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Ukraine shows the urgency for an anti-war movement

In the face of daily news out of Ukraine, Joe Allen writes on the recent history of the anti-war movement to explain its current weak state, and to point to the urgency of rebuilding it.

We haven’t had an anti-war movement in the United States for so long it’s hard to remember what one looks like. For those of us active in the Iraq anti-war movement it’s easy to feel a bit nostalgic for it. After all, a month before the war began, up to ten million people across sixty countries gathered in protests over the weekend of February 15 and 16, 2003.  Some social movement researchers considered it, “the largest protest event in human history.”

For the next five years, anti-war activism meant regular demonstrations, protests against military recruiters and pro-war speakers, organizing educational forums, and defending Arabs and Muslims victimized by the racist hysteria whipped up by the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the war and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Labor activists for the first time in recent memory were even able to organize anti-war campaigning in our unions. But, there was a definite limit to it all. As I wrote two years ago:

The Iraq anti-war movement emerged out of the trauma of the September 11 attacks, but it was also shaped by the previous twenty-five years of a Left that had all but collapsed, the decimation of the trade unions, and the marginalization of most social movements. The largest demonstrations against the war took place before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not after.

Nan Levinson’s latest Tom Dispatch column The Antiwar Movement That Wasn’t Enough also reminds us: “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interminable as they seemed, had little or no direct effect on most of my students or the lives they imagined having and that was reflected in their relative lack of attention to them.”

Nevertheless, the collapse of the Bush administration’s lies that justified the invasion of  Iraq and the “Global War on Terror”, the spiraling costs of both occupations, the upsurge of armed resistance to the U.S.-led coalition occupation, the exploding sectarian violence, the growing casualty list of American dead and disabled, along with antiwar agitating in the United States dramatically shifted public opinion against the Iraq War.

What happened to the anti-war movement that leaves us in such a marginal, if not irrelevant, position during the current brinkmanship over Ukraine?

The Obama years

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 to the presidency was the most visible product of the crisis of Bush’s war policies. Obama was a young U.S. Senator with only a handful of years in federal office with few accomplishments but he gave a speech at an antiwar rally in  Chicago two weeks before Congress gave Bush authorization for military action against Iraq. It burnished his image as the antiwar candidate during the 2008 Democratic primaries and presidential campaign.

Opposition to the Bush presidency always had a strong partisan basis to it. Seen as an illegitimate president especially by Democratic voters because of the suppression of the black vote in Florida and his minority vote in the 2000 presidential election. Michael Moore’s 2004 epic documentary Fahrenheit 9/11—the highest-grossing documentary of all time—expressed what half the population thought of the Bush presidency.

Once in office, the strongly partisan-based opposition to the Bush presidency shifted to partisan-based support for Obama as he shifted U.S. war strategy towards drone strikes and the increased use of special forces. Meanwhile, U.S troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan fluctuated during the Obama years but the occupations nonetheless continued and were soon dubbed the “Forever Wars.” After a disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011, the taste for “regime change” by large segments of  the U.S. government waned.

What happened to the anti-war movement? The Obama presidency killed off what remained of the Iraq anti-war movement. Ashley Smith wrote back in 2014:

The most important liberal antiwar coalition in the era of the “war on terror,” United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), effectively closed up shop in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama–because its leaders believed that Obama and the Democrats would bring an end to Bush’s wars.

Obama also unleashed the Department of Justice on whistleblowers and journalists such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who revealed horrific materials on U.S. military war crimes and widespread illegal surveillance, relying on the WWI-era Espionage Act.

The Obama presidency was a disaster on many different levels from the anti-war movement to growing inequality to a resurgent far-right, despite the optimism that greeted him upon coming into office as the first African-American president, and the hope for a return of old fashioned liberalism into mainstream politics.

Meanwhile deeper changes were working their way through U.S. politics that would impact anti-war activism. In 2016, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton faced a surprisingly serious “democratic socialist” challenge for Democratic presidential nomination from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, while Donald Trump took down the Republican establishment with a lurid political message of xenophobia and authoritarianism.

Trump also tapped into anti-war sentiment in a war-weary country. Trump exaggerated his opposition to the Iraq War but he was perceived as the antiwar candidate because of his attacks on the Bush family’s and Hilary Clinton’s record of military intervention. In one memorable campaign speech, he declared she wasn’t fit to be president because: “She doesn’t have the temperament to be president. She’s got bad judgment. She’s got horribly bad judgment. If you look at the war in Iraq, if you look at what she did with Libya, which was a total catastrophe.”

