In the battle for public opinion over war on Iran, one strikes at the heart of Washington’s informal case for war while the other endorses it
By Stephen Gowans
Antiwar activist Phil Wilayto’s criticism of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy’s (CPD) petition condemning both Washington and Tehran, and the Campaign’s reply to him, illustrate the tensions in the antiwar movement among what I call challengers, formalists, and CPD anarchists. These three modes of opposition to Washington’s aggressions are largely defined by how the demonization of target regimes is responded to, and whether it is responded to at all. The challengers attack the informal campaigns of demonization aimed at building popular support for war, the formalists ignore them, and the CPD anarchists (self described peace and democracy campaigners) embrace them. In the battle against Washington for public opinion, the approach of the challengers has the greatest chance of success, the blows of the formalists fall wide of the mark, and the CPD anarchists play into Washington’s hands by endorsing the aggressor’s demonization campaign from within the antiwar movement itself.
The accustomed practice of countries that seek to change the political regime of other countries is to demonize the target of their aggression in order to justify the war, subversion, economic strangulation and other measures they have taken to achieve regime change. The aim is to legitimize their actions in the court of public opinion in order to secure at least popular acquiescence to, if not ardent support for, the toppling of a foreign government. Campaigns of vilification—typically based on hyperbole, distortion and occasionally outright deception–are invariably begun by aggressive governments and then amplified and carried on by a mimetic mass media (dishonestly labelled “independent” though dependent on the class of super-wealthy businesspeople who own them.) An emblematic case is the demonization of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. A mighty oak sprang from a tiny acorn — an acorn that in the end, turned out to exist not at all. Iraq was said to represent a looming threat (the oak) on the basis of its alleged possession of banned weapons (the acorn.) If Iraq had indeed possessed hidden biological and chemical weapons, would it have posed any more danger than countries that possess infinitely larger and more deadly arsenals? That it did not pose even this modest threat shows that the aggressor never had a legitimate case for war. Today, the echoes of the demonization campaign are heard in the justifications of George Bush and Tony Blair for starting the war. We didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, they concede, but insist the war was just all the same, for a terrible tyrant was toppled. Since objections to this line of reasoning are heard only among a tiny minority of vocal opponents of Washington’s wars (and not all of them) we can conclude with some degree of certainty that creating an understanding that the head of a target regime is a brutal dictator—or simply emphasizing this where it is true–is enough to secure public acquiescence to the squandering of billions of dollars in military expenditure and the waste of countless lost and ruined lives.
The strategies of the various sectors of the antiwar movement are defined, on one level, by their orientation to the campaigns of demonization. There are three approaches. All share a common objection to the aggressive government’s stated reasons for waging war, but differ in how–and whether—they respond to the government’s attempted legitimization of its actions. One group challenges the invariable campaigns of demonization that depict target regimes as horrible and inhuman, another ignores them, while a third embraces them.
The first group, the challengers, seeks to undermine the emotional basis of popular support for wars that aggressive states and their media allies construct through their vilification of the intended victim. This the challengers do by scrutinizing the evidentiary basis of the informal campaign and exposing its lies and weaknesses. For example, against the charge that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the physical annihilation of Israel, the challengers have shown that Ahmadinejad’s oft-cited call to “wipe Israel off the map” is a mistranslation of Farsi to English. What the Iranian president actually called for was regime change in Jerusalem (which is to say, an end to Zionist hegemony over—and clearing the way for Arab self-determination within—former mandate Palestine.) To be sure, Zionists and their supporters condemn even this progressive aim as the rankest Judeophobia, but it hardly constitutes a call for the destruction of the people of Israel. Similarly, the challengers place the accusation that Ahmadinejad is a holocaust-denier in context, showing that while the Iranian president’s position on the historical existence of the Nazi program to exterminate European Jewry is unquestionably ambiguous, his pronouncements on the matter are largely concerned with exposing how Zionists dishonestly exploit the holocaust to deny Arab self-determination. Hence, what Ahmadinejad has done is condemn in a highly visible way the Zionist project of dispossessing Arabs to create a Jewish homeland, while pointing to the exploitation of the holocaust by the same forces to justify Israeli actions and stifle objections to Israel as a colonial settler state. Inasmuch as this reinforces opposition to Israel—and the United States counts on Israel as an instrument of its foreign policy in the Middle East—Washington’s interest in eliminating the Islamic regime in Tehran is obvious. Tehran’s support for Hamas (which seeks Arab self-determination within former mandate Palestine) and Hezbollah (which exists as a bulwark against Israeli incursions into Lebanon) bolsters Washington’s enmity to Tehran. The latest salvo in the campaign to build an emotional rationale for replacing the government in Tehran is the claim that the last presidential election was stolen and that Ahmadinejad’s mandate is therefore illegitimate. To be sure, Western popular sympathies, no less on the left, lie with an opposition which appears to exemplify anti-theocratic values. All the same, evidence that the election was stolen is thin at best and evidence that it wasn’t is compelling. There is also reason to believe that the mass protests following the elections were helped along by the support of “pro-democracy” forces generously backed by payments taken out of the king’s ransom in destabilization program funding set up by the Bush administration and carried on by Obama. There’s nothing secret about this funding; it’s on the public record.
