Progressives cannot win the debate on the war. But we may be able to win the debate on the peace, if we start organizing now.
Let's be clear -- vast majorities of the American population are rightly pissed off at the attacks of Sept. 11. Based on that, they are not going to easily second-guess Bush and the political establishment's military strategy in Afghanistan.
It is a conceit of the left that a few protest signs at a rally will make much difference in stopping the bombing. It's said that generals fight the last war, but it appears far more accurate to say that of today's antiwar movement, which at times seems to recycle the same slogans and tactics it's been using for decades. There is a justified demand for justice for the victims of S11 and a real fear for personal safety that makes the tin ear of many protests counterproductive. When rallies look the same as every other antiwar rally in the past, the message is that we treat Americans anger in this case as unjustified as every other war we have denounced.
In any case, even in Vietnam it took years for public protest to have any effect on the war and then only because the political establishment itself had come to believe in the worthlessness of the policy. The hardened majority supporting this war is unlikely to be pressured to change its mind by any demonstration.
So that hard reality has to guide progressive strategy.
On the other hand, even if the antiwar movement is now largely irrelevant, the policy in Afghanistan is already collapsing of its own wrongheaded weight. The words "quagmire" are already being mentioned in the mainstream press, the media has noted the savage turn of Muslim opinion against us globally, the failings of the alternative Afghani opposition have been discussed extensively, and even the military has admitted that the Taliban are far tougher military opponents than they expected.
The Bush administration has already publicly started downplaying the significance of bin Laden, emphasizing that his network is worldwide. They are rapidly recognizing that the whole "war" rhetoric has them in a dead end where an inconclusive battle in the poorest country in the world is largely irrelevant to promoting the security of the American people. While this won't stop the bombing in the short term, it may avoid more escalation and encourage a search for a "declare victory and go home" exit strategy.
That is the point where progressives can make a difference. If we start acting strategically, we can win the fight to create a more just "peace"-- or whatever we call the uneasy period that will emerge when Bush's policy collapses in Afghanistan.
Too many times in the past, the Left mobilized relentlessly during a war without even a plan for what to do when the shooting stopped. But what kind of peace emerges is often far more important to the peoples lives than the war itself. The problem is that a relentlessly negative antiwar message leaves little room for a positive alternative vision.
We need a Left that can say Yes -- yes to justice, yes to tolerance, yes to peace, yes to rational policy that will both save lives globally while making Americans secure in a more peaceful and cooperative world.
If progressives can't promise security to the American people, they will be remain irrelevant politically. If the Left wants to make an effective case for an alternative policy, we cannot mumble a quick statement that our policy is more effective, before rushing to the global justice policies we like to talk about. We need to make a muscular case that a serious multilateral engagement on both criminal investigations and global justice are a credible proactive policy that will achieve justice on behalf of the families of the dead of Sept. 11 and prevent terrorism in the future.
The lesson of dealing with terrorism in every nation has been that war and repression do not solve the issue -- the goal has to be to isolate the violence-junkies, who fester like sores on misery, from the general population. As long as misery and despair prevails, the extremists end up protected in safe havens and by the silent collaboration of that desperate population. Rational security measures are useful, but ultimately addressing real misery and real suffering is the only way to leave the nihilistic murderers isolated and without legitimacy.
What is needed is to combine that message with the increasingly effective global justice message that had emerged after Seattle. If anything changed on Sept. 11, it was that the American people realized that they don't live on an island immune from the global forces and the millions who die globally each year because of desperate poverty. The safest world is one where everyone has something to lose from the violence and chaos of terrorism. Once the passive allies of terrorism develop more of a stake in preserving a just peace, terrorists will end up exposed by those previously passive allies now unwilling to risk new rounds of violence.
That lesson in attaining security is what the Left has to offer the American people. Until we start offering it, rather than the thin gruel of empty antiwar rhetoric, the Left will be politically irrelevant in this debate.
Nathan Newman is a longtime union and community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nathannewman.org.