Against the Current, No. 30, January/February
AS THIS LETTER is being written, the United Nations Security Council has “authorized” military action against Iraq. 200,000 more U.N. troops are being deployed to satisfy the desires of President Bush for “offensive military capacity” unless Iraq withdraws unconditionally from Kuwait. By January 15 or shortly thereafter—or some incident or provocation—the U.S. may already be at war. Thousands of people may be dying.
What the military experts are debating now is how many U.S. troops would die in the first week or so of fighting: 5000, or 10,000, or 20,000, or 30,000. That’s in comparison with 55,000 U.S. deaths in ALL THE YEARS of the Vietnam War. U.S. casualties would be heavily concentrated among the African-American, Latino, and working class and poor white combat troops. And with massive bombing planned to minimize U.S. deaths, Arab deaths are likely to be in the HUNDREDS of thousands.
All this doesn’t make war 100 percent inevitable Saddam Hussein might still surrender, or be overthrown, or be pressured into making an offer that Bush wouldn’t feel able to refuse. More cautious officials in the Bush Administration might prevail over the reckless gamblers who now seem to have the upper hand. But the likelihood is war.
For a war like this to start would be a defeat in itself, for the left and for humanity. War would be an absolute evil; any conceivable result would be a bad one. But a victory for the United States in the war would be the greatest evil among the possible outcomes, because of the long-lasting consequences: a military occupation of the Gulf lasting for many years, a huge shift in the balance of forces in favor of imperialism and against movements for self-determination in the Arab world or anywhere else, a revival of military triumphalism in U.S. politics at precisely the moment when the permanent war economy needs to be dismantled. It would be a victory for the U.S. ruling class and military machine, but a defeat for the people of this country and the world.
To prevent war and to prevent the reactionary consequences that would result from a U.S. victory, we have to build the movement against the war. The most sophisticated socialist analysis means nothing unless socialists are IN the antiwar movement We also need to broaden the movement, because as currently constituted it is not strong enough to stop the war. The turnout in the October 20 antiwar protests—thousands in New York and San Francisco, hundreds elsewhere in the U.S.—was pretty good. But the people who demonstrated on October 20 were predominantly, though not exclusively, white, middle-class veterans of the peace and solidarity movements—despite the fact that in the polls opposition to this war is dearly correlated with low income, lack of education and nonwhite skin.
The movement that could stop this war would be the active movement of at least a substantial part of the millions who oppose it, not only of the tens of thousands we saw on October 20. Whether we can mobilize this potential movement fast enough and thoroughly enough top the war short of U.S. victory is an open question; but we have to try. We need to find ways to link up with the anger in the population about austerity, about racism, about the oil companies.
Another step forward was taken in early December, with demonstrations of thousands in Boston, Chicago and other cities and a call by a broad coalition of forces for a mass “Bring the Troops Home Now” mobilization to be held January 26 in Washington, DC and the West Coast. Teach-ins on numerous campuses are drawing huge audiences; opposition to the war is growing, putting the new anti-war movement far ahead of the movement that existed at the beginning of the Vietnam War.
To make this movement effective, we need to keep it focused on the demand for unconditional U.S. withdrawal. There are people in this movement who don’t even want to mention U.S. withdrawal. They want to say: stop the buildup, negotiate. This position makes no sense. When the dynamic of U.S. deployment is toward total war, either you say get the troops out of there or you’re acquiescing in the war drive. Conditional calls for U.S. withdrawal—for U.S. withdrawal as part of an overall settlement, or for simultaneous U.S. and Iraqi withdrawal—fall into the same category. If the US. shouldn’t get out before Iraq gets out, why should people mobilize before Iraq gets out?
Still worse are the justifications, explicit or implicit, for military action against Iraq that are being made within the movement. These justifications take the form of calls for a multilateral rather than unilateral approach, or for putting the U.S. troops under a United Nations flag. There are many sincere antiwar activists who want to compromise with these multilateralists.
