Every day, devotees of peace pour out tens of thousands of words. The vast majority excoriate the Bush administration's murderous policies and the political leaders who won't stand up against those policies. We need those words, and lots more like them. Every day, they persuade more Americans to turn against the war.
But let's face it. They don't persuade enough Americans to turn against the war. Bush can continue his insane "surge" plan, and the Republicans can block even the mildest Congressional rebuke, because the public's antiwar opinion is not yet firm, deep, and wide enough.
In recent polls, 50% say the U.S. is likely to succeed in Iraq. 43% would keep troop levels the same or increase them. While 60% or more oppose new troops in Iraq, only 40% would deny funding for those troops. The number who would deny funding for the war overall is tiny. A mere 10% say "the U.S. military's response in Iraq has been too aggressive," while 44% say "not aggressive enough."
With public opinion so mixed up, politicians have little incentive to take a clear, decisive stand against the war. We can, and should, demand day and night that they act on principle and oppose the war. But they are weathermen who always want to know which way the political wind blows. Right now, with the wind so changeable, they have every incentive to hedge, waffle, and stand on both sides of the fence.
The best way to move the politicians is to change public opinion. That means talking day and night to our friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors. But that's just where peace activists and progressives need a better strategy.
Consider the typical conversation between Lefty and her (or his) politically centrist Neighbor, who feels that the war is wrong but can't see how to set things right.
Lefty: "Bush, Cheney, and all the others are such liars. They claim to be fighting for democracy and a better life for Iraqis. But we know this war is really all about (fill in the blank with your favorite: "oil," "corporate profits," "U.S. imperialism," or whatever)."
Neighbor: "How do you know that? What's your evidence?"
Lefty responds with lots of facts and sews them together to form a patchwork quilt to "prove" that the administration's true motives are far from what it says in public. But the thread that holds the patchwork of evidence together is a set of assumptions about Bush & Co.'s motives. They are driven by greed. They are tools of the multinational corporate capitalists. That's why they always lie to us. Etc., etc.
Neighbor replies: "I just don't believe your assumptions. You can't prove they are true. You take them on faith. I don't share the same faith. So why should I believe you? I think that Bush sincerely wants to do the right thing, even if he can't figure out how. He certainly did the right thing in deposing Saddam Hussein. Iraq deserves a functioning democracy like ours. Since the U.S. disrupted Iraqi life so badly, we have a moral responsibility to stay there until they have a stable, more-or-less democratic government that can provide security to its people. In that sense, the president is right. Defeat is not an option. Once we leave, chaos will engulf Iraq, and it will become a haven for terrorists. So we need our troops there for a while. And as long as they are there, we must support them. We have to spend whatever it takes to give them what they need to do the job."
Lefty: "No, no, no. You are swallowing Bush's line. Don't you see that it's all about oil, greed, and imperialism?"
At this point, the conversation has reached a dead end. Lefty and Neighbor part ways, agreeing to disagree. Lefty has not done anything to shift the political winds.
If Lefty wants to change Neighbor's mind, a better strategy is to take Neighbor's views seriously, understand where they come from, and engage them directly.
Neighbor is clinging to the age-old American fantasy that, though our means may sometimes be inept, our motives are always pure. We have a higher moral vision than other nations and (usually) more practical skills to turn that vision into reality. So we are uniquely dedicated to, and capable of, bringing a better life to people around the world. Neighbor probably has a lot of emotion invested in that belief. Lefty may not ever be able to challenge it effectively.
But Lefty can get Neighbor to see how her American values are not being implemented in Iraq. Thoughtful, well-informed critics of the war have been making this point effectively for a long time. Their bottom line is that U.S. forces cannot help the Iraqis stabilize their country, because U.S. forces are the root cause of the instability. It's like trying to put out a fire by pouring more gasoline on it.
There's every reason to believe that the departure of U.S. troops will make Iraq less chaotic. It will give Iraqi leaders a better chance to work together to create a viable government. Though the process is bound to be long and hard at best, it can't start until the U.S. leaves. That's the best way for us to fulfill our responsibility to the Iraqis.
Moreover, the U.S. presence in Iraq is the best recruiting poster that militant Islamists of the Al Qaeda kind ever had. And the current chaos in Iraq may give those militants a stronger hand. Once the U.S. leaves, the Iraqis themselves will deal with those militants, who have weak roots and little warm welcome in Iraq. And a U.S. departure will make it more possible for governments in other predominantly Muslim lands to support U.S. foreign policy moves, including the war on terrorism.
Lefty can make all these points, and more, effectively without saying anything about the Bush administration's motives.
Of course all these points already get made in left-wing speaking and writing against the war. But they are quite secondary in the overall scheme of antiwar words. They get lost amid the torrent of anti-Bush, anti-greed, anti-imperialist outbursts.
That torrent shuts Neighbor's ears and mind. Eventually, we need to get Neighbor thinking about the ways greed and imperialism shape U.S. foreign policy. But a direct assault is not the most effective way to do it.
Right now, Neighbor is probably on the fence about the war. If logical rebuttals of her main pro-war arguments can push her off that fence, onto firmly antiwar ground, she'll have a more open mind. Once she realizes that the arguments used to keep her on the fence were spurious, she can begin to think about whether other ideas she gleans from political leaders and he mainstream media may be spurious, too.
To get Neighbor to open her mind, a direct assault on the beliefs she holds dear about "America" is just not a smart strategy. A smarter strategy is one that's more likely to get Neighbor listening, thinking, and continuing the conversation.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.