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Anti-War Groups Battle for Survival
As President Barack Obama formally declared an end to combat operations in Iraq this week, the anti-war movement that helped sweep him into office - and that worked for seven years to bring U.S. troops home - finds itself struggling for survival.
Several factors - war fatigue; a deep, lingering recession; and the presence of a Democratic president they helped elect - have drained the energy from organizations that led the fight against the Iraq war. Some of the most influential anti-war activist groups that once summoned half a million people to march against the Iraq war and the policies of President George W. Bush are straining to raise the money and attention to fight what they see as Obama's military entrenchment in Afghanistan.
"We don't have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore," lamented Medea Benjamin, founder of CODEPINK, one of the anti-war movement's most visible organizations. "The issues have not changed very much. ... Now we have a surge [in Afghanistan] that we would have been furious about under George Bush, yet it's hard to mobilize people under Obama. We have the same anti -war movement and not the same passion."
MoveOn.org, which produced a 2007 anti-war newspaper ad labeling Gen. David Petraeus "General Betray Us" for the surge in Iraq, has largely been silent, despite a similar U.S. strategy in Afghanistan with Petraeus at the helm. Cindy Sheehan, perhaps the most famous anti-war protester, believes the peace movement is over. And United for Peace and Justice - once the largest of three major anti-war coalitions - has practically dissolved.
Leslie Cagan, UPJ's founder, resigned last year after nearly seven years leading the group.
"I was totally exhausted," said Cagan, 63. "I have a long history of anti-war activism - about 45 years - but the last eight or nine years have been totally intense. In a post 9/11 world, it's just nonstop."
Liberals demanding an immediate withdrawal from Iraq after the 2003 invasion were largely ignored by the Bush administration, but their influence with Democrats and independent voters grew between 2004 and 2008, the height of the war - and the time of Obama's emergence as a presidential contender. By 2008, the anti-war sentiment had fueled a surge in voter registration, while anti-war activists openly embraced Obama, whose early momentum was based largely on opposition to Iraq.
As Obama catapulted to the front of a crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates, his criticism of the Iraq war motivated thousands of volunteers to hit the streets for him. In turn, Democrats and war-weary independent voters surged to the polls, pushing Obama, as well as down-ticket Democrats, into office.
Now, that energy has all but vanished, leaving Obama and embattled congressional Democrats with one less ally when they need all the help they can get.
"That's going to be a real headache for Obama coming down the road," said Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California-San Diego.
"One of the major motivations for Democratic turnout in 2006 and 2008 was the opposition to the Bush administration and their wars" and that motivation is gone, Jacobson said. "It's not going to send [activists] running after the next Republican candidate... but they might be less energized and less likely to participate and turn out [for Democrats] than before."
Paradoxically, the anti-war movement has grown weaker even as public opposition to the Afghanistan war has grown stronger. A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed think the Afghanistan war was a mistake, compared with 30 percent in January 2009. But an anti-war rally in Washington in March 2009 drew fewer than 10,000 people - a fraction of the 500,000 activists who attended an anti-Iraq War rally in Manhattan in 2003.
After fighting the Bush administration for the better part of a decade, the anti-war movement can barely draw public attention to Afghanistan because of kitchen-table issues like the worsening economy, the increasingly unpopular health care overhaul and high unemployment. Meanwhile, the leaders have kept their grumbling about Afghanistan mostly to themselves, to keep Obama's sagging poll numbers from sinking further or jeopardizing the Democratic majority in Congress.
"A lot of the people who were part of this movement have retreated," Code Pink's Benjamin said. "They wanted to give up on the timetable [for withdrawing from Iraq]. Some are still reluctant to criticize a Democratic president now with the midterms coming up."
The staggering economy has hit the movement hard: Just a few years ago, some groups raised millions of dollars in donations and mobilized legions of supporters to rallies in Washington, D.C., and New York; now, United for Peace and Justice - which had a full-time, paid staff and a budget of more than $1 million - relies on volunteers working without a headquarters and with less than $100,000 to spend.
"That says a lot about where our masses are when it comes to getting out against the wars," said Michael McPherson, the co-convener of United for Peace and Justice. "If people are deciding between trying to figure out if you're going to have a job and ending the war in Afghanistan ... trying to figure out how to keep your job is going to win every time."
But Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq and who kept vigil outside Bush's Crawford ranch to protest the war, had long abandoned hope that the activists would fight as hard once Obama was elected. Groups like MoveOn.org, in particular, are more interested in politics than in peace, she said.
"I basically think that it's over," Sheehan said. "And the reason that it's over is that so many of those same groups that you're talking about supported Obama. ... I just don't think that if you're anti-war you can support somebody who is for war."
Nevertheless, many activists believe that momentum is building against the continued military presence in Afghanistan.
In July, 102 House Democrats voted against the $33 billion emergency war supplemental bill, compared with 32 who voted against it last year - a sign, activists say, that Congress is responding to falling public support for the Afghanistan war. Activists took heart when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would not whip progressive members to support this bill, and when Appropriations Chairman David Obey said he had "profound skepticism" about spending more money on combat in Afghanistan.
"I thought it was very telling that not a single member of Democratic leadership stood on the floor to defend the president's Afghanistan policy during the supplemental debate," said Tom Andrews, a former congressman from Maine who also is the national director of Win Without War.
Andrews says the anti-war energy is focused on Congress, with MoveOn and other groups using lobbying instead of protests to fight the war. Others, like Norman Solomon, an anti-war writer and founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, say any resurgence of anti-war activity won't look like the massive, Bush-era street protests, which proved largely ineffective.
"We weren't able to affect policy" during the Bush administration, Solomon said. "We got bigger turnouts at rallies and had more vocal visibility that way, but that's not something to yearn for."
As Democrats in Congress begin to put pressure on the White House to leave Afghanistan, some say that move could help the anti-war movement regain some of its lost strength. Still, if outside groups can't build on that momentum, "it would be a problem," said Bob Borosage, founder and president of Institute for America's Future.
But he says that he believes groups like MoveOn and labor unions will step up to the plate, especially since Obama has addressed other progressive agenda items like the health care overhaul and Wall Street reform. "I have many fears about these things, but I have no doubt that there will be a rising anti-war movement," he said.