The U.S. Occupation of Iraq at the Pivot

Max Elbaum will be on two panels at Left Forum 2008: “The State of the Anti-War Movement” and “Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Legacy of ’68.” — Ed.


If the U.S. can be forced to withdraw completely from Iraq, many more positive changes become possible.

But if the U.S. continues its military occupation, every problem facing people here, in Iraq, and across the globe will get worse.

No constituency and no issue is exempt from this reality.  Can we make progress at tackling poverty in this country or inequality between the global North and South?  Combat global warming with the urgency required?  Start restoring civil liberties instead of falling further into the pit of torture and government surveillance?  Effectively defend immigrant and labor rights?  Seriously address the epidemics of suicide and domestic violence?  Rebuild New Orleans?  Step back from the tunnel of violent confrontation between the U.S. and the entire Muslim world, before it spins further out of control to even greater horrors than we already see daily in Baghdad and Gaza, or that we saw seven years ago in New York?

A big part of the answer to these questions hinges on what the U.S. does in Iraq.  “Stay the Course” vs. “Out Now” stands at the pivot, shaping the direction of country and the world for the next decade and beyond.

Millions of people across the U.S. display a tremendous hunger for change.  The Fifth Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is next month.  It falls to us in the antiwar movement to mark this tragic occasion by forcing the question of War vs. Peace to the very forefront of nationwide debate.  Then we must strive to keep it there until Bush’s current policy is not just changed, but utterly reversed.


An “Out-Now/Iraq-at-the-Pivot” message can find a huge and sympathetic audience.

Upwards of 60% of the country now opposes the war in Iraq.

Of special importance, a majority already believes there is a direct connection between the Iraq war and the country’s economic troubles.  “To Fix Economy, Get Out of Iraq” screamed the Associated Press headline regarding its latest poll (Feb. 8).  The survey showed that “pulling out of the war ranked first among proposed remedies” for the country’s economic woes.  Second was “spending more on domestic programs.”  Just under 50% of those polled said that getting out of Iraq would help fix economic problems “a great deal.”  Another 20% said it would help at least somewhat.

These figures blow a huge hole in the media mantra that the U.S. populace, now worried about the economy, no longer thinks about Iraq.

This is an election year, which presents particular challenges — and opportunities.  It is not easy to force serious debate through the fog that characterizes the money-dominated, personality-driven, and media-spectacle electoral process.

But election season is also the time when many people pay attention to politics in ways they don’t in non-voting years.  It’s a period when it is more acceptable than usual to knock on someone’s door with political literature or hand out a flyer on a street corner.  There are more chances to speak to co-workers, friends, and family about issues.

This year there are huge openings to catapult the antiwar message into the heart of electoral debates.  Half or more of the electorate already sees this election as a chance to repudiate George Bush and all the disasters his administration has presided over.  The participation of young voters in the balloting so far is at record levels.

Then there is the likely Republican nominee, John “Stay-in-Iraq-for-100-Years” McCain.  McCain has already signaled that his campaign will be built around the fear-mongering claim that only he is “experienced enough to lead the country in a time of danger and war.”  This will force Iraq onto the agenda whether anyone else likes it or not.  Meanwhile Barack Obama’s most recent statement while campaigning in Texas (promising to end the conflict in 2009 — see Tom Hayden, “‘End the War in 2009,'” The Nation, Feb. 20 for details) shows that he thinks he needs to offer more rather than less to antiwar sentiment if he wants the Democratic nomination.

5 Years Too ManyOn terrain like this there are immense opportunities to expand and solidify popular opposition to the war.  Activities planned for the Fifth Anniversary in mid-March, if they get enough support, can jolt the consciousness of large numbers.  (Go to for information about the Winter Soldier hearings sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War, the mass civil disobedience planned for Washington, DC, and local actions all across the country.)  Then intensive, person-by-person, door-by-door, street-by-street work at the local level can keep War-vs.-Peace on the front burner through November and beyond.


In pursuing such a course, activists here will be acting in concert with people across the globe.  Every day new voices reject Washington’s policies of militarism and war.

