Five times in the past 23 years, we have seen an unprovoked U.S. rush to war against a Muslim nation.
After a period of preparation in which the political leadership of the targeted nation is demonized, something bloody and barbaric is reported to have occurred there. The response by Western media is quick, strong and persistent: the government of the targeted nation is responsible for the atrocity. Public officials across the Western world denounce what has happened as “beyond the pale” for civilized societies and demand action. Images of an atrocity fill our screens. Opinion leaders from the think tanks, academia, even Hollywood gravely weigh in with reluctant endorsement of retaliation because – to their great regret – the Muslim leaders in question are irrational. References to Hitler” and “appeasement” pop up in news clips and op-eds. Public polling confirms what the people on TV have been saying: if we are to remain true to our principles, we must make war.
In 1990, it was Kuwaiti incubator babies thrown to the floor by Saddam’s troops and Iraqi troops massing on the Saudi border. In 2001, it was the Taliban’s refusal to arrest bin Laden and turn him over for prosecution. In 2003, it was chemical “weapons of mass destruction” Saddam was preparing to use on his neighbors. In 2011, it was the practice of mass rape Gaddafi’s army and the imminent massacre of the residents of Benghazi. In 2013, it was Assad’s murder of civilians (and many children) in the Damascus suburbs with sarin gas.
On each of the first four of these occasions, the story was false but served to energize the rush to war anyway. We didn’t learn until later that it was a lie. In the most recent iteration involving Syria, we do not yet know if the story was true or false. What we do know is that the rush to war has been derailed.
So why didn’t formula work with Syria? Why hasn’t Assad been deposed like the Afghan Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi before him? Certainly many factors contributed. But the core reason is pretty clear: the public opposed it.
Watching all of this unfold brought several realities into clearer focus.
- Political strength does not require millions out in the streets demonstrating. It can manifest itself quietly via polling, emails to members of Congress, “War is Not the Answer” signs in the front yard, and conversations among neighbors. Although Washington and its network of contractors and power-seekers are wired for war, their bandwagon can be stopped when a strong majority disagrees.
- Anti-war sentiment is much more prevalent when it is not perceived to be aligned with a particular partisan position. In the case of Syria, “Tea-Party” Republicans were particularly outspoken against war; they were openly joined by liberal Democrats. Together, this created enough space for many people to join the dissent.
- Alternative media via the Internet have begun playing a significant role in shaping public opinion via increased on-the-scene reporting and the publication of critical views. As a result, efforts by officials and mainstream opinion leaders to stigmatize those views as “conspiracy theories” are not working as well. Increasingly, those beating the drum for war find it necessary to pause and respond to the questions and concerns being raised. In the case of Syria, this slowed the rush to war and strengthened the opposition.
For peace activists, three lessons follow these realities:
- Work to define our opposition to war as a bi-partisan alternative; reach out across the political spectrum to unlikely allies and expect their support.
- Invest in the alternative media by contributing to its support, digesting its reporting, and following its links to foreign news services. The evidence “on location” will always be a mixed bag but in this age of Western imperialism, often it will undermine the rush to war. We must communicate those facts to the public. Among people who do not claim to be pacifists, war is always driven by a morally compelling story. If we can raise substantial questions about the truthfulness of that story, the rush to war will lose its momentum.
- Commit the great majority of our energy to communicating with the general public. Washington and its network of sycophants have made their preference for war abundantly clear; we won’t change that any time soon. But many people in our local communities do not share that preference; they should be our primary audience.