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Building an Activist Movement to End the Occupation of Iraq

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Remarks at American University Teach-In on March 22, 2008
By David Swanson

Robert Dreyfuss's presentation that I now have to follow was tremendous and I learned a lot, but I disagree with his pessimism.  I am fond of the saying "Let's save our pessimism for better times."  It's a choice to be a pessimist, and it is a wrong one, always.

So, here we are again, a crowd dominated by old white people on a college campus in a black city.  But on March 12th and 19th in this city I watched hundreds of college students and African Americans  put their bodies in the way of arrest and abuse for peace.  If I had to choose, I'd rather have people in the streets than in a teach-in.

Still, I think this all-too-typical turnout suggests how segregation and civic weakness in this country allows mass murder to occur in other countries.  We have long term work to do assuming we live long enough to do it.

Today was billed as a dialogue on the war, and I want to speak first and if there's time have a dialogue or a multilogue, but not about a war.  A war is a contest between two armies, and can be won or lost, can end in victory or defeat, and is understood as intended to have an end some day.  What we have in Iraq is an occupation of a people by a single foreign military force.  It can never be won or lost and is not intended to ever end.  The movement we need to build cannot, I think, most easily succeed by using language that defines our success as defeat.  Instead our success should be understood as getting tough on crime, as the American people reining in the abuse of power of the least popular president and vice president we have ever known.

I know you may want to tell me that certain allegedly mainstream Americans cannot possibly think of their president as a war criminal and would be more likely to support a responsible and slow redeployment of part of the occupying army to elsewhere in the empire if we don't use the word crime -  except, perhaps, in blaming the Iraqis for how they've handled our genocidal charity mission to their country.  But I think you would be underestimating a sufficient number of Americans to make that the wrong approach, that you should recycle your television as soon as possible, that it is their posture toward Bush more than toward Muslims that makes the Democrats look like wimps and makes Congress so unpopular, and that only a reversal of our imperialism can leave us a sustainable world, so there's no time like the present to start working on it.  We don't need to win over every last American; we just need a significant minority of the majority that is already with us TO ACT.

CNN says that in a poll of 1,019 adults between March 14 and 16, 52 percent said that the United States' action in Iraq is not morally justified.  That's not a bad response for a question that's rarely been polled or discussed in the media.

We're also, according to today's agenda, supposed to base our movement for withdrawal on an analysis of failed policies, but I'm not going to do that because I don't see any failed policies.  The Cheney-Bush gang intended to install a permanent occupation of Iraq, enrich oil barons and arms makers and disaster capitalists, win or steal elections, eliminate civil rights at home, transfer wealth upward, and transfer power from Capitol Hill to the White House.  We've just heard how ignorant they are, but they are ignorant of things they do not care about.  They may have had dreams of quickly pacifying Iraq and moving on to the next victim in Iran, rather than empowering Iran as they have done, and we in the peace movement and the counter recruitment movement and the independent media can share credit with the Iraqi people for having slowed things down.  But I don't see any fundamental failure.  The forces against which we need to build a movement are succeeding.  And that is unequivocally BAD news.  Their goals are murder and theft.  The last thing we should be doing is wishing them success or lamenting their "failed policies."

We succeeded over five years ago in denying our U.S. warmongers U.N. authorization of the invasion, although they now try to claim that the occupation is legal.  We have succeeded in slowing recruitment, although they've responded by stop-lossing those they've already recruited.  We succeeded in 2006 in turning congressional elections into a referendum on the occupation of Iraq and won the Democrats probably 50 new seats to use in bringing it to an end.  But election fraud left them with only 30 new seats, and their leadership immediately decreed that they would keep the occupation going in order to run against it again in 2008.  We even elected some anti-war activists, like Carol Shea Porter, to Congress who immediately signed onto the plan to keep the occupation going for two years.  

We have succeeded in making the American public extremely aware of the dishonesty used in promoting the invasion of Iraq, and that awareness has helped forestall an attack on Iran.  But we have been less successful in communicating the dishonesty involved in promoting the ongoing occupation and in communicating the murderous costs of the occupation.  The primary reason for this is probably activists' subservience to a political party and that party's misguided fear of the absolutely nonsensical accusation of not "supporting the troops".  We're also up against the corporate media's complete lack of interest in Iraqis' deaths.  

