Syria provides tough challenges for anti-war left

September 4, 2013

In one sense, you’d think the impending American strikes on Syria would provide a more fertile organizing opportunity for the anti-war left than the run-up to the Iraq War did. Polls show widespread opposition to strikes, in the belief they will be ineffective — even though the public is convinced of Assad’s guilt in using chemical weapons — suggesting public sophistication in questioning the costs and benefits of military violence. War-weariness seems palpable. A dozen years have passed since the September 11th attacks, which were fresh in the public mind when George W. Bush sought authorization for the use of force in Iraq barely a year later.

Yet, in an ironic moment for the left, multiple other conditions are conspiring to create challenges for anti-war activists that in some ways are more difficult than the ones they faced in the case of Iraq.

After a period in which the left seemed uncertain how to proceed against Obama’s request for Congressional authorization against Syria, there are signs of a coalescing. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee just announced in a new memo that its members have spoken loudly and clearly against strikes on Syria, and that it will undertake a major effort to lobby members of both parties to vote No.

This comes as other groups are gearing up. As Buzzfeed’s Evan McMorris-Santoro has reported, CREDO and MoveOn are preparing their own campaigns. They have multiple allies within Congress, and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers — backed by outside groups — is developing against strikes that could defeat any resolution in Congress.

At the same time, there are conditions unique to this situation that make this an especially tough organizing challenge.

Events are moving so rapidly that the amount of time for organizing is very tight. The run-up to the Iraq War went on far longer, giving groups plenty of time to mobilize. By contrast, Assad’s use of chemical weapons — followed in quick succession by Obama’s surprise decision to go to Congress — has compressed the time period. It’s also likely the strikes themselves will occur in a short time window, unlike the Iraq War, which allowed organizers to gain momentum over months and years.

“With Iraq there was a longer buildup; people had more time,” progressive activist Mike Lux tells me. “Many more major online initiatives were launched. In the lead up to the war, MoveOn’s membership grew dramatically. There were demonstrations around the country that were well organized and well financed.”

The lack of involvement of American troops on the ground could also make it harder to mobilize. “It is far more difficult to get people moving and fired up and actively engaged when you’re not talking about sending ground troops in,” Lux said. “Even though a bombing run is still military action — still killing people, still spending money — psychologically there’s a difference. There not the same sense of urgency there was with Iraq. The dynamic is vastly different.”

And of course, there’s the donkey in the room: the president is a Democrat. Obama’s expansion of the surveillance state, his drone killings, and his continuation of Bush war-on-terror tactics have probably made Democratic voters view him with more skepticism on matters of war and peace. But the fact is that many Democrats in Congress may be less willing to oppose him in spite of all that. Meanwhile, Assad’s use of chemical weapons has complicated the equation for Congressional Dems with a liberal internationalist streak.

None of this is to say the push for strikes on Syria can’t be stopped. The aforementioned surveillance, drone, and civil liberties abuses have given rise to a bipartisan coalition against governmental overreach that is mobilizing against strikes on Syria. The use of force resolution could very well go down, particularly in the House. But in spite of all that, and in spite of widespread public opposition to strikes, other conditions have conspired to create unique challenges that will have to be surmounted. As Lux put it to me: “This is an ironic moment.”

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UPDATE: CREDO’s petition against Syria strikes is right here; it is close to the goal of collecting 200,000 signatures.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Greg Sargent | September 4, 2013