This summer, over 100 organizers from Americans Against Escalation in Iraq were in 15 states and 60 congressional districts as part of a campaign called “Iraq Summer.” The campaign promised that organizers–all of whom are from outside of the district–would “use field operations, build coalitions, organize paid and earned media strategies, conduct volunteer events and combine nuts and bolts organizing tactics with cutting edge online organizing techniques to turn up the heat on members of Congress who are blocking a safe end to the Iraq war.” In other words, the campaign hoped to focus antiwar energy towards targets that can actually end the war–a strategy that on the face appears to make sense. However, as an antiwar organizer who has done work to challenge the initial invasion of Iraq and the ongoing occupation of Iraq over the past five years, the campaign seemed to be more about channeling antiwar energy towards “appropriate” targets and less about being strategic.
To be up front, here in Grand Rapids the strategy was somewhat innovative. The Iraq Summer campaign had as it target Republican Representative Vern Ehlers who voted for the invasion of Iraq, complete with talk of a nuclear explosion over downtown Grand Rapids. Since that initial vote, he has voted for every funding package and repeatedly expressed his support for the war by refusing to consider or suggest alternative policies in Iraq. While the strategy of targeting Ehlers was not new–there were efforts to do that before the war started in 2002, immediately before and after the invasion in 2003, and most recently by ACTIVATE/SDS who organized a march to Ehlers’ home on the 4th anniversary of the invasion and has attempted to hold him accountable at public appearances, the Iraq Summer campaign was successful in temporarily bringing a sustained focus on Ehlers. Ehlers’ office was picketed almost weekly, there were letters to the editor, and there were articles in the Grand Rapids Press (1, 2, 3, 4) in which Ehlers–for almost the first time–had to engage criticism–however mild–of his stance on the war. In the final event of the campaign, an organizer explained that over 2,000 yard signs reading “Support the Troops – End the War” were distributed while a Grand Rapids Press article said that _,000 bumper stickers were also distributed. Seeing yard signs calling for the end to the war made the antiwar sentiment in Grand Rapids more visible than the semi-frequent antiwar protests.
At the national level, a press release from the campaign summarized the campaign’s successes as follows:
The “Iraq Summer” Campaign is a nationwide effort with some 100 organizers in 15 states and 40 congressional districts. The town halls turned up the heat on nearly 50 Members of Congress who have opposed setting a timeline to bring a safe and responsible end to the war in Iraq. The “Take a Stand Day” meetings were followed by 680 vigils across the country organized by AAEI partner MoveOn.org.
Since the campaign’s June kick-off “Iraq Summer” organizers have held 362 press events, planted 30,452 lawn signs (often in the Member’s immediate neighborhood), created 265 youtube videos, and directly confronted Members of Congress on their war votes 125 times. In addition to organizers and volunteers, 480 veterans and military families have joined the “Iraq Summer” Campaign.
Something Doesn’t Seem Quite Right: Muddled Politics and Support for US Imperialism
The Iraq Summer campaign came into Grand Rapids with a few things that the local antiwar movement does not have–a seemingly unending supply of money, flashy materials, and most importantly, people who are paid to organize full time. The organizers quickly met with many of the antiwar, progressive, and Democratic Party groups in town and talked up the campaign as a vehicle to “end the war” by channeling energy towards “the only person in town that can end the war”–our local representative, Vern Ehlers.
It sounded good, and in its glossy packaging on signs and bumper stickers boldly proclaiming “SUPPORT THE TROOPS – END THE WAR,” it received many supporters–if one can measure support by the presence of such items. However, I quickly learned that it was a little dishonest for the campaign to claim that its goal is to “end the war.”
One of the core components of the campaign was to get individuals, “community leaders,” and groups to sign “Statements of Conscience” calling on their representatives to consider a new direction in Iraq. The language of the individual statement–written by the campaign’s national office–is as follows:
I join with millions of Americans to oppose the continuation of a reckless war in Iraq and urge Congress to keep America safe by getting our troops out of the middle of a religious civil war. I call on Representative _________ to stand up and vote for a responsible redeployment of our troops from Iraq. I applaud leaders regardless of political party who stand up against endless war. I endorse and am joining this unified effort, mindful of the urgency of this moment.
To those who have been involved in antiwar work over the past four years, the statement no doubt will raise concerns–it speaks of “a religious civil war,” speaks only of concern for US soldiers (not Iraqi civilians who bear the brunt of the occupation), and calls for a “responsible redeployment” of US soldiers. It makes no mention of the horrific death toll for Iraqi civilians (655,000+), makes no statement on the illegality of the invasion, and makes no mention of the crimes of occupation–from collective punishment to the murder of Iraqis. The statement’s politics are muddled at best, and at worst, dishonest.
