The American Peace Movement and the Middle East

By Zunes, Stephen | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

The American Peace Movement and the Middle East


Zunes, Stephen, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


Over the past few decades, popular movements in the United States challenging the U.S. role in Southeast Asia, Central America and Southern Africa have been an important factor in confronting foreign.policies seen to be inconsistent with the officially-stated goals of peace, democracy, international law and self-determination. Yet, during this same period, U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been particularly problematic regarding effective popular mobilization. This essay takes a look at the American peace movement and its role regarding the U.S.-led 1991 war against Iraq and the long-standing U.S. support for Israeli policies toward its Arab neighbors, as well as the movement's strengths, weaknesses, and possible future directions.

First, I will examine the reasons why the peace movement was unable to stop the Gulf War, why it failed to turn public opinion against the war once it started, and how it has failed to address the resulting humanitarian crises. At the same time, I will argue that the movement was far more successful in many respects than even most of its supporters credit it for being. Using the Gulf War as the opening context, I then turn to broader issues of peace, human rights and justice in the Middle East and how the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an obstacle to building an effective peace movement. I critically examine the failure of the peace movement to address the question of Israel and Palestine in a more forthright and effective manner, particularly the difficulty in influencing decision-makers into supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace, despite popular support for such a shift in policy from its current bias in favor of Israeli government policies.

GULF WAR AFTERMATH

The current weakness of a Middle East peace movement in the United States comes in part from the popularity of the 1991 Gulf War and the resulting marginalization of its opponents. There were a number of factors that made the peace movement appear weak and lacking popular support - a highly effective propaganda barrage by the Bush Administration, the censorship of the press at the war front, the deliberate falsification of reports from the battlefield to exaggerate military successes and underestimate civilian casualties, the low number of American casualties, the short duration of the war, and the nefarious nature of the Iraqi regime. In addition, the media played largely a cheer leading role, with opponents of the war - including Middle Eastern experts - largely ignored as analysts and notably absent from network talk shows.(1) Pro-war sentiment was stage-managed from the highest level and was no match for an underfunded grass roots movement.

There were also some serious errors which cost the peace movement some support: One was the fact that peace activists largely shared with most Americans a profound ignorance of the Middle East, Islam, and the Arab World) For example, during the months preceding the outbreak of hostilities, Time observed that "The public response resembles a massive cram session, as earnest people try to understand the complex forces at work and calculate the potential costs, human and material of going to war."(3)

One result was a series of tactical errors: for example, many anti-war activists focused on the precedent of Vietnam, despite great differences between the two situations. As with the old adage about generals, anti-war activists also tend to fight the last war, often ignoring the unique aspects of an upcoming crisis. For example, Vietnam did not have the capability of threatening large populations beyond their borders, as did Iraq, thereby the Bush Administration could raise a more credible - though still questionable - specter of further aggression.(4) In Vietnam, the U.S. fought a popular nationalist struggle utilizing guerrilla warfare in a mountainous jungle terrain. The Gulf War was in a flat desert area against a conventional army in a territory that was either uninhabited or supportive of the U. …

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