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Ten lessons from a U.S. defeat

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Remember Iraq? "No blood for oil"? "Bush lied, people died"? Takes you back, doesn't it? These days, even for that small percentage of Americans who still pay attention to any of our wars, Iraq seems like last year's news. At a recent anti-war teach-in at the University of Wisconsin that I attended, only workshops on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran were featured, and there was little discussion of Iraq, which now seems to have inherited the title of "forgotten war" from its older (by thirteen months) brother. Not to fault the teach-in organizers, of course. After all, Afghanistan is the war we're escalating, and Iraq is the war we're drawing down. But it's precisely because of that drawdown that Iraq deserves our attention. It's a shame that, at the precise moment when the Iraqi people are having some success at forcing their U.S. occupiers from their soil, the attention of the U.S. peace movement is elsewhere, because there's much we can learn from Iraq about how to end an occupation and defeat an empire. And "defeat" is exactly the word to apply to the U.S. imperial project in Iraq.

Consider the goals that U.S. leaders had in mind (not always shared with the public) when our troops marched into Baghdad in April of 2003. Iraq would be a strong U.S. ally, a base from which hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops could threaten other countries in the region. Iraq would provide a neoliberal, "free-market" model to bring disaster capitalism to the very heart of the last bastion of state-owned enterprise, the oil-producing Middle East. Iraq, which, we were reminded, "floats on a sea of oil," would open itself to "Production Sharing Agreements" that would pay its people pennies on the dollar while locking up Iraqi oil in the hands of U.S. oil companies - and out of the hands of our economic competitors.

Has even a single one of these goals been achieved? State-owned enterprises that were supposed to be sold off to foreign investors found no takers, after militant workers took action, some even threatening to blow up their own factories if the sales went through. And the crown jewel of Iraqi state-owned "socialist" enterprise, the oil industry, remains in state hands, watched over by a powerful Iraqi oil workers union. The hoped-for U.S. monopoly on oil contracts also turned out to be a fantasy, as Iraq signed new contracts with state-owned oil companies in China.

And what of those permanent U.S. bases? U.S. commanders now find themselves working under a ticking timetable requiring a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. Their hopes that the Iraqi government would agree to a renegotiation of the withdrawal deadline are now more illusory than ever, given the strong showing of anti-occupation Cleric Muqtada al Sadr in the recent Iraqi elections. If they want to stay in Iraq, their only option may be to repudiate the withdrawal agreement, a move that would cause an explosion of Iraqi armed resistance at exactly the time when the bulk of U.S. forces are needed to control Afghanistan.

No, our leaders won't learn a thing from their defeat in Iraq. But what can we learn? Here are some lessons I've drawn, please feel free to add your own in comments below:

1) Occupations are primarily ended through the resistance of those under occupation
The agreement that's on its way to forcing a U.S. withdrawal was not drafted by the U.S. Congress (which has proved itself a better war-funder than war-ender) but by the Iraqi Parliament. Although U.S. media tended to focus almost exclusively on the armed Iraqi insurgency, Iraqi resistance to occupation has had a powerful political expression in the form of a strong anti-occupation block elected to the Iraqi parliament. Negotiations on the withdrawal agreement took most of 2009 to complete, and in the end Iraqi negotiators rejected all of the Bush administration's demands, including U.S. control over Iraqi airspace for an indefinite period, the right to attack other countries from Iraq without Iraqi consent, and immunity from prosecution for U.S. mercenaries. What was left was a requirement for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces by December 31, 2011.

2) Loss of international support is critical
One of the factors forcing the Bush administration to the negotiating table was the expiration of a U.N. mandate that the U.S. had operated under since its invasion in 2003. The Bush administration's clear preference was to simply extend the mandate, year by year, continuing to rule over Iraqis without their consent. For a time, key members of the U.N. Security Council were willing to go along with this scheme, but eventually international support ran out, and the U.S. had no choice but to engage in the direct negotiations with the Iraqi government which led to the withdrawal agreement.

