Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990
THE IRAQI INVASION of Kuwait has handed George Bush the best opportunity in years to lay the “Vietnam syndrome” to rest and make the U.S. people love Third World wars. Bush has seized the opportunity with both hands. He means to make the United States the world’s unrivaled military superpower, with license to invade anywhere anytime.
Bush, however, will face determined resistance: potentially a movement comparable to the movement against the Vietnam War.
The peace movement’s initial response was hampered by its traditional August lull, anti-Arab racism, widespread ignorance about Iraq and Kuwait, and justified anger about Iraq’s invasion. But despite the 7080% of the population polled who supported Bush’s deployment, only a fraction of those are willing to see U.S. soldiers die in an Arabian war.
Most are beginning to realize how terrible this war would be, fought in the desert against an army of a million armed with chemical weapons and (thanks in part to the United States) advanced missiles and planes. The Vietnam syndrome lives, and Bush knows it.
Dramatic presidential military action is always popular in the first few days, as we saw with the U.S. invasions of Grenada and Panama. He even managed to fool even some on the left by pretending to protect Saudi Arabia against an imaginary Iraqi invasion.
Only with time has Bush focused on his full goals: restoring the “legitimate” emir of Kuwait to his throne, overthrowing Iraq’s government and breaking its military power. Gradually, waverers on the left have moved into opposition, and many uncritical supporters among the general public have succumbed to doubt and fear.
Drawing the Lines
The softness of Bush’s support was clear from the start. In New York Times polls 53% of those polled said they would not be willing to pay higher taxes even to defend Saudi Arabia, and 48% doubted that Bush had exhausted possibilities for a diplomatic solution. The distribution of opposition was as striking as its size. While only 18% of men opposed sending troops, 36% of women were opposed. While whites were overwhelmingly in favor, African-Americans were split almost down the middle. Levels of opposition rose dramatically among people with lower incomes and less education.
In the days after Bush began sending U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, the media said repeatedly that the usual voices of opposition to U.S. intervention were silent this time. The truth was that by the end of August, every major national peace and anti-intervention organization had condemned Bush’s deployment.
Within the first weeks, there were demonstrations of several hundred people in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, San Diego, Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington D.C. By mid-September the numbers were in the thousands: 2,700 at an overflow public meeting in New York on September 13, about 3,000 at a Berkeley teach-in that same week.
The core of the protesters consisted of peace activists, Central America activists, Middle East activists and the socialist left. Palestine solidarity groups have played an important role in many cities. Cooperation among Jews, Palestinians and others on work for Israeli-Palestinian peace has paid off in joint work on the Gulf crisis.
Broadening the Struggle
These thousands of protesters represent a tiny fraction of those who don’t want a war. A better gauge of public opposition has been the deluge of calls to military counseling agencies from reservists who don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia, and the calls in response to newspaper ads and op-eds against the war. Potential opposition to the war is there to be mobilized.
Trade unionists, knowing the AFL-CIO’s especially reactionary stance on Middle East issues, have been reluctant so far to take a stand on the Persian Gulf. David Dyson, formerly with the National Labor Committee for Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador, was the only labor-related figure who signed the call to found a national campaign against the war.
Communities of color, where a war would obviously be unpopular, are still far from adequately represented in existing coalitions. Jesse Jackson’s initial support for the U.S. deployment may have sown some confusion among African-Americans. In fact the Rainbow Coalition is divided from top to bottom in this crisis, with some of its leaders opposing Jackson, calling for unconditional U.S. withdrawal and playing significant roles in the antiwar movement.
The ecology movement is another obvious source of opposition to a Persian Gulf war. Protests so far have highlighted demands for an energy policy meeting people’s needs instead of the oil multinationals’ interests, with an emphasis on conservation and alternative energy sources.
Around the world, Green parties and movements have been notable for their solid and swift opposition to U.S. war moves (particularly in contrast to the pathetic statements of most social democratic and many Communist parties). But the major U.S. environmental organizations have fallen short of this international standard. The Left Green Network was the only ecological group that participated fully in the founding of the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East.
The potential base among Christians as well as Muslims has already begun to be tapped. Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of New York has denounced U.S. intervention. The National Baptist Convention, USA, one of the country’s largest Protestant denominations, has somewhat timidly urged restraint on the U.S. government Several thousand Muslims gathered in Los Angeles to urge Senator Pete Wilson to oppose the war.
Unions, communities of color, ecologists and churches all require intensive outreach work to involve them in the movement to get the U.S. out of the Middle East Peace and anti-intervention activists who have organized the first protests have to continue to educate themselves in order to do this outreach: about the impact of racism in this country, the consequences of Third World intervention for working people, and the alternatives to fossil fuels, just for starters.
Unfortunately, this is likely to be a long-lasting crisis, with time for long-term organizing. Meanwhile, the movement has to come to grips with major internal disagreements, some dishearteningly reminiscent of Vietnam War-era divisions.
A soft wing in the peace movement, particularly William Sloane Coffin, Cora Weiss and some other leaders of Sane/Freeze, advocate not immediate U.S. withdrawal but stopping the U.S. buildup, starting negotiations, and working toward an eventual, gradual withdrawal. This same position, of course, provided cover for two different U.S. administrations that claimed to be negotiating peace in Vietnam through the long, bloody, futile years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This wing of the movement has counted for little in the early stages of organizing, however, since it has had minimal presence in local activist coalitions.
There have been more serious problems with groups on the socialist left who have refused to accept any criticism of Iraq. The Workers World Party, apparently finding in Saddam Hussein an anti-imperialist equal to the Chinese leaders whose massacre in Tiananmen Square it applauded last year, has been the most effective of these groups.
By finding an unexpected ally in former attorney general Ramsay Clark, Workers World has staked out a strategic position in the New York Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East. Several other local coalitions with healthier leaderships avoided splits at the outset far by ducking this question.
The national groups that have taken the lead in this movement so far—Mobilization for Survival, CISPES, Palestine Solidarity Committee and others—implicitly challenged the New York Coalition’s position by calling together a National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. The founding meeting, on September 18 in New York, brought together representatives of most of the major local coalitions and national peace and anti-intervention groups: about 150 people representing over eighty organizations.
With all sides of the movement as it currently exists represented, the meeting was exceptionally heated and difficult. In the end, the meeting voted two to one to condemn the Iraqi invasion, while putting the emphasis clearly on opposing U.S. intervention and demanding U.S. withdrawal. At the same time people made clear that their condemnation of Iraq implied no support for restoring the Kuwaiti emir. They called instead for a solution to the crisis based on self-determination for Kuwaitis, Palestinians and the whole of the Middle East.
A Calendar For Action
As this article is written, the fallout from the September 18 meeting is not yet clear. There is a chance, however, that those who lost the September 18 debate will still work together through the National Campaign, which may well become the effective center for the antiwar movement.
Meanwhile, the most prominent date on the organizing calendar is October 20. A call for major demonstrations on that date against U.S. intervention, issued by the New York Coalition, has been joined so far by coalitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit and Houston. The National Campaign also endorsed the call for October 20 at its September 18 meeting. These demonstrations will provide the best opportunity yet to judge the strength of antiwar sentiment.
The Pentagon will reportedly have troops and equipment in place for a fight with Iraq by mid- to late-October. Many speculate that Bush will launch a war then or soon after, either retaliating massively against an Iraqi provocation or manufacturing a “Tonkin Gulf”-type incident. But he has to realize that whatever protests take place now will be multiplied tenfold and more in size and militancy once the fighting starts.
As war looms in the Middle East, so does the war at home.
November-December 1990, ATC 29