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Protesting plans for U.S. war on Iraq


Caught off-guard by the fast pace of U.S. mobilization to war, the domestic peace movement has rapidly mobilized itself. Antiwar activists have combined time-tested tactics and leadership with new technologies, and some fresh faces, in an attempt to alter Bush administration policy toward Iraq.

Tactics include traditional lobbying. In late August hundreds of opponents of U.S. policy made the anti-war case to 97 home-state senate offices. And the tactics were often aided by the latest technology. Some of those meetings were conducted by videoconference; all of them were organized over the Internet by the Silicon Valley-based MoveOn.org, which has made the prospective war the focus of its most recent campaign for its 450,000 “online activists.” A petition with more than 160,000 antiwar electronic signatures -- an additional 40,000 have been added since the meetings -- was presented to the Senate staffers who met with the groups.

Interviewed by cell phone as she rushed along a Manhattan sidewalk to the studio where she would challenge the pro-war position of conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity, Voices in the Wilderness co-coordinator Kathy Kelly acknowledged “it would have been better if we started three months ago.” That said, Kelly continued, “At the grass roots level, there is a lot of movement now in the United States. Cracks have been created -- the U.S. is not immovable on these issues.”

The most visible fissures in the Bush agenda result from the tactical opposition to war of the old guard Republican foreign policy establishment. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, secretary of state to the first George Bush, for example, have both voiced grave doubts about the administration’s priorities.

Conservative members of Congress -- including House Majority Whip Dick Armey, Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Illinois -- followed suit, expressing varying degrees of unease with U.S. war plans.

“We’ve gotten some help from some unexpected quarters,” admitted Peace Action’s Scott Lynch.

Meanwhile, other quarters -- less prominent in name if not conviction -- are being heard from. They include 38-year-old mother-of three Laura Brodie, an adjunct professor of English at Washington and Lee University. Brodie, married to a former Marine who now serves as band director at the Virginia Military Institute, was moved to act by a July 5 New York Times story outlining potential U.S. war plans.

Her first step was to e-mail Virginia Sens. John Warner, R, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and George Allen, R. She received no response.

Next, she had 500 buttons produced. Brodie’s actual position on the war -- “no unilateral invasion against Iraq without proof of an imminent threat” -- was truncated on a stop-sign-styled pin to read: “No war against Iraq.”

That message resonated in Lexington, Va., population 10,000, and home to both the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee. “This has been a small way to start conversations with strangers,” said Brodie. “I have all sorts of people come up to me and ask ‘Where did you get that button?’ ” Aside from a few military institute cadets asking, “Did you see those antiwar protesters?” the buttons have drawn no hostility in conservative Lexington.

Most recently, Brodie organized a demonstration at the town’s annual Labor Day parade. As Warner marched, signs reading, “Only Congress has the power to declare war” and “No war against Iraq” greeted him. One sign, which drew the senator’s attention, thanked Warner for initiating hearings to explore U.S. policy. Warner was unconvinced but open to the argument made by former members of the military that the armed forces are “stretched too thin” to take on a war with Iraq, said Brodie.

Later, Brodie attended meetings organized by MoveOn.org with both Warner’s and Allen’s staff.

In Maryland, longtime peace activist and former SANE/Freeze executive director Sanford Gottlieb, joined with 30 others to lobby the staff of Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes. Presented with 2,000 Maryland signatures opposing war, a Sarbanes staff person told the group: “I can see [Sarbanes] in the next round of Foreign Relations Committee Hearings holding this up and waving and saying, ‘This is what I’m hearing from my constituents.’”

“I came away with a feeling that there really is [an antiwar] movement out there, which I had not expected,” said Gottlieb. “I hadn’t seen any intensity on the issue, but I sure saw it there.”

What effect has all this activity had?

Voices in the Wilderness’ Kelly felt heartened by a statement from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, issued soon after meeting with antiwar activists in her district. “Thousands of constituents have contacted me to express concern over a possible U.S. attack on Iraq,” Schakowsky said Sept. 6. “I agree that President Bush should not unilaterally undertake such an action.” While qualifying her opposition with an “at this time” preamble, Schakowsky said that she is “vigorously opposed to war with Iraq.”

Likewise, Eli Pariser, international campaigns director for MoveOn.org said, “Whether it was coincidence or not” California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, “adopted our language in saying stop the rush to war” soon after hearing from antiwar groups.

Next steps? There is discussion of a large rally in Washington for early October. Such efforts require time and resources that could be directed toward other activities, so the peace groups are divided over whether such a rally would best serve their cause.

MoveOn.org, meanwhile, will try to activate the 200,000 people who signed their electronic antiwar petition into a “grass roots action network” that will generate phone calls to members of Congress and letters to the editor. Plus, they are working with a core group of volunteers -- educating them to make one-to-one lobbying visits to key members of the House International Relations Committee.

The short-term goal, according to several activists, is postponement -- delaying Congressional war authorization to the point where their arguments resonate or events overtake the rush to war. “The most pragmatic strategy is to push the timeline out as far as possible,” said Peace Action’s Lynch. Last week Peace Action members flooded the White House and Congress with antiwar phone calls.

Said Gottlieb, “The value of all this is that it may succeed in modifying the administration approach and make it more open to try to seek U.N. action” -- such as inspections of Iraqi weapons facilities backed by the threat of force -- “rather than unilateral invasion.”

Such strategizing occurs, however, against the backdrop of an administration seemingly committed to war. “Time,” President Bush has warned, “is not on our side.”

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

Related Web sites

Peace Action


Voices in the Wilderness

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002