As an increasingly bloody war unfolds in Iraq, the antiwar movement needs publicly and honestly to examine how it failed to stop a war against a nation that hadn't fired a shot at us; a war that the United Nations, world opinion, the blowback from previous wars, and even common sense and decency all screamed against. Where did we go wrong?
On the broadest level, the movement didn't offer the most important alternative to war: hope. In the past weeks, I have spoken with middle-class Americans from New York to California and have been surprised by the near unanimous distrust of our government's stated aims and prosecution of this war. But these newly skeptical patriots have been further depoliticized rather than mobilized by the failure of the antiwar coalition either to address the moral complexity of the conflict or to offer a coherent alternative to it.
Despite the sordid history and present reality of US Middle East policy, Americans intuitively believe that most Iraqis would be better off under US rather than Saddam Hussein's occupation. It is to the antiwar movement's discredit that it never acknowledged the need for Hussein to face justice. Without it, cynicism and apathy rather than hope and activism became the response to the administration's war discourse.
And we played right into the president's game. When he catalogued Hussein's past crimes and duplicity, we either ignored it or shouted, "No war!" and, "Give peace a chance!" To which Mr. Bush replied, "I did." Hussein's record of violence and deceit allowed Americans grudgingly to accept the president's arguments for war despite his innumerable distortions of fact and evidence.
Moreover, by focusing on the quantity of protesters rather than the quality of our discourse, we deluded ourselves into thinking that our protests were delaying the war. But Bush was just playing for time till all the men and materiel were in place for war.
We should have responded: "You're right, Mr. President, Hussein is a criminal who should be removed and brought to justice. But so should almost every regime in the Middle East, including our allies, since they are all oppressive (even brutal) and semidemocratic at best." We should have presented a detailed plan with maps and arrows diagramming which regimes should face justice next. We should have pointed out what international architecture (such as an expanded International Criminal Court that could try leaders while in office) would be necessary to prevent a concerted move by the world community against oppression and dictatorship from being a cover for an unending war for an American Empire.
We should have demanded an expanded Security Council with no vetoes, while at the same time demanding the removal of Libya and Sudan from the UN Human Rights Commission. We should have called on the president immediately to cut off all economic and military aid to any government that does not meet strict democratic and human rights standards - be it Israel or Pakistan. Most important, we should have demanded that he follow the logic of his own arguments for a new Middle East, which require a shift not just in US foreign policy but also in the hyperconsumerist, world-toxic culture that drives it.
So how can the peace be won? First, articulate a holistic critique of, and alternative to, Bush's postwar vision. Second, demand significant representation in the postwar "reconstruction regime," and if refused, infiltrate it with the coordinated efforts of international humanitarian and relief organizations. Third, force public scrutiny of companies that will be awarded billions of dollars of "reconstruction" contracts, especially those with close ties to the White House. More broadly, engage in unprecedented levels of education and protest to help the public understand how the coalition of arms and oil companies behind this war is reaping profits at the expense of America's healthcare, education, retirement, and criminal-justice systems - in short, our future.
The forces for peace, democracy, and justice can successfully challenge America's Middle East policy when the blowback from our invasion and occupation of Iraq comes. But we must learn from our mistakes and transform ourselves from an antiwar coalition into a large-scale social movement with an unflinching, worldwide commitment to justice. That means one uncompromised by ideological blindness to crimes not committed by the West or its allies.
Such a vision, and the hope it would foster, has never been more sorely needed.
• Mark LeVine is assistant professor of history at the University of California at Irvine specializing in contemporary Middle East politics, religions, and cultures.