Remarks on September 21, 2013, at the Nashville Festival for Peace, Prosperity, and Planet.
Thank you to Elizabeth Barger and the Nashville Peace and Justice Center and to all of you, and happy International Day of Peace!
From a certain angle it doesn't look like a happy day of peace. The U.S. government is engaged in a major war in Afghanistan, dramatically escalated by the current U.S. president, who has been bizarrely given credit for ending it for so long now that a lot of people imagine it is ended. The same president goes through a list of men, women, and children on Tuesdays, picks which ones to have murdered, and has them murdered, often with missiles shot out of unmanned drones, drones that circle people's villages endlessly threatening immediate annihilation moment after moment for weeks on end, missiles that often miss their targets and often kill random people too close to their targets. The CIA with war powers. Secret military operations in dozens of nations. Expansion of U.S. troop presence in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Some 90 percent of the world's nations with U.S. troops in them. Prisoners force-fed in Guantanamo. Black sites. Iraq ruined without reparations. Libya thrown into anarchy without apology. Activists treated as enemies. Journalists treated as spies. Whistleblowers locked up in cages. Our Constitutional rights treated as dispensable. The United Nations used, abused, and circumvented. U.S. weapons provided to dictatorships and democracies around the globe. Tennessee's U.S. Senator Bob Corker going on television repeatedly for weeks to tell us that the United States is covertly aiding one side of a war in Syria. Does he not know what "covertly" means, or does he not know how television works?
But I believe that, despite all of that and much more, there is huge reason to celebrate a happy international day of peace. At most events where I speak there is a time for questions, and almost always there is someone whose question is really more of a speech to the effect that war opposition is delusional and hopeless; if the government wants a war, it gets a war -- so this person always tell us. Well, no more. From this day forward, that person's comments should be no match for the laughter that greets them, because we just prevented a war.
Congress members heard from many thousands of us, and what they heard was over 100-to-1 against attacking Syria. When it became clear that not even the Senate would authorize such an attack, talk shifted immediately from the inevitability of war to the desirability of avoiding war.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that President Bashar al-Assad could avoid a war by handing over all the chemical weapons his government possessed. Russia quickly called that bluff and Syria agreed to it. Syria had tried in the past to negotiate a Middle East free of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, but the United States had been opposed, not wanting to stop arming Egypt and Israel.
Secretary Kerry, apparently panicked by the possible delay or prevention of missile strikes, put out a statement that he had only been making a "rhetorical argument," not a real proposal. But when the White House saw the writing on the wall in Congress, Kerry claimed to have meant his comment seriously after all. He was for his own idea after he'd been against it.
Of all the many ways in which John Kerry has tied himself in knots before, this is the first time he's had to do so because the people of this country and the world rejected a war. Remember when Kerry asked how you could ask someone to be the last man to die in the war on Vietnam? We have it in our power to reject the next war and the next war and the next war and make John Kerry the last man to have tried to sell us a dead idea.
War is a dead idea, an idea whose time has gone. The abolition of war is an idea whose time has come. But the government isn't ready to announce that for us. That's why we need to celebrate this victory. And not just us at this festival. This was everybody. This was the people of Syria who spoke against an attack on their nation. This was the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who said don't do to others what you've already done to us. This was the people of the world and of Russia and of China who said you won't paint this crime as legal with our help. This was the people of Britain who moved their House of Commons to reject a prime minister's request for war for the first time since the surrender to the French and Americans at Yorktown. This was low and high ranking members of the U.S. military saying "We didn't sign up to fight for al Qaeda." This was government experts risking their careers and their freedom to say "If President Obama's excuse for a war happened, he's guessed it right, because the evidence doesn't establish it." This was the majority of the U.S. public telling pollsters, yes, we care about suffering children; send them food and medicine, don't make it worse by sending in missiles." This was the victory not of a moment but of a decade of cultural enlightenment. When you've got the Pope and Rush Limbaugh on your side you've built something very broad. Remember when they called resistance to war "The Vietnam Syndrome" as if it were a disease? What we've got now is the War on Terror Inoculation. This is health, not sickness. War is the health of the state, said a World War I resister. But war resistance is the health of the people. The people are the world's other super power.
