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Do Peace Movements Matter?
Published on Monday, May 12, 2003 by
Do Peace Movements Matter?
by Felix Kolb and Alicia Swords

March 19, 2003 will become a historical date. On this day the Bush Administration began to impose its imperial claim to control the entire Near East through a preventive war of aggression. We should not forget that whatever the final outcome, the war was illegal and unnecessary and grossly violated international law and the UN Charter. Propaganda from the US corporate media was so effective in manipulating the American public that even many opponents of the Iraq war have been surprised that (at least so far) no evidence of weapons of mass destruction was found in Iraq at all. Or, as Susan Wright, a disarmament expert at the University of Michigan was quoted in the British newspaper, the Independent: "This could be the first war in history that was justified largely by an illusion."

The disgust and unbounded outrage against the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq made hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protest against the war on the streets of Amman, Berlin, Damascus, Paris and Mexico City, as well as London, Sydney, New York, San Francisco and Washington. While no one wondered about the people in the Arab world who displayed their feeling of impotent rage, the continuing opposition in the US has surprised commentators.

In general, one would have expected that the long series of demonstrations and actions in the USA would come to a quick end as soon as the war began. And indeed, opinion polls showed an increase in public support for the war shortly after it started. But unlike past wars, where even most opponents rallied behind the president after the war started, a considerable minority of American people resisted this impulse. Contrary to what many people feel and think these days, the fact that protests continued during the war is a reason for confidence, and is only one of several indicators that the global peace movement, with its unprecedented strength, has had important successes and consequences.

Admittedly, the peace movement could not prevent this war from happening, although many of us devoted considerable energy and time to opposing the war for many months. If we compare the peace movement's main goal - preventing this war - with the cruel reality, it seems just natural to conclude that the peace movement failed. Of course President Bush and American corporate media won't do anything to contradict this conclusion, because it is very convenient for them. However, to really understand and appreciate the impact of the peace movement we need to take a different perspective. First, we must imagine how the Iraq conflict would have unfolded without the actions of the peace movement. Second, we must ask what the likely long-term consequences of the recent peace movement will be.

Counterfactual reasoning is always difficult, but we feel safe enough to propose several alternative outcomes had there been no strong global peace movement. In the first place, Bush probably would not have attempted to gain a UN mandate at all, possibly precluding the resumption of UN weapons inspections. This process gave the peace movement critical time to continue to organize and mobilize. World-wide rejection of war on Iraq dashed the Bush administration's hopes for gaining international legitimacy by bribing countries to pass a UN resolution for an invasion. The global rejection of war prevented the war resolution from gaining the necessary majority in the Security Council, as the demonstrations on February 15 made absolutely clear. Without the pressure of the German and French peace movements especially, Schröder and Chirac might have relented and the Iraq War could have been legitimized by a UN mandate, extorted by the US. A similar argument can be made for other important swing vote states on the UN Security Council such as Mexico, Pakistan and Chile.

In addition, there may be long-term implications of these protests that we cannot yet measure, but should not underestimate. For emphasis, let's look at historical examples of long-term impacts of peace movements:

  • The creation of the League of Nations a decade after widespread opposition to. World War I.
  • The U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear arms reduction negotiations starting in 1970, following worldwide anti-nuclear demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • The US "Vietnam syndrome," a reluctance to intervene militarily, after massive protests against the Vietnam war.

The current global peace movement has helped significantly to raise the barrier for future military interventions. We hope this can thwart the plans of the neoconservative hard-liners in the White House. At the beginning of April, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw signaled that Britain would have "nothing whatsoever" to do with any military action against Syria or Iran. Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, faced with a 91% majority of his people opposing the war, is likely to lose next year's elections because of his support for President Bush, and thus probably won't be willing to support another aggression.

The peace movement still may not be strong enough to stop the Bush administration from launching its next "preventive" attack against Syria, Iran or North Korea. But international support for subsequent wars will be even smaller than it was this time, further strengthening the peace movement. As the Washington Institute for Political Studies (IPS) has documented, the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" is composed of just 46 of 191 UN member nations - representing 19% of the world's population. Yet even in those countries public opinion was overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq War. Although we cannot be sure, the most likely next target of the Washington hawks seems to be Syria. Right now US threats could be seen as a strategy to prevent Syria from supporting Arab resistance to a military occupation government in a de facto re-colonized Iraq. But, if the US economy continues to stall, Bush may resort to another "preventive war" as part of his strategy for winning re-election in 2004.

In order to be prepared to prevent further wars, it is not enough to recall the peace movement's achievements, we must also ask ourselves why the peace movement wasn't able to prevent the Iraq war and what lessons can be learned from this experience. There is a series of fundamental reasons, which we probably won't be able to change in the short run:

- The warmongers did not hesitate to use false evidence to make their case for the war. One of the most shocking examples was the information obtained by the C.I.A. about supposed Iraqi purchases of five hundred tons of uranium oxide from Niger. The faked documents, which the International Atomic Agency later proved to be falsified, were presented to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a couple of days before the Senate approved the war resolution.

