Mission Underway: A Vigorous US Peace and Human Rights Movement Emerging?

Bernardine Dohrn

In 1998, Eqbal Ahmed, the Pakistani-American scholar and great antiwar activist, warned the US about the dangers of covert operations and low-intensity warfare.  They always have consequences, he said three years before the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001.  They become “breeding grounds of terror and drugs.”  US military policy-makers, Eqbal noted, — even the most scholarly, articulate and experienced among them — are unable to calculate the consequences of US covert operations and low-intensity warfare, and are unprepared to take into account the impact and future blowback of such intervention, bombing, occupation.  Think Lebanon in 1982, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya.    

The U.S. military goes into a country, often in the name of supporting democracy, opposing a dictatorship, of doing “something” in the face of an atrocity.  It may be wrapped in the language of representing human rights’ values and/or the US national interest.  But what an administration says they are doing, maybe even what they think they are doing, has consequences that cannot be calculated, a price that cannot be gauged, a corollary that cannot be anticipated.  Invaders are unable to understand the deep history of the land or people they are attacking, or the price that comes with such action.  Fifty years after the first US troops were sent to Vietnam, US political discourse and public life remains traumatized, divided, and seemingly unable to even note the resounding political and military defeat experienced by US forces, let alone analyze, explain or learn from it.

“The greatest purveyor of violence on this earth… is my own country,” spoke Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.  That seems as accurate today as when he announced his public opposition to the war in Vietnam and Laos in those most forceful terms.  To be sure, the United States is not the only aggressor, occupier, torturer, not the only source of subversion, not the only outlier failing to engage in and align with international law and norms, not the only stockpiler of chemical weapons or nuclear weapons.  Yet during the five decades since the U.S. first sent military “advisors” into Vietnam, the United States has led and continues to lead the world in aggression and subversion – overthrowing elected governments and imposing vicious dictatorships, supporting, financing and engaging in what are now recognized as war crimes, undermining international agreements, conducting extrajudicial assassinations, kidnappings and abductions, and leaving trails of massive civilian displacement, destruction and generations of suffering.

The worst crime of aggression of the new millennium is the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Noam Chomsky reminds us that the Nuremberg Trials sentenced Nazi criminals to hanging because, according to the Tribunal’s judgment, aggression is “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

This US war record has now, to some extent, been absorbed and noted with unease by significant numbers of the domestic population.  It is not a record solely about the past; US intervention in Honduras, Pakistan, Yemen and Mali take us into the present.  It is a record well recognized abroad, but spoken of only outside the mainstream by truth-tellers like Naomi Klein, Cornell West, Iraqi and Afghan Veterans Against the War, Juan Gonzales, Phyllis Bennis, Rashid Khalidi, and Vijay Prashad.

And to the surprise of most, there has emerged is a wide and vast (if not yet deep) antiwar sentiment that rose up in response to the Obama administration proposal to bomb Syria for the government’s deadly use of chemical weapons.  The US public not only opposed bombing yet another country, but a majority believed that civilian deaths would result from such aggression, no matter how “targeted.”  This across-the-domestic political spectrum peace sentiment —- first noted when President Obama ran opposing the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq –- follows twelve heinous years of war in Afghanistan and a decade of military occupation in Iraq.  Both wars are failures by any measure.  The widespread recognition of this is indeed a positive light within a war-weary and diminished empire.

I am one of those buoyed by the antiwar sentiment in the current domestic landscape, (In These Times,“How the Anti-War Movement Won the Hearts and Minds of the Public: A decade of protests pave the way for Americans to say no to Syrian strikes,” September 2013).  Vigorously opposing another American bombing invasion is our moral and political duty.  Those who resist greater US military aggression do not have to have all the answers. Do not lament the US military’s failure to act.  US humanitarian intervention is not humanitarian — it is the newest rationale for invasion, occupation, plunder of resources and control of strategic sectors.

I agree with Danny Postel’s urgent call for solidarity with the Syrian people (Mission Accomplished? Syria, the Antiwar Movement and the Sprit of Internationalism, September 30, 2013).  He points us to the continuing tragedy of the Syrian people, abandoned by the rest of the world to the Assad killing fields, enduring massive displacement, death and civil war.  Where, he asks, is the international solidarity?

Where I disagree with Postel is the assumption that no one here cares about Syria or the suffering of the Syrian people (or the Congolese, or Haitian peoples for that matter).  My view is the opposite.  People want to see and know and understand. Let’s take standing up against the US bombing of Syria as a sign of the potential for a massive and powerful peace movement in solidarity with the aspirations of the people of the world, not of indifference.to their agony.

Who could have predicted the timely intervention of the likes of Putin and a practical, United Nations-administered collection and disposal of the Assad regime’s weapons of chemical warfare?  Now, at least a part of our task is to broaden that demand to the whole region and end the possession and storage of chemical weapons in Israel.

But what can we do, asks Postel, to support the democratic and liberatory aspirations of the Syrian people, now in a situation of deteriorating civil war and massive displacement? And how do we develop and deepen strategies toward a future of peace in Syria and the region?

The models of international solidarity and activism during past US wars of aggression are not easily applied in Syria.  Postel falters a bit conjuring up examples of past US activist support for emancipatory movements and leaders such as Allende in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador — as if it is a moral failure of peace forces today.  There is not yet such a relatively united liberation force in Syria.

However, solidarity with independent Syrian women’s organizations, labor unions, artists and writers, journalists, human rights and peace activists is indeed underway, despite this activity being trampled in a war with so many regional and sectarian religious fighters, weaponry and money.  As Postel’s important new book on Syria indicates (coedited with Nader Hashemi, The Syria Dilemma), “Morally serious people sharply disagree over what should be done.”  The book details a wide range of passionate solidarity work.  This work does not stop the slaughter, any more than did a massive, international anti-Vietnam war movement, nor fierce opposition to the twelve-year long US debacle in Iraq, now responsible for the deaths of nearly 500,000 Iraqi people.  But international solidarity efforts may nurture excellent organizing work that may weave the conditions for peaceful resolution.

Here are additional things US activists can do:

*  Press the US to join the international criminal court

*  Close Guantanamo prison immediately

*  Shut down US foreign military bases

*  Stop the drone wars and provide reparations for families of those killed

*  End US military weapons for Israel, and stop Israel from intervening in Syria or


*  Support Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon

*  Promote Syrian arts, film, writers, and history; invite speakers and activists

It is our job to learn through engagement, to connect the issues of peace, equality, participatory democracy, and sustainability.  The shimmering of longings for peace within the empire, despite the steady drumbeat of American exceptionalism by the masters of war and their media henchmen to keep us ignorant about the world, unseeing and feeling powerless, offers us an opening, an opportunity to forge a deeper, informed and activist peace movement.

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