Dazed and confused about Iraq

ANSWER supports "the Iraqi anti-colonial resistance." Military Families Against the War wants to bring their loved ones home safely. Others who rallied Saturday just hate Bush. Can this antiwar movement be saved?

Published October 27, 2003 3:12PM (EST)

Allan Johnson, a high school English teacher and debate coach from Fairfax, Va., held a sign saying "U.S. Troops Out of Iraq. Bring Them Home Now!" at Saturday's "End the Occupation" rally in Washington. In fact, though, Johnson isn't sure he wants to bring the troops home now, or to end the American occupation of Iraq. At least, not yet.

"We've made a giant mess," said Johnson, a handsome man who wore his long snowy hair in a ponytail and had a sparkling stud in one ear. "I would hate for the Bush administration to halfway fix things and then leave, and then blame the Iraqis if things go wrong. Once you go to somebody's house and break all the windows, don't you owe them new windows?"

Why, then, was he marching at an End the Occupation rally? "I don't agree with all the people here, believe you me," he said. But his own sign? He glanced at it, startled, and explained that someone had handed it to him. "I didn't even look at it," he said. "I was just waving it."

Many of the thousands of people who traveled from across the country to march on Washington Saturday were afflicted by a similar disconnect between the slogans they were rallying behind and their own sentiments about the situation in Iraq. Some said they recognized that a unilateral American departure from the country could be as destructive as a unilateral American invasion, but they wanted to demonstrate their opposition to the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. The End the Occupation rally, co-sponsored by ANSWER, a front group for the Stalinist Workers' World Party, and the more moderate United for Peace and Justice, seemed the only game in town. Many apparently decided to pretend that "end the occupation" really means "bring in the U.N.," despite ANSWER's blunt and repeated avowals that it means nothing of the sort.

It was a day full of purposeful misunderstandings. Members of Military Families Speak Out, a group of soldiers' relatives who oppose the war their loved ones are fighting, shared the stage with members of ANSWER, a group that's aligned itself with the guerrillas who are killing American troops and those Iraqis who cooperate with them. Both want to end the occupation, but for quite different reasons.

The rally was just the latest example of liberal confusion and mixed messages over postwar Iraq, as progressives try to figure out how to oppose Bush's policies in a way that doesn't punish the Iraqi people for the administration's mendacity. Angry at the way Iraq's reconstruction has turned into a bonanza for Bush's corporate cronies, powerful Democrats along with some Republicans have tried to block grants to rebuild Iraq, and progressive groups have adopted nativist arguments insisting that Americans' money should be spent in America. What's lost in such reasoning, of course, is any sympathy for beleaguered Iraqis, whose misfortune it was to live under Saddam Hussein, and be liberated by a president who lied to his own people and alienated the world.

Held on a dazzling autumn day, the rally didn't draw the masses that demonstrated against the war before it began, but the crowd was impressive nonetheless, given that much of the prewar urgency has dissipated in the postwar slog. ANSWER claimed an unlikely 100,000 marchers, while police estimates ranged between 10,000 and 20,000. Either way, the event showed that the antiwar movement has been able to sustain some of its passion, even after the war itself became a fait accompli.

Meanwhile, the influence of the antiwar movement, which has done much to catapult Howard Dean to the front of the Democratic primary pack, continues to be felt in the party. On Oct. 17, 11 Democratic senators, including presidential candidates John Kerry and John Edwards, and a majority of House Democrats voted against an $87 billion spending package for Iraq and Afghanistan. Previously, Democrats tried to split the funding bill in order to provide for the troops while subjecting reconstruction money to further scrutiny and cuts.

Some who voted no objected to the lack of administration accountability. But much of the rhetoric coming from liberal Democrats suggested a strangely conservative resistance to the whole idea of aiding foreigners when Americans are in need.

"We cannot afford to give this president another blank check to spend on his Iraq adventure when so many people are suffering through a recession here at home and when our nation's critical infrastructure needs are being neglected," said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., explaining why she voted no on Bush's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Watson's viewpoint is one encouraged by antiwar groups. MoveOn.org, the online progressive fundraising powerhouse, has been running isolationist commercials against the $87 billion appropriation. Over shots of sad-looking Americans, a voice-over says, "We could have built 10,000 new schools, or hired almost 2 million new teachers. We could have rebuilt our electric grid. We could have insured more of our children. Instead, George Bush wants to spend that $87 billion in Iraq. If there's money for Iraq, why isn't there money for America?"