3) Domestic resistance tips the balance
When I write above that "Occupations are primarily ended through the resistance of those under occupation," I don't mean to say that we should sit back and "Let the Iraqis and Afghans do it." While Iraqi and Afghan resistance will be primarily responsible for ending these occupations (and any sense of fairness and solidarity requires us to say this) domestic resistance limits the damage done by the forces of empire on their way to defeat, elects representatives who can acknowledge defeat when they see it, and limits public support for the military project, reducing the number of lives lost and the billions squandered in the process, and finally tipping the balance towards a U.S. exit. Lessons 4-10 below are about what we can do.
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4) Unpopular wars kill fewer people
While no one can claim that the destruction caused by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan is "limited", we should remember that destruction in war is always relative. If we want to measure the effect of unpopularity on a war's destructiveness, we should take as our basis of comparison the last U.S. war that enjoyed broad popular support, WWII. U.S. commanders in that war firebombed major cities, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in a single air raid, finally escalating their use of force to include the use of nuclear weapons (twice.) Meanwhile, commanders in "The Good War" threw hundreds of thousands of American soldiers onto foreign beach heads, losing more men in a single day than we've lost in Iraq and Afghanistan in nine years. During WWII, our military and political leaders never doubted that they enjoyed a complete free hand to employ whatever level of violence they thought necessary to win the war, because they never doubted that their actions enjoyed the broad support of the American people. There is simply no limit to the amount of violence that our leaders are willing to inflict or the number of (our) deaths they are willing to tolerate if they think that a war is popular. By making the Iraq and Afghanistan wars unpopular, the U.S. peace movement has helped to save the lives of Iraqis, Afghans, and Americans. Because of the unpopularity of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, we found ourselves last year in a national debate about sending 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan, rather than a debate about whether to send 300,000 troops into a full-on invasion of Pakistan or Iran.

5) Peace movements are very good at making wars unpopular
With a strong boost from events in Iraq, the U.S. peace movement succeeded in making the Iraq war the most unpopular war in our nation's history. At its peak, opposition to the war reached nearly 70%, a number that is even more remarkable when you consider that, in the seven years of the Iraq war, war opponents and advocates for withdrawal never received even five minutes to make their case on a Sunday-morning political chat show or on cable news. We should all draw a great deal of encouragement from this, because it means that a large majority of Americans are capable of thinking for themselves and adopting a heretical idea which has not been implanted in their brains by corporate-government propaganda. In an environment of widespread distrust of the media and government, word of mouth turns out to be the most powerful tool imaginable for moving public opinion, and it's that word-of-mouth communication, the conversations at the street-corner peace vigil, the town hall meetings at the public library, and the conversation at a kitchen table or the local diner, that we excel at.

6) Get to 70%, and you'll see consequences
Making a war unpopular helps, but nothing magical happens in D.C. when opposition to war crosses the 50% mark. Approach 70%, though (a reasonable estimate of the non-insane portion of the U.S. population) and you'll start to see things happen. It was because of the near-70% opposition to the Iraq war that the peace movement created that a Presidential candidate who spoke against the Iraq war and promised to withdraw from Iraq won the 2008 election, and a candidate who thought invading Iraq was a great idea and wanted to stay there forever didn't win the election. Yes, all that President Obama has promised to do is abide by an agreement forced on him by the Iraqis, but nevertheless, it's a small and useful gift from the U.S. peace movement to the Iraqi people that we now have a President who is better able to read the clear "Yankee Go Home!" written on every wall in Iraq.

