Anti-war forces in the United States are caught in a paradox five years after the invasion of Iraq: sentiment against the war is still strong, but the peace movement seems to be dwindling.
There is no question that the administration of George W. Bush has proven impervious to pressure. That’s why it’s time to change tactics. The American anti-war movement should direct its energy where it can still have an impact: the leading Democratic party contenders.
Many argue otherwise. They say that if activists want to end the war, they should simply pick a candidate who is not John McCain and help them win. They can sort out the details after the Republicans are evicted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Some of the most prominent American anti-war voices, from MoveOn.org to The Nation, have gone this route, throwing their weight behind the Barack Obama campaign.
This is a serious strategic mistake. The hard truth is that despite their rhetoric, neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton has a real plan to end the Iraq occupation. But this could change thanks to the unique dynamics of the prolonged primary battle.
Some have called on Clinton to bow out so the party can unite. For the anti-war movement, however, it is the very fact that Clinton and Obama are still fighting it out, fiercely vying for votes, that presents the pressure point.
Once one of them becomes the nominee, much of this leverage will disappear. The stakes are high.
While Clinton and Obama denounce the war with great passion, they both have detailed plans to continue it – albeit repackaged and slightly downsized.
Both say they intend to maintain the massive Green Zone, including the monstrous U.S. embassy, and to retain U.S. control of the Baghdad Airport.
They will have a “strike force’’ to engage in counterterrorism, as well as U.S. trainers for the Iraqi military. Beyond these U.S. forces, the army of Green Zone diplomats will require heavily armed security details, currently provided by Blackwater and other private security companies.
At present there are as many private contractors supporting the occupation as there are soldiers, so these plans could mean tens of thousands of U.S. personnel entrenched for the future. This is no small operation.
In sharp contrast is the unequivocal message coming from hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who have come out publicly against the war.
At March 15’s historic Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Maryland, dozens of young veterans told harrowing stories of their time in the war zone.
For Iraq Veterans Against the War, the priority is not who wins the Democratic nomination or the election. Ending the war is their sole focus.
And they know how to do it: immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. soldiers and contractors.
While some in the Democratic party and the campaigns have tried to dismiss such calls from anti-war activists as irresponsible, they cannot so readily do so when the call comes from hundreds who have served – and continue to serve – on the front lines.
The candidates know that much of the passion fuelling their campaigns comes from the desire among so many rank-and-file Democrats to end this disastrous war. It is this desire for change that has filled stadiums and their campaign coffers.
And the candidates have already shown that they are vulnerable to pressure from the peace camp: when The Nation revealed that neither candidate was supporting legislation that would ban the use of Blackwater and other private security companies in Iraq, Clinton abruptly changed course.
She became the most important U.S. political leader to endorse the ban, scoring a point on Obama, who opposed the invasion from the start.
This is exactly where we want the candidates: outdoing each other to prove how serious they are about ending the war. That kind of issue-based battle has the power to energize voters and break the cynicism that is gripping both campaigns.
Now is no time to trade an independent anti-war movement for partisan calculations.
Activists have the power to become effective players and actually change U.S. policy. As soon as they pick sides, they reduce themselves to mere cheerleaders.
Naomi Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism. Jeremy Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise Of The World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.