Peace movement anyone?

Strong social movements are hard to start and end all too easily.  It’s just about exactly the opposite of wars.

President Obama’s speech last night (September 10) was emphatic about a couple of things:

his determination to use American military force to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, aka ISIL–Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant); and

his determination to let allies, rather than Americans, do the fighting on the ground.

Even if it’s not quite the same as sending a hundred thousand troops into the field, the plan absolutely means American air power dropping bombs and killing people (mostly bystanders, not soldiers), and the United States spending more money on armaments for newly allied forces.  According to President Obama, it also means sending more advisers to Iraq to help train those newly allied forces.

At  the moment, it’s an enhanced, but still guarded, American commitment to war.

So, where’s the peace movement?

United for Peace and Justice, the largest coalition mobilizing opposition to the invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, trumpets its support for a People’s Climate March at the end of next week.  It’s about peace and social justice too.

Win without War, an antiwar coalition of major, mostly mainstream, organizations, posted statements of many of the member groups who, unexpectedly, oppose the escalation.  The reasons are predictable: there isn’t a military solution to these problems; Congress should be involved in  authorizing the use of force; the UN should be involved; there should be a national debate; war stinks.  Etc.  (Not that any of this is wrong.)  But you have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to find an actual event.  Massachusetts Peace Action is sponsoring a demonstration in Boston this weekend.

International Answer opposes the war too, but right now it’s also supporting the climate change march, and promises to organize demonstrations in the future.

So, with a military escalation on the horizon, the committed activists are still committed, but haven’t quite developed a strategy to mobilize and reach a broader public.  Putting together a national presence remotely comparable to the massive efforts that preceded the invasion of Iraq is going to be extremely difficult.  It’s worthwhile to figure out why:

1.  The American public IS wary (and weary) of war, but President Obama has promised to make sure that all virtually all of us are going to have to do is pay for it.  The advisers, pilots, and bombardiers are all volunteers.  By emphasizing a proximate threat and a very distant response, the president is loading the political dice in his favor.  And thus far, a majority seems to support the plan.

2.  ISIS has helped in painting itself as an unambiguous bad guy in this, calling out the United States, posting video of its brutal executions of opponents–and American journalists.  While segments in earlier rounds of peace movements have found sympathy for those America opposed, that’s unlikely to happen here.

3.  The mainstream of the American left votes for Democrats, and is willing to cut a Democratic president far more slack than a Republican.   In a book due to come out early next year, Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas show that the peace movement stalled after Barack Obama’s election, as many Democrats stopped going to demonstrations, preferring to trust their guy in office–or at least try to work influence through more conventional channels.

4.  Republicans are ill-positioned to support an antiwar movement, even as they harbor no sympathy for this president.  The foreign policy graybeards in the party, notably Senators Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and John McCain (Arizona), have been attacking Obama for years for not doing more, and not being more aggressive in using the military.

Preparing to run Congressional and Presidential campaigns painting the president as soft, their opposition to bombing is likely to focus less on “no” and more on “not enough.”   It’s always hard for an elected official to stand up to the president on war issues, and these days it’s even harder for the Republican Party.

Even Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky), who has a real record of opposing the use of American troops abroad, has been reluctant to challenge President Obama on the merits of his plan, focusing instead on the need for Obama to go to Congress.

Eying the Republican primary electorate, Senator Paul is also surely aware of the political risks of seeming soft on the use of force.

The Tea Party surely contained an isolationist strain, but it was mixed with a lot else, and the keep America home contingent is not nearly enough to win even primary elections.

Growth for the movement means reaching beyond the committed to engage people who don’t think about peace and international injustice on a daily basis, and who may not always oppose the military.  It’s going to be difficult to get them out in the streets.

And this is especially true in an election season.  As the midterm election campaign heats up, some large stream of money and effort that might go to an antiwar movement is going to get sucked up in Congressional races and local politics.  It’s hard to see candidates in tight races (Michelle Nunn in Georgia???) finding advantage in standing up against a military effort to destroy ISIS, particularly one that is portrayed as cheap, limited, and distant.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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