Following the gathering of an estimated 300,000 protesters in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 24, the movement to end the Iraq war has newfound momentum.

Hany Khalil of United for Peace and Justice, the main antiwar coalition, says Sept. 24 “signifies a profound shift. Bush recognizes that public opinion is moving in our direction.”

Recent polls indicate that Americans have turned against Bush’s handling of Iraq, but elites in the media and across the political spectrum continue to support the occupation.

The challenge for the antiwar movement is what strategy to use for turning the overwhelming dissatisfaction into a movement that can force the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. While the traditional peace movement is emphasizing
numbers and pressuring Congress, others feel that only more radical tactics will succeed, such as the militancy exhibited by the global justice movement a few years ago.

UFPJ, says Khalil, is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to that end: building alliances with organized labor and communities of color, along with liberal groups such as MoveOn and the National Organization for Women, lobbying
and pressuring Congress to cut funding for the war, and trying to “exacerbate the recruiting crisis” by emphasizing counter-recruitment work.


A REVITALIZED MOVEMENT

Cindy Sheehan’s vigil outside of Bush’s ranch in Texas in early August helped revive the antiwar movement, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a wide array of antiwar groups.

In July, Sheehan announced at the Veterans for Peace convention in Dallas that she would make a stand at Bush’s ranch until he met with her. She arrived in Crawford in early August with 50 supporters, including dozens of vets, and just days after a huge spike in U.S. deaths in Iraq.

With hundreds of media in Crawford looking for a story they found one. Soon, support mushroomed and UFPJ member groups such as Code Pink came in with resources to support Sheehan.

The vigil was immediately followed by the “Bring Them Home Now Tour” with military families and vets in the lead, such as Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace – the last three of which are part of UFPJ’s national steering committee.

The tour ended with Sheehan headlining the Sept. 24 protest in Washington, D.C. Without her presence and the anger over the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, the anti-war march and rally would have likely struggled to
draw a crowd one-tenth the size.

The previous “national” day of protest last March saw the Troops Out Now Coalition muster a scant 5,000 in Central Park while United for Peace and Justice drew only 1,500, at a nationally organized demonstration in Fayetteville, North
Carolina on March 20.

But Fayetteville marked a turning point.

In December 20004, says Khalil, UFPJ decided “to make Fayetteville a major regional demonstration.” The aim was to elevate military families and veterans, as well as to build the antiwar movement in the South. Cindy Sheehan spoke at the event. Just one week earlier she had been profiled in The Nation, which asked if she was “The New Face of Protest?”

UFPJ deserves credit for bringing the antiwar movement back to life after earlier strategic mistakes of eschewing militant action when it had the support and the sidetracking of the antiwar movement into an anti-Bush movement last
year. But it has also become a whipping boy for much of the left, criticized as much for its prominence as politics that are seen as overly liberal.

Many observers caution that UFPJ is not synonymous with the antiwar movement. They point to an upsurge of antiwar activity at the local level, particularly around “counter-recruitment.”


SHUNNING RADICAL POLITICS

UFPJ’s organizing strategy is under fire in particular. According to one inside source, some within UFPJ argue that the coalition of 1,300 groups should play to the center by bringing in unions and other large organizations, partly to counter the influence of one of the other main antiwar groups, International Answer. Such a strategy entails jettisoning broader anti-imperialist politics because, the argument goes, the focus should be on building “the broadest possible antiwar movement” rather than trying to bring together left forces.

It’s debatable if reaching out to working-class communities and people of color means shunning radical politics. Sheehan, for one, is a vocal opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, an issue that UFPJ finds difficult to negotiate. UFPJ opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestine in strong terms, but its working group on the issue agrees on very little because some member groups, such as Tikkun, are pro-Zionist.

Unable to address such issues leaves UFPJ’s left flank wide open. Both Answer, which recently split from the rigidly authoritarian Workers World Party and Troops Out Now Coalition, Workers World new antiwar front, attack UFPJ constantly for not taking a stronger stand against U.S. domination of countries such as Haiti, Afghanistan, Palestine and the Philippines.

