Peace Movement and the 2008 Elections: Interview with Judith LeBlanc

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Editor's note: Judith LeBlanc was elected to and served on the steering committee of United for Peace Justice, representing the Communist Party, served 2 terms as the national co-chair of United for Peace and Justice. She now works on the staff of UFPJ as the national organizing coordinator. PA: What has been the role of the peace movement in transforming public attitudes and sentiments about the Iraq War, as well as about people's views of the ultraright and the Bush Administration?

JUDITH LEBLANC: I think the most wonderful thing about the anti-war movement is that it is very much a grassroots-driven movement. And it is a movement that is organized. On almost any given night in this country, there are meetings organized by people who are committed to ending this war, by people who have become committed over these last five years to basically changing US foreign policy. It is a volunteer-driven movement – which means that there are many people who are very much activists, who are active in between working every day, coming home, cooking supper, doing homework with the kids, and squeezing in the time to organize the movement.

But one of the problems the movement is facing right now is how to turn that activism into political organizing and activists to become political organizers. We have come a long way in exposing the Bush lies about launching this war, the corruption in the Bush administration, and all the corporate profiteering that has gone on in the five years of the war. Now the big challenge is how you take this new level of awareness about the Bush Administration and the neo-conservative agenda and turn it into a very organized presence in the electoral struggle.

PA: Elsewhere you have talked about the need to view the November election as a step in the struggle for peace. Could you elaborate on that?

LEBLANC: The many peace activists who have become involved in trying to end this war and occupation are people from many different political backgrounds and experiences, but the overwhelming majority were not politically active previously. We also know that historically a majority of the American people have not participated in elections, but what we have seen in 2008 is that there are many people who, through their own personal involvement, now believe that the government’s polices can be changed, and that in particular the war can be brought to an end.

At the grassroots level of the antiwar movement there are many different trends. One of them is a trend that believes that the Congress that was elected in 2006 had a mandate to end the war, and some of them feel frustrated that the war has not been brought to an end under a Democratically-controlled Congress. But there are many, many others who remain hopeful that as we continue to increase in strength and elect more antiwar-Democrats to Congress who are willing to take a strong and well-defined stand on ending the war, that, in turn, will bring pressure on those members of Congress who have been waffling, so that they also come out in favor of ending the war – as a first practical step in addressing the overall crisis in the country. Because the war is a key element in the present economic crisis, and the majority of people in the country now believe that the first big step toward dealing with the economic crisis is to end the war. The majority of the people understand that billions for war, when healthcare and jobs are being cut, just does not make any sense.

But I think that for those who are making the transition from being activists in the antiwar movement to becoming organizers in the course of the election struggle this year, we have to make the argument that not only do we need to change the composition of Congress and the presidency, but that the anti-war movement needs to become very vocal in the public debate about what must be done to end the war.

We have to advocate, in a very pro-active way, what the steps are toward ending the war: The first step is to set deadlines for troop withdrawal. The next step is to begin the withdrawal and begin to open up a diplomatic surge, one where those who are running to be a part of the new Congress and the next President of the United States say to the world, “We made a big mistake, the U.S. made a big mistake, and we need your help so that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government can regain control of their country. Unless the peace movement is pro-actively advocating a way out of Iraq, it is very hard for those who are running for office to go much further than to vaguely say we want the troops out, or we’ll bring the troops out in 2009.

I think that the Take Back America Conference, where over 20 Congressional candidates have coalesced around a plan to exit Iraq, is in some ways a reaction to the disenchantment that the antiwar movement has been voicing. There were many people elected in 2006 who said they opposed the war, but many people on the grassroots level feel that they have not done enough to end the war or curb and confront the Bush administration’s policy of endless war and occupation.

I also believe, however, that some activists in the antiwar movement, and some sections of the antiwar movement, had an unrealistic estimate of the incredible power that the right wing continues to have, and that one election cycle is not going to end that right wing political influence and power.

So I think we have a lot of work to do to politically convince sections of the peace movement that, in fact, with their active participation in advocating a plan for withdrawal and ending the occupation, that – through that process – many more people will be become engaged and will continue to be engaged after January, 2009, and will thereby lay the basis for a antiwar movement that has more political clout, and a movement that, in fact, can exercise that clout once the elections are over.