Following the 2016 presidential election, researchers studied the relationship between U.S. military casualties and the vote for presidential candidates. It concluded that those counties with higher casualty rates voted for Trump. University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen told The Intercept:

Those writing both in universities and in most of the media are not regularly experiencing the cost of war. It’s not, again, on average their communities who are seeing as many deaths and it is more likely on average communities that are poorer, less educated, and are more rural. And I think it’s plausible, it’s certainly plausible I think that the … rhetoric of Trump’s campaign may have resonated with that group.

Trump gave the U.S. ruling class and its closest allies continual heartburn on foreign policy issues. He attacked the great sacred cow of U.S. foreign policy NATO portraying European allies as freeloaders, along with having a very public sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump played brinkmanship with China over trade but came up empty, while having a series of failed meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. However, the one major provocative military action that Trump took during his presidency revealed the weakened state of the anti-war movement but also offered a glimmer of a potential future for it.

Soleimani assassination

President Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, while he was on an official state visit to Iraq on January 3, 2020. The shock of the assassination reverberated worldwide and produced widespread, if only momentary, panic among young people that WWIII was about to break out. Soleimani’s assassination drew parallels with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in June 1914 that sparked the First World War.

Several hashtags including #WWIII and #WorldWarThree started trending nationally, while the website of the Selective Service System (SSS)—that compiles an ongoing list of young men for possible military service—crashed. Selective Service was forced to issue a public statement: “The Selective Service System is conducting business as usual. In the event that a national emergency necessitates a draft, Congress and the President would need to pass official legislation to authorize a draft.”

Neither the U.S. nor Iran, however, wanted a full-scale war. Iran was prepared to absorb the assassination of its most celebrated general, in return for firing twenty-two missiles at two U.S. military bases in Iraq. “The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards [over Soleimani] has begun,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps declared.

RAlly in Eugene, Oregon.  Part of a nationwide response to Trump’s assassination of Iran’s top general. Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe.

While Trumped bragged that the U.S. had “no casualties” as a result of the missile attacks—the truth was very different. One hundred and nine U.S. military personnel suffered traumatic brain injuries. But, despite this, the U.S. didn’t respond. This bit of political theater was one of the oddest episodes in recent U.S. diplomatic and military history.

The lack of response revealed how much the U.S establishment was allergic to getting involved in another protracted war in the Middle East. The situation soon returned to “normal” where the U.S. maintains crushing sanctions on the Iranian economy, while its Navy’s Fifth Fleet patrols the Persian Gulf with a huge armada ready to strike Iran at a moment’s notice.

Yet, the short-lived war scare revealed many things about the state of anti-war politics. Taking place at the beginning of the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries, all of the Democratic contenders attacked Trump for his “provocative action” but they were all quick to attack Soleimani. The most severe criticisms of Trump were leveled by Bernie Sanders. He called Soleimani’s killing an “assassination” when few others were prepared to do so. Trump’s actions were, according to Sanders:

A dangerous escalation that brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East, that could cost us countless lives and trillions of dollars. I have gone to too many funerals in my own state. I have talked to too many mothers who have lost their kids in war. I have talked to too many soldiers, men and women, who have come home with PTSD, or come home without arms and without legs.

“No War on Iran” protests were called for the weekend of January 4, and a surprisingly young crowd turned out, a heartening development after so many years of little anti-war campaigning. “Though still modest in size, rallies and demonstrations took place in seventy to ninety cities, ranging from a few dozen to five to six hundred people. Pre-planned canvasses for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign were cut short so DSAers could attend,” I wrote back then.

However, the down side of the protests revealed the sclerotic state of anti-war organizing. “Most local and national anti-war groups such as ANSWER, United for Peace and Justice, and U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) have devolved into largely website groups with few active members and resources, and haven’t done anything significant or even met in years.” Two years later these groups stumble on largely as ghost ships with no significant change in the character or organizing abilities.

Micro-Stalinist groups like the Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Freedom Road Socialist Organization have played an outsized role in what they call “anti-war” organizing but were really mobilizations of support for their favored authoritarian regimes, whether they be China, North Korea or Syria. But, this approach to imperialism extends beyond these tiny groups to the largest groups in the U.S., the Democratic Socialist of America (DSA). The DSA’s International Committee statement rightly attacks the U.S. and NATO but doesn’t condemn Russian imperialism.

