Antiwar Movement Tries to Find a Meaningful Message

By Kate Zernike

April 20, 2003, The New York Times

On Tuesday, the leaders of the antiwar coalition Win Without War will gather for a two-day retreat outside New York City to discuss their group's future now that the war has ended. One of the items on the agenda: Should it change its name to Win Without Wars?

The question of whether to go plural reflects how the antiwar movement is trying to move forward now that the conflict it so passionately wanted to avert - and for a time, thought it might avert - has ended.

Leaders in the movement do not like to focus on the notion that they lost. Yes, they failed to stop the war. Yes, the public has overwhelmingly supported President Bush's actions. With a swift United States victory over a brutal dictator and fewer casualties than most experts predicted, it is particularly hard for antiwar organizers to argue that their dire forecasts were right.

They focus instead on how much strength the movement gained so quickly - it was largely invisible just six months ago - and on their next moves, even if they are not quite certain what those might be.

Throughout the war, these organizers worked hard to stay in harmony - if not quite in tune - with the American public, emphasizing that this peace movement is patriotic and mainstream. After violent protests at the beginning of the war angered officials in several cities, they emphasized the civil in civil disobedience.

Now again, the challenge is to find a message that resonates.

That debate is taking place in almost every antiwar organization. But most, like Win Without War, say the antiwar movement's most important task is to emphasize that this war was part of a bigger foreign policy doctrine of pre-emptive military action, and that the movement must remain strong enough to rally quickly against an administration that may have its eyes on Syria, Iran or North Korea.

"You have a changing dynamic," said Tom Andrews, the national director of Win Without War. "There is not the immediate threat of going to war tomorrow, but there is a sustained threat that we are going to use military intervention in any number of ways. We have to be prepared for the next Iraq."

Antiwar activists also see other roles for themselves. Immediately, they want to push for the United Nations rather than the United States to oversee postwar Iraq. Global Exchange, a San Francisco antiwar group, has set up a Web site,, arguing that Jay Garner, a retired lieutenant general who is overseeing the transition to an interim Iraqi government, is the wrong choice because of his past work with military contractors.

Many say antiwar groups should focus on the 2004 elections and unseating President Bush. True Majority, a group started by Ben Cohen, a co-founder of Ben and Jerry's, joined others last week in running newspaper advertisements that urged people who oppose the war to register to vote.

Antiwar activists also say they must publicly talk about the connection between the costs of the war and domestic issues, like state and city budget cuts. Others say they must continue to make an issue of civil liberties violations at home. Yet the biggest focus, they say, is moving the antiwar movement from one opposed to war to one opposed to the Bush administration's foreign policy.

"As I've been calling around, the biggest thing I hear is, 'How do we bury the Bush first-strike doctrine in the sands of Iraq?' " said David Cortright, the director of the Fourth Freedom Forum, a research center promoting peaceful resolution of international disputes.

The postwar period may offer the antiwar movement its best chance at gaining public support. A New York Times/CBS News Poll taken after the fall of Baghdad showed Mr. Bush with a 73 percent approval rating. But a majority of respondents said they opposed pre-emptive military strikes. Two-thirds said that the United Nations, not the United States, should lead the rebuilding of Iraq.

But those who study opposition to war and its effect on public opinion say it is difficult for an antiwar movement to sustain any momentum after a conflict ends.

"I don't think it has much of a place to go unless U.S. foreign policy seems to continue in this same direction," said Richard Stoll, a professor of political science at Rice University. "It's harder to work against a foreign policy than it is to work against a war. Most of the time it just doesn't produce events that catch your attention. You have to convince people there's a crisis there."

The dilemma for antiwar activists hoping to expand their support, Professor Stoll said, is that "they have to want something bad to happen."

Activists admit that some may feel defeated by the war's success. Mr. Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine, said, "It's difficult to see this unfolding."

Leslie Cagan, co-chairwoman of United for Peace and Justice, the largest antiwar coalition with more than 100 affiliated groups, said: "We're not 100 percent sure how to navigate this. We know our foreign policy has to change. How do you make that change? We don't have that 100 percent worked out. This is very much a period of figuring out our next steps."

Organizers of the antiwar movement lament how well the administration argued that there was a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, playing on Americans' residual anger and fear after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. About half the American public, according to several polls, believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in planning the attacks - an argument the administration did not make.

Still, antiwar activists count some successes: The movement was far more international than the movement against the Vietnam War. They mobilized large numbers of protesters quickly. And by arguing that being antiwar could be a mainstream position, they built a diverse movement, one that brought in church groups, labor unions and organizations like the Sierra Club that oppose armed conflict but do not usually put out statements about it, the way they did in this war.

Polls showed about 70 percent of Americans supporting the war when it began, but that still left about 30 percent against it. "That's a lot when you think about being in a war situation," Ms. Cagan said. "That it didn't drop to 5 percent is a sign of the strength we were able to muster in a relatively short time."

Antiwar leaders say they are confident that they will get more support in future conflicts. "Saddam Hussein was the dictator everyone hated, the adversary right out of Central Casting," Mr. Cortright said. "Syria and Iran are less clear. Even Tony Blair is backing away from that."

Groups that joined the various coalitions say they will remain vocal about their antiwar stance in any future conflict.

"I think if the reaction of the Bush administration is 'That worked out great, it's on to Damascus,' you'll see the Sierra Club and other like-minded organizations out in the street," said Bruce Hamilton, the club's national conservation director.

But beyond that outlook, these groups say their participation in antiwar activity is less clear.

Mr. Hamilton argued that progressive movements have to focus on the 2004 elections. "It is probably more important for us to turn our focus to the environment rather than continue to talk strictly about the war," he said. "There are lots of people to talk about the war, but people are going to turn to the Sierra Club to talk about why the problems aren't being solved in the environment."

At least antiwar activists say they plan to make an issue of the Bush foreign policy doctrine at voter forums leading up to the elections in 2004.

"The question is whether they can find a candidate who will support their positions but not be seen captive of the movement the way McGovern was in '72," said Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and an author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960's."

Still, antiwar activists say the war may not look so good as the costs rise, and if the American military presence in Iraq brings more anti-American sentiment and terrorist acts. Resentment of American troops in the Middle East after the 1991 Persian Gulf war encouraged the rise of Osama bin Laden.

"I think the verdict is still out," said Erik Gustafson, executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. "I think the antiwar movement has an extremely important function to play in drawing attention to the consequences."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company