Because of their top-down structure and dedicated cadre, the Workers World-influenced groups have the ability make decisions quickly and turn out thousands of people at protests.

Answer outmaneuvered UFPJ by also calling for a demonstration on Sept. 24. Not wanting to make it seem as if the movement was split, UFPJ agreed to combine efforts with Answer. But many longtime antiwar activists were dismayed at the deal because they contend Answer is Stalinist, cynical and manipulative.


LEADING BY POSITION

Among anarchists, anti-authoritarians and many others on the left, there is dissatisfaction with UFPJ, too. One critic describes the group as leading from “position, not politics,” meaning because it has prominent individuals, such as Leslie Cagan as its national coordinator, paid staff and (relative to the rest of the left) significant resources, it exerts undue influence.

Eric Laursen, one veteran direct action activist, says, “I think there was a lot of annoyance and discouragement among anti-authoritarians that UFPJ and Answer emerged so quickly and were so conservative in their style of organizing” (see sidebar).

A related criticism is that UFPJ avoids politics: It operates as a constituency based group, turning out large numbers of people who have little say in the group, which then uses those numbers to try to influence the formal political process.

One longtime volunteer with UFPJ present in Washington disputed this characterization, saying the leadership wrestles with and agonizes over political decisions all the time. But he admitted that the group’s decision-making process is not transparent to the broader antiwar movement.

In one way, UFPJ’s current strategy may stem from insufficient resources. It would probably take scores of paid organizers to foster long-term “basebuilding” at the grassroots level – resources it doesn’t have. Instead, it’s opting for allying itself to groups that already have large constituencies.


UFPJ’S DILEMMA

The dilemma for UFPJ is that few liberal groups or unions, however, support its main demand for rapid withdrawal. Most liberals call for an open-ended timetable, barely different than Bush saying the U.S. has no long-term designs on Iraq. NOW supports U.N. peacekeepers, a scenario as likely as Bush nominating Michael Moore for the Supreme Court, while MoveOn calls for “an exit strategy with a timetable” but doesn’t demand that Congress stop funding the wars


‘DON’T EMBARRASS US’

Max Uhlenbeck, a former organizer with UFPJ, states that “there are very few people in the country who could tell you what UFPJ really is, how it operates, how decisions are made.” He says the group has a strategy by default—“because
there are a lot of liberal-leaning groups in the room, liberal tactics gain traction, for example, lobbying and leafleting.”

He notes that UFPJ doesn’t “want militant, grassroots people on staff.” Uhlenbeck adds that neither does it support “radical, militant activities,” such as providing legal defense for direct action, which has been largely absent from the antiwar movement.

Laursen adds that “at best” direct action proponents get “get friendly toleration from UFPJ. It’s an attitude of ‘Please don’t do anything embarrassing.’”

On two occasions, says Uhlenbeck, UFPJ had “support for mass direct action” and blinked, referring to Feb. 15, 2003 and the massive RNC protest on Aug. 29, 2004. Both times “UFPJ took the legal route” by letting lawyers negotiate with the city over march routes and plans. Both times the city strung UFPJ along and quashed their desired protest plans.


AVOIDING A TRAP

The prominence of military families and veterans is important. For one, the left has been able to avoid the “Support the Troops” trap. It also speaks to the unpredictability of social movements.

The tactic that is having the greatest impact on the Pentagon’s ability to wage war is one no one predicted: counter-recruitment. Declining recruitment rates has left the military in crisis. It’s trying every tactic in the book: offering ever larger bonuses, deceiving potential recruits, lowering standards, raising ages, enticing immigrants with U.S. citizenship.

“The Achilles heel of the war is recruitment and there is a widespread lack of enthusiasm among the populace to serve. The antiwar movement has to aggravate this problem,” says Laursen.

Aggravating the recruitment crisis can also have a far greater impact than the Iraq war. It took the Pentagon almost a generation to rebuild the military after Vietnam.

While the antiwar movement is anti-imperialist, key elements are willing to water this down in the hope of reaching out to liberals who want a gentler imperialism to replace Bush’s unilateralism. This remains the great challenge ahead.