Recipe Wins No Prizes
It was, as the saying goes, all good. The weather was great.
The crowd was pissed but in a cheerful, spirited way. The
Washington, D.C. cops, though fully in thrall to their Powellesque
doctrine of completely unnecessary and overwhelming force,
more or less just lined up in their cruisers, saddles, motorcycles,
dirt bikes, bicycles and black boots and watched the proceedings.
The ANSWER coalition and United for Peace and Justice had
obviously mended fences after some squabbles earlier in the
In fact, except for its totally unfocused message and the
fact that organizers missed a golden opportunity by not holding
it three weeks earlier, the anti-war rally on Saturday was
a tremendous success.
The crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 had gathered ostensibly to register
their disapproval of the Bush administration’s handling of
the war in Iraq.
It is always good to see people fired up about something and
doing something about that something; it’s even better when
that something is the Bush administration’s voluminous catalog
of misdeeds, missteps and misstatements of the truth. But
if anyone—say, a Democratic party strategist—wanted to gain
some understanding of the hurdles faced by the left between
now and November 2004, this would have been the place to be.
The first thing such an observer might have noticed is that
the rally’s message was an omnibus, diffuse expression of
dissatisfaction on many fronts. This was a cupboard casserole
of a demonstration, thrown together with whatever was on hand.
The main ingredients were “end the occupation now” (mushroom
soup),”Bush is a liar who should be impeached” (noodles) and
“bring our troops home safely” (tuna fish). A fairly harmonious
combination, enhanced by “Dude, Where’s My Country?” (salt)
and “Osama bin forgotten” (pepper).
Unfortunately, other, less compatible, ingredients worked
their way in: “support to the Palestinians” (beets), “no to
the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas” (pickle relish)
and “does your food have a face?” (Apple Jacks). These points
of view were expounded both by speakers and the placard-bearers
in the crowd, to the detriment of the rally at large; worthy
though each may be, their addition confused the message hopelessly
and probably made it just a little too easy for anyone peering
out the windows of the West Wing to dismiss the whole crowd
as a bunch of wackos.
Granted, a rally like this is tough to pull off. In the run-up
to the war, it was easy to gather people for the no-invasion-of-Iraq
cause. This was much trickier. Occupation is more abstract,
and it doesn’t come with the same package of grisly images
that war does.
However, our fictitious political operative might have seized
on another, more fundamental, problem than that the demonstration-as-casserole
tasted weird. The real problem is that the base ingredient,
the mushroom soup—”end the occupation now”—is basically void
of nutritional content.
the occupation now” is not just an idea that will never see
fruition; it’s a bad, irresponsible, naïve one that would
have disastrous consequences. Many of us think the United
States never should have invaded Iraq. Now that it has done
so—and yanked out the indigenous civil administration by its
roots, fired the entire army and left Sunni snarling at Shiite
and vice-versa—someone has to stay until the Iraqis are on
their feet. That means a civil service that can make sure
the 60 percent of Iraqis who were fully dependent on U.N.
food aid before the war get food, water and power. That means
a national police force that can keep score-settling, theft,
abductions and rape in check. That means a parliamentary structure
that is representative enough and acceptable enough to citizens
that they will allow differences to be settled in the political
arena and not the streets.
And this is where the organizers’ great missed opportunity
comes in. This demonstration should have taken place three
Saturdays earlier, prior to the U.N. resolution that passed
Oct. 15. And instead of calling for an immediate withdrawal
of U.S. troops, demonstrators should have thrown their weight
behind U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s proposal that the
Coalition Provisional Authority give a “greater role” to the
United Nations, and, more importantly, set up a process for
establishing an Iraqi government similar to the one put in
place in 2001 for Afghanistan.
That plan would have provided the cover needed to get international
peacekeepers in, which would have made U.S. withdrawal more
of a possibility. Such a multinational force would have filled
the absolute requirement for a stabilizing force to keep at
bay the worst human impulses while Iraqis set about the business
of rebuilding their government. One need only look at Afghanistan—where
the government has been politely screaming for more peacekeepers
to quell warlords, marauding militias and common criminals—to
see what happens when no one is around to make certain elements
of society behave.
More importantly, Annan’s plan would have set up a provisional,
broadly representative Iraqi government within three to five
months and handed power to it right away. This government
would have started drafting a constitution on a timetable
that would allow for some deliberation, with national elections
to follow. Iraqis would have had time to decide what they
want and do it correctly. It’s more or less the Afghanistan
model, which left two and a half years between the installment
of the provisional government and first national elections—and
even that is not seeming like enough time.
What the United States wanted, and got, was the opposite:
It will not hand over power to the Iraqis until they have
a constitution and national elections; this condition will
rush both processes. There have been rumblings from the administration
about elections by the end of next year—hardly enough time
to make the psychological, much less political, shift from
life in a totalitarian state to democratic self-rule.
Annan’s plan died a too-early death, replaced by a watered-down
Franco-Russo-German version that failed anyway. Twenty-thousand
demonstrators carrying “U.S. Out, U.N. In” signs—instead of
the lone soul I saw doing so on Saturday—might not have won
the day, but at least they would have been rallying behind
a single compelling idea that would have produced progress
instead of mayhem. That kind of demonstration could have been
a powerful show of unity that showed progressives as a discerning
group grounded in political realities. And all would have
been spared picking through that bizarre casserole in search
of something substantial.