So, yes, I say celebrate! Start seeing successes. Drone attacks are down dramatically. Environmental groups are beginning to oppose military base constructions. States are beginning to work on conversion of war industries to peaceful industries. Larry Summers has been denied a chance to do more economic damage.
Imagine the euphoria -- or don't imagine it, just remember it -- when this country elects a new president whose main redeeming feature is that he isn't the previous president. For personality fanatics that's big stuff. And there are big parties. For policy fanatics -- for those of us interested in seeing policies change rather than personalities -- that kind of moment is right now. The first step in overcoming an addiction, whether to war or alcohol, is recognizing that you have a problem. The second step is believing that you can shake it if you try. We've just taken the first two steps! The war addicts said Syria needed an intervention. We gave the war junkies an intervention instead. We pointed them toward the path of recovery and showed them a preview of what it will look like.
Now, if you don't want to celebrate because there's too much work to do, because Syria is in greater danger without its weapons (look what happened to Iraq and Libya), and because the pressure for war is still on, I can respect that. I'll be with you starting tomorrow. But it's hard to imagine we'll find the most effective strategy, much less motivate all the doom and gloomers to work their hardest, if we refuse to recognize when we've actually made progress, no matter how limited.
If you don't want to celebrate because you don't think public pressure made any impact and don't think it ever can, I've looked at enough of the recent history and distant history to say, with all due respect: I don't believe you. And if you believed yourself you wouldn't be here today.
Now, there is endless work to be done when we get back to it in the morning. Congressman Cooper was pretty noncommittal, I understand, as quite a few Congress members were. He kept an open mind. Maybe, just maybe, he must have thought, it makes sense to deescalate a war by escalating it, maybe these magic missiles with Raytheon pixie dust on them will kill only the people who really need killing while empowering fanatic heart-and-liver eaters who execute their prisoners to establish a secular democracy, and perhaps we really can uphold the norm against chemical weapons that our own nation violates with some regularity by blatantly violating the norm against attacking other countries with missiles, and maybe we'll enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention against a nation that never signed it by shredding the UN Charter and the Kellogg-Briand Pact as long as we call ourselves "The International Community" and if we can't get France to help maybe Puerto Rico would count as a Coalition of the Willing, and perhaps, perhaps just maybe Assad really is out to get us and just might be a threat to Nashville, Tennessee, and if not isn't the only thing that really matters President Obama's manhood and the respect he can only maintain if he behaves like a sociopath? Some part of this must be roughly how undecided members of Congress looked at this thing. Senator Harry Reid said Syria was the return of the Nazis, and he himself looked just like Elmer Fudd warning of a dangerous wabbit, but maybe he was right, think our elected representatives. There is work to be done.
Republicans in Congress turned against war more than they might have with a Republican president. And some Democrats, including a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, cheered for war. The Black Caucus told its members to shut their mouths and not speak about Syria. But they didn't all listen. The leadership of the two parties pushed for war, and most members of both parties said No Way. That's something to build on. Anything that has happened is automatically acceptable and respectable, and in that category now is war rejection, regardless of who is president in the future.
Senator Corker thinks the United States has lost credibility. I think it's gained it. The United States claims to use war as a last resort. When an occasion finally arrives in which it doesn't use war as a first resort, that boosts the credibility of its claim. The U.S. justifies its wars with the word "democracy." When it listens to its people for once, it demonstrates democracy by example rather than by dropping cluster bombs or napalm or using those depleted uranium weapons giving the workers who make them cancer over in eastern Tennessee. The world was skeptical of the U.S. case for war because of past U.S. lies, not because of past U.S. failures to bomb people.