And we have failed dramatically in communicating the fact that the Democrats in Congress have the power to cease funding the occupation right now, as well as the fact that the next 10 months exist, that contrary to popular belief we will not have a new president tomorrow, but rather must survive 10 more months under the reign of the Decider and the Dark Lord.

It's very hard to build an activist movement without hope of quick success, but it's impossible to build an activist movement without the belief that success is at least possible and the willingness to endure the ridicule of those wise souls who claim to support us while telling us that failure is guaranteed.  We have to be willing to endure that, and we have to find ways to provide solidarity and fun and other compensations for the lack of hope.  

Look around at all of the people in this room.  Now imagine a few thousand of these rooms, all with the same number of people.  Now imagine all of those people dying.  That is the result that will come from Congress handing Bush another $100 billion in the coming weeks.  Over the next 10 months, Iraqis will die because of the occupation, and people around the world will die for lack of the resources we are pouring into the corporations profiting from the occupation.  And many who do not die will consider the dead the lucky ones.  When anyone tells you that they want to end the occupation but can't do it until 2009 because they're too smart and know better, question their wisdom.  And especially do so if they work for the corporate media.  Write letters.  Call talk shows.  When you read that the Democrats are helpless as babies because they don't have 67 senators, do not let that lie spread unchallenged.  Let every producer and editor know that we know that it takes 41 senators to block a funding bill, or a simple majority of House members, or simply the leadership of the so-called leadership.  Pelosi has successfully badgered progressive Democrats to vote for funding in the past and badgered rightwing Democrats to oppose telecom immunity.  She could cut off the money right now and spare all of those lives.  She and Harry Reid prefer to portray themselves as critics of an occupation for which they are responsible.

A number of very well funded peace organizations that have tended to put Democratic partisanship ahead of peace have finally just launched a new effort to urge Congress to stop funding the occupation.  You can find it at Stand Up Congress dot org.  I find this highly encouraging.  However, these organizations, some of which are dumping tens of millions of dollars into partisan election ads in the corporate media, are not investing a dime in this new campaign.  The campaign involves no on-the-ground organizing, no events, no advertising, just a website to collect our Email addresses.  (Unless the answers that Tom Andrews gave to me and Ray McGovern in this room earlier today were honest and some money is put behind this.) But that doesn't mean we shouldn't overwhelm it with success.  It costs us nothing to sign on and to urge real action and serious funding.  We have to lobby our potential allies among the grassroots and astroturf organizations as well as lobbying Congress directly.  

If we are going to change the public discourse and apply the necessary pressure to force an end to the funding, it will take a fair amount of energy and focus from a great many people.  We cannot waste time on other things.  That starts by making the area around you an election-free zone.  We have an election DAY, and on that day you can vote for the least bad candidate.  We don't need an election eternity.  So, when people start talking to you about whether it's sexist to consider a female candidate's male supporters' statements racist always or only if those supporters are Latino, tell them to get you a candidate who will filibuster the occupation funding and a nonpartisan public hand counting of your paper ballots, but tell them that in the meantime you have important work to do.  

Elections may be the heart and soul of a republic, and we may have a handful of examples where election challenges, like Donna Edwards' challenge of Al Wynn, have reformed incumbent congress members.  And Cynthis Papermaster's challenge led Pete Stark to sign onto impeachment, and now she's running against Zoe Lofgren, hoping for the same result.  But elections in this country now serve primarily to dissuade activist organizations and individuals from lobbying elected officials.  If we hadn't had any elections since 2003, we might have mobilized the public pressure to shut down this city and compel our government to end the occupation of Iraq.  If no member of Congress belonged to any political party, we might have long since persuaded enough of them to listen to their constituents.  One thing you can do is send checks to the campaigns of elected officials and challengers who get it right, and send photocopies of those checks to other key congress members, noting why they won't be receiving the same.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)
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