It is one thing to call for stopping a U.S. attack on another country, it is another to call for political support of the authoritarian regimes that oppress their own people. The role of these micro-Stalinist groups has been one of the more visible signs of the crisis in anti-war activism for the past decade. Yet, the younger generation that came out to protests, and the wider anxiety produced by Trump ordering Soleimani’s assassination, shows us that they are acutely aware of the possibility of global conflagration.

Brinkmanship and Ukraine

Where does this leave us during the current crisis over Ukraine? Not in good shape to start with. Joe Biden ran against Trump on restoring credibility to the U.S. state and its political and military alliances that Trump largely trashed during his presidency, and that includes NATO, the most important U.S.-led military alliance in the world. NATO is not the defensive alliance that its advocates like to portray it as but instead a war-making alliance. NATO’s first Secretary-General British Lord Ismay famously declared that the mission of the alliance was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

NATO, of course, has had to adjust to a unified and powerful Germany to absorb many of the former republics that once made up the USSR-led Warsaw Pact alliance. The collapse of the USSR had created  a unipolar world under U.S. domination for three decades. The verbal agreement given by President George H.W. Bush to former Communist Party General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not extend its boundaries to the Russian border was broken. Russia’s current push back over Ukraine with demands to remove troops and weapons from Eastern Europe and return NATO to its 1997 borders is fundamentally about it reasserting its own imperial “sphere of influence.” Not just in Europe but also in Central Asia.

Few organizations in the U.S. have the political tools to understand and operate politically in this vastly more complicated world of competing imperialisms across the globe. The old socialist slogan of “The Main Enemy Is At Home” has been twisted to a one-sided formula for opposing one imperialism but in many cases supporting another. The possibility that the current brinkmanship over Ukraine could lead to world war is on everyone’s mind. While Biden has cobbled together the creaky NATO alliance to confront Putin’s Russia including rushing hundreds of tons of weapons, ammunition, and troops to Eastern Europe, he has also said he won’t send U.S. troops to Ukraine because it could lead to “a world war.”

We haven’t witnessed this kind of brinkmanship since the early 1960s when the conflict over the status of Berlin in 1961 and the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 nearly brought about global nuclear war. Following the missile crisis, the U.S. and USSR established mechanisms to prevent a nuclear holocaust but shifted their military rivalry from the heart of Europe to much of the rest of the world. Large swaths of the globe from Southeast Asia to the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Central America were laid waste and societies upended by direct U.S. military intervention or proxy wars.

Baron Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, First General Secretary of NATO, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo from the U.S. National Archives.

The rise of China as the major economic rival to the U.S., along with two disastrous wars (highlighted by the disastrous retreat from Afghanistan last year) has put the United States in a weakened position but not anything akin to bankrupt status of former Great Powers Like Great Britain or France following the WWII, or the weakened state of Russia following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

While the U.S. pivots to Asia to confront China it also has to hold onto Europe. The “Great Game“ of nineteenth century global politics, namely who will control the Eurasia continent is being played out before our very eyes. Who controls the Eurasia continent will dominate world politics. Whether the current brinkmanship over Ukraine leads to war or is the first of many conflicts to come, we need to prepare ourselves politically.

The political terrain for anti-war campaigning has changed dramatically during the last two decades. The Iraq anti-war movement was organized under an unpopular Republican president, and died during the Obama years. Over the last year, the U.S. Left has collapsed almost on cue from the day Biden was elected to office. Meanwhile, far right parties in Europe and the Trumpian right in the United States are openly pro-Putin. Russian socialist Iyla Budraitskis recently told International Viewpoint:

The European left has lost interest in internationalism. They see the world as a conflict between US imperialism and those who oppose it. The anti-imperialist position is dominant among many left forces in Europe. Among them we find, quite surprisingly, sympathy for Putin, because he resists the political domination of the United States. It seems to me that, in the light of the conflict in Ukraine, there is an urgent need to renew the internationalist approach of the European left to international politics. That would be very useful for us.

We may have to compete with the Trumpian Right in creating an anti-war movement based on international solidarity and freedom for oppressed peoples.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Вадим Ковальов. Image modified by Tempest.

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Joe Allen View All

Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer. His latest book is The Package King: A Rank and File History of UPS.