by Mark Harris
“What’s incredible was the guy who was president then was Richard Nixon, which shows that when you build a big movement from down below, regardless of who’s in the White House, you can bring about change." — Tony Mazzochi, former legislative director of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, on passage of the first Occupational and Safety Health Act in 1970. (New York Times, Aug. 24, 2002)
Some of the more enthusiastic moments at the March 20 antiwar rallies around the country occurred when speakers raised the specter of President Bush being given the electoral equivalent of a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas, next November. It’s an understandable reaction. The Bush Administration is arguably the single worst thing to happen at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since the British torched it in 1812.
But the fires this time are those of an unbridled demagoguery and deceit and crass superpower nationalism. The White House war against Iraq was built on a house of lies and oil and imperial ambitions that left unchecked now threaten even worse conflagrations to come. With over 700 American soldiers and an estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians now dead as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq (not to mention unspecified casualties of the former Iraqi army), it would hardly be an overreaction to suggest that the Bush Administration deserves not another term in the White House, but a war crimes tribunal.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that international law, such as it is, will soon be bringing to justice the perpetrators of this war. That’s because international law now is not much more than a polite term for what is otherwise the modern-day rule of clubs and cluster bombs. Whoever has the most becomes judge, jury, and final arbiter of something supposedly akin to "justice" in this world.
It’s also unfortunate that the upcoming U.S. Presidential election offers no likelihood whatsoever that an antiwar candidate will be elected who will do the principled thing and end the U.S. occupation of Iraq. At least not at their own initiative. Apparently, Senator John Kerry’s run-away Democratic primary campaign has emboldened the Massachusetts politician only in the sense that he has stepped up his efforts to win support from those who share his friend Senator John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) view that the occupation of Iraq remains a "noble cause."
As Tim Russert noted on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kerry is sounding a lot like Bush these days when he talks about Iraq. Considering what a messianic ideologue of war Bush is, that’s saying a lot. Asked if he thought the Iraq war was a "mistake," Kerry would only say that it was the way the President went to war that was a mistake. As he earlier declared in a February 2004 speech at UCLA, "Whatever we thought of the Bush Administration’s decisions and mistakes — especially in Iraq — we now have a solemn obligation to complete the mission, in that country and in Afghanistan."
Kerry’s stay-the-course stance on Iraq is becoming more ironic by the day as support for the occupation plummets, both domestically and in Iraq. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 46 percent of Americans believe the United States should find a way to get out of Iraq. In Iraq itself, a poll taken by western news services just prior to the recent outbreak of violence in Fallujah found a majority of Iraqis — 57 percent — want the U.S. military and its occupation allies out of the country ‘in the next few months." Where the violence of recent weeks has since driven Iraqi opinion is not hard to surmise.
Actually, Kerry is somewhat less inclined on the war issue than the President to engage in all the claptrap rhetoric about bringing "freedom" and "democracy" to Iraq. His declared concern now is more the establishment of a stable, pro-U.S. (i.e., compliant) Iraqi government. And so it goes that the more things change, the more they stay the same: the same concerns for pro-western stability once led President Carter and the CIA to support the 1979 internal Ba’ath party coup that originally brought Saddam Hussein to power. The same concerns led the Republican administrations of presidents Reagan and later Bush, Sr. to remain steadfast in their fidelity to Hussein’s dictatorial rule throughout the 1980s (the decade of his greatest military power and human rights crimes).
The same concerns also led President Bush Sr., to hold back from seeking the dictator’s overthrow in 1991, even after a mass Shi’ite rebellion in the south in the aftermath of the first Gulf War threatened just that. Likewise, concerns for regional stability, not "freedom" and "democracy" or even "weapons of mass destruction," motivated President Clinton’s unflinching support of U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq, designed as they were to weaken but not destroy the central government while creating devastating conditions for the civilian population.
Accordingly, it is no surprise that while President Bush and apologists for the occupation blather on about bringing "freedom" to Iraq, occupation authorities are also moving to bring back into the fold former Ba’ath Party officials and Saddamista military officers, to collaborate in the rebuilding of what is destined to be a new repressive political-security apparatus not essentially different from what Iraq has already known for decades.
What’s a Progressive to Do?
