THE BLOG
07/07/2006 03:18 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Note to Anti-War Movement: Get Your Act Together

If war is too important to be left to the generals, then getting out of Iraq is too important to be left to the anti-war movement.

If the left wants the Democrats to show more backbone -- even if there's isn't agreement on an exact timetable for withdrawal -- then both the party establishment and anti-war activists have to do a better job of voicing their opposition.

In a recent Newsweek column, Jonathan Alter makes some insightful points on how Karl Rove is working to use the GOP's biggest weakness -- the Iraq war -- against Democrats with his "cut-and-run" smear strategy. He points out:

The object is... to either get the Democrats tangled up in Kerryesque complexities on Iraq--or intimidate them into changing the subject to other, less-potent issues for fear of looking like unpatriotic pansies.

These are the stakes: if Rove can successfully con Democrats into ignoring Iraq and reciting their laundry list of other priorities, Republicans win. It's shameful that the minimum wage hasn't been raised in nine years and that thousands of ailing Americans will ultimately die because of Bush's position on stem-cell research. But those issues won't get the Congress back for Democrats. Iraq can.

A case in point: remember the Democrats' bungled, now-forgotten launch of a "New Direction" agenda less than two weeks ago? It was supposed to be the Democratic equivalent of the Gingrich Contract with America, except it lacked passion, media attention or underlying themes that could make the public want to vote for Democrats. And it barely mentioned Iraq, simply because there isn't a simple unified agreement on whether to have a timetable for withdrawal. But in the recent Senate vote, about 80 percent of Democrats favored a Reed-Levin amendment urging withdrawal to begin this year along with purging the police of Shiite militias and starting real negotiations with Sunnis. So there is broad agreement among Democrats that Bush's policy is a failure and we need a responsible exit strategy.

Yet while the anti-war progressives denounce the Democratic party leadership for its weakness on the war, they haven't done a forceful or effective job at advancing their own goals, including measures that could win broad-based support. I explored in a Tompaine.com article in late June how these groups failed to attract attention for their grass-roots campaign for a real, open debate on the Iraq war in Congress, rather than the sham resolution that the Republican leadership jammed through the House.

I pointed out:

Democrats have squandered an opportunity to make the call for an open debate on the Iraq war part of a forceful, unifying attack on Bush's war policies.

That failure underscored weaknesses in the strategies of antiwar Democrats and progressive organizations for ending the war--most notably in their ineffective and uncoordinated efforts to win the attention of liberal media outlets, blogs and especially the mainstream media for some of their antiwar initiatives.

Did you know that there has been a grassroots campaign to win an open, unrestricted congressional debate on the war since early this year, apparently involving thousands of members of a 40-organization coalition, Win Without War? I doubt it. That coalition includes potentially millions of active members representing such organizations as MoveOn.org, the National Council of Churches and the National Organization for Women. But with each of the major groups having its own wide-ranging agenda for change, the drive for an open Iraq debate--a possible rallying cry for progressives divided over how to exit Iraq--rarely became a top priority.

One underlying failure is a left-wing skepticism of the mainstream media that is so profound that the anti-war progressive groups too often don't launch effective, full-court press media campaigns to push their issues, especially on Iraq. It was individuals speaking out -- from Cindy Sheehan to Rep. John Murtha -- that drew media interest to the anti-war movement in the last two years, not the assorted campaigns of various liberal organizations and peace groups.

Even with the involvement of a savvy organization for broad-based progressive change, such as Moveon.org, unless the progressive movement as a whole gives more effective and extensive support for the floundering anti-war groups and coalitions in their movement, and makes getting out of Iraq a top, focused priority, all their dreams will be derailed.

Ending the war in Iraq -- and the waste and corruption of taxpayer dollars that is so widespread there -- has become an elusive goal, with moveon.org giving scant mention to ending the Iraq war on its home-page, focusing instead on its membership-selected and quite worthy goals of health care for all, energy independence and restored democracy. The first two priorites require funding available for domestic spending, which simply won't happen if the war continues on the same course and the trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy remain unchanged.

And if the budget-draining war continues as is, all the other progressive goals -- including more spending on education or medical care or a raised minimum wage -- are likely to go up in smoke.

As things are going now on the left, the war's end is likely only to be achieved sometime in the next several years when whatever administration is in charge realizes that support for the U.S. presence there has completely vanished and then beats a hasty, chaotic retreat. The left, so far, hasn't been able to set the terms of a responsible withdrawal, leaving it prey to any October surprises in 2006 or 2008 by the Bush administration to withdraw large number of troops.

Democrats stopped the privatization of Social Security without having a specific alternative to replace Bush's plan, and they should be able to offer a broad "Change the Course" strategy that sets them apart from Bush on the war -- and doesn't make them look weak -- without having to agree on the details yet of a withdrawal timetable. The hard-core anti-war left, of course, has a simple answer: withdraw all troops now. But that's not likely to ever win broad public support, help Democrats regain the Congress or White House, or, on balance, save more Iraqi lives being destroyed by sectarian violence. The Reed-Levin plan offered a template for change, and progressives and Democrats should start figuring out how to make it a political reality.

Update: Of course, a compromised media that is becoming increasingly concentrated also contributes to a downplaying of the anti-war movement. One of the wittiest, most insightful looks at this issue is by spoken-word performer Chris Chandler, whose video "There"s Something in the Air (But it's Not on the airwaves)," explores why the anti-Vietnam war movement got more attention than the anti-Iraq war protests. As he explains:

"Something's In the Air/But It's Not on the Airwaves" Produced by Karen Kilroy & Chris Chandler

This is an 8-minute political music video about the media blackout on the peace & justice movement. During the taping, cast member Sarah Rolan, playing the part of a widowed war bride, received news that her long-time friend, U.S. Marine reservist Lance Corporal Daniel "Nate" Deyarmin of Tallmadge, Ohio, had been killed during active duty in Iraq. This took place on Monday, August 4, 2005, and 13 other Ohio servicemen also died. The song was composed and performed by Chris Chandler with David Roe and is dedicated to Nate Deyarmin.

In addition to being viewed online more than 50,000 times, this video has been shown at various film fests and on cable access TV across the country. 8 mins.