Yard signs from Iraq Summer spoke about needing to “End the War,” while the frequent emails from the campaign spoke of the need to tell Ehlers to “end the war” and the need to stop him from supporting “endless war.” To be fair, organizers with the local campaign said numerous times that they do not advocate a specific piece of legislation. However, a recent bill in Congress, which the campaign took Ehlers to task for when he voted against it, would have allowed an unknown number of soldiers to stay in Iraq for an indeterminate amount of time. By no reasonable stretch could that be consider a bill that will “End the War.”
Something also isn’t quite right when one looks a little bit further into whom the campaign is targeting. It focused entirely on Republican candidates and its website frequently contained updates about what Republican presidential candidates have said about the war, but the same scrutiny was not applied to Democrats. The group claimed to be “non-partisan,” but was backed entirely by entities–including MoveOn, the SEIU, Center for American Progress, and Win Without War–that have more often than not supported mainstream Democratic Party candidates and legislation. The campaign said that it will “apply on-going pressure on members of Congress to oppose this failed policy,” but on its website it failed to mention that it is only focusing on Republicans. In fact, its state-by-state breakdown of who was targeted made no mention of politic parties–giving the illusion that it was a campaign that was working to hold all members of congress accountable.
When looking through the list of endorsers, it was striking to see the complete absence of groups such as United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, International ANSWER, Troops Out Now, Iraq Veterans against the War, and other such groups that have been major players in the mainstream antiwar movement. If one thinks about it, there absence is not particularly surprising as their advocacy for complete and immediate withdrawal has been fairly consistent. Interestingly, an organizing effort somewhat similar to the Iraq Summer campaign–the Occupation Project–was launched this winter by Voices for Creative Nonviolence. That campaign has had success in focusing antiwar protest towards specific legislators and has an impressive track record of media attention and protests. However, the group–which targets Democrats and Republicans–was never contacted by the Iraq Summer campaign.
A “Sensible” Solution, in other Words, the Independent Antiwar Movement is Irrational
Sitting in meeting with an Iraq Summer organizer to discuss how the group with whom I do antiwar work could coordinate with the Iraq Summer campaign, I felt that it would be appropriate to address some of the concerns I have had about the Iraq Summer campaign’s goals. While I thought that I would need to wait for the “right time” to bring up such concerns, as the differences in opinion between an anti-imperialist opposition to the war and a more muddled defense of imperialism could be a somewhat heated discussion, it became an issue almost immediately. The organizer began his comments by explaining that the Iraq Summer campaign is about seeking a “sensible” solution to the War in Iraq and talking in terms that people can understand. He dismissed the idea of an “immediate” withdrawal of Iraq, arguing that “the people” are uncomfortable with such a term. When I brought up the fact that our group has consistently called for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq, I was queried about what that would mean–how fast can ships move troops out of Iraq, how many soldiers can fit on a plane, and other such technical details.
His quick dismissal of my concerns, based entirely on some technical details, was indicative of the way in which the campaign as a whole dismisses the independent antiwar movement and essentially views them as “irrational” or “irresponsible.” Iraq Summer talked about a “responsible” end to the war in Iraq, which as mentioned previously, means supporting an indefinite occupation of Iraq and doing nothing to address either the illegality of the invasion or the suffering of Iraqis under the occupation. Language in Grand Rapids used by the Iraq Summer campaign has consistently promoted this view. For example, a panel discussion on the war was titled “Searching for a Constructive Response to our Entanglement in Iraq,” as if to imply that those advocating for an “immediate” end to the war were somehow advocating something destructive. Indeed, on some level, such an argument has been made by the campaign, with organizers–like many political proponents of maintaining the occupation–asserting that if the United States were to withdraw completely from Iraq that the result would be “genocide”–as if the invasion and occupation are anything other than genocide.
Iraq Summer: The Child of “Freedom Summer”?
Iraq Summer organizers and their website claim that the campaign’s inspiration comes from the “Freedom Summer” campaign of the 1960s. In that campaign, thousands of civil rights activists went down to “the deep south” to try to register systematically disenfranchised African-Americans to vote and to organize with them in their communities. Throughout the campaign, the activists were placed at considerable risk with murders, fire bombings, vandalism, and other such acts being common. By contrast, the Iraq Summer campaign was largely about not taking risks. The organizers–whom according to local media reports are paid $400 per week for their work–rely on the relatively standard tactics of letter writing, public demonstrations, panel discussions, canvassing, and printing yard signs–supplemented by “new media” efforts on websites such as YouTube and Flickr. To be sure, the antiwar movement–and the groups I have worked with are as guilty of this as anyone else–have not been particularly good at doing “organizing” work (actually getting out and talking to people) but the risks associated with that are nowhere near the same as what was faced by the Freedom Summer organizers.
The tactics employed in my area were devoid of risk, there was no civil disobedience and no direct action. Moreover, the strategy was also entirely devoid of risk–it focused entirely on targeting Republicans. Rather than focus on Democrats–with whom one could argue that the antiwar movement has more in common and thus would be more likely to sway–the strategy focused solely on Republicans and does so through traditional means. In that sense, the campaign represented more of a short-term lobbying effort rather than a long-term campaign that is designed to simultaneously build movements that can hold politicians–regardless of their party–accountable for their votes. In some areas, focusing on members of congress might be innovative, but for the most part, the antiwar movement was already doing this whether it was through the coordinated civil disobedience of the Occupation Project or the efforts of Code Pink. Iraq Summer seems to be an attempt to try to take the heat off Democrats–who have been every bit as culpable for the war–and direct it towards Republicans.
Certainly in West Michigan, an argument could have been made that the antiwar movement desperately needs to target Republican Representative Vern Ehlers as well as Democratic Party Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. Levin has been an advocate for US imperialism, consistently speaking of the need for the Iraqi people to meet benchmarks imposed by the United States, >refusing to consider the possibility of cutting funding for the war, calling for the removal of elected Iraqi leaders, and advocating for compromises with the Bush administration. Stabenow’s record on the war has not been much better, with Stabenow issuing mild criticism of the war while supporting the torture of detainees in “the war on terror.” Unfortunately, Iraq Summer’s political analysis and goal would not allow for the targeting of Levin and Stabenow and indeed it was not until the last event of the campaign that a speaker–not a campaign organizer–finally said the word “imperialism” publicly.
If Not Iraq Summer, then What?
If Iraq Summer’s strategy was broken, what do we need? Based on the work done in Grand Rapids over the past several years, it is clear that what is needed most is focus. Iraq Summer brought this focus, however narrowly it may have been defined. Targeting Ehlers makes strategic sense and is a huge improvement from the unfocused demonstrations that have all to frequently been held on street corners or empty parks. The campaign showed that it does not take any particular skill to target Ehlers, just some dedication and a willingness to abandon and reevaluate tactics as needed.
Unfortunately, Iraq Summer only targeted Ehlers. We need to understand that Michigan’s Senators have been every bit as culpable for the continuation of the occupation as has Ehlers. While Levin and Stabenow voted against the invasion back in 2002, we need to focus on what they are doing now. The fact that they are Democrats is irrelevant, the antiwar movement needs to look at who has the power to stop the war and focus its energies accordingly. Since our representatives have the power to stop the war, we must focus a good portion of our energy on them. A strategy that is not concerned with political parties and focuses on holding representatives accountable–regardless of their party affiliation–will help the local (and national) antiwar movement reconceptualize politics and organizing. For far too long the antiwar movement has sought to assign blame for the war on President George W. Bush, the neocons, or other groupings of Republicans while ignoring the fact that the invasion was a result of a bipartisan system of imperialism and militarism. Moreover, looking at the root causes of the invasion of Iraq and focusing on the system of imperialism allows us to develop a far deeper analysis of why the war happened as well as its ramifications, and ultimately will lead to a realization that the problem is with a system built on domination, coercion, and exploitation, both in the United States and abroad.
To challenge such a system we need to develop a broad-based movement that is willing to take risks and is not afraid to make bold assertions. “Taking risks” can have a variety of meanings and can and should entail actually doing organizing work–talking to our neighbors, reaching out to communities, thinking strategically, and using direct action. We need to give up our adherence to specific tactics and operate in terms of what is strategic, while at the same time having respect for those within the movement that make different tactical choices. Similarly, we need to start acknowledging the fact that the antiwar movement needs to confront the underlying systems of oppression–racism, patriarchy, classism, etc–that allow the government to wage war. Building a movement that focuses on these underlying issues will not only increase the likelihood that we will succeed in bringing an end to the war, but also means that we will be able to build organizations and movements that will exist beyond this war.
Unfortunately, the Iraq Summer campaign left town without any kind of plan for continuing to keep the pressure on Ehlers. Following their final event and a meeting with Ehlers, the campaign left almost as quickly as it came into town. The local antiwar movement needs to meet the Iraq Summer campaign’s challenge–it needs to show that an independent antiwar movement can end the war and it needs to get to work. The lives of thousands are on the line.