The Massachusetts Senator’s "Bush-lite" foreign policy undoubtedly disappoints many among the broad left-progressive milieu, such as it is, that supports him. Unless one believes criticizing the President’s lack of "boldness" in rallying international allies to the occupation cause is somehow a galvanizing message, Kerry is offering "Anybody But Bush" supporters a rather tepid foreign policy "alternative" to rally around.
What Kerry’s hawkish views should not do is shock. He has in his recent history been far more consistently conservative on military and security issues than the Republicans would like voters to believe. Kerry voted for the 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing the assault on Iraq. Kerry voted for the uncivil assault on civil and constitutional liberties legitimized under the Patriot Act. Kerry has been saying for a while that more troops are needed in Iraq — approximately 40,000 more, for now. He says expect at least a six-figure presence of American troops to remain in Iraq a year from now — when he hopes to occupy the White House. Nonetheless, the presumed Democratic nominee says we must elect him because he will do a better job at "internationalizing" the Iraqi conflict, mending relations with European allies and the United Nations for purposes of the imperial mission.
Of course, no matter how disappointing Kerry’s campaign (Ruth Coniff writes for The Progressive that this may be the year Kerry finally loses the liberal label for good), the desire to defeat Bush will not deter many who have marched against the war from also voting for Kerry. Nor will it prevent some in the progressive media from creating its own spin machine on the Democratic candidate’s behalf. "The right to choose, environmental sustainability and economic justice will all be hanging in the balance on Nov. 2, 2004," wrote Don Hazen and Tai Moses for Alternet (March 5), the progressive, San Francisco-based, news service. "With positions, messages and values this starkly opposing, there won’t be many undecided voters in this race."
Admittedly, Hazen, Alternet’s editorial director, and Moses penned these words in early March, when some of the free-for-all rhetoric of the primary campaigns, with multiple candidates raking Bush’s handling of the economy and WMD issue, was still fresh. But flash forward two months and Hazen is now interviewing a linguistics expert on the problem Kerry is having finding a defining theme for his campaign! Such is the Unbearable Lightness of Being a Progressive Apologist for Anybody But Bush.
Kerry’s preeminence as the party’s front-runner has had some time to hang in the air now, enough to begin to smog up some of the hype of pro-Kerry groups like MoveOn.org with the grimy reality that the election is shaping up as a choice between a bad, pro-war candidate and a really bad, pro-war candidate. Of course, there are differences on issues (there are always differences!). Kerry is pro-choice and Bush is not, for example. But the idea that the future of choice or justice or even survival itself "hangs in the balance" on November 4 is just not true. On the war issue, there’s not much difference at all. It’s also unlikely the great wash of non-voters (somewhere in the range of half the adult population!) will be motivated by the program of either of the two parties to begin an unprecedented rush to the ballot box.
If Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be illusory, no less so now will be the fantasies of Democratic Party critics that the Iraqi occupation can be transformed into a "socially responsible" occupation — United Nations-sanctioned or not. In this way, Democrats like left-leaning Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, who ran in the state’s primary boasting of his antiwar credentials, are selling something even more insidious than the rank Republican rhetoric. These are the "antiwar" Democrats whose opposition in the build-up to the war melted into air the moment U.S. troops crossed the border into Iraq. Now they attempt to paint an increasingly brutal military occupation with the veneer of hopes for resuscitated American good intentions. As if it’s possible for the U.S. presence in Iraq to transform into a benevolent mission! As if the United States (or the United Nations) has a track record of supporting democratic revolutions in the Middle East!
Of course, the wild card in the western debates over the fate of Iraq is the Iraqi people themselves. When asked in the New York Times/CBS poll if they saw the American military as "liberators" or "occupiers," 71 percent of Iraqis said occupiers. Yet the architects and apologists for the war cling to the delusion that the resistance reflects only politically isolated "regime remnants" and "terrorists" (the later professionals no doubt!). But with the city of Fallujah under a month-long American siege, soldiers and paramilitary security forces of the newly formed Iraqi Armed Forces have been deserting in droves, rather than fight, or even joining the rebels. It is a dramatic indicator of how military assaults by a foreign power on a city’s neighborhoods must be registering with the wider Iraqi population. But then winning the hearts and minds of the locals can become problematic when you’re also dropping 500-pound bombs on the neighborhood. It’s somehow doubtful whether the victims of U.S. violence care whether those bombs are sanctioned by neo-con Republicans or "progressive" Democrats.