The challengers represent the most reviled sector of the antiwar movement. This is so because they carry on their debunking in the face of opposition, not only from pro-war forces, but also from some antiwar opponents, who are never as happy as when they can turn their venom on their nominal allies, accusing them of supporting thuggish regimes. Accordingly, the challengers are branded as dictator-lovers and tyrant-supporters and are accused of tripping over the logical error of assuming the enemy of their enemy is their friend. This accusation is hurled so frequently and uncritically as to have become a comfortable part of the dogma of a certain sector of the antiwar movement. That it is dogma, and not a particularly compelling explanation of the challengers’ position, is evidenced by the following: The support the challengers extend to targeted regimes is support, not for the regimes per se (though in some case it can be), but support for their struggles against the aggression of which they have become a target. No one ever accused Churchill of being a Soviet Marxist for supporting the Soviet Union against the Nazis, but those who support the Iranian government against the predations of the United States and Israel are regularly accused of being partisans of and apologists for political Islam. If Churchill’s support for the Soviet Union against Hitler didn’t make him a Stalinist, how is it that the challengers’ support for the Iranian government against US imperialism makes them Islamists? Challenging propaganda aimed at preparing and sustaining popular support for aggression against a regime—and supporting it in its struggle against unjust aggression– in no way amounts to support for the regime’s political content. Falsely equating one with the other is a means by which one sector of the antiwar movement pressures another to abandon its solidarity with the victims of US aggression.
Another sector of the antiwar movement, the formalists, ignores the demonization campaigns of the aggressor states altogether, choosing to focus its attack on the formal, legal, case for war. For example, rather than challenging the depiction of Ahmadinejad as a Judeophobe and holocaust denier whose political rule is based on electoral fraud, formalists dismiss these accusations as irrelevant to the question of whether there is a just or legal basis for war. A war cannot be prosecuted justly or legally, they say, simply because a leader’s views are unpalatable or because the election that brought him to power has been called into question. Therefore, even if the charges against the regime are true, there’s no legitimate case for war. Besides, the formal case for an attack on Iran, for example, rests, not on these allegations, but on fear that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons. The attack on the formal case then proceeds with an examination of the evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal, while pointing to the hypocrisy of nuclear armed countries denying Iran nuclear arms, as they allow Israel to dangle the threat of a nuclear strike over the heads of its opponents, while calls for Israel to disarm and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are blocked. Since threatened countries are compelled to seek nuclear arms to provide for their self-defense against nuclear-armed powers, a further argument is made that the key to preventing Iran and other countries from developing their own nuclear arsenals is to reduce the threat level, not increase it.
One view is that the formalists’ strategy is preferable to that of the challengers because it focuses debate on what is seen to be the weakest part of the war-promoters’ argument (the absent legal basis for aggression), and therefore prevents the war-promoters from turning to demonization to build emotional mass support for war. Moreover, since the formalists ignore the accusations of brutality, dictatorship, human rights violations and so on against the target regime as irrelevant to the question of whether there is a just or legal basis for war, they reduce their chances of being tarred as thug-huggers, dictator-lovers, and tyrants’ apologists. To the extent these labels stick, the antiwar movement is discredited within the larger population.
The alternative view is that the formalists’ strategy fails in practice. Neutrality on the question of whether the targeted leader is brutal, holds unpalatable views, and has come to power through electoral fraud, is met by accusations that the formalists, through their silence, are tacit supporters of the regime. The charge is loosed: Failure to condemn is tantamount to support! What’s more, trying to keep the debate focussed on the formal case doesn’t stop the emotional case being made. And while the formalists may win the debate on the terrain they’ve chosen, the emotional case remains a potent pacifier of popular opinion. “Oh sure,” reasons the man on the street, “Maybe the formal case for war was flawed, but a brutal dictator (or the misogynist Taliban, or the ethnic cleansing Serbs, and so on) was removed. ”
The formalists’ error, in training their attack on the formal case for war, is to mistake where the enemy’s strength lies. The formal case carries little weight in popular discourse. What matters is the public’s emotional reaction. Is the target regime and its leader brutal, thuggish, unpredictable, dangerous, hate-filled and detestable? In other words, is he a demon? If that’s what the public understands, the fact that there’s no case for war under the UN Charter; that war hasn’t been blessed by the Security Council; that the accused hasn’t done what he’s accused of doing; that there’s a double standard involved, doesn’t matter. The public will go along. First, because wars as they’re fought by imperialist powers today—invariably against weak countries—demand no obvious sacrifice on the part of the public; and second, because they can be rationalized as an enterprise whose outcome, on balance, is desirable. This rationalization, depends, of course, on a fair degree of blindness to the scale of humanitarian tragedy US-led wars of imperialist aggression have created in the former Yugoslavia and more clearly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s a blindness the mass media play a hand in creating and many people, besotted with patriotism, are happy to accept. The formalists, while perceiving their own path to be wiser than that of the challengers, have, on the contrary, stumbled into a cul-de-sac. If the goal is to arouse the public against preparations for war, their blows miss the real target.
