war in iraq


Giving Protest a Chance

A new kind of conflict begets a new kind of dissent. Can a pre-emptive peace strike work?

January 26, 2003

By Arian Campo-Flores

The 30-second TV spot opens with actress Susan Sarandon staring into the camera. "Before our kids start coming home from Iraq in body bags and women and children start dying in Iraq," she lectures solemnly, "I need to know what Iraq did to us." Cut to Ed Peck, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq: "The answer is, nothing. Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda ... Invading Iraq will increase terrorism, not reduce it." Against billowing fireballs of war, a message appears on screen: why rush into war? let the inspections work.

The ads were paid for by TrueMajority.com, a liberal activist group started by Ben & Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen. It's spent $200,000 in cable air time to play the spot before and after Tuesday's State of the Union speech. The ad's message is not aimed at the usual peacenik crowd, but tries to rouse middle-of-the-road Americans -- the millions of people who tell pollsters they're wary of war, but who don't usually take to the streets in protest.

For antiwar protesters, mainstream America -- teachers, business owners and the ubiquitous "soccer moms" -- is the great, and still largely untapped, source of new recruits. As the Pentagon moves weapons and troops overseas, many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of the United States' launching a pre-emptive war, especially without strong international support.

The military buildup has certainly given a boost to the worldwide protest movement. Recent marches in Washington and other cities around the United States and Europe drew hundreds of thousands of people. But to the frustration of protest organizers, the antiwar movement has yet to grow into a potent political force.

Why? For starters, there's no war to protest, at least not yet.

Anti-Vietnam picketing didn't gain serious momentum until U.S. soldiers started dying in large numbers. It's not easy to get people to rise up before the first shot has been fired.

Another hurdle: the antiwar protesters are often forced to share the stage with a hodge-podge of other activists -- the anti-globalization crowd, the pro-Palestinian marchers -- making it extremely difficult for one unified message to punch through. "I'm troubled with the idea of being lumped in with some of these groups of people," says Dana Bazelon, a recent college graduate who works in Washington. "I sometimes wind up pro-testing with many people who believe the opposite of what I do." Nancy Kurkinen, a Portland, Ore., antiwar organizer, worries that the more radical protesters can alienate potential allies. "The person at home watching the evening news says, 'Look at those guys, they're looking for an excuse to be rowdy'," she says. "It invalidates the rest of us."

But the biggest problem: it doesn't matter how big your megaphone is if nobody in power is listening. The Democrats, the protesters' historical allies, have spent the past 30 years trying to shed their image as being weak on war -- and many of them still regret voting against the first gulf war

12 years ago. Even Democratic leaders who've urged President George W. Bush to go slow on Iraq will likely fall in line behind him if the shooting starts. The absence of a strong counter to Bush's saber-rattling complicates things for the protesters. "If we say no to war, shouldn't we be saying something else?" asks antiwar activist Jean Richardson. "What's the alternative?" Tough question. A convincing answer could move the protests off the Mall and onto the Senate floor.

By Arian Campo-Flores Newsweek


war in iraq