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Can the U.S Anti-War Movement Impact Policy? - 2003-01-28


It was a freezing cold day on Washington's National Mall, but that did not seem to hinder anti-war protest. The demonstrators who ran the gamut from young children to middle-aged people and senior citizens -- were lost in a sea of brightly colored signs protesting U.S. policy on Iraq.

The next day, the tone of the protest changed as demonstrators tried to provoke mass arrests a block from the White House and gain more media attention. Sixteen were arrested and handcuffed.

This was the second wave of anti-war protests and coincided with the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and the twelfth anniversary of the Persian Gulf War. From all accounts, the crowd eclipsed the turnout in October and is believed to be one of the largest anti-war protests since the Vietnam War era.

Analysts say the similarities between the recent protests and the movement during the 1960s and 1970s are growing.

Noam Chomsky, a leading American academic who has been at the forefront of anti-war protests since the 1960s, says in a recent article that "there is simply no historical precedent in the history of the United States or of Europe for such overwhelming opposition to a war at this stage - that is before it has even been undertaken. "

Maurice Isserman, co-author of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, says these demonstrations may even pack more of a punch than past anti-war protests. "The striking thing this time around is the war hasn't started. No Americans have lost their lives. And yet you already have one or two hundred thousand people turning out. I think that's quite extraordinary and suggests that this movement's potential for growth could be much larger than the anti-war protest during the Vietnam era," said the professor.

Michael Cushman, who lives in Washington and attended the rally, says the demonstration will definitely have an impact on President Bush's decision about going to war. He thinks the ground swell of anti-war sentiment cannot be ignored by the White House. "The public support for Bush is very, very weak. Yeah, we want a strong president, but we don't necessarily support war in Iraq."

Also in the crowd was a small group of pro-war advocates. Among them, John Goodwin, another Washingtonian, says he believes in the right to march, but the United States needs to use force before weapons of mass destruction kill millions of Americans. He believes the anti-war protest may influence U-S policy, but it is limited. "You know this protest really only represents the point of view of about 20 to 25 percent of Americans, and I think for any social movement, to get their way, they have to reach a broader consensus. So I think these things can have an impact, but I don't know that they will," he said.

Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the anti-war protesters are misguided. By not seeing the need for ousting Saddam Hussein from power to free the Iraqi people, they are not effective in influencing U.S. policy. "The Iraqi people need this intervention. They need Saddam to go. Now if they want to talk about regime change in some sort of local level, I would say that that would even be more productive than what they are doing, which is essentially standing blindly with Saddam, which I am having a hard time understanding."

While accepting and even praising the anti-war demonstrations, the White House has stuck to its policy regardless of the growing opposition.

But that may change, says Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope and Days of Rage, and former president of the 1960's anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society.

He points out that while opposition to the Vietnam War took about 10 years to impact U.S. policy, now we have demonstrations before combat has begun. "The turnout is, I think, a reasonably apt replica of American opinion overall. I think that the people who are turning out are mainstream, and in this sense they are a problem for the Bush administration. A few months ago, I didn't think so," said the professor.

"I thought that the administration might be quite cavalier in dismissing them as Democrats or people to the left of them, therefore not encroaching upon their political base. This is a country with the majority of voters from the suburbs, and as long as the suburbs were definitely in the Bush camp, I think the White House was content to be indifferent to anti-war opposition. Now I think they should maybe give it a second thought," he said.

Protesters say the Bush administration may be particularly concerned about a recent political ad this month in The Wall Street Journal by the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. It read: "Let's be clear: We supported the Gulf War. We supported our intervention in Afghanistan. We accept the logic of a just war, But Mr. President, your war on Iraq does not pass the test. It is not a just war." Mr. Gitlin says the ad may have more effect on the White House than this past weekend's demonstrations. He notes that union locals, including Teamsters who have been reasonably supportive of President Bush, are joining the protest. He said "the demonstrations are the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and underneath them is an upwelling of general sentiment that I think speaks to Republican trouble if they don't take it seriously."

Faced with crushing budget deficits, safety concerns about urban terrorist attacks that might accompany a strike against Iraq, and the prospect of their constituents fighting a costly and bloody war, some thirty-eight American city councils have passed resolutions against the war.

Cities for Peace, the group leading the charge on these resolutions, says there is a $68 billion deficit among the 50 U.S. states if we go to war.

In New York State, for example, there is a $7 billion deficit that taxpayers will have to cough up money, the group says, that could be used to rebuild the state's failing schools and healthcare system. Taxpayers of Michigan will pay $3 billion if there is a war.

Though momentum for protesting the war seems to be building, the influence of protests on U.S. policy cannot yet be measured.

But in the past, analysts note from the War of 1812 through the Civil War, through World War Two and the Vietnam War, anti-war protests have had a significant effect on the pursuit of the war and its aftermath.

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