The CPD Anarchists
The third sector of the antiwar movement, the CPD anarchists, neither challenges the campaigns of demonization that prepare public opinion for aggression against a target regime, nor ignore them. Instead, they embrace them. This sector of the antiwar movement is against the state—any state—whether it is a powerful aggressor or a weak victim, an imperialist power or a successor to a movement of national liberation, an enforcer of a regime of exploitation or an enforcer of a regime against it. During the Cold War CPD anarchists were against both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Persian Gulf War they were against both the United States and Iraq, and remained so in 2003. Today they are against both the United States and Iran. Mostly, this sector is made up of anarchists who call themselves campaigners for peace and democracy. But while not all of its members self-identify as anarchists, they are guided by anarchist principles. Their invariable opposition to any state is accompanied by an invariable solidarity with anyone who challenges any state. They are for the dissidents in Cuba who take money from Washington to overthrow Cuba’s socialism and are against the Cuban state for jailing them. They were for the anticommunist Polish trade union Solidarity and anticommunist dissidents in Eastern Europe as ardently as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and The Wall Street Journal were. We can be sure that the State Department likes the CPD anarchists a good deal. They are for the same people they’re for (anyone working against the regimes the US is opposed to) and against the regimes they’re against (the Soviet Union, Cuba, Iraq, Iran.) True, the CPD anarchists are also against regimes the United States is for (like Saudi Arabia). And they’re against US foreign policy, but their opposition, as we shall see in a moment, is more a help to the State Department than a hindrance.
CPD anarchists have a curious habit of launching demonization campaigns of their own at the peak of the US state’s demonization of the next regime to be taken down. When Washington demonized the Soviet government to justify the Cold War, the CPD anarchists were not far behind. When Washington deplored Havana’s jailing of mercenary dissidents, the CPD anarchists joined in. On the eve of the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq, they let it be known that they too condemned Saddam Hussein. Unlike the challengers, who expose the distortions and deceptions that make up Washington’s informal campaigns for war, the CPD anarchists accept them at face value, and in doing so, legitimize them from within the antiwar movement. They take the line of least resistance. Accept the propaganda against the intended victim holus bolus (because the victim is a state and it must, by the very definition of a state in the anarchist lexicon, be as corrupt and horrible as the press and State Department say it is.) Whereas the formalists ignore the aggressors’ informal case for war, the CPD anarchists buttress it.
Recently, the Campaign for Peace and Democracy issued a petition to rally opposition to both Washington and Tehran. The government in Tehran, the CPD anarchists argued, is hardly a government leftists should want to support. This confuses support for a government in its struggle against predation by imperialist powers with support for a regime’s political content. It’s true that leftists shouldn’t want to support the political content of the Islamic regime, but it’s untrue that leftists wouldn’t want to support a state that is resisting imperialist aggression. The Stalin government was the kind of government capitalists wouldn’t want to support, but Churchill and Roosevelt did support it, because, from the perspective of US and British capital at the time, it made sense to do so. Should Churchill and Roosevelt have abandoned the Soviets in their struggle against the invading Nazis and called instead for solidarity with anti-Soviet dissidents in Russia (i.e., a fifth column) simply because the Stalin government was not one a capitalist should want to support? If the goal were to allow the Nazis to swallow up the Soviet Union, no better advice could have been given. But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt were stupid enough to follow for their class the kind of fatuous reasoning the CPD anarchists advance for ours.
The CPD calls on leftists to abandon the Iranian government in its struggle against the predations of the United States and Israel and support anti-regime dissidents within the country instead. If the objective is to allow Iran to be brought once again under the US heel, this is, indeed, sound advice. Were CPD principal Joanne Landy and her allies around at the time we can be sure they would have condemned German fascism and Soviet socialism equally, waiting until the Nazis had launched their invasion to wish a pox on both their houses, at which point they would have called for solidarity with anti-Soviet dissidents in Moscow. If the result was that the Nazis swallowed up the Soviet Union, Landy et al would have washed their hands of responsibility for their actions, as they must have done when Solidarity helped return Poland to its place on the periphery of European capitalism, and anti-Soviet dissidents helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and along with it a collapse in living standards and the demise of guaranteed employment, free health care, a robust social wage and substantial equality.
