Where Are All the Protesters?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Not a day passes that we don’t see another poll showing that a majority of Americans believe President Bush and those at the top rungs of his administration have so badly mismanaged the war in Iraq that they now oppose it.

Yet even as support for the war has shrunk to an all-time low, we have also seen how antiwar organizers have struggled to mount large, intense nationwide demonstrations reminiscent of the mobilization of the hundreds of thousands who marched against the war in Vietnam 40 years ago.

The question is, why? Why have so few taken to the streets to protest the increasingly unpopular and seemingly endless war in Iraq?

The easiest and most obvious answer is that today, with a volunteer army, 18-year-olds do not have to worry about being drafted.

There are, of course, many students on college campuses who oppose the war in Iraq. But, for most students, the war is an abstract concept seen only on the news. As one UC Berkeley student put it, “The war hasn’t hit home for them. Until their brother dies, they don’t care.” Why protest something that doesn’t affect you?

In spite of the many failures Bush’s war policies have generated, Americans have struggled hard with the issue of Iraq, whether they are Democrats (I include myself ) or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. As the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg has observed, the Bush administration “has created a dilemma to which a satisfactory solution to the war, no matter what new policies are adopted, has become vanishingly remote,” a dilemma that helps to explain why Bush’s war policies have been met more often with muted and passive alienation than largescale activism.

Another reason is that Iraq is not Vietnam.

“The Vietnamese did not carry out suicide attacks on their own people,” New York Times columnist David Brooks has pointed out, “or go around the world rioting over cartoons or fly planes into skyscrapers.” The war in Iraq has an element of “existential menace” that Vietnam did not have.

In 2003, most Americans thought the war to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein's cruel tyranny was worth risking.

In 1968, as a California delegate to the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I opposed the war in Vietnam. I didn’t believe the corrupt South Vietnamese government was worth defending in a costly war.

This time, over Iraq (though not always comfortable with my position), I thought the war, on balance, was a risk worth taking. Notwithstanding an aversion to Bush’s fundamentalist Christian belief that the war is one of “good” versus “evil,” I thought regime change was the correct choice for Iraq and (I hoped) for the United States. I knew it might turn out that I was mistaken. But I never believed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein by force was morally unjustified.

I also disagreed with the antiwar activists who claimed that being firmly opposed to war against Saddam Hussein was some sort of litmus test of one’s moral identity, as if one’s stand on the war revealed one’s personal character.

A confession: I feel ill-disposed to those who would limit the bounds of serious thought and discussion by presuming a selfconfirming moral superiority.

I have emphasized “on balance” to distance myself from the activists whose concept of morality consists of a simple knowledge of good or bad, right or wrong. It would be easy if the only choice were a moral one between war and peace. But this is a time (and a war) when ambivalence and complexity, not moral tidiness or certainty, are necessary facts of life. The political choices we face are far from clearcut or morally pure.

I prefer a moral realism that recognizes that when intricate political questions are reduced to simple moral ones, they are much more likely to be put out of the reach of practical solution. Furthermore, I do not accept the argument that what some people may insist is morally wrong can never be politically right or necessary. In 2003, most Americans thought the war to liberate the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s cruel tyranny was worth risking.

Some antiwar activists claim that being firmly opposed to the war against Saddam Hussein is some sort of litmus test of one's moral identity, as if one's stand on the war reveals one's personal character .

Evaluating risks, however, is not the same thing as making moral choices, as Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff has noted. No one could know in advance whether the gains in human freedom would outweigh the human costs because it was impossible to know what the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld conduct of the war would bring.

Americans now want out of this war. They also know there is no costfree way to leave—that the decisions to be made involve tough choices about what risks are worth taking and what consequences may follow.

As events unfold, it may turn out that Iraqis will tell us whether to stay or go—and when. But we should not forget that a majority of Americans were sympathetic to the goal, and always understood the value, of helping Iraqis fight for a democratizing outcome. This is perhaps one of the strongest reasons why a big, angry antiwar movement has not taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands. At least not yet.

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