  • Bush’s own Secretary of Defense burst the myth of the Iraq surge’s “success” when he announced Feb. 12 that he saw the need for a “pause” in any U.S. troop withdrawals.  What he didn’t say out loud — but was there between the lines — is that with fewer U.S. troops the occupation could collapse because of the scale and depth of Iraqi opposition.  Former Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley called Gates out in the newspaper’s pages Feb. 22:

    Can there be any doubt that the White House would go for a reduction to 100,000 troops — and claim victory — if it had any confidence at all that the gains it brags about would hold?  Imagine that you had been told in 2003 that when George W. Bush finished his second term, dozens of American soldiers and hundreds of Iraqis would be dying violently every month; that a major American goal would be getting the Iraqi government to temper its “debaathification” campaign so that Saddam Hussein’s former henchmen could start running things again; and “only” 100,000 American troops would be needed to sustain this equilibrium.  You might have several words to describe this situation, but success would not be one of them.

  • Even Washington’s NATO allies balk at sending more troops to prop up Washington’s faltering adventure in Afghanistan despite heavy pressure from top White House officials.  Defense Secretary Gates publicly admitted that “lingering anger in Europe over the U.S. invasion of Iraq explains why some allies are reluctant to heed U.S. calls for more combat troops” (AP, Feb. 8).
  • Likewise repressive Arab governments that are all but totally dependent on U.S. backing can’t even stomach what Bush is up to.  Despite Washington arm-twisting, the Arab League is threatening to openly wreck Bush’s Israel-Palestine “peace process” by withdrawing the offer to recognize Israel if Tel Aviv withdraws to its 1967 borders and reaches a settlement with the Palestinians regarding Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948.  (Implicitly, this would also sabotage Washington’s crusade to enlist Arab governments in its campaign against Iran.)  Former Egyptian assistant foreign minister Abdullah el-Ashaal declared last week that “People no longer trust that a Palestinian state can be established, for one sole reason: the brutality of the Israeli state and the retreat of the Arab world. . . .  this is why there is a return to the radicalization of the Arab attitude, meaning the words ‘peace process’ no longer hold any meaning.”
  • Bush’s much ballyhooed trip to Africa, portrayed as a glorious success in most of the U.S. media, was in fact another embarrassment.  The headline in Der Spiegel (Germany) Feb. 21 told the tale: “No Takers for U.S. Military.”  Details followed: “Africans want no part of the American military. . . .  The announcement of a new U.S. military command, called AFRICOM ‘ignited a very negative and strong reaction across the continent,’ J. Stephen Morrison, co-director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told reporters before Bush left for Africa.’  The storm of criticism has led to American backpedaling. . . .”


The breadth of global opposition to Washington is no accident.  It stems from deep-rooted conflicts of interest.  Even governments of other capitalist powers around the world have gotten tired of U.S. unilateralism and bullying.  They don’t want to confront the U.S. directly and are tied in to U.S. power in numerous ways.  But they have an interest in seeing the U.S. eased out of its position as the world’s top dog.  For their own reasons, and also because of pressure from their angry populations, they maneuver (to varying degrees) for a world where power is spread out more evenly; for an end to military adventures that destabilize entire regions; for some measure of progress in staving off climate change.

Beyond governments, oppressed classes and peoples are mobilizing, if unevenly and under diverse ideological banners, for much more far-reaching changes: Equitable economic development.  Democratic rights in countries that lack them and more participatory democracy in countries where formal democracy exists.  Social justice.

Most progressives look to Latin America with its combination of vibrant radical movements and left-leaning/left-wing governments as the site of the most hopeful new paths.  But everywhere, including within the U.S., there are signs that the early 21st century will be anything but the “end of history” once predicted by ideologues of the status quo.

Each and every one of these movements and social forces, at one stage of development or another, runs up against the threat of U.S. military action.  Anything that weakens Washington’s capacity to use military force helps those movements.  Likewise every step forward they take strengthens our opposition to war.

Right now the pivot point of this conflict is the U.S. occupation of Iraq.  Force the U.S. to end its occupation, and change moves from a deep popular aspiration to a grab-hold-of-it, make-it-happen possibility.

Max Elbaum Max Elbaum is the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso 2002).  Elbaum is also a member of War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, a group represented on the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice.  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras invites you to sign on to its announcement list (3-4 messages per month) to receive regular reports, interviews, flyers, and news recaps.  Go to the War Times website at  War Times/Tiempo de Guerras is a fiscally sponsored project of the Center for Third World Organizing.  Donations to War Times are tax-deductible; you can donate on-line at or send a check to War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, c/o P.O. Box 99096, Emeryville, CA 94662.

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