The CPD anarchists say they’re standing in solidarity with democracy activists in Iran who are challenging the illegitimate, electoral fraud-tainted Ahmadinejad government. But their solidarity is legitimate only to the degree the “democracy” activists challenge a real breach of democracy, and are not upholding a fiction spun to further US efforts at destabilization. As mentioned above, the evidence for electoral theft is pathetically thin, amounting to little more than assertion. On the other hand, substantial polling backs the counterclaim that the outcome of the election truly reflected the way Iranians voted. The balance of evidence, then, lies on Ahmadinejad’s side. What can be said of a campaign for democracy whose solidarity is with forces on the ground that are against the side backed by the majority? What can be said of a campaign for peace that reinforces the distortions and misinformation that make up the informal case for war by accepting it at face value and then seeking endorsement of it within the antiwar movement itself?
Needless to say, the CPD anarchists have little good to say about the challengers. They accuse them of falsely seeing the enemy of their enemy as their friend. The aim is to discredit the challengers’ work of exposing the distortions and fabrications that make up the aggressor states’ demonization campaigns. For how can the outcome of their work be sound if it is based on a logical error? What’s more, the demonization must be accepted at face value, for in keeping with anarchist principles, the state and its leaders must be opposed. How much easier to oppose demons. If Washington and The New York Times say that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is a dictator who clings to power for power’s-sake, then he is everything they say he is, for he is the leader of a state. If the State Department and Wall Street Journal say north Korea’s Kim Jong Il is a dangerously unpredictable tyrant who has an itch for war, the CPD anarchists will shy away from critical examination of the claim. Why risk undermining a depiction so favorable to the anarchist penchant for reviling heads of state? In fact, the CPD anarchists themselves practice the very same enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend thinking they accuse the challengers of practicing. Who are the heroes of the CPD anarchists? The Soviet, Eastern European and Cuban anti-socialist dissidents who, with US assistance, sought to overthrow socialist states; the “pro-democracy” dissidents in the former Yugoslavia who, with US assistance, overthrew the government of Slobodan Milosevic; the dissidents in Iraq who, with US assistance, sought to overthrow the Ba’athist regime; and the dissidents in Iran who, with US assistance, seek to overthrow the Islamic state. These are the CPD anarchists’ friends. Why? Because they are the enemies of the CPD’s enemy (the state — though, apparently, not enemies of the US state). The enemy of their enemy is their friend. For the CPD anarchists, it is all right to pledge solidarity with the enemies of a state, but not all right to pledge solidarity with a state the US is about to attack.
Of the three groups, the challengers would appear to have the best chance of success in countering Washington’s and the mass media’s efforts to build popular support, or at least, foster acquiescence to, wars of aggression. The formalists’ failure to challenge the informal campaign of demonization leaves the field open to pro-war forces, who are free to create popular revulsion to the targeted regime. Their attack on the legal basis for war, is too cerebral, and at the end of the day, is no match for the emotional hot buttons skilled politicians, public relations experts, and mass media manipulators are left free to push. Finally, there is no chance the CPD anarchists will counter Washington and the mass media’s war mongering in any effective way. On the contrary, their efforts only strengthen them, and one wonders how sincerely opposed to war are people who, on the eve of an attack, endorse the informal campaign of lies, distortions and exaggeration the aggressors use to garner popular support for their imminent predations.
House of Latin America (HOLA), an Iranian NGO dedicated to solidarity and defense of the peoples of Latin America and the people of Iran, has initiated the following appeal to individuals and organizations worldwide to join with them in a campaign of solidarity with Iran in light of U.S. escalating threats and continuing sanctions.
Whereas, the escalating sanctions and threats of military intervention against Iran are intended to deprive the Iranian people of their internationally recognized right to live as an independent and free nation;
Whereas, the sanctions and threats are clear violations of Article 2 of the UN Charter, according to which member states must “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”;
Whereas, the United States is unequivocally obligated under the bilateral 1981 Algiers Treaty to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Iran;
Whereas, sanctions often pave the way to war;
Whereas, Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has an “inalienable right” to develop and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes;
Whereas, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no evidence to back up the charge that Iran is “planning to produce nuclear weapons”;
Whereas, the hegemonic lobbies that portray Iran as a threat to peace today also lied about imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to convince the public that war was necessary;
The people of the world cannot allow such a crime against humanity.
Therefore, I (we) join with all who stand for justice, peace, sovereignty and self determination in raising my (our) voice to demand:
* Lift economic sanctions against Iran.
* Recognize the right of Iran to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
* Stop military threats against Iran.