It’s understandable that some people see the United Nations as a neutral force that can mediate the Iraq-Kuwait dispute and help avert direct U. S. intervention. After the Korean War, U.S. attempts to use the U.N. as a cover for interventions were often frustrated by an alliance of the Soviet Bloc and various Third World regimes. Today, however, the Soviet Union, once glad to embarrass the U.S. in international forums, is now more concerned about getting U.S. aid to help it out of its desperate economic straits. Most Third World governments feel they have little alternative but to accommodate to imperialist power. (Yemen’s vote against the November 29 Security Council resolution was followed by an immediate cutoff of U.S. aid.) As a result, the UN. In the Gulf crisis simply provides a cover for U.S. intervention, which thus receives the stamp of approval of the “world community.”
Even before the Security Council resolution adopted on November 29 (supposedly a day for the U.N. to mark solidarity with the Palestinian people!) authorizing war against Iraq, the U.N. had already approved the huge military deployment as well as the air, land and sea embargo against Iraq. The idea that the U.N. would hinder the U.S. war in any practical way was always an illusion, and now a fatal one that could weaken the antiwar movement in the face of a U.N.-authorized war.
A Democratic Movement
Once the movement is united around a demand for unconditional U.S. withdrawal, socialists should help prevent splits around secondary issues. There have been too many splits in this movement already, sometimes precipitated by lack of democracy in coalition decision- making. This is tragic. Socialists, who believe that working and oppressed people should make the decisions about their own lives, should be consistent champions of democracy in the antiwar movement.
Many of the splits in the movement’s first months have happened over three substantive issues: calls for self-determination, calls for a negotiated settlement, and condemnations of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. People in the movement can legitimately differ on these issues. We see no reason to split a coalition over any of them. Since there is not enough space in this editorial to address any of them adequately, we will only make a few points.
Against The Current condemns, as violations of democratic rights, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, as well as the imperialist efforts to restore the emir. Self-determination for the self-defined elite of Kuwaiti “citizens,” a minority of the prewar population, is a mockery of the idea of self-determination. But a call for self-determination by all the people who lived and worked in Kuwait is perfectly legitimate and has practical advantages. Since this body of people would not be likely to restore the emir, the demand is in flat contradiction to the U.S. war aims. It says: Let the people there decide for themselves, without interference from U.S. troops. It also helps make a crucial connection with the Palestinian struggle for their independent state. This shows the hypocrisy of the U.S. government, which rushed troops to the Mideast ostensibly in support of Kuwaiti national rights, but has funded and supported the brutal denial of Palestinian national rights for decades.
How is the right of the peoples of the Middle East to self-determination going to be realized? As revolutionary socialists, we think the best way is for people to rise up against the U.S. invaders and every existing government in the Middle East. The Palestinian intifada is an example of a movement that opens a real path toward self-determination.
Unfortunately, there is no movement resembling the Palestinian intifada on the horizon in Kuwait or lraq or Saudi Arabia. Even if a U.S.-Iraq war leads to revolutions in several Arab countries—which could happen—Islamic fundamentalists and authoritarian nationalists seem better positioned to lead them than socialists.
In these circumstances, socialists may not have a convincing alternative to the call for a negotiated settlement. This is unfortunate. The U.S. and Iraq are more likely to agree to restore the emir under some kind of Iraqi protectorate—a Hong Kong-type solution—than to agree on democratic elections in Kuwait. But for the time being, probably the best that revolutionary socialists can hope to win in coalitions is clarity about the kind of negotiated settlement that we could all live with: a settlement based on nonintervention and genuine self-determination.
The biggest controversy within the movement so far has been over whether it’s acceptable for coalitions to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When socialists can help hold a coalition together without getting into this brouhaha over the Iraqi invasion, we should do so.
For us, this is an issue of tactics, not principle: We do not accept the argument that ordinary people, or peace activists, or socialists in the U.S. have “no business criticizing Arabs about an internal Arab conflict.” Our imperialist government has no such right, given its own record and the politics of its interventions; but when people’s democratic rights ANYWHERE are trampled by a brutal dictatorship, all progressive movements—let alone revolutionary socialists—should be in internationalist solidarity with the victims.
Nor do we accept some leftists’ logic that while Marxists can be trusted to condemn the Iraqi invasion without clouding the main issue of opposing U.S. intervention, the broader antiwar movement can’t be trusted in the same way. If the revolutionary left can walk and chew gum at the same time, so can activists in the broader movement.
We should argue for avoiding the issue of condemning Iraq ONLY for an important tactical reason: in the interests of unity. The paramount question of principle, of policy and of survival is to Bring the Troops Home Now.
January-February 1991, ATC 30