Ukraine is not Iraq - and Any Global Peace and Justice Movement Needs to Recognize Why
Revisiting my 2003 "Where the Peace Movement Went Wrong" piece on the failures of the Anti-Iraq War mobilization and the persistent sectarian ideology still undermining the left today
The US violated international law and drove unimaginable death and mayhem in its illegal war in Iraq. Yet neither the American public at home nor most of the international community saw it as equivalent to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.
The difference is not because of propaganda, however much it may have a role in shaping these debates, but because there are fundamental differences that many in the organized left and peace movement (which are not synonymous) have not fully engaged.
The key is that unlike Russia’s goal of removing the current regime in Ukraine, removing a dictator like Saddam Hussein from power was a reasonable goal, even if the means were illegitimate and ultimately wrong-headed (as the chaos that would follow in Iraq would reinforce). Every speech by Zelensky makes the Russian claims of fighting a “Nazified” regime ever more ridiculous.
I am actually glad to see the pictures of Iraqis celebrating freedom from Saddam's dictatorship. Not because it changes my view that this war was the wrong decision, but at least it means that for some Iraqis the death and devastation of their cities is offset by their immediate freedom from Saddam's yoke.
The problem for the peace movement is that they failed to argue persuasively that death and war was not the best option to achieve this goal, instead leaving a lot of the US population with the sense that the choice was between the war and inaction, which ended up tilting many moderates reluctantly to the war camp.
For many Americans, the war involves fighting a brutal regime that abuses its own people and has a history of invading neighbors. Whether the Bush leadership have other nastier intentions is separate from that obvious issue, which many people can separate from even concious misgivings about the Bush administration.
The antiwar argument had to be about whether there was an alternative way to achieve the goal of a freer and more democratic Iraq (and questioning the good faith of war proponents to achieve that result).
Early on in the lead-up to the Iraq War, only a third of the public supported intervention in Iraq, but the failure of the peace movement was they couldn’t articulate an alternative approach to addressing the abuses of the Iraqi regime without resorting to war. The left was largely speaking to itself with significant chunks essentially defending Hussein’s regime, further alienating the peace movement from the broader public.
Bits and pieces of this response were scattered across antiwar analysis, but it was marginal to the simplistic "no war" legalisms and "unity" rhetoric with forces that excluded such analysis. Speeches at rallies I went to were preaching to the converted, not speaking to those less convinced of Bush's complete perfidy and for whom an actual argument was necessary. A few on February 15th in New York attempted this, but they were such the exception, and so unreinforced by broader public outreach to that unconverted group, that I'm hardly surprised that it was ineffective.
In the current Ukraine debate, those focusing on a message of “no NATO expansion” and implicitly or explicitly blaming the US and Europe for Russia’s invasion have similarly disconnected themselves from the actual public debate, which is what is the best strategy to end the invasion and occupation in Ukraine.
The problem is not just the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America, among others, calling for withdrawal from NATO but also talking about “de-escalation” and ending “unilateral coercive measures”, implicitly criticizing the economic sanctions levied against Russia. The idea that you can get a “diplomatic resolution” with one side bombing cities and the other doing nothing in response sounds either delusional or pro-Russian, either way, alienating those horrified by the Russian invasion.
There is an Alternative Progressive Voice for Challenging Russian Oligarchs
Now, members of “the Squad” did articulate a strategy focused strongly on punishing the oligarchs who underpin Putin’s regime, while limiting military escalation.
Catie Edmondson @CatieEdmondsonYou don’t see this often, but here’s a letter from 43 lawmakers in both parties — from Gosar and Gaetz to AOC and Bush — urging Biden to receive authorization from Congress before involving US armed forces in the Russia-Ukraine conflict https://t.co/o9eimRZQpk
Here they lay out real strategies to target the power players in Russia to end the war, not pretending that diplomacy by itself will pressure Putin to end his war. While I disagree with the opposition by some in the Squad like Rep. Omar and Bush to banning Russian oil imports, opposing sanctions that hurt the broader Russian population while hitting the oligarchs hard is an actual moral and strategic approach to dealing with the situation.
