Time for the anti-war movement to throw down for racial and economic justice

Why peace activists must look beyond our own movement

In These Times
October 5, 2017
Phyllis Bennis

When the United States threatened to bomb Syria in 2013, an outpouring of public opposition helped stop the Obama administration from launching a new air war.

But this success also transformed existing disagreement over the conflict among anti-war organizers into bitter debates. Activists disputed the nature of the Assad regime and Syria’s domestic opposition forces; they diverged on what to do about ISIS, the neighboring countries and their militia proxies, and intervention by global powers. The intense intra-movement battle involved only a small cohort of people, largely on social media. But, while both sides agreed on many things, the feud derailed the rise of a unified and internationalist anti-war movement—a movement that would focus on ending the Syrian wars, rather than urging victory for a preferred side.

Of course, the movement’s mission extends beyond Syria. Anyone monitoring U.S. wars today is whipsawed as military crises—along with U.S. drones, bombers, troops, weapons and more—bounce from continent to continent, target to target. Iraq to Syria, North Korea to Yemen, Iran to Afghanistan, the Philippines to Somalia. Ending those lethal wars demands our urgent attention even as Charlottesville, Flint and Standing Rock continue to claim our time, commitment and passion.

An independent anti-war movement, especially a divided one, cannot take this on alone. Challenging the wars abroad, while at the same time addressing domestic crises, requires that we focus on building a larger, broader people’s movement in which the struggle against war and militarism is inextricably linked to the fight against racism, for equality, for the Earth and for justice.

During the George W. Bush years, the movement achieved significant victories, most notably the Feb. 15, 2003, global mobilization against the Iraq War. This may not have prevented the U.S. invasion, but it created a model for what a truly international protest could look like, helped keep Bush from attacking Iran and later helped inspire the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

When Barack Obama was elected, some activists believed that with a supposedly anti-war president, they could move on. In addition, the economic crisis meant that many more people faced newly desperate circumstances, necessitating a greater focus on urgent domestic issues, including housing, jobs and healthcare.

The movement strategized on how to respond. Should we focus on rebuilding an independent movement? Or prioritize building an anti-war component into other progressive movements? Supporters of the first idea won the debate, and produced some powerful short-term mobilizations. But subsequent movement-building efforts failed to sufficiently respond to the new political conditions. People of color and (excepting veterans) younger people were still underrepresented, and the movement still failed to sufficiently link militarism to the economic and racial justice campaigns on which younger activists had cut their political teeth.

This is why we must build on the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who, in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, called for a unified movement against “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism”—adding, as Dr. King surely would have, protection of the planet.

Yet, we still must figure out the dynamics of particular conflicts to determine how—and convince others why—to end specific wars. Today’s wars are vastly more complex than U.S. interventions during the Cold War. In those years, many activists supported “the other side”—the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the African National Congress in South Africa, the Sandinistas and the FMLN in Central America. It’s more difficult to ground our movements in international solidarity when “the other side” is composed of fighters we don’t support, who hold anti-democratic, extremist religious, misogynist or other reactionary views. We still have progressive counterparts—the Iraqi oil workers union, some Syrian opposition activists and more—but they’re not the ones engaged on the battlefield.

Here, we can learn from the strong anti-war movement following the 9/11 attacks. The two big coalitions—United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and ANSWER—divided over organizing strategy and whether to criticize the Saddam Hussein government. The broader of the two, UFPJ—powerfully anti-war but willing to criticize Hussein—grew far more influential, partly because its more nuanced position encouraged engaging a wider range of domestic and international organizations.

Today, we must ensure that opposing U.S. intervention in Syria does not blind us to Bashar al-Assad’s legacy of torture and collaboration with other U.S. wars, just as we have to acknowledge that however progressive and indeed heroic the original protest movement of Syria’s Arab Spring, the majority of those now engaged in armed anti-regime fighting are not those progressive heroes. While activists facing brutal repression in Syria or Libya or elsewhere may call for U.S. intervention, we must not uncritically accept that call.

Similarly, we have to recognize that Washington’s continued violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, requiring it to move toward full nuclear disarmament, is a major reason North Korea is so determined to produce nuclear weapons of its own. At the same time, we must insist that Kim Jong-Un’s threats are unacceptable.

To strengthen all our movements, we must also understand that militarism is a key cause of domestic crises: Military spending strips funds from the social safety net; excess Pentagon equipment sent to local police departments militarizes our communities; Islamophobia rises in response to wars abroad; militarism’s outsized carbon footprint threatens us all. The Movement for Black Lives, the new Poor People’s Campaign, various environmental and economic justice organizations, and many others already recognize this.

We in the anti-war movement must do better in getting accessible information and analysis—on the human, environmental and economic costs of war and militarism, and the integral links between war and racism—into the hands of today’s resistance.

©2017 In These Times and the Institute for Public Affairs

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