- Instead of asking hard questions, the corporate-owned mass media, with few exceptions, has done everything it could to provide a broad audience for the Bush Administration's propaganda and lies. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was right in pointing out that American public opinion support for war was largely a consequence of the biased US media. 71% of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a majority did not know that none of the hijackers were from Iraq.

- When it comes to war, the US doesn't have an opposition party. The Democrats feel that they cannot challenge Bush on national security issues. And indeed they don't have an alternative conception for foreign and national security policies. This has been made worse by the increasing power of the presidency in conducting foreign policy.

- Many people are confused about what democracy means and how it is achieved. US foreign policy uses "promoting democracy" as an excuse to intervene to gain control of resources and strategic influence in the Near East. At the same time the US has no problem supporting dictatorships in countries where it suits US interests' as for example in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. A large segment of the American public is not aware of this hypocrisy and therefore buys into the "promoting democracy" rhetoric.

These problems are so deeply rooted in the American political system and the political economy of mass media that only long-term solutions can bring about the necessary fundamental changes. In the long-term, we must work for changes in campaign financing and the electoral system to increase the chances of dissent, to encourage third parties, and to provide realistic alternatives to the "lesser evil" choices provided by the two- party system.

For this, we need alternative mainstream news sources. The radio program 'Democracy Now' is great, but too radical to appeal to the American mainstream. The idea of MoveOn Media Corps to hold mass media accountable to fair reporting and basic journalist standards is important, but won't transform US news media in the ways needed. We need more thinktanks and more coherent conceptions of foreign policy to counter the neoconservative elites and to convince the American public that "promoting democracy" does not justify killing innocent people. These long-term strategies are necessary, but in the current situation we also need more short-term approaches. We offer the following list of ideas to begin debate:

  • Be cautious with civil disobedience. There is no doubt that civil disobedience to protest against an illegal war is morally legitimate and sometimes strategically necessary. However, since the vast majority of the American public supports the war, civil disobedience can alienate potential supporters of our cause.
  • Have a clear message. Even when the peace movement succeeds in getting public attention on the local, national or international level, it is self- defeating to try to convey a long and complex message. Linking up all sorts of grievances with the call for peace makes it possible for the media to portray the movement as having no clear message.
  • Start to work on a positive agenda. In the long run it is not enough to be against war. The peace movement must offer concrete ways to resolve conflicts in a non-violent manner even as it addresses the underlying causes of wars.
  • Reach across the divides. War has the potential to unite groups that have traditionally been divided in the US. Because war only benefits a small elite, there is great potential to build a strong movement across distance, race, class and ethnicity. One strategy might be to support a "Peace Summer," to educate people and build popular resistance to war. For example, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union is calling for a Poor People's March for Economic Human Rights this summer to continue the late Martin Luther King's efforts to build a united movement for peace and economic justice.
  • Be Early. An achievement of the recent peace protests is that they started and reached a considerable momentum long before the war started. Next time we must be even earlier. We may gain the greatest leverage in the US if we begin to lobby Congress now about opposing new war resolutions.
  • Be the media. The corporate media is concentrated in 3 major networks which are owned by many of the same corporations that profit from wars. The current movement has taken advantage of the Internet, through listservs and Indymedia, but our alternative media must reach a mass public, not just those who have easy computer access. Therefore more traditional techniques of leafleting and door-to-door canvassing might be more effective for reaching people we could not reach in the past.
  • Be international. Of all the demonstrations the February 15th ones had the greatest impact, not only because of the sheer number of demonstrators, but also because demonstrations were taking place at more than 600 cities all over the world.
  • Don?t forget the Iraqi people. The peace movement should work very hard to prevent the US from exercising colonial power in Iraq by imposing a puppet regime. American and British forces should be replaced immediately by a UN peace-keeping mission to oversee the formation of Iraqi self- government in agreement with neighboring countries, especially Syria, Iran and Turkey. Most urgently, the Bush administration must be prevented from turning Iraq into its own economic fiefdom: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business. It would be outrageous if key economic decisions were made by the occupying forces before the Iraqi people have the opportunity to choose their own government.
  • Recognize the emotional work we have to do: We need to recognize the importance of countering the hopelessness and despair that may from time to time affect those committed to working for peace as a result of the constant propaganda barrage from the mainstream media. It is a crucial part of the work of our movement to bring people together, to help them notice that they are not alone, to listen to each others' fears and doubts, and to support each other in thinking clearly about how we can work together.

Felix Kolb ( is a visiting fellow at the Institute for European Studies at Cornell University and working on his dissertation on the policy outcomes of social movements. Alicia Swords is a PhD student in Development Sociology at Cornell University studying learning among social movements in Mexico and in the Americas.


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