Given that folks like Omar have consistently supported some degree of economic sanctions against Saudi Arabia for their mass bombings in Yemen and against Israel for its illegal Occupation, they at least have a consistent view of using sanctions to stop state-sponsored violence- something most of their critics don’t have.
While I am far more hawkish in strategy in dealing with Russia, there is unquestionably room for a far tougher crackdown on the oligarchs that a broader anti-war left could be mobilizing around. They could be demanding federal and state legislation - as is being proposed in New York - be enacted to expose the secret corporate fronts used to hide illegitimate purchases of real estate and other assets.
One caucus of socialists in and around DSA, North Star, (which I largely identify with), made up of many long-time activists within DSA before the recent surge in membership, is largely in line with the Squad’s approach to Ukraine.
But we, unfortunately, aren’t seeing that approach reflected in a consistent movement of peace and justice activists, whether marching in the streets or legislative organizing, for that strategy.
The Sectarian Disease Undermining a Left Movement for Global Peace and Justice
Part of the reason for this is a sectarian political strain that consistently sees any action by the U.S. internationally as illegitimate, while anything done by its opponents as something to defend. Here Jason Schulman and Dan LaBotz layout a bit of the history of what has sometimes been called “campism” - and its influence on parts of the left.
Campism is a longstanding tendency in the international and U.S. left. It approaches world politics from the standpoint that the main axis of conflict is between two hostile geopolitical camps: the “imperialist camp,” today made up of the United States, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (or some such combination) on one hand and the “anti-imperialist camp” of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and other less-industrialized nations on the other. The anti-imperialist camp is generally defined as all formerly colonized nations and especially all avowedly anti-imperialist governments in the Global South. This ideology has been a hallmark of political currents defining themselves as Marxist-Leninist, though others who don’t identify with that term also embrace it. Campism, somewhat surprisingly, considering the organization’s political lineage, now exists even within parts of DSA…
In this framework, the division of the world between rival geopolitical blocs overrides other questions and provides the dominant political explanation for world events. It seldom addresses the internal class character of the nations of the “anti-imperialist camp,” and, regardless of the nature of their governments and economies, attribute to those nations a progressive character. It almost never criticizes the “anti-imperialist nations” and tends to ignore, denigrate, or outright oppose movements for democracy or economic and social justice that arise among the working classes of such states.
Given the military interventions by the U.S., from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq, and interventions to support the overthrow of democracy in multiple nations from Iran in 1953 to Guatemala in 1954 to the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 to the overthrow of Chilean leader Salvador Allende in 1973, there are good reasons to see the U.S. as a bad actor for much of the Cold War. However, the simplistic “enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach to understanding global politics was always a dead-end, both politically and morally. But the factions supporting such “campist” approaches undermined the anti-war movement against the Iraq War and continue to infect the approach of many on the left towards the Ukraine conflict.
The purest representative of the “campist strain” currently is the sectarian group, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), itself an offshoot of a group called Workers World, which supports North Korea, the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square, and Assad’s Syria - see here for more on their history. Despite this insane and immoral defense of dictatorial butchers, they were able to lead a major coalition against the Iraq War called the ANSWER coalition, which continues to this day, and has has increased influence within the left via entryism into groups like DSA. See DSA in New Orleans holding a joint event with PSL opposing US support for Ukraine.
Not to overhype PSL’s organizational power overall, they represent the ideological approach that has influence in some sectors of the left that persistently undermines any messaging that can effectively promote a left movement towards global justice.
What the left institutionally lacks is a more positive vision for global action, so they settle for a “NO on everything” consensus position that resonates with few outside their own circles. That was the problem during the Iraq War and is even more evident with Ukraine, where the public rightly sees an imperative for SOME action in support of the Ukrainian people as a basic requirement for anyone to even want to hear your arguments.
In my own, The War in Ukraine is a Class War, I attempted to lay out some of what could be part of that vision, but the sectarian weight means there is too little similar debate and organizing for any positive vision for global politics on the left. That kind of global vision had emerged during the global organizing around debt relief and for a more just global trade regime at Seattle in 1999 and subsequent organizing, but 9-11 and then the Iraq War largely undermined that approach. What’s needed is to regain that more global vision and alliances to move forward.
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