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Two failed strategies in the US antiwar movement

[An earlier version of this essay was presented at Historical Materialism Toronto, May 2012.]

The end of the US military occupation of Iraq on December 31, 2011, although by no means an end to US imperial intervention in the country, augurs a radically new context for the political development of Iraq. This essay will argue that it also shows the need for a fundamental critique of strategies in the US antiwar movement, as the real process by which the occupation ended falsified the conceptions of both the liberal and left wings of the movement.

The liberals’ expectation that some combination of executive and legislative action by the Democratic Party would end or at least ameliorate the war was false; it will be shown, in fact, that the Democrats’ commitment to antiwar policies collapsed as soon as they gained control of Congress and the White House. However, the left wing’s contention that the occupation would be expelled by the triple action of a US civilian movement, US military movement, and Iraqi national resistance was also incorrect.

It will be seen that both wings of the movement derived their strategies from distinct readings of the same historical phenomenon: the movement against the US war on Vietnam. The conclusion suggests that opponents of imperialism in the US need to take a wider view of the nation’s political history, looking particularly to its legacy of explicitly anti-imperialist movements in order to discover new models of activism relevant to the current conjuncture.

Mission unaccomplished

On the first day of the year 2012, the US occupation of Iraq officially expired, formally bringing to an end one of the greatest experiments, crimes, adventures, and/or fiascoes in the history of modern imperialism. Whether it was actually brought to an end remains, perhaps surprisingly, a controversial issue on the left. In New Left Review 73, for instance, Alan Cafruny and Timothy Lehmann stress that the withdrawal is “not a retreat [but]…a reconfiguration,” concluding that “[a]lthough there is no shortage of ominous warning signs for American power in the Middle East, the military draw-down from Iraq cannot be read as a significant weakening of US hegemony.” Echoing the sentiments of many activists, the Workers World Party, an important component of the US antiwar movement, warns that there is “no real end to occupation.” The Left Forum 2012 workshop on “What War? US Turns from War on Iraq to Permanent Occupation,” featuring well-known antiwar movement figures Debra Sweet and David Swanson, rehearsed the same argument.

Occupying the opposite end of the spectrum is President Barack Obama, who in a speech of unparalleled vulgarity at Fort Bragg declared:

One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military [!!!] will come to an end. Iraqis future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over.

Democratic operatives pathetically followed suit, congratulating Obama for his “promise kept.”

Interestingly, these contradictory positions overlap in that they both overlook the important fact that Obama’s putative “reconfiguration” or “promise” was achieved quite in spite of his own intentions. Michael Schwartz points out that the US initially intended to keep 50,000 troops in-country, stationed in five “enduring” (ie, permanent) bases; unable to renegotiate its Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government, the White House scaled back its request to 15,000 troops; then 5,000; then zero. Even the gigantic US embassy staff of 16,000, a source of justified dread for anti-imperialists, is due for major cuts–by as much as half, according to the New York Times, which called the plan “a sharp sign of declining American influence in the country.”

More fundamentally, the power of US imperialism should not be measured merely by its ability to adjust to prevailing circumstances, but by its capacity to shape the prevailing circumstances in line with its geostrategic intentions. In this sense the US has failed almost extravagantly. Politically, the Iraqi government is closely allied with Iran and at odds with US policy on Syria. The notion that post-invasion Iraq would constitute some kind of model for “democratic” transformation across the Middle East scarcely requires discrediting. Even on the crucial oil question, although Western producers enjoy greater potential now relative to the Saddam era, American plans to control the “oil spigot” have come to naught. As oil expert Daniel Yergin points out:

[T]here’s all the talk about American companies being there. There are very few there. I think the American companies looked at the economic terms, and many of them just decided this is very tough, that we can’t make money doing this. So you have – it’s really like a sort of mini United Nations. You have Chinese. You have Indian. You have Russian. You have a couple of American, a lot of European companies there. And they’re all working because they want to get a foothold in what might be, you know, this major new oil production opportunity.[i]

The fact that the US maintains a significant imperial presence in and around Iraq is, of course, beyond serious debate; the struggle for the liberation of Iraq is in no sense completed. That said, the idea that 10,000-odd Americans hunkered down in the Green Zone are “occupying” a nation of 30 million people strains credulity; it is an example of what Imre Lakatos calls “the method of monster-barring,” in which an endangered conjecture is defended from a “monstrous” counterexample “by a sometimes deft but always ad hoc redefinition.” This essay rejects such a method–it accepts the manifest reality that the military occupation of Iraq is over and that US imperialism has suffered a defeat. It shows that the analytic failures of the antiwar movement are related to the falsification of the strategic premises of both the liberal and left wings of the antiwar movement. It concludes by suggesting some potential paths toward the reconstitution of a strategic framework for anti-imperialist organizing.

