‘So?" So said Dick Cheney when asked last week about public opinion being overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq. "You can’t be blown off course by polls." A few days later, his attitude, about the fact that the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq has reached 4,000, displayed similar levels of sympathy. They "voluntarily put on the uniform," the vice-president told ABC news.
This brick wall of indifference helps explain the paradox in which we in the US anti-war camp find ourselves five years into the occupation of Iraq: anti-war sentiment is as strong as ever, but our movement seems to be dwindling. Sixty-four per cent of Americans tell pollsters they oppose the war, but you’d never know it from the thin turnout at recent rallies and vigils.
When asked why they aren’t expressing their anti-war opinions through the anti-war movement, many say they have simply lost faith in the power of protest. They marched against the war before it began, marched on the first, second and third anniversaries. And yet, five years on, US leaders are still shrugging: "So?"
That’s why it’s time for the anti-war movement to change tactics. We should direct our energy where it can still have an impact: the leading Democratic contenders.
Many argue otherwise. They say that if we want to end the war, we should simply pick a candidate who is not John McCain and help them win: we’ll sort out the details after the Republicans are evicted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some of the jost prominent anti-war voices – from MoveOn.org to the Nation, the magazine we both write for – have gone down this route, throwing their weight behind the Obama campaign.
This is a serious strategic mistake. It is during a hotly contested campaign that anti-war forces have the power to actually sway US policy. As soon as we pick sides, we relegate ourselves to mere cheerleaders.
And when it comes to Iraq, there is little to cheer. Look past the rhetoric and it becomes clear that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has a real plan to end the occupation. They could, however, be forced to change their positions, thanks to the unique dynamics of the prolonged primary battle.
Despite the calls for Clinton to withdraw in the name of "unity", it is the very fact that Clinton and Obama are still fighting it out, fiercely vying for votes, that presents the anti-war movement with its best pressure point. And our pressure is badly needed.
For the first time in 14 years, weapons manufacturers are donating more to Democrats than to Republicans. The Democrats have received 52% of the defence industry’s political donations in this election cycle – up from a low of 32% in 1996. That money is about shaping foreign policy and, so far, it appears to be well spent.
While Clinton and Obama denounce the war with great passion, they both have detailed plans to continue it. Both say they intend to maintain the massive green zone, including the monstrous US embassy, and to retain US control of Baghdad airport.
They will have a "strike force" to engage in counter-terrorism, as well as trainers for the Iraqi military. Beyond these US forces, the army of green zone diplomats will require heavily armed security details, which are currently provided by Blackwater and other private security companies. At present there are as many private contractors supporting the occupation as there are soldiers, so these plans could mean tens of thousands of US personnel entrenched for the future.
In sharp contrast to this downsized occupation is the unequivocal message coming from hundreds of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq Veterans Against the War which, earlier this month, held the Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Maryland – modelled on the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation, in which veterans testified about US atrocities in Vietnam – are not supporting any candidate or party. Instead they are calling for immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all US soldiers and contractors. Coming from peace activists, the "out now" position has been dismissed as naive. It is harder to ignore coming from the hundreds who have served – and continue to serve – on the frontlines.
The candidates know that much of the passion fuelling their campaigns flows from the desire among so many rank-and-file Democrats to end this disastrous war. Crucially, the candidates have already shown that they are vulnerable to pressure from the peace camp. When the Nation revealed that neither candidate was supporting legislation that would ban the use of Blackwater and other private security companies in Iraq, Clinton changed course. She became the jost important US political leader to endorse the ban – scoring a point on Obama, who opposed the invasion from the start.
This is exactly where we want the candidates: outdoing each other to prove how serious they are about ending the war. That kind of battle has the power to energise voters and break the cynicism that is threatening both campaigns.
Let’s remember, unlike the outgoing Bush administration, these candidates need the support of the two-thirds of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq. If opinion transforms into action, they won’t be able to afford to say, "So?"
–Naomi Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine; Jeremy Scahill is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s jost Powerful Mercenary Army Naomiklein.org