Taking inspiration from the IVAW activists who led the big anti-NATO protests in Chicago, Greg Hom assesses the continuing challenges facing antiwar activists regarding Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Mali.
Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans, hand-in-hand with Afghans for Peace, made history this month when they led a march of thousands against NATO and returned their Global War on Terror medals to NATO’s generals. Just the boost needed for the hard work ahead in the face of challenging developments from the Middle East/West Asia to too-often-ignored Africa. Adding a complicating twist, this is an election year in the U.S. It’s a lot, but it’s a crazy and big world.
Throwing medals back
Antiwar activists of all kinds can claim a part in changing public opinion around Afghanistan, and shifting the government’s course because of it. But Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) has played a special role. The troops who threw their medals away at the NATO conference this past month are some of the best news we had this month. While the media focused on police riots, IVAW activists, along with women from Afghans for Peace, led the largest-scale action. In addition to hurling medals back at their government, they spoke about their desire for peace, for justice for people living under occupation, and the desire for healing for both veterans and Afghans. They also stressed the relationship of the recession and austerity policies to the ongoing funding of war.
The voices and courage of these veterans – covered widely in the alternative media – carry a unique credibility with the public because they served on the ground. And that’s exactly why they were ignored or buried in most mainstream reports. Particularly powerful is the partnership in the action with Afghans for Peace, and the solidarity that IVAW showed with them. With calls for stability and peace in Afghanistan from NATO and the US being so hollow, it’s amazing to look at these groups coming together. Here’s video coverage of the action, courtesy of the IVAW website.
And what was happening in the streets with the cops? The Guardian (UK) began the month with an article on police equipment to be used on street protests that has military origins. The article focused on a “sound weapon” that can permanently damage hearing and be incredibly painful – but doesn’t look the same to television viewers as rubber bullets and batons. The article does say that the device in question has been used by police against protesters before, but what has to be stressed today is the use of military hardware and tactics against people inside this country.
To some readers of War Times, this has been more evident since Occupy, and for others it’s been evident since the “War on Drugs” against communities of color, or the 60s/70s days of COINTELPRO. But since 9/11 the overall militarization of the culture is higher, and the sense that our social ills need broad military solutions has increased. (WTO protesters weren’t flippantly called terrorists back in 1999, now it’s common to hear of terror charges brought against activists.) One part of this is the training that more and more police-officers receive from the Israeli military who are engaged in a brutal occupation, who are always using the language of “terror” and the “other” subjugated population. Flipping the language of activism during the Vietnam War, which called for “Bringing the War Home,” activists are now talking about “Kicking the War Out”.
The politics of war & “toughness” as U.S. elections loom
Capitalizing on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden a year ago, President Obama visited Afghanistan earlier this month to claim “progress” in negotiations with the Taliban – but also to remind voters of his “toughness” in military matters as the country heads into presidential election season. Beneath the theatrics, the U.S. is still losing this “war of necessity.” The Taliban are not going away – it is Washington that is lowering its definition of “success” and setting dates for withdrawal of all combat troops. The right attacks Obama for weakness and allegedly “leaving too soon,” but it is no longer clear that hawkishness on Afghanistan is a vote-getter. And U.S. allies are already jumping ship, with France’s new president saying he’ll bring French troops out by the end of this year. The French certainly see the connection between war and austerity – a point we in the U.S. need to drive home with increased energy.
Meanwhile, the negotiations in Baghdad between Iran and six world powers ended without an agreement. Talks will resume in Moscow in mid-June. Washington refuses to acknowledge Iran’s right to non-weapons program enrichment, and Iran refuses to agree to invasive U.S. demands unless sanctions are lifted in exchange. Some analysts believe a kind of stalemate is happening, where despite all the rhetoric sanctions, especially on oil exports by Iran, are not really wanted by either side. These would severely hurt Tehran, but also throw oil markets into a spin. But with the oil sanctions still on the table, tension remains.
Aggravating all the tension of course is the constant anti-Iran barrage coming from Israeli hawks and their many U.S. allies. The Israel Lobby led by AIPAC keeps beating the war drums about Iran being a so-called “existential threat” to Israel. It’s an open secret they want Obama either out of office or to surrender even more than he already has to their blank-check-for-Israel agenda. Some say that the Israeli lobby holds U.S. politics hostage, and to some extent this is true. The better way to put it is that U.S. and Israeli interests neatly intersect at some times, and at other times they do not. This makes it hard for U.S. politicians when the Israel lobby has made it a mainstream mantra that the U.S. always backs Israel no matter what. Even political “experts” like top U.S. generals- who are treated as near sacred by the media- get beat with this political club when coming out against Israel’s manic behavior.
