WASHINGTON — As the debate over President Bush's plans for Iraq grows louder in Washington, the voice of the nation's peace movement has been muted.
Far from the mainstream, often connected only by the stealth power of the unseen Internet or the quiet muscle of community activism, the peace lobby--robust during the Vietnam War and highly visible during the 1991 Persian Gulf War--has been on the sidelines of public debate.
Secretaries of State and other guardians of the foreign policy establishment have taken to the editorial pages of the nation's top newspapers to argue strategy, tactics and consequences. Commentators have accused each other of conspiracy to either foment or slow war, while agreeing that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is an evil force whose ouster would be universally applauded.
But the peace movement has been under the radar.
"The debate has been fueled by disagreement within the Republican Party," said Peter Lems of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. "People are saying, 'Not now,' or 'Don't do it alone.' Now comes the debate over whether war is just. That's the challenge for the faith community, to speak out, to unify and find our voice."
The effort of faith-based antiwar groups and grass-roots community organizers to protest a proposed war in Iraq is complicated by the relative silence of most Democrats. Facing reelection contests and hoping to take political advantage of an uncertain economy, they are reluctant to look soft on the fight against terrorism. So while Democrats duck, local organizers are trying to muscle up opposition to the White House war against Iraq from the grass roots.
'Under the Radar'
"We haven't been hearing much about the grass roots," said Jeff Guntzel, co-coordinator of Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based activist group. "But a lot's been happening under the radar."
An Internet-based group called moveon.org--born during President Clinton's impeachment trial with a mission of encouraging Congress to censure the president and then move on to other business--has embraced the cause.
In Senate offices across the country last week, Americans who had embraced moveon.org's cause came to press the case against war in Iraq.
In the offices of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Norman Tate, an 86-year-old from the small fishing village of Port Clyde about an hour from the state Capitol in Augusta, talked about the antiwar movement during the Vietnam conflict, recalling that it took eight years of organizing and the lives of 58,000 Americans to stop the war.
"It was very moving," said Eli Pariser, who organized the nationwide senatorial outreach for moveon.org and estimates that more than 5,000 people participated.
Plans are underway for a day of resistance against the possible war. There are Internet petition drives and postcard campaigns. There are alternate events planned to commemorate Sept. 11 ("We grieve the loss but speak for peace, not war," is how one participant put it), and calls for a day of protest Oct. 7, the anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
But activists admit that marshaling a country against war will not be easy. "People are overwhelmed with so many issues," said Gordon Clark, who is organizing a mass protest of civil disobedience called a Pledge of Resistance. "We think it is really picking up steam now."
Grass-roots organizers also note that the protests have so far been muted in part because of several important changes in a new generation's approach to activism.
The first is an emphasis on individual effort, not mass rallies. "A 500,000-person protest against the Gulf War and a 100,000-person protest against the war in Afghanistan didn't bring about policy change," said Micah White, who with a handful of students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania runs the Internet site www.why-war.com. "That has been acknowledged by people within the antiwar movement."
A related change, White noted, is that opponents plan to "put their bodies on the line," traveling to Iraq to witness war and report their observations--much as American Adam Shapiro did in going to the West Bank on behalf of the pro-Palestinian group International Solidarity. Shapiro ended up spending a night in Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's then-blockaded Ramallah compound.
"We will definitely be seeing that tactic here," agreed Guntzel, of Voices of the Wilderness.
An Advance Team
"A large group will go in advance of any attack in Iraq."
Guntzel noted that many protesters come from the ranks of the anti-globalization movement, eager to torpedo policy on the front lines. "They have ushered in a new style of protest," he said.
Then too, there is the Internet, which links activists in different states behind shared goals, crossing political, geographic and economic distinctions. "There is less and less meeting in church basements," said Lems of the American Friends Committee. "Now we're doing more online. It's a more potent tool."
But perhaps the greatest strategic advantage of the peace lobby in rallying public opinion against war in Iraq is the 11 years of sanctions imposed on that country after the Gulf War.
"It's unlikely that Bush could have picked a worse target for his second step," said White, one of the Swarthmore students fomenting against war.
"People have been refuting the arguments behind the sanctions on Iraq for many years."
Democrats voting against war in Iraq after Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 argued that the U.S. government should give sanctions a chance to work, that it should let economic pressure force the Iraqi leader's hand.
Now, says Guntzel, who has a new Internet site at www.iraqpeaceteam.org, "a dozen years and many thousand senseless deaths later we know that sanctions are war. And we know that an economic war can be just as deadly as a war fought with armies."