As the American-imposed deadline for Iraqi "disarmament" approaches, the antiwar movement seems to be counting on one of two scenarios to frustrate the plans of the Bush Administration.
The first is an optimistic "We Win" scenario, which would result from massive protests and diplomatic pressure forcing President Bush to postpone an invasion indefinitely. (What has yet to be addressed is what exactly we win if Hussein remains indefinitely in power and the sanctions go on killing Iraqis.) With war seemingly imminent, the movement is being forced to fall back on a second scenario, "Everyone Loses," in which the warnings of a protracted and bloody war that destabilizes the Middle East and increases terrorism bear their bitter fruit.
However unpalatable in terms of destroyed lives and infrastructure, this latter scenario would at least quash the Administration's imperial dreams and force the kind of soul searching of United States' policies that is a major goal of the movement. But this outcome is less likely than many assume, and the antiwar movement would be well advised to plan for a third scenario: "Bush Wins."
In this third scenario, the war is over quickly with relatively low U.S. casualties, some sort of mechanism for transitional rule is put in place, and President Bush and his policies gain unprecedented power and prestige. From my recent conversations with organizers and their latest pronouncements, it is clear that this possibility has yet to be addressed. Waiting much longer could spell disaster for the antiwar movement.
We can holler all we want about the history of U.S. experiments in imposed and/or frustrated democracies around the world (especially in the Middle East, where the record is uniformly negative), but the first Gulf War and now Afghanistan have taught us that the propaganda only has to work until the bombing ends, at which point the American public dutifully returns to its regularly scheduled programming until otherwise disturbed.
In such a scenario, especially if there is no major upsurge in domestic terrorism, the antiwar movement will find itself publicly discredited and politically marginalized; remember the Y2K dooms-dayers? There is little reason to assume most Americans won't re-focus on "American Idol," "Are You Hot?" and that other March Madness, leaving it to President Bush to figure out how to rule over a 6,000-year-old civilization 8,000 miles away.
That the medium-term economic and military impact of the war and Bush's other policies might prove his (like his father's) ultimate undoing is besides the point. If the movement doesn't move with full effort to lay the groundwork for a Bush Wins scenario the massive organizing and consciousness raising of the last year could well prove fleeting, forcing the movement to start from scratch in mobilizing public opinion a year or two down the road when the chickens of an over-extended empire come home to roost.
In order to prevent such an eventuality, the movement needs to work overtime now to inoculate the American people against what the Carnegie Endowment for Peace has already labeled the "mirage" of democracy that will likely be planted in Iraq after a short war. It is not enough to press the General Assembly to vote for a "Uniting for Peace" procedure to condemn the upcoming invasion, or for people to sign the Iraq Pledge of Resistance; what are we going to say when Bush and Blair parade Hussein or his generals before war crimes tribunals? That we don't have jurisdiction to try them? Or when "elections" are held, are we going to say they're not legitimate?
The history of U.S. failure to impose even an active subterfuge of democracy in the developing world, from Central America to Afghanistan, needs to be detailed explicitly and continuously. But we also need to be more assertive in putting forth a positive alternative to war to remove Hussein, a man whose presence is a major impediment to peace, justice and development for Iraqis and the entire region. Why must we leave it to Bush and Blair to make this point and lay out a plan to democratize Iraq and the region at large?
Sadly, based on the inability of the majority of organizations involved in the movement to foreground Hussein's crimes along with U.S. imperial strategies (as if the two aren't intimately related), the prognosis for a proactive discourse is not positive. Too many of us seem strangely unwilling to acknowledge publicly either how brutal Hussein's rule has been, or that his removal from power and facing justice would in fact be good things.
That a Bush invasion is not the way to achieve this, or that other countries and leaders -- yes, including Israel -- are engaged in brutal and large-scale oppression, does not mean that his crimes should be ignored or that he should ever again have full sway over the Iraqi people. God forbid.
Yet when a meeting of antiwar organizers in Cairo last December had the moral temerity to "admit" only to "restrictions on democratic development in Iraq" in comparison to Israeli and American crimes, doesn't anyone remember the genocidal Anfal of 1988, where upwards of 100,000 Kurds were killed in Iraq? We see how easy it will be for President Bush to seize the high ground by focusing on Hussein's crimes and supposedly protecting Israel, especially once a successful invasion reveals documentation of the extent of his crimes against his own people.
Even more discouraging, when I asked a senior organizer why the movement doesn't expand the focus of protests to include regimes like Sudan's, which is prosecuting a decade-long war of slavery and genocide, she replied that she feared President Bush would agree with protesters, and use their arguments as a pretext to invade Sudan next. If a self-styled global peace and justice movement refuses to focus on any conflict not implicating the United States for fear that highlighting a regime's crimes would serve as a pretext for yet another U.S. invasion, then we have arrived at an unprecedented, Orwellian level of self-censorship.
I am not alone in this line of thinking, by the way, as I've received complaints from senior colleagues with ties to the major alternative media/news organizations and antiwar groups about the lack of serious consideration of how to prepare for a Bush Wins scenario. Because the reality is that if the war is quick and a U.S.-occupation established effectively, progressive forces need to accept the removal of Hussein as a great opportunity to build democracy and justice in Iraq, whatever the actual motives of the Bush Administration.
The social and political forces unleashed by the end of decades of Hussein's murderous rule will not easily be penned in by a US-sponsored show-democracy; but whether these forces use a reopened public sphere or turn to violence to respond to the likely betrayal depends in good measure on how adroitly the world progressive community can lay fast but deep roots in Iraq.
Interestingly, while the organizers of the antiwar movement are not paying enough attention to the ramifications of a war that follows President Bush's script, their constituents, the thousands of students whose energy and devotion are driving the movement, are full of ideas on how to proceed in such an eventuality.
At a recent teach-in I asked students at my campus what they would suggest the antiwar movement do in the "Bush Wins" scenario, and received numerous insightful suggestions. While some, such as engaging in a massive education drive coupled with stepped up civil disobedience, are also being planned by the movement at large, perhaps the most important steps were felt to be "changing our image, rhetoric and discourse to adjust to the new political situation," while refocusing on the larger world systems which have produced toxic conflicts such as Iraq, Sudan, Colombia and the Congo. In other words, taking steps toward a more holistic approach to peace and justice.
The antiwar movement would do well to heed their advice. Tyranny or empire should not be the only two choices offered Iraqis, or the rest of the world.
Mark LeVine, Ph.D., spent six years recently researching and
reporting from the Middle East, including Israel, the Palestinian
Territories, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. He is an
assistant professor in the History Department at the University of
California at Irvine.