Two wings, two strategies

The dramatis personae of the American antiwar movement began to assemble in late 2002 as US intentions on Iraq became clear. Of particular importance was the formation of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) in October of that year, as UFPJ constituted an alternative organizational pole to ANSWER, which had until then been the major player in the national antiwar space. The advent of UFPJ also catalyzed the political condensation of the antiwar movement into two broad wings: liberal and left.[ii] UFPJ generally pursued a liberal policy, and ANSWER a left one, although neither was the exclusive representative of either wing; for instance, leftists also participated significantly in UFPJ.

Both wings were quite diverse in their composition, but each can be characterized by a set of strategic conjectures that determined its preferred modes of activity. The liberals conjectured that some combination of executive and legislative action by the Democratic Party would end or at least ameliorate the war on Iraq. The left, on the other hand, conjectured that the occupation would be expelled by the triple action of a US civilian movement, US military movement, and Iraqi national resistance.

Both sets of conjectures turned out to be false.

Falsification of the liberal strategy

Because this essay is written for a left audience, it will not spend much time demonstrating that the liberal strategy was incorrect. It will suffice merely to recapitulate the sorry history of the Congressional Democrats’ votes against supplemental war funding bills from 2007 to 2010.

In 2007, 140 House Democrats voted against the war supplemental. In 2008–remember, Bush was still in office–151 House Democrats voted against. The situation was completely changed after Obama became president. In June 2009, only 32 House Democrats voted against the war funding!

The back-story on the 2009 vote is interesting. For opportunist reasons, the Republicans actually voted against the funding, forcing dozens of Democrats to change their votes to ensure the funding would pass. In other words, these so-called “antiwar” Democrats didn’t vote against the funding…because they might have actually stopped the funding.

[T]he 2010 war supplemental was passed with only 25 House Democrats voting no–about a third of the size of the alleged Out of Iraq Caucus. Thus in the second year of the Obama administration, the House Democratic vote against war funding has declined by a factor of six.

Given that much of the liberal wing’s activity revolved around influencing Congress in one way or another, the Democrats’ cynical maneuvering badly disoriented the antiwar movement. This was especially true because most rank-and-file antiwar activists were basically aligned with the liberal wing.[iii]

Falsification of the left strategy

The strategy of the antiwar left was more complex than the liberal strategy; showing where it went wrong will be correspondingly more complex. First, though, it will be helpful to give a less laconic description of the left strategy than offered hitherto. Ashley Smith elaborates:

To really understand the kind of mass struggle we must aim to build, we should draw on the lessons of the movement against the war in Vietnam. It was not the president or Congress that ended that war. Instead it was the dynamic interaction of three militant mass struggles. The mass civilian antiwar movement staged mass marches, mass civil disobedience, and a wave of campus strikes that shut down the universities and colleges of the United States.

On top of that, the U.S. troops revolted against the war. As David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt describes, civilian activists in collaboration with vets and GIs set up coffeehouses where soldiers could organize their antiwar movement and build Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In Vietnam itself, the U.S. troops refused to fight, organizing “search and avoid” missions and even threatening their officers with fragmentation grenades to prevent officers from sending them into combat. This GI rebellion essentially paralyzed the American military in Vietnam.

Finally, and most importantly, the Vietnamese people themselves forged the National Liberation Front that fought for their own emancipation. They proved, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968, that the United States and its puppet government had no support in  Vietnam, and that the people were committed to driving the U.S. out of Southeast Asia. This three-dimensional, militant movement won the liberation of Vietnam.

The threefold nature of the antiwar struggle in the left wing’s conception, and its opposition to the liberal strategy, is described quite clearly in this excerpt.

