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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Get Organized Against War

The Middle East is slowly but inexorably moving towards war. The press has already tired of waiting. Journalists have already prepared innumerable background reports to run with news that the United States has invaded Iraq. The politicians have given innumerable interviews to explain their positions on the looming conflict. But events are moving more slowly than expected.

It goes without saying that the United States has the military might to occupy any country it likes. The long-term consequences of such an occupation are another matter entirely. Washington understands perfectly well that the destabilization of the entire Middle East is too high a price to pay for settling its scores with Iraq. That is why the Bush administration has adopted an uncharacteristically slow and careful approach.

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All of this offers hope that the peace movement, which is gathering strength in Europe, will be able to influence the course of events. The European Social Forum, held in Florence earlier this month, was not so much a place for various social movements to discuss tactics as it was a prolonged anti-war rally that eventually spilled out into the streets. The British Stop the War Coalition plans an even more elaborate demonstration that will culminate in a day of protests across Europe.

The problem is that opponents of the war have given very little thought to their own strategy. The peace movement has in fact fallen into a strange contradiction. On the one hand, its members are thoroughly convinced that the Bush and Blair administrations plan to go to war come what may. On the other hand, these activists believe that anti-war rallies are capable of forcing these leaders to stop and think -- if the rallies are big enough.

In fact, mass street protests can play a decisive role only when the authorities are already wavering. This seemed to be happening in Europe when German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der publicly criticized the Bush administration. And the mutiny within British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party showed that Schr?der's position enjoyed support outside Germany. But Schr?der's anti-war rhetoric was little more than a way to get the voters' attention. Now that elections are over and the ruling coalition has settled into its posts, the Social Democratic chancellor is daily less eager to quarrel with conservatives in the U.S. administration. And Blair has already proven on many occasions that the mood of activists in his own party means far less to him than Washington's approval.

In the final analysis, issues of this magnitude are decided not on the streets, but in military headquarters, ministries and, in the best case, elected assemblies. These institutions have developed an immunity to "pressure from the streets" unless, as happened in Buenos Aires in December 2001, the events unfolding on the streets directly threaten the stability of the institutions themselves. If the speakers at anti-war rallies are right, and the governments involved are led by irresponsible hawks, what hope is there of making them change their minds?

As Russia's recent history shows, authorities can go for years without heeding public opinion while still retaining the appearance of democratic "legitimacy." The West is not Russia, of course. Western politicians have to pay more attention to what their people have to say. But in the past two years, the West has started to look a lot more like the East. The political establishment senses its independence and invulnerability. This change has not just affected the public at large; the mass media have also discovered that their ability to influence those in power is increasingly limited. An iron logic is at work here: the more war, the less democracy.

The anti-war movement in Russia and the West has little choice but to take up the banner of civil rights and liberties as well. It would be naive, however, to think that issues of this magnitude could be resolved by parading around the streets of a few European cities.

The anti-war movement must prepare itself for a long, hard fight. It must figure out how to cooperate with various organizations and agencies, political parties and the press. It must not only win the support of a disorganized public, but the backing of the majority -- people who realize that their very freedom is at stake.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.