coalition within a coalition—if someone formed one. Washington, D.C.’s Mobilization for Global Justice begged off September protests in part because many thought war was beyond the purview of the anti-WTO outfit. The result, says activist Zein El-Amine, is that the group became paralyzed.
Students have been nimbler. With a quick infusion of global-justice veterans—”ready-made organizers” as George Washington University activist Eleiza Braun puts it—student peace actions quickly spread to more than 400 schools. Grappling with their minority status on hugely pro-war campuses, students turned to peace camps, short fasts, and teach-ins, forums designed to draw the uninitiated and allow for exploration of issues—like the links between U.S. militarism and multinational corporate control. Now they’re planning demos for February in New York and April in Washington. Already, they’ve been successful enough to provoke a whine from a conservative group founded by Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne. “The message of much of academe,” complained the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in a November report, “was clear: BLAME AMERICA FIRST.”
Most promisingly, the student peace movement is cross-fertilizing. The National Youth and Student Peace Coalition includes the youth section of the Black Radical Congress and the Muslim Students Association, along with United Students Against Sweatshops. At least among students, then, the war has had this silver lining: It’s thrown activists of color, urban organizers, and immigrant activists together with anti-corporate summit hoppers.
The search for silver linings can obscure as much as cheer, of course. Take the argument put forward recently by University of Wisconsin law professor Joel Rogers and The Nation‘s Katrina vanden Heuvel, that the war created “the opportunity of a lifetime” for the left by bringing back “the idea of a public sector.” The “hot Christmas dolls this year,” the two note, “are firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and municipal police.” Unhappily, the hottest action figure of all this season appears to be Vietnam-era spawn G.I. Joe, according to toy industry folks. And the growth in the public sector has thus far been entirely in its police state wing.
Given the climate, it’s understandable that liberals might try to surf in the wake of the war—avoiding the issue, as it were. The right wing, on the other hand, is piling right onto the juggernaut. Tucked inside a recent New York Times Magazine feature devoted to the trendy ideas of 2001 comes the news that American imperialism is back. Is this a new-world response to a new kind of antagonist? Who cares? The new imperialists, sailing the flagship of the Project for the New American Century, propose to virtually triple the military budget—enough, suggests a PNAC official, to allow the U.S. the berth of Pax Britannica.
Then, from the $15 billion bailout of airlines (which did nothing for the 100,000-plus laid-off workers) to the $25 billion tax rebate Republicans were trying to shovel mega-corporations to the $50 or $60 billion bonus headed for a military-industrial complex that already spends more than the next 10 countries combined, the country is awash in an astonishing and obscene power-grab by the powers that already, voluminously, are. And they are using the war to push far-flung agendas. As James Albertine, president of the American League of Lobbyists, recently told The New York Times: “What happened was a tragedy, certainly, but there are opportunities. We’re in business. This is not a charity.”
In the end, all roads lead to the imperial United States. U.S. trade rep Robert Zoellick invoked the war to squash opposition at the recent WTO meetings in Doha. Richard Bernal, a Jamaican delegate to Doha, complained to British journalist John Pilger, “We feel that this WTO meeting has no connection with the war on terrorism, yet we are made to feel that we are holding up the rescue of the global economy if we don’t agree to a new round of liberalization measures.”
Activists here are making the connections. Jerome Scott, an organizer with the Atlanta-based Project South, which works with farmworkers, welfare recipients, and others, says, “My folks are beginning to ask how we can afford to dump billions of dollars into wars that may not end, and we can’t afford to do something about the poor. Believe me, people are patriotic, but because of everything that’s going on they are talking about U.S. foreign policy and ‘structural adjustment’ programs.”
The war on terrorism has quickly folded into another, ongoing conflagration. Consider that each year poverty leads to the death of some 13 million children in the global south, while the poorest send more to the U.S. in debt servicing than they receive in U.S. aid—half of which is actually military dollars for American friends manning often corrupt and vicious regimes. Global inequality is growing so rapidly that the richest fifth of the world now receives more than 80 percent of the world’s income and the poorest fifth 1.4 percent, a fivefold increase in inequality since 1970. The world’s 358 billionaires comprise a net worth equal to that of the bottom 45 percent of the world’s population. Not sure what to call this? The words terrorism and war come to mind.