The left strategy was a basically correct, if schematic, distillation of the Vietnam-era antiwar experience. However, none of the three conditions were necessary to end the occupation of Iraq, because the occupation ended while none of them obtained.

The civilian antiwar movement, already in trouble after the Democrats swept the midterm elections of 2006, collapsed after Obama’s ascension. The last antiwar demonstration drawing over 100,000 people took place in January 2007; the last drawing over 10,000 took place in October 2007. In the latter month, roughly 55,000 people came out nationwide for coordinated days of action; exactly two years later, no more than 4,500 came out. (These numbers are derived from the author’s personal records.) Although the Vietnam-era antiwar movement also experienced an organizational decline in its final years, this only took hold in 1973, after the US military was irretrievably on the way out: “There is no question,” writes Fred Halstead, “but that any…move [to re-escalate American involvement] would have had explosive repercussions domestically.”[iv] By way of contrast, the Iraq-era antiwar movement started its slide during the infamous “surge” of Gen. David Petraeus–a major escalation.

The organized military resistance reached its peak in spring 2008 with the remarkable “Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan” hearings organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). After the hearings, IVAW went into decline for reasons that remain somewhat obscure, but are surely related to the evacuation of the civilian antiwar movement. Furthermore, the economic meltdown and troop drawdowns ended the military’s recruitment problems, rendering the “counter-recruitment” campaign largely moot. Finally, the social and political implications of the all-volunteer neoliberal army, and how it shapes both mass consciousness and the consciousness of soldiers about war and militarism, remain only poorly understood by the antiwar left.

The Iraqi people resisted occupation in millions of ways, and whatever degree of freedom their nation has gained is due primarily to them. Resistance activity ran the gamut from civil society action to mass demonstrations to labor strikes to guerilla warfare. However, the Iraqi resistance never cohered as a truly national resistance, even if one leaves aside the Kurdish question and considers only the Arab population. This is not merely a matter of the absence of a hegemonic organization like the Vietnamese NLF: by 2006 Iraq was plunged into a sectarian civil war, particularly engaging the armed actors who might otherwise have joined forces against the occupiers.

The horrors of communal violence played a bizarre yet central role in the success of the 2007 “surge.” An unusually lucid explanation of the situation is provided by Lt. Col. Daniel Davis.

As is well known, the turning point in 2007 Iraq came when the heart of the Sunni insurgency turned against al-Qaeda and joined with US Forces against them, dramatically reducing the violence in Iraq almost overnight. The overriding reason the Sunni insurgency turned towards the United States was because after almost two years of internal conflict between what ought to have been natural allies–al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the greater Sunni insurgency–a tipping point was reached whereby the Iraqi Sunnis finally and decisively turned against AQI. Had this unnatural split not occurred, by all accounts I have been given on both the Iraqi side and the US military side, “we would still be fighting in Iraq today,” in the words of two officers I know who fought there. [p. 57]

Although the insurgency-cum-Awakening never abandoned its basic hatred for the US, the truly insane part played by al-Qaeda allowed the occupation to temporarily bring its most threatening armed opponent under control. At the same time Shiite politicians, including the more militant nationalists under Moqtada al-Sadr, were entangled in complex power-plays with the US and Iran over the control of the Iraqi state. American manipulation of the situation would be impressive, if there were any evidence to suggest that the US did not bumble into it quite empirically.

The point, of course, is not to hold the Iraqi resistance up to some abstract standard of what it “should have” been, but merely to point out that what it actually was did not conform to the strategic conjecture of the antiwar left. More generally, although each of the left’s three dimensions of struggle existed in one way or another at some point–and at some points even existed simultaneously–they did not cohere into a political ensemble that defeated the occupation, as they did in the Vietnam era. Indeed, all three resistance currents went into crisis during 2007, as the US escalated in Iraq.

Vietnam the model?

While the liberal and left wings of the antiwar movement drew distinctly different lessons from the Vietnam-era antiwar movement (to the extent that the liberals thought about history) both shared a perspective that the lessons of that period were strategically relevant. Liberals looked to how Congressional Democrats increasingly circumscribed the Republican president; leftists took a more comprehensive (and correct) view of the total situation, observing that intense popular mobilization threatening the very foundations of bourgeois rule compelled political progress. But they both agreed that the Vietnam-era movement was, in one way or another, a model for the Iraq-era movement.

