(This was written in response to a request from Mobilizing Ideas. You can see related essays from Catherine Corrigall-Brown, David Cortright, William Gamson, Michael Heaney, Kathy Kelly, Lisa Leitz, and Andrew Yeo here.)
Just over a decade ago, activists around the world organized the largest coordinated set of peace protests in history, trying to stop the impending invasion of Iraq. On February 15, 2003, millions of people took to the streets in the largest cities of the richest countries, with the largest turnouts appearing in countries were governments were poised to support the war (Walgrave and Rucht 2010). The demonstrations captured media attention and the political imagination of would-be activists around the world. They did not, however, stop the war. On March 20, 2003, a multinational coalition comprised overwhelmingly of American military forces started a bombing campaign designed to inspire “shock and awe,” and pave the way for a relatively smooth invasion with minimal non-Iraqi casualties. In relatively short order, the American-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime and installed its own provisional government, promising an orderly transition to democracy. That didn’t quite happen.
As efforts at orderly governance faltered, one after another America’s allies pulled their military forces out of Iraq. After a surge and decline in American forces, and after several Iraqi factions negotiated their own truce, President Obama pulled the last troops out of Iraq in December of 2011, roughly two years later than he promised as a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the war he had promised to intensify, in Afghanistan, continued with increases in troops on the ground. Democracy still nowhere in sight, the United States has committed to withdraw roughly a third of the 100,000 troops now deployed there, pulling out the rest over time as Afghanistan trains its own military to keep order and fight terrorists.
There’s no way to describe these outcomes as the products of any happy story, either for the George W. Bush administration, which started the wars, nor for the peace movement, that tried to stop them. Early on, it became clear that the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities, were, uh, unsubstantiated. Prospects for democracy evaporated somewhat more quickly. The current Afghan government is now negotiating a peace with the Taliban forces that had provided a haven for Al-Qaeda, as American participation in the war declines. American troops eventually killed Osama Bin-Laden, who had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and Iraqis executed Saddam Hussein. These achievements came at the cost of the lives of more than 6,500 American service people and more than 200,000 Iraqi and Afghani lives. Fiscal costs to the United States continue to accumulate, and will reach more than $3 trillion (Stiglitz and Blime 2008). The moral, social, and political costs are surely greater.
So, the peace activists were basically right, but as the evidence for their claims continued to build, they were less and less visible. Is there anything we can learn from this? Understanding provides some small recompense, and I’d suggest that the patterns of protest mobilization and decline are typical of peace movements—and other kinds of movements—in American history. A few points:
First, although the peace movement didn’t stop the war, it did exercise some influence. The political fallout in the United States and the Western Alliance led the Bush administration to work harder to bolster its case, finding or fabricating more evidence for its claims of nuclear ambitions and sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to promote them. Military planners developed a strategy designed to achieve a quick military victory which minimized not only allied casualties, but also bad publicity that would attend visible destruction of Iraqi infrastructure and populations. This is far from enough, but it is not trivial.
Second, peace and antiwar movements usually emerge when activists are least likely to get what they’re demanding. Although stalwarts will take to the streets for ultimate goals, most people respond to political circumstances; they protest when they think it might work—and when they think nothing else will. There is a long term pattern in which peace movements emerge strongly when America’s military policy becomes more aggressive and expensive (e.g. Meyer 1990). Some people and organizations may have a well-developed plan for remaking foreign policy altogether, but a protest movement is a blunt instrument. Once the most bellicose possibilities seem restrained, the movement coalition will start to fray, as differences among groups become more salient and as some groups turn to more pressing issues (Meyer and Corrigall-Brown 2005).
Third, protest movements in liberal polities are closely tied to more conventional political action. Peace movements decline during election years, as activists and funders channel their efforts into what seem to be more direct routes to influence. And when your putative ally is in office, it’s harder to take to the streets. Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas (2011) surveyed participants at peace demonstrations in the United States before and after Barack Obama’s elections. They found that the share of identified Democrats at the demonstrations declined after Obama took office. Although Obama’s policies weren’t all that different from those of his predecessor, it was harder for activists to get Democrats into the streets when they thought that their president promised to move policy in a more congenial direction, albeit slowly slowly. President Obama has taken far less flack over domestic surveillance, political assassination by drones, or the ongoing operation of a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay than George W. Bush did.
Finally, there’s a critical movement question about democracy. The costs of the wars in Afghanistan were both concentrated and largely invisible. Financing the wars with borrowed money, in conjunction with large tax cuts, President Bush minimized opposition from those concerned about costs. (And remember, protesters are less likely to go public when their man is in office.) And fighting the war with an all-volunteer force piled the disruption and danger onto a relatively small segment of the American public. It was all too easy for most Americans to look away most of the time. As citizens, we want to ask if this is the way we want to organize a democracy.
Heaney, Michael T. and Fabio Rojas. 2011. “The Partisan Dynamics of Contention: Demobilization of the Antiwar Movement in the United States, 2007-2009.” Mobilization 16:45-64.
Meyer, David S. 1990. A Winter of Discontent: The Nuclear Freeze and American Politics. New York: Praeger.
Meyer, David S. and Catherine Corrigall-Brown. 2005. “Coalitions and Political Context: U.S. Movements against Wars in Iraq.” Mobilization 10: 327-344.
Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Blimes. 2008. The Three Trillion Dollar War. New York: W.W. Norton.
Walgrave, Stefaan and Dieter Rucht, eds. 2010. The World Says No to War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.