But with resistance and disaffection growing inside Iraq, it’s more than the Iraqi security forces who are deserting the Americans. The Coalition of the Willing is fast becoming the Coalition of the Willing to Leave the United States in the Lurch. Internationally, the United States has never been more isolated before the court of world opinion. Spain has announced it is withdrawing its troops, while six other countries are now restricting their small regiments to their bases. Nor does the United Nations show signs of becoming anything more than what Naomi Klein in The Nation calls "the political arm of the continued US occupation." The desire now by many Democratic critics to push the United Nations, or even a NATO intervention, as some kind of salvation for the American war (even as a desperate Bush also turns to the U.N.) is under the circumstances of the nationalist uprising unlikely to succeed. As Klein notes, "The post-June 30 caretaker government being set up by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will be subject to all the restraints on Iraqi sovereignty that sparked the current uprising in the first place."
‘Anybody But Bush’ – You Get What You Pay For
The "Anybody But Bush" vision now has most of the progressive milieu in its trance, but it is not a vision as much as it is a paucity of vision. Faced with a war sparked by the extremist right-wing politics of the Bush Administration, the best so many otherwise articulate and powerful voices for justice can muster is an insistence on supporting whoever happens to win the Democratic nomination. It’s a telling sign now of how truly rudderless left-progressive politics is in the United States. It’s also revealing just how desperate progressives are that a return to the Clinton-style politics Kerry embraces is now considered almost a god-send.
In fact, the social policy of the Clinton Administration was the most conservative of any administration since the end of World War II, as historian Howard Zinn reminds us in the revised edition to his "A People’s History of the United States." The entire tenure of the Clinton Administration was defined by erosion of New Deal social policy, gutting welfare and other safety net programs, deregulating industries, union and environmental protections, and generally cozying up to the interests of silver spoon investors and corporate executives, the principal beneficiaries of the era’s market prosperity. The campaign slogan of 1992, "Putting People First," came to mean "putting the bond market" first, as Edward Herman, Wharton School professor of finance, remarked a few years ago in a Z magazine round-up on the Clinton legacy. In this sense, the Clinton Presidency was but a stage-setting prelude to the Republicans Gone Wild nightmare of the current administration.
Is the only choice now one of the speed of the retreat from the promise of a better, more just society? Unfortunately, if the possibilities for political change are viewed only through the lens of Bush versus Kerry in November, then that is the sorry reality. But it’s a mistake to view the election as the be-all and end-all of all our hopes. Let’s instead get heretical in our thinking and declare that a neo-con Republican in power is not inherently less responsive to pressure from "the street" than a liberal Democrat. Historically, when has progressive social change ever depended more or even mostly on whether a Democrat or Republican is in office, rather than on what happens outside the corridors of power, in the workplaces, campuses, and neighborhoods, among the officially voiceless and disenfranchised or excluded? This is the story of the Civil Rights movement, when sit-ins and marches and a growing, relentless dissent compelled a bipartisan power structure, long comfortable with Jim Crow racism, to finally sit up and take action. This is the story of woman’s suffrage, too, the Vietnam peace movement, and labor’s long quest for the eight-hour day, benefits, and such civilized ideas like vacations. This is the story of the historical movement of democracy itself.
Think about this: In 1970 labor activists helped secure passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, viewed by many as "the most important pro-worker legislation of the last 50 years," as Steven Greenhouse noted in a 2002 New York Times profile of veteran labor leader Tony Mazzochi. Notably, the OSHA legislation was passed under a Republican administration. Those same Nixon years also saw an end to the military draft, and legal recognition of a woman’s right to choose. Again, no thanks to Nixon or even to a "progressive" Supreme Court (it didn’t exist), but to the popular, organized activism and mobilization of public opinion of millions of Americans. In this context, the million-plus March for Women’s Lives on April 25 did more to secure women’s reproductive rights than anything that will happen on November 4.
It might similarly be easy to credit President Clinton for passage of such legislation as the Family Medical Leave Act, but that leaves out the reality that the real impetus came from women’s groups and unions, who had pushed for such legislation for years. Likewise, the belief that Clinton’s early health care reform initiative failed because it was too liberal or visionary turns reality on its head. The proposal failed because whatever reformer’s vision it could claim sank in the bog of endless reassurances by the Administration to sectors of the insurance industry that their profits would remain sacrosanct. But without a mobilized public movement, even that was not enough to ensure passage of the health care reform. This was not the case in Canada, where historically active public support for the independent, union-based New Democratic Party helped to eventually win passage of a single payer health system.
