WASHINGTON - Activists in the growing movement in the United States against attacking Iraq are expressing frustration at their inability to deflect President Bush from his course.
Despite polls showing public misgivings about attacking Iraq, especially without U.N. authorization, and a string of large anti-war demonstrations across the country, Bush has generally ignored the opposition, apparently confident he will pay no political price.
The Democrats are frightened of being on the wrong side of the situation or of being perceived as unpatriotic or soft on terrorism. The result is there is no clear, articulate, principled opposition to the president in the corridors of power, which does not reflect the situation in the country at large, where opposition to the war is real, palpable, deep-seated and growing.
Tom Andrews, former Democratic Congressman from Maine who now serves as national director for Win Without War, an umbrella group coordinating opposition to the war
"It's very alarming. The Bush administration is prepared to ignore U.S. sentiment and international sentiment," said Barbara Epstein, an expert of peace movements at the University of California, Santa Cruz and peace activist herself.
"The president and his advisers seem so convinced they are right that they can't seem to imagine that the American people won't support them once the fighting begins," she said.
Epstein and other activists are elated at their success in drawing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets for anti-war rallies. They also point to the fact that at least 64 city councils across the country, including Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, Chicago and San Francisco have passed anti-war resolutions.
Among religious groups, the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have also passed resolutions opposing military action against Iraq. Peace activists said the active participation of churches and church-goers has boosted their cause and broadened their movement.
All agreed the current anti-war movement was much larger than that which emerged before the 1991 Gulf War, even though congressional opposition to that conflict was stronger.
Bush rarely refers to the antiwar movement but has said that Americans have the right to express their views. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Thursday that protesting was a democratic and patriotic act.
"We settle our differences in this country through elections and through peaceful protest. And the majority will prevail," he said.
Polls to show that support for an attack against Iraq drops below 50 percent if respondents are asked if they would still favor a war without United Nations authorization.
Polls this week showed a slight increase of support for war following Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. on Wednesday. An ABC/Washington Post poll on Thursday found 67 percent in favor of military action, but the figure still dropped to 49 percent when respondents were asked if they would support a war that was opposed by the U.N., while 46 percent said they were against such an attack.
Many activists blame the weak and disunited performance of the Democrats for their inability to influence policy. While many Democrats voted against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq last October, all but one of the party's prospective presidential candidates supported the resolution.
"The Democrats are frightened of being on the wrong side of the situation or of being perceived as unpatriotic or soft on terrorism," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic member of Congress who now serves as national director for Win Without War, an umbrella group coordinating opposition to the war.
"The result is there is no clear, articulate, principled opposition to the president in the corridors of power, which does not reflect the situation in the country at large, where opposition to the war is real, palpable, deep-seated and growing," he said.
James Zogby, who heads the Arab American Institute and is a member of the Democratic National Committee, said Bush was reading the polls carefully and had concluded that his political base was secure.
"The peace movement is not the administration's base vote. Among Republicans, two thirds are in favor of the war. Among Democrats, two thirds are against. Among white evangelical Christians, Bush has 70 percent support. Among blacks and Hispanics, 70 percent oppose war," Zogby said.
Epstein agreed: "People in the current anti-war movement are people who by and large didn't vote for George W. Bush anyway. We are not his constituency," she said.
But Zogby also blames his own party for failing to lead the opposition. "If you don't give people a clear choice, a sense of resignation sets in," he said.
Sally Milbury-Steen, who heads Pacem in Terris, a mainly church-based peace group in Wilmington, Delaware said part of the problem was that the mainstream media was ignoring the peace movement and echoing the administration's position.
She said Bush's assumption that opposition would melt away once the fighting began as Americans rallied behind their armed forces was wrong.
"If we can't prevent the war, we won't disappear. We will work to stop it if it starts and if we can't stop it, we will just be a constant spanner in the works," she said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd