Why Anti-Imperialists Should Support a Mass Movement Against the Iraq War

by Bill Onasch

This is a slightly edited version of my article as first posted June 23 on the kclabor.org site.

Recent polls show that a substantial majority of the American population want out of Iraq: 46 percent are not looking for any kind of “exit strategy”—they favor immediate withdrawal, no ifs, ands, or buts.

It would seem logical for the antiwar movement to be reaching out to this mass sentiment, drawing new, broader, and more powerful forces into a united struggle. It should be high time to clearly articulate this yearning for peace and to make it unmistakably visible—as was done with considerable success during the Vietnam war.

Unfortunately, this is not yet happening. First we had a long detour as antiwar forces were sucked into the Anybody But Bush fiasco during the 2004 election season. Today sectarian turf-fighting, and much “anti-imperialist” posturing, is frittering away valuable opportunities for helping both the victimized people of Iraq and victimized GIs caught up in an unjust war. The three self-proclaimed national coalitions have been unable to agree on a unified national demonstration around the clearly indicated demand—Bring the GIs Home Now. As things presently stand, two competing demonstrations are being planned for the same day in Washington.

Two separate antiwar demonstrations in the same city on the same day? That is absurd and unthinkable. We should all be marching together as one, giving expression to the 60 percent of the population who, according to recent polls, want some or all troops brought home from Iraq. This now is a majority demand—and if the focus is kept on this demand, it can be won! U.S. imperialism can be forced to get out of Iraq!

One wing of the movement has reacted to the growing opposition to the Iraq war by essentially telling newcomers—not so fast! It’s not enough to just oppose the war in Iraq. If you want to get together with us, you must also endorse the assertion that “the Right of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes and property in all of historic Palestine is not negotiable.” [See the “Unity” statement of the Troops Out Now Coalition.]

Of course, the Palestinian question is important. People are being killed in conflict almost daily there, and there is a big population of unjustly dispossessed who have long endured poverty and degradation. Most American Jews have some ties to Israel, and there are many Palestinians living in the U.S. who still have family and friends in the same area.

While Palestine is not occupied by the U.S., as Iraq and Afghanistan are, the government that speaks in our name has always been deeply involved in injustices against the Palestinians. Washington’s bipartisan historical approach to the entire Middle East is definitely part of the problem, not in any way a solution.

In an article about the 2003 National Labor Assembly for Peace, sponsored by U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW), I wrote:

“There are many who think Americans have an obligation to oppose our government’s complicity in supporting the brutal methods of the Israeli regime in suppressing Palestinians. Personally I agree with that general sentiment.

“However, I believe we need an independent movement around this issue. It would be a serious mistake to demand that the movement against the war/occupation in Iraq also support Palestinian liberation.

“First of all, this is a hot button issue that could drive a mortal wedge among us. Undoubtedly a majority of the unions and union officials supporting USLAW could not and would not support it if it was perceived to have an ‘anti-Israel’ position. Splitting the Iraq movement could only harm, not help the interests of Palestinians.

“Secondly, there is by no means complete unity among those who oppose Israeli repression. Some condemn the suicide bombers as terrorists while others consider them heroes. Some favor a ‘two-state solution’ while others, including myself, support Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, practicing Jews, and nonreligious Jews, coming together on a basis of equality in a single democratic, secular state.

“These are important questions but they can’t and won’t be resolved within the Iraq movement. Nor will Ireland, Colombia, the Philippines, the Congo, or any of the other conflicts nurtured by global capitalism.”

I continue to stand with this position. Certainly there is room to include Palestinian speakers in antiwar rallies. Of course, there should be no restriction on banners or literature about Palestine in antiwar demonstrations. Efforts should be made to involve Palestinian and other Arab groups in the antiwar movement at all levels.

But attaching a formulation that most will view as a call to expel the Jews as a central, co-equal demand of a demonstration against the Iraq war is a monumental error. While many movement stalwarts may be prepared to ignore this provocation, and show up to protest the war anyway, this stance is guaranteed to divide and isolate the antiwar movement.

Let’s look at one crucial example—U.S. Labor Against the War. USLAW has done a good job in educating within organized labor about the war, has raised material support for Iraqi unions, and has succeeded in getting antiwar resolutions passed in unions representing millions of workers. (At the upcoming AFL-CIO convention, beginning July 25, USLAW is working to have a resolution adopted putting the entire federation of 13 million American workers on record against the Iraq war.) This unprecedented groundwork can and should be used to go to a higher level of labor participation, mobilizing members and resources for demonstrations and other public antiwar activity. But the union officials who are sensitive to the antiwar sentiment among the ranks are going to give wide berth to any movement that is perceived as being for the destruction of Israel.

Many self-styled “anti-imperialists” are contemptuous of such problems. They are preoccupied with witnessing rather than mass work. They are exhilarated by identifying with heroic fighters everywhere and seek to bask in the reflected glory of the sacrifices of others. Iraq, Palestine, the Philippines, and the many other flash points of struggle around the globe are abstractions to them, to be dealt with by fiery slogans and flashy demonstrations.

I too consider myself an anti-imperialist. There is no more important task than building solidarity and collaboration between workers of all lands against our common enemy of global capitalism.

But real solidarity is not an attitude. It is more than resolutions, slogans, or gestures. It is not always glorious. It sometimes means setting aside other differences to build a unified effort to assist those under fire. It means hard work, patience, and respect for all who come together on specific common projects.

The 46 percent of Americans who want immediate withdrawal have come to that conclusion for various reasons and through varied experiences. Few even understand the term “imperialism,” much less consider themselves anti-imperialist. But, in the course of building a nonexclusionary mass movement around the limited issue of the war in Iraq many will learn about other issues as well and some will become involved in other movements. That was certainly the experience of the Vietnam movement.

A powerful, united mass movement, visible in the streets, and in the labor movement, can save some Iraqi and American lives. It can also advance understanding of, and opposition to imperialism in the stage of globalization.

It’s time to put aside turf brawls and one-upmanship posturing and build that movement.