If Ralph Nader, an early endorser of the small Labor Party group founded by the late union organizer Tony Mazzochi, was actually running a campaign advocating Mazzochi’s idea of truly independent, working-class campaigns for office, in opposition to the corporate-dominated two parties, it could at the very least set an example of the direction grass-roots organizing needs to go if independent political action is ever going to gain momentum in this country.
Unfortunately, that is not what Nader is doing. The Nader campaign seeks to oppose the Democratic Party while ostensibly trying to boost the party, hoping to pressure Kerry from the grass-roots left to take better positions on a host of issues. Accordingly, Nader thinks he can pull large blocs of disillusioned nonvoters, independents, and even Republicans into voting booths, blocs otherwise beyond Kerry’s reach, who, the thinking goes, will then invariably translate part of their presence in the voting booth into backing for various progressive Democrats running for local and state offices. It’s a confused, ambiguous strategy and it makes about as much sense as Michael Moore’s endorsement of General Wesley Clark, who led NATO in bombing civilian targets in Belgrade in 1998, as a "peace" candidate for the Democratic nomination.
While Nader at least advocates getting out of Iraq (but in six months), the problem now with all the elite debates about the future of Iraq is the thorny problem of the Iraqi insurgency, which in one way or another, is likely to continue growing. Of course, it’s possible the U.S. military may perpetrate a repression so thorough and bloody that it effectively puts down the rebellion. For now. But with weapons you can never obliterate the spirit of human resistance. They also cannot kill everyone. The spirit of nationalism is such that the Iraqi people will in the long run never countenance the ongoing occupation of their country, puppet government or not, especially with the current atrocities and killings becoming part of their collective memory. They will one way or another be the final arbiter of the future of Iraq.
More Protest, More Demonstrations
As a labor organizer, Tony Mazzochi understood that the type of progressive social change that endures always originates and grows from the grass roots, from the cellar floor, challenging the existing status quo as well as whatever conventional wisdom tells us about the limits of what is "practical" to achieve. Social change rather happens when the dissent in the air gets organized and visible and takes to the streets as well as the ballot box. And getting organized has never depended upon "lesser-evils" or benevolent elites. Our battle now is not just against a military occupation, but against militarism itself.
Undoubtedly, last year’s antiwar protests lost some of their urgency following the quick military victory by U.S and British forces over Saddam Hussein’s government. Yet mainstream American politics is as much a creature of paradox as it is mostly an exercise in sound bites and personality contests. It was thus perhaps at the moment of President Bush’s most triumphal war posturing, when he paraded macho style in full flight uniform on the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, celebrating "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, that a sense of the seismic credibility chasm the Administration was about to plunge into began to edge into fuller view.
The chasm has opened. What is unfolding now in Iraq is a political disaster for the United States. As reports surface from Fallujah of Marine snipers who shoot at ambulances, or civilians who step out of their houses, or of American soldiers who sadistically abuse Iraqi prisoners in the very prison Hussein once used for his own tortures, the evidence mounts of the utter moral collapse this war represents for the government of the United States.
What our political leaders have done is criminal. Under the guise of a phantom weapons threat, the United States government started a war that after one year of "liberation" has led not to dancing in the streets but street combat. The beginnings of a classic nationalist rebellion against occupation by a foreign power are now underway. Think Vietnam. Think Algeria. With the infrastructure still in crisis, electricity spotty, hospitals in disrepair, cities under siege, unemployment over 50 percent, union rights denied under the same Hussein-era laws, and world opinion largely in square opposition to U.S. policy, the corporate CEO-think that defines the Bush mind-set has proven its profound inability to lead. At least if political leadership still has anything to do with social justice, peace, and prosperity in the world. The Democratic front-runner John Kerry equally shows no signs of a fundamentally different mind-set.
The antiwar marches before the war and most recently on March 20 sent a vibrant, defiant message that international and domestic opposition to the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq runs deep. They must continue. Now more than ever. Louder than ever. Bigger than ever. No matter who is in office. The killing must stop.
Think Out Now. Bring the troops home now.
Mark Harris is a Chicago-area journalist. You can write to him at TheEditorPage@aol.com