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Paths to Peace -- News Analysis

Peace movement leaders encouraged by preemptive protest


As the U.S. military mobilizes for war, the peace movement is engaged in a preemptive strike of its own. The goal: Stop the bombs before they drop.

Playing David to the Bush administration’s Goliath, and aided by an international community hostile to a U.S.-led invasion, the coalition of groups arguing against an invasion of Iraq has proven that it can mobilize thousands of protesters -- hundreds of thousands by their counts -- on any given weekend.

Numbers matter. Demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend drew, by all accounts, more participants than well-attended late October rallies in those cities.

By way of comparison, University of San Francisco professor Stephen Zunes points to Vietnam War-era protests. “It was 1968 and 1969 -- five years of fighting and large scale American casualties -- before we had those kinds of crowds. And to have them before the war even starts says a lot.”

The peace movement claims some early victories, foremost among them pressuring the administration last summer to forego a preemptive strike in favor of renewed United Nations inspections of alleged Iraqi weapons-producing facilities.

“I have no doubt that we would be at war right now were it not for the antiwar movement,” said Zunes, author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.

The seeds of this activism were planted years ago, during the first Persian Gulf War.

“In 1991 many of us were both unfamiliar with the issues and knew next to nothing about Iraq,” recalled Kathy Kelly, who, through Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness, leads efforts to overturn economic sanctions against Iraq. Kelly has visited Iraq more than a dozen times since 1996 and will return there later this month.

“I think the major peace organizations in the United States, like the American Friends Service Committee, Pax Christi USA, the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, have all invested time and energy and money in making sure their constituents understand that the U.S. has brutalized and exhausted the Iraqi civilian population and really undermined the political machinery at the United Nations,” said Kelly.

Zunes participated in the Jan. 18 San Francisco demonstration. “The diversity of the movement is quite extraordinary -- it is well beyond the leftist and pacifist core and includes a real cross section of America,” he said. “I was struck by the number of families that were there, by the age range, by the large number of immigrant families, and by the visible presence of the religious community.”

War is not inevitable, said Zunes.

“What’s significant [about the protests] is not just the political impact on the administration, but that it might embolden the Democrats who have been shamefully weak in their opposition or supportive of the president’s policies to get a little backbone and start challenging the administration.”

Further, Zunes said, the demonstrations “will make the business community nervous -- not just about the costs of the war itself, which could be extraordinary, but in terms of what could result from massive protests and the whole divisive climate. People in business want stability -- they don’t want this kind of crazy stuff going on.”

Finally, he said, career members of the U.S. military -- out of a sense of “institutional self-preservation” -- will be affected by a visible opposition on the home front. “Right now, according to public opinion polls, the military is one of the most respected institutions in America. They don’t want to go back to the early 1970s where they couldn’t send recruiters onto college campuses without massive protests breaking out.”

Alternatives to war

What then, short of war, is the right response to Saddam Hussein?

Said Kelly: “I think the alternative scenario is to lift the [economic] sanctions and let the Iraqi economy re-inflate; rebuild the education and communications [infrastructure] and the social services so the people can move toward more democratic governing structures.” One key: restore the Iraqi oil industry and use the revenue generated there to rebuild the country.

Meanwhile, said Kelly, keep the inspectors in Iraq and work diplomatically to negotiate non-aggression pacts between Iraq and its neighbors.

And what of Saddam’s hideous human rights record? “I think it’s possible,” said Kelly, “that friendly negotiations that offer some actual carrots can help woo the new generation rising in Iraq. There are people working in that government who themselves are not guilty of torturing and killing people. There are people who have been trying to solve a myriad of problems [in] an economy that has been under stranglehold. Education is crucial, [as is] not cutting people off from the Western world and Western values.”

The history of regime change in other oppressive dictatorships offers some insights, said Zunes. Such changes, he said, “have not come through foreign intervention and only in a handful of cases has it been through armed revolution. The vast majority have been through nonviolent people power movements of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, the communist regimes of Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia, the military junta in Bolivia, in South Korea, and a dozen regimes in Africa”

Zunes, like Kelly, argued that economic sanctions have strengthened Saddam’s rule, not undermined it. “The reasons [opposition has not toppled Saddam] have a lot to do with the fact that these nonviolent movements [in other countries] were led by the urban middle class, but the middle class in Iraq has been totally decimated. If you’re dependent on the regime to get basic food and medicine for your children, you’re even less likely to take the already enormous risk of challenging the regime.”

He continued: “The way things are right now, the middle class that would otherwise be in the opposition has been replaced by a new class of black marketers who have taken advantage of the sanctions and support the status quo.”

Of the U.S. peace movement, said Kelly, “I have a sense that many of the people who on a very bitter cold January day traveled to Washington, D.C., are not going to go home and say, ‘Well, I did my piece for the peace movement and I’m not going to do anything again.’ I think there is going to be pretty sustained effort to persuade elected representatives, religious leaders, union leaders and community leaders that people are serious about trying to prevent this war, or, if the war starts, to bring it to a halt as soon as possible.”

This month, Kelly will return to Iraq with another Voices in the Wilderness delegation. Members of the group will be in there if U.S. forces attack; not as “human shields,” said Kelly, but as “a voice for people whose concerns are often eclipsed.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003