Subjectively this was very understandable: the Vietnam-era movement was the last “big” antiwar movement in living memory. Additionally, the complex discontinuity between the Old Left and New Left meant that the experience of anti-imperialist struggles in the US before Vietnam was neither well-digested nor particularly accessible. Objectively, however, the hypothesis that an anti-imperialist struggle in the postwar phase of capitalism should coincide strategically with anti-imperialist struggle under neoliberalism invites skepticism. In this sense, the antiwar movement resembles a drunk searching for his keys under a streetlight: that is probably not where his keys are, but that is where it is easiest to see.

Each wing of the American antiwar movement had its own idea about how the occupation of Iraq would end. Neither was right. Instead of making a critical assessment of their experiences, however, the remnants of the antiwar movement seem to have resolved to “move on” to other struggles against imperialism, such as ending the war on Afghanistan, preventing imperialist interventions in Iran and Syria, fighting Islamophobia, and so on. These issues surely deserve urgent attention, but it is a mistake to leave the movement’s past unprocessed; or to engage in “monster-barring” by insisting that Iraq is “really” still occupied.

More concretely, if the antiwar movement’s strategies around Iraq did not pan out, they seem even less germane to Afghanistan. What, for example, would constitute a national resistance movement in Afghanistan, when Afghanistan is arguably not “national” in the first place?


Lack of reflection being a sine qua non of American liberalism, there is not much one can suggest to the antiwar liberals, other than encouraging them to become leftists. Fortunately the left, and especially the Marxist left, has a tradition of critical inquiry. Without retreating into the academic tower, it should develop for itself a kind of “research program” aimed at answering the critical questions that have arisen in the course of the present-day struggle against imperialism. Such questions might include:

  • What is similar, and what is different, between the current imperialist conjuncture and the Vietnam-era conjuncture?
  • What is similar/different between the current conjuncture and conditions prevailing during other anti-imperialist struggles?
  • How exactly was US imperialism defeated in Iraq?
  • What is the balance of class and imperialist forces in Iraq today? What is the nature and disposition of the Iraqi state?
  • How severe (or transient) is the damage to US imperialism from its Iraq adventure? Is US imperialism in secular decline?
  • Why has the war on Afghanistan dragged on longer than the war on Iraq?

The second question strikes this author as particularly interesting. Reading Lenin’s Imperialism, with its discussions of finance capital’s economic dominion and nation-states bloodily competing to divide and redivide a finite planet, one imagines that it evokes the world of 2012 much better than the world of 1962. Perhaps the anti-imperialist movements of Lenin’s time can speak to us as well?

In fact, the self-conscious framing of anti-imperialist activity as “antiwar”–that is, particularly tied to this-or-that war–seems to have been an innovation of the Vietnam era. Whether this was, or was always, a good idea remains controversial, although this strategy “exerted considerable influence on the antiwar mobilizing committees” through its most eloquent exponent, the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP).[v] It also seemed to work. But if it is hard to argue with past success, it is also hard to agree with current failure. It may be that the old banner of anti-imperialism, suggestive not of “mistakes” but crimes, not of the “clumsy giant” but the dangerous predator, presents an altogether more recognizable picture of their country to American workers today.


[i] Cafruny and Lehmann present impressive evidence on the powerful position Anglo-American oil companies have achieved in Iraq, but their contention that “ExxonMobil has won a commanding position” (p. 13) seems premature. In fact, the company’s aggressive moves in Kurdistan may endanger its operations in the rest of Iraq; see Ben van Heuvelen, “Exxon out of 4th bid round,” Iraq Oil Report, April 19, 2012.

[ii] I do not discuss a right/libertarian wing because this tendency never made much impact on the actual movement qua movement, although some figures produced interesting material, or at least made a lot of noise. For a longer treatment see Richard Seymour, American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Anti-Imperialism, Haymarket Books, 2012, pp. xix-xx.

[iii] Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas. “Partisans, nonpartisans, and the antiwar movement in the United States.” American Politics Research 35(4). July 2007. pp. 431-464.

[iv] Fred Halstead. Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the US Against the Vietnam War. Pathfinder, 1991. p. 814.

[v] Seymour, p. 131. See also Note 68 of Chapter Four (p. 240) for additional sources.

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