This position resonates with Americans. In a CBS News Poll taken on Oct. 20 and 21, 59 percent of respondents opposed spending $87 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's clearly popular with activists. At Saturday's rally, presidential candidate Al Sharpton, dapper in a cream-colored jacket and black turtleneck, drew some of the event's loudest cheers when he roared, "Don't give Bush 87 billion! Don't give him 87 cents! Give our troops a ride home!"

And yet liberals who reluctantly backed the war continue to argue that their antiwar colleagues are forgetting about the people of Iraq. "Pulling out of Iraq now would be calamitous for the Iraqis, and everyone knows it, except for the Baathists, the most extreme Islamists, and the nincompoops," says Paul Berman, author of the recent book "Terror and Liberalism."

Nor is turning all occupation duties over to the U.N. a realistic option. Even if authority for the occupation is turned over to the United Nations, as many believe it must be, America will still be expected to foot most of the bill and provide most of the troops.

George Packer, editor of "The Fight is for Democracy," a collection of essays about America and its role in the world after Sept. 11, would like to see progressives put pressure on the administration to do more for the people of Iraq, rather than less. But Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says, "I see little evidence of any such liberal alternative that is serious and constructive for the people of Iraq, unfortunately." Liberals who care about the welfare of Iraqis, he says, must "start to distinguish between their dislike of Bush and their recognition that the mission must succeed. That would be a big start, and the crucial one."

"Hatred of Bush and the opportunism of Democratic politicians has created a tactical alliance between mainstream Democrats and the fringe," says Packer, who writes about his own six-week trip to Iraq in a forthcoming New Yorker article. "It's disappointing to see both presidential candidates and leading members of Congress really fail to see the importance of what's going on in Iraq right now. You can object to no bid contracts, you can object to cronyism and waste as I do, without undermining the basic understanding that we are committed to this and we have an enormous obligation to the Iraqis. I don't see why you have to choose between disliking Halliburton and supporting the Iraqis in their efforts to create a decent society."

Right now, though, there's no liberal message that separates the welfare of the Iraqi people from that of the Bush administration. In a New Republic article this week, Michael Crowley quotes Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., complaining that his colleagues' Iraq stances are driven by blind rage. "In trying to pin them down, I say, 'At the end of the day, we have to have a policy to cope with what to do now,'" he told Crowley. "And they say, 'Well, we're just pissed off.' They don't really even attempt to argue the policy of it."

What Smith says about other congressmen is even more true of many of their constituents. At Saturday's rally, people from across the country came together to protest a war that's already happened and argue for a solution that many of them, if pressed, believe is both unrealistic and potentially catastrophic.

Because the rally was smaller that those preceding the war, there was a larger ratio of would-be communist revolutionaries, Zionist conspiracy mongers and skinny teenage anarchists with black bandannas covering their faces. Someone flew an Iraqi flag, the version Saddam instituted in 1991, which added the words "Allahu Akbar" to the three green stars at its center. At one point, a dapper, avuncular white-haired man in a nice camel coat sidled up to me and said in a thick European accent, "So, what are we going to do about the Zionists?"

"I don't know," I said. "What do you think?"

"I think we should oppose them. I think that Malaysian guy hit the nail on the head," he said, referring to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who recently said that Jews rule the world by proxy.

Yet the majority of the demonstrators were not Judeophobes or Baathist stooges. They were people who'd opposed the war all along, who felt betrayed and marginalized by their government and the media's failure to take their concerns seriously, and who wanted a new American foreign policy. For many of them, "end the occupation" was a kind of shorthand. They didn't take it literally. But the people who called the protest did.

Unlike many Democrats, ANSWER isn't confused about where it stands on Iraq. According to an ANSWER pamphlet, "Counter-revolution & Resistance in Iraq," "The anti-war movement here and around the world must give its unconditional support to the Iraqi anti-colonial resistance." The group, whose prodigious organizing ability allowed it to lead much of the antiwar movement, is organizing "Bring the Troops Home Now" committees across the country to circulate petitions demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

ANSWER is clear that it doesn't want U.N. troops to replace Americans. According to an ANSWER newspaper that volunteers were distributing at the rally, "The ANSWER Coalition promotes the demand, 'Bring the troops home now, end the occupation of Iraq.' Some other groups call instead for turning the Occupation Authority over to the United Nations ... The Iraqis have shown they want no foreign, imperial forces to become the arbiters of their political and economic process ... Given the U.N.'s record in Iraq the last 13 years, why would the Iraqi people agree that this same UN should be the institution to serve as the guarantor in a transition to renewed sovereign control?"

