PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
SHEEHAN STORY SHOWS ELITE SPLIT ON WAR
It was an astonishing turnout. Last night, in my small middle-American city, more than 150 people stood on street corners supporting Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mom who is waiting outside the president's ranch to ask him, "Why did you kill my son?" Of course, demonstrations like this don’t have much effect unless they are reported in the mainstream media. Cindy Sheehan is making the media pay attention.
Even the Washington Post's official White House watcher, Dan Froomkin, took notice this week of the woman he calls “Hurricane Cindy.” “The real drama,” he wrote, “is not whether Bush will relent and meet with her. It's almost certain that he won't. The burning question is where does the Sheehan story go from here?” Spoken like a true professional journalist. It’s all about the story, the drama. Ms. Sheehan has created a gripping plot, indeed.
But the administration’s PR professionals are far more adept at shaping and shifting the public script, and they’re working overtime to do it. As Froomkin rightly said: “The White House is certainly hoping that that the press will just get bored and move on. Almost as good for the White House would be if the story becomes all about Cindy Sheehan, rather than her cause. The big danger for the White House, however, is if Sheehan incites the public, the press and political leaders to actually begin a national conversation about what a pullout from Iraq would look like.”
It is not Ms. Sheehan’s job to incite that conversation. It’s the job of the peace movement. And we have to confess that we haven’t been doing it well enough to force attention from the mainstream media. That’s why Froomkin can write: “In public, the discussion about how to get out of Iraq has been oddly muted. It's a rare public opinion poll that even asks whether U.S. troops should be withdrawn -- although when the question is asked, Americans are more likely to agree with Sheehan than with Bush."
As an experienced inside-the-beltway journalist, Froomkin should know that there is nothing at all "odd" about the public wanting change, yet never seeing its wishes reflected in mainstream news media. When it comes to foreign policy, in particular, the public opinion-makers rarely reflect public opinion. They reflect the opinion of the foreign policy elite, those few thousand Republicans and Democrats who talk only to each other (and perhaps, if they have any time left over, to the God of their choice).
The bad news is that, no matter how much the public wants our troops out of Iraq, they will probably stay there until the foreign policy elite decides its time for this folly to end.
The good news is that the foreign policy elite is beginning to recognize that the U.S. effort to control Iraq really is folly. The clearest evidence is that they let Cindy Sheehan become front-page news. And that columnists like Dan Froomkin are pointing out the disconnect between the media and public opinion. There have been quite a number of Cindy Sheehan's before -- grief-stricken parents who lost children in Iraq and spoke out against the war. They were all ignored by the mainstream press, because the elite were all still determined to stick it out in Iraq till the bitter end. Cindy Sheehan just happened to be in the right place at the right time -- the time that a debate has broken out within the elite about whether or not to cut bait in Iraq.
I can't prove all this. I'm assuming it, based on what the history books tell us about the Vietnam war. As much as we'd like to believe that the peace movement forced the U.S. government to give up that insane war, it probably didn't happen quite that way. Lyndon Johnson's advisors knew as well as Karl Rove that antiwar demonstrators like Cindy Sheehan often gain more sympathy for the president than for peace.
But they also knew that growing public dissent can eventually divide the country and, in the worst case, make it ungovernable. At best, antiwar opinion undermines the president’s domestic political agenda. When venerable figures in the elite like Dean Acheson and George Kennan came to the White House in 1967 and said, "Mr. President, we can't win this war. We must get out of Vietnam," Johnson knew that the end had come. He soon announced that he wouldn’t seek a second term. Apparently he realized that, even if he won that second term, he couldn’t govern effectively. He would only tear the nation apart.
No matter what happens to the Cindy Sheehan story, George W. Bush should now know that the end has come for his war, too. His political power will continue to fade as long as U.S. troops continue to die in Iraq. Influential elite voices must be saying that, in private, to the administration. It’s the job of the peace movement to seize the advantage, mobilize the growing antiwar sentiment, and convince the elite that there is no other choice but to end the war now.
So far, the peace movement has been largely paralyzed by fears that a U.S. withdrawal would lead to a bloody civil war in Iraq. Those of us who can remember working to end the U.S. war in Vietnam should find that argument odd, at best. We remember hearing it back in the 1960s: If the U.S. leaves, a “bloodbath” will ensue. It took us a while to realize that we were not preventing a bloody civil war. The civil war had been going on long before the first U.S. troops arrived in Vietnam. We were merely propping up the weaker side. We were perpetuating the civil war.
Iraq and Vietnam are not at all precise parallels. Saddam Hussein’s despicable terror prevented any possibility of civil war in Iraq. It was the arrival of U.S. troops, en masse, that created the possibility of civil war. It was the massive U.S. effort to forge a new, pliable, virtually puppet Iraqi government that created the inevitability of civil war. As long as the U.S. troops remain, the civil war will go on. The only chance of ending the civil war is to withdraw not only all U.S. military forces, but all U.S. government agents (now staffing the largest U.S. embassy in the world), along with all the contractors (and their private security forces) who are milking Iraq for billions.
What happens then? No one can say for sure. There is indeed some evidence that a bloody civil war may ensue. But there is also plenty of evidence that most Iraqis want to work out their differences relatively peacefully and have the skills to do it. Only one thing is certain. As long as the U.S. tries to run Iraq, the civil war will rage on.
Every successful political campaign needs a single, simple theme, heard over and over again. Now that the elite are debating among themselves about whether to end the war, the peace movement’s message can finally be heard in the mainstream media. That message should be single, simple, loud, and clear: “We are not preventing a civil war. We are perpetuating it.” It’s up to us in the peace movement to make sure that message gets through. When it does, both the foreign policy elite and the mass public will force the White House PR machine to take up a new task: putting the best face and a quick and total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
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