7) We've done it before, and we can do it again
At this point, you may be saying, "But what about Afghanistan? Even if I buy your claim that Obama really is going to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, what about the 30,000 additional troops - not to mention the contractors - that he's sending into Afghanistan?" And yes, it's true that President Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan, but let's remember that the U.S. peace movement didn't spend the last seven years vigorously making the case against the war in Afghanistan. For six of the past seven years, our focus was almost exclusively on Iraq, partly because it was the easier war to argue against. That early focus on Iraq had some positive results, as I've outlined above, but it's also meant that we haven't yet moved public opinion to strongly oppose the Afghanistan occupation. To continue a war, those in power don't need public support, merely public confusion. And the public, when it thinks about Afghanistan at all, is plenty confused. The good news is this: We know that our grassroots, word-of-mouth efforts do work in moving public opinion, and we now know that 70% domestic opposition, combined with strong resistance by those under occupation, will produce results.

8) Even the most powerful people in the world can't do the impossible
Clearly, we live in a world of vast inequalities of wealth and power. If those who have the wealth and power embark on policies that are practical, sensible and sustainable, there's simply no way we can defeat them. But it's often the case that those in power try to enact policies that are impractical, unsustainable, and even impossible ("Hey, everyone! Let's use the U.S. military to completely remake the Middle East along the lines of some plan cooked up in a Washington, D.C. think-tank!") When the powerful attempt the impossible we can defeat them, because the main struggle then isn't really between "us" and "them", but between "them" and reality, and reality always wins. Our role, then, is not to overcome the powerful through the direct application of our own power (which is inadequate to the task) but to throw our weight on the balance, so that reality wins sooner, rather than later. A dying empire can kill a lot of people as it goes down to defeat, and our resistance is essential to limiting the damage.
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9) A little humility is in order
You may think that humility is the last thing that the peace movement, which is currently at a low ebb, needs. But looking back on how the Iraq occupation is ending should cause us rethink our rhetoric and how we represent our role in the war-ending business. To often, we have implied that burden of ending the war falls primarily on our shoulders, as we promote the big march or the bill in Congress that's going to "end the war". Not only is this approach disrespectful of the people in Iraq and Afghanistan who bear the brunt of the occupation - and will be primarily responsible for ending it - it sends U.S. peace activists off in a pointless and frustrating search for the "magic bullet" that will "end the war." Powerful forces are at work (the most powerful being the resistance of the Iraqi and Afghan people themselves) and we are just one factor among many that will lead to the end of the Iraq/Afghanistan occupations, and eventually to the end of the U.S. empire itself. Promoting a more realistic understanding of how our resistance fits into the global movement against empire might appeal to the growing number of people who are turned off by unrealistic "Yes we can!" cheerleading.

10) Our greatest impact will be here at home
While the Iraqi and Afghan people are busy ending our occupations of their countries (with a small assist from us), there's much a domestic peace movement could be doing here at home to make the U.S. less of a danger to the rest of the world. Most importantly, the work of changing our own country is work that only we can do. One of the bright spots in a struggling peace movement is a diverse and growing counter-recruitment movement, which places its focus on the school down the street. While those of us who care about the planet attempt to reduce our "food-miles", why don't we also try to reduce our "activism-miles"? How about some state-level activism rather than Washington-based activism? In Maryland, a coalition of teachers, parents and students succeeded in winning legislation to limit the ability of military recruiters to use the ASVAB test as a source of "leads" for recruitment. Not local enough for you? How about Binghamton, New York, where the Mayor is in the process of installing a donated "cost of war" clock at City Hall? No, these local actions won't "end the war", but long-term changes in public attitudes may be the greatest threat that we pose to the empire. We know this because no less an authority than Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has told us so. In a New York Times story bearing the Orwellian headline "Gates Calls European Mood a Danger to Peace," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted as saying, "The demilitarization of Europe -- where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it -- has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st." Please note that Gates' concern was not about a bill pending in the European parliament, nor with a big march planned in a major European city, but with something much more insidious and hard to eradicate - the way that "ordinary" people, people like you and me, view the question of war and peace. If the seven years of the Iraq occupation have taught us anything, it should be that the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans is a struggle the peace movement can win.


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Steve Burns is Program Director of Wisconsin Network of Peace a Justice, a coalition of more than 160 groups that work for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

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