Despite their differing loyalties, Military Families has also come out against an international presence in Iraq. At Saturday's rally Susan Shuman, whose son has been in Iraq since March, told the crowd, "We are very clear that the occupation of Iraq is the problem and not the solution. It is the problem for the people of Iraq who continue to be in harm's way, it is the problem for our troops who continue to die on a daily basis ... It cannot be solved by replacing American troops with Japanese troops, with troops from Turkey, Latvia or Spain. Don't deploy them, don't extend them, don't replace them. Bring them home now!"

The crowd erupted in chants of, "Bring them home! Bring them home!"

Sharpton sounded a similar note, slamming Democrats who disagree. "Let's be clear," he said. "There are some that are trying to act as though you can be against the war but for gradual withdrawal. If you're against the war, you want the war stopped now, and the only way to stop it is to end it right now."

And then what? After all, there is a near consensus among experts that, if America suddenly abandoned Iraq, civil war would ensue. Most Iraqis want to see America repair their utilities and fund the building of a new government infrastructure. Yet in conceiving of Iraq exclusively as Bush's venal adventure, Saturday's antiwar speakers, like many Democrats and progressives, left no affirmative role for liberals in resurrecting that broken country.

"I wasn't for it in the first place, so I don't feel I have a responsibility," Matt Hundley, a 21-year-old from West Virginia, says of the war and its aftermath.

Most demonstrators weren't so overtly callous. Some saw America as the source of all instability in Iraq, and thus couldn't imagine its troops bringing anything but travail to the Iraqi people. Protestor Laura Beauvais, a professor of business at the University of Rhode Island, was against appropriating $87 billion to Iraq. When asked what Americans owe the Iraqi people, she said, "We owe them help getting basic things like schools and healthcare." But how to provide that, without spending American money? "How you do that is beyond someone like me. It doesn't have to be through more troops, and giving money to corporations," she said.

Toward the end of the march, Richard Whelan, a third-generation military veteran with a son in the Air Force, stood with a sign saying, "Bush's War Time Sacrifices: My Child. Your Child. Our $. Our Future." A real-estate salesman from Maine with steel gray hair and a wise, lined face, he was among the small minority of protestors who had thought out the implications of his proposed solution. He would be happy to see $87 billion of American money channeled through the U.N., he said, and wished for a "phased withdrawal -- an announcement that we were going to phase out and the U.N. was going to phase in."

At the same time, he wanted American Iraq policy to be overseen by the State Department, not the Pentagon, and he said the Peace Corps should have a role in the nation's rebuilding. "I can see many Americans over there," he said. "They may die over there, but they would die for a just cause."

Whelan was joined by Eric Lazarus, owner of a New York City software company. The conversation turned to the wisdom of the protest's call for an abrupt American pullout, and Lazarus said, "It may sound like an irresponsible thing to say, 'Bring the troops home now,' but it's an attempt to get the dialogue started. Look, the U.S. isn't going to pull out. It's not a part of the national debate."

He had hit on one of the key dynamics shaping both Democratic and leftist demands on Iraq -- the sense that since progressives have so little power, it doesn't much matter what they call for. That's why Johnson, who was surprised by the sentiments on his own sign, could say, when asked what he wants to see done in Iraq, "We should announce to the world that we're going to commit to using our power for good." Pressed further, he said, "I voted for Nader, so I'm not a realist."

It's becoming an abominable cliché to mention George Orwell when discussing the debate over Iraq, but a quote of his from "The Lion and the Unicorn" seemed particularly apt on Saturday. "The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers," he wrote. "The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power."

Or, as Packer says, the cry "End the occupation" is "an expression of impotence, an inability to make distinctions. In this case, impotence and omnipotence are two sides of the same coin. You can think anything because it won't matter. That frees people up to not think about Iraq."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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Iraq Middle East United Nations