Egypt: Democratic elections hide longer-term tensions
Egyptian elections have ended with no candidate getting 50%, so a run-off will be held between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi and Mubarak-era official Ahmed Shafiq. If Mursi wins, a political party sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians will then be in office. Diplomacy between Egypt and Israel could go belly up, which could complicate the Israeli stance on Iran. The possibility of the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt would be real solidarity to Palestinians who are still trapped in the world’s largest open-air prison. Of course, an Islamist candidate of any kind is antithetical to the U.S. view of what’s acceptable in the region as well, and will be painted by the right as another failure by Obama. The hypocrisy of supporting democracy, but not for Egypt, will go mostly unacknowledged.
That’s the view from an international relations angle. Within Egypt, the labor, democratic and women’s rights activists who were in Tahrir struggling against the Mubarak dictatorship but not for (and quite often against) the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood now face a dilemma. With such a relief in the society coming from the simple act of voting, taking to the streets again may be seen by many as acting against political gains. The May 29 demonstration in Tahrir against Mursi and supposed voting irregularities may be the approach needed to keep up some momentum for street protests, but it remains to be seen if the demonstrations grow, and whether a progressive social and economic agenda can seriously influence the voting and the administration of whichever candidate wins.
Syrian activists, meanwhile, face much more severe problems. Demonstrations of any kind have faced harsh violence and repression, some anti-government forces have taken to arms, and Western powers and the reactionary Saudi regime are eager to turn the conflict in Syria to their advantage. Though a cease-fire has supposedly been in effect, the massacre last week has heightened tensions, brought new U.N. condemnations and led to louder calls for direct Western military intervention by Neocons and the Romney camp.
Mali: Controversies about borders and autonomy
Africa deserves more coverage from anti-militarist activists. The continent is full of the minerals that make much of modern technology possible. The scramble by the Western powers, with the US Africa Command – AFRICOM – being prominent, along with a growing China vying for control of resources (and don’t forget the O-I-L) is increasing. The nation-states there are generally not strong enough to set the terms of their participation in the global economy, and tensions between groups that go back to colonial times still simmer.
An interview from Democracy Now with Firoze Manji in April laid out the context for the current crisis in Mali, including a broader regional analysis on resistance to Neoliberalism. Another April interview in Pambazuka with an unnamed women’s rights activist and a more recent contribution from Nii Akuetteh with the Real News Network add information on the international concerns over Malian territorial integrity.
Manji mentions the oil interests in the region, which are controlled by Canada but bring no income to people on the ground. Manji puts the Tuareg uprising that has driven recent events in Mali in a broader context of resistance to Neoliberalism in Africa, and hopes that in the wake of the “Arab spring” more concerted movements will rise up against leaders in cahoots with international capital.
Akuetteh’s report discusses the security aspect of the Malian uprising, arguing that big capital’s interests will play less of a role in military and political reaction. Surrounding states have not recognized the Tuareg breaking territory off for themselves. A number of factors are behind this, but a primary one Akuetteh mentions are “Islamists” within the Tuareg territory, and this of course means that the regional U.S. military player AFRICOM can find excuses to intervene. The recent coup, a reaction by the military to the Tuareg uprising in the North, may also mean economic sanctions by surrounding countries who want to see a return to democratic rule.
The women’s rights activist says there are various camps of Tuareg politics, and that Islamists are one part of them. She does speak in positive ways towards Tuareg (non-Islamist group) politics: “The majority of Tuaregs are Muslims, however this is not a central aspect of their political identity, their vision is for a Tuareg nation and to defend Tuareg culture and independence.” Yet it seems that the Islamist grouping is the most powerful, and in addition to international tensions, the situation for women’s rights in relation to the Islamists is worsening. This activist ideally wants this: “As a Malian I can also say that there is serious and deep work that we must do as civil society to affirm people in their identity as Malian, which has always been a very vibrant and extremely tolerant culture.”
While I’m critical of the idea that any nation-state culture has “always” been extremely tolerant, I’m sympathetic to the idea of working within the cultural and political realms to make space for all people who want to make a community work with diversity. Broader context also is a reminder that, while the borders of today’s Africa are inherited from colonialism, the post-independence Organization of African Unity resolved (see pages 16-17) to respect those borders explicitly because of “the existence of extra-African maneuvers aimed at dividing African States” – that is, due to the danger of the former colonial powers sponsoring phony “independence movements” to carve out areas for neocolonial control.
Take a cue from IVAW and activists in Egypt
If we are going to “kick the war out,” we have to be able to share both a mix of stories that inspire us, and those that remind us of the hard work we have ahead to make our lives less about war and more about building and supporting life. Let’s take a cue this month from IVAW, and the Egyptian activists who are still figuring out what their revolution means, and remember to act outside the prescribed notions of “security” that we get from the 1%.