Fifteen years ago, on Feb. 15, 2003, somewhere between 6 million to 11 million people turned out in at least 650 cities around the world to protest the United States’ push to invade Iraq. It was the largest anti-war protest and remains the largest one-day global protest the world has ever seen.
Today, there are still 5,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and continued war on terror operations in close to a dozen other Middle Eastern, Central Asian and African nations. The war is ongoing. The anti-war movement, practically speaking, is not. What happened?
One explanation is that the anti-war push of 2003-2007 was successful — not in ending the war, but in knocking out the political party that started it.
The anti-war movement was not purely an anti-war movement, as Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas pointed out. He described the anti-war protest movement as “two groups coming together”: the core peace movement and the larger group of people who were registered Democrats and opposed to the Iraq war and then-Republican President George W. Bush, in general.
“Once the Democrats win the White House,” he said, “the two groups start moving apart.”
Rojas studied the protest movement and its decline with University of Michigan political science professor Michael Heaney. After attending dozens of protests where they conducted more than 10,000 surveys of anti-war protest participants over the course of a decade, the two professors wrote a book, Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party After 9/11, to explain it.
“When you study a massive social movement there is never one single factor, but what we do argue is a big factor is the turnover in party,” Rojas told HuffPost.
To understand the decline of the anti-war movement, you have to look at the different stages of its development. The initial movement began as a relatively small group formed immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in opposition to the Oct. 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan. This was at a time when voicing anti-war sentiment was intensely unpopular and viewed in many quarters as outright treason.
“It was very dangerous for a while to be anti-war,” Phyllis Bennis, director of the Internationalism Project at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, said, noting that Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only lawmaker to vote against the war on terror authorization, needed added security due to an increased volume of death threats.
The shift to a broader anti-war protest movement occurred as the Bush administration made clear its intentions to invade Iraq, a country that had no connection to the 9/11 attacks. Over the course of 2002, protests in the U.S. and around the world drew larger and larger crowds, up to the peak of the Feb. 15, 2003 protests.
Those protests occurred as the U.S., Britain and Spain pushed for a second resolution from the United Nations Security Council to approve an Iraq invasion. Ten days earlier, Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, had made his notorious presentation outlining the evidence that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Powell’s evidence would later turn out to be entirely false.
For this reason, the site of the United Nations in New York City marked the center of the protest. In freezing temperatures, somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 protesters stretched along 30 or 40 city blocks on First Avenue. Organizers included the umbrella peace group United for Peace and Justice, the socialist group International ANSWER and a host of labor unions, environmental groups and progressive organizations like MoveOn.org.
Bennis connected protesters with the leadership of the United Nations to deliver their message. As the protest played out on the street, Bennis, actor and activist Harry Belafonte and Archbishop Desmond Tutu met with then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan inside U.N. headquarters. Here Tutu told his old friend Annan that, on behalf of the protesters, “We claim the United Nations as our own.”
The U.S. quickly dropped its push for a second resolution that would have provided legitimacy for a war. President George W. Bush said that he could care less about protests, which he dismissed as a “focus group.” The protest organizers cheered their success in preventing a second resolution at the U.N.
But 33 days later, the U.S. and its “Coalition of the Willing” commenced a “shock and awe” bombing campaign and invaded Iraq. In 2004, Annan declared that the war, which never gained a legitimate stamp of approval from the U.N., was “illegal.” High-intensity protest mobilization continued, plateauing in 2007 and then attenuating over the next few years.
“The anti-war movement was pretty well sustained from 2003 through about 2006,” Heaney, the University of Michigan professor, told HuffPost. “During that time there were multiple large demonstrations. There was also coordinated activity and lobbying. There were numerous active coalitions. Lots of grassroots mobilization in numerous cities. It was a pretty big movement.”
Whereas anti-war protests brought out thousands of participants while Bush was president, participation collapsed with the 2008 election of Barack Obama. In their surveys of protest participants, Heaney and Rojas found that protesters cited anti-Bush and anti-Republican Party sentiment as among the top three issues until Obama was elected. After, this partisan-inflected sentiment did not crack the top 20 in reasons people attended the protests. This can be attributed to the fact that the people who were there to protest Bush and the Republicans simply stopped coming to protests, leaving behind the core anti-war movement activists, according to Rojas.
It is not as though this reveals some deep hypocrisy on the part of individuals with a partisan affiliation with the Democratic Party. By and large these people did not just oppose the Iraq War because a Republican president waged it or suddenly switch their position when Democrats won.
“They did [left behind the protests] for any of a variety of reasons,” Heaney said. “It could be that they felt that Barack Obama would deal with the war. It could be that they were attracted to other issues, like immigration and health care.”
Indeed, there were other developments around the time that the movement began to fizzle. The global economic crisis began in 2007, leaving many protesters with more immediate concerns — how to keep their job or house, for instance.
“One impact of the economic crisis, you have a whole set amount of people put their main political energy into the anti-war movement who suddenly were faced with an economic crisis they had never experienced,” Bennis said.
The prospect of unified Democratic control of the White House, and Congress also opened up possibilities for legislation on health care and immigration. In some cases, institutional support by groups linked to the Democratic Party ― labor unions, environmental groups and MoveOn.org ― was diverted from the anti-war cause to these issues. For many partisan Democrats, their attention shifted as well.
Meanwhile, Obama, who as an Illinois state senator voiced opposition to the war in Iraq at a protest in 2002, in many ways continued the war on terror policies of the Bush administration after he gained the presidency. He did eventually draw down troop levels in Iraq, but he increased them in Afghanistan, as he had promised to do in his 2008 campaign. He ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, which even killed an American teenager who had committed no crime.
You may be tempted to think, then, that the Feb. 15 protest and the movement around it were ultimately fruitless. Any number of commenters have said as much. Bennis argued that that isn’t quite right.
“There was a lot of talk afterwards that this just proves protest is useless,” Bennis said. “I think that was really wrong, because it didn’t take into account what came next. There were a number of impacts from that protest that we are still feeling today.”
The clearest political impacts of the global protests occurred outside of the United States.
In Spain, which saw one of the highest-attended protests on Feb. 15, 2003, conservatives who backed the Iraq War lost the next election. In Britain, where 1 million people turned out in London on Feb. 15, the Labour Party has undergone a massive shift in power from the pro-war Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, one of the leaders of the anti-war protests in 2003.
In Egypt, progressive activists noticed the lack of protest in their country on Feb. 15 and organized their own spontaneous protest that brought out tens of thousands on the day the U.S. invasion began. Those same activists helped launch the 2011 Tahrir Square protests that brought down the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. (They are also now the targets of the current U.S.-aligned government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.)
The protests surely had an effect on policy here in the United States, where the public has been far less interested in starting new wars since Iraq. When Obama sought authorization from Congress to bomb Syria, heavy grassroots opposition re-emerged in phone calls to lawmakers demanding that they oppose the action. Even in the Republican Party, opposition to the Iraq War, however illusory, helped Donald Trump win his party’s nomination.
Bennis said that the starting point of conversations about war no longer defaults to support. “Now it’s moving towards the other way around,” she said. “It’s not quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction. And Feb. 15 was a huge part of why.”