The first big step in this, however, is coalescing around the Congressional elections and the Presidential election, being a part of the debate, and being part of mobilizing and educating voters about why going to the voting booth is such an urgent step towards ending the war. After that, the next step is to continue to be in the streets, educating people that in fact there is a way out, that there is no military solution, and that the only solution is a diplomatic one, which can only be led by a new administration and a new Congress.

PA: What is the political consequence for the peace movement of not taking this step around the elections?

LEBLANC: Actually, the peace movement is becoming engaged in this election on a whole new level than even in the 2006 elections. That is a very hopeful sign. But it is also a reflection of how important the 2006 elections were in changing the terrain of the debate from should the war end, to how is the war going to end, so that every month in Congress since the 2006 elections there have been debates that the Democrats have initiated, and this has allowed for the peace movement to amplify their demands and participation in that struggle.

The danger if we were not to participate is that we would be sidelined, that the peace movement would be standing on the sidelines of a tremendous struggle that is already involving millions and changing the direction of the government’s policies, both domestic as well as foreign. And I think that the greatest danger would be that the antiwar movement would not then grow its base at the grassroots level. The biggest question the peace movement now faces is how to turn the massive antiwar sentiment into political action.

We are now in a situation where the majority of people think the war was a mistake, where the majority of people think that the troops should come home this year or within a year, and where the majority of people believe that there is a direct impact on the economic crisis their communities are facing from spending hundreds of billions on this war. So we are now organizing in a situation where there is a majority sentiment to end the war, but yet at the local level it has been hard to organize that sentiment into political action on a consistent basis.

Thus the upcoming elections offer a unique opportunity for mobilizing people to express their antiwar sentiments in the primaries and caucuses and on Election Day. The challenge for us in the antiwar movement is how to maintain that link with those who agree with us, who believe we are representing their sentiments, but who, in fact, need to be part of an organized movement in order to help make real, after January 2009, the promises that are being made by the candidates in the course of the elections.

PA: Do you think people understand the danger of McCain winning without an active and vocal peace movement in the election struggle?

LEBLANC: Right now we are very much focused on the primaries and the caucuses. The peace movement has targeted Pennsylvania as a critical race but also North Carolina, Oregon and all the way on through June, obviously because of the situation with delegates and so forth. But my prediction is that whoever the Democratic candidate is, people need to understand the great, great danger of McCain’s policy of 100 years of US occupation in Iraq, and the fact that the neoconservative foreign policy, which is premised on first-strike war, will also continue endlessly if McCain is elected. More people need to understand that danger.

Many people already understand the danger of a McCain administration. People understand the danger of pursuing a military solution to the situation in Iraq, and people understand the danger of a military solution to all of the huge political and economic problems that exist in the world. Therefore, I think that the peace movement will, in the main, not sit out the elections, and that the peace movement has a challenge before it to become involved in the general elections in a way that strengthens the organized peace movement.

Although the overall goal of defeating McCain is easy to understand, easy to explain, and easy to argue for politically, the real challenge is how to do you translate that political reality into a grassroots movement that is much more organized. The majority of people in this country do not belong to organizations at all. But in order to for us to make far-reaching, long-term strategic changes in the direction of US foreign policy, we have to have an organized peace movement. We need an organized movement that can, under a new administration, take up the bigger issues of war and peace – the issue of disarmament, the issue of the militarization of the budget, the issue of dealing with the war dangers that arise out of the drive for globalization, and the fact that US foreign policy actually plays a big role in what people consider to be regional conflicts and civil wars.

PA: Is it possible for the peace movement to be a permanent feature of American political life, or is it doomed the cycles of war and peace?

LEBLANC: I think the political reality is that under the Bush administration neoconservative foreign policy has brought the world to the edge, and it is going to take many decades for us to roll back the damage that the Bush administration and the neoconservatives have done in the world. We need a movement that is premised on fundamentally changing US foreign policy.

The foreign policy that is now in place has been decades in the making, and it is going to take decades to roll back the damage. For example, there’s the need to fully implement the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the need for an active program for the US to disarm – for the US to actually meet its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty. That is going to take years of people taking to the streets and going to Congress, lobbying and compelling a new approach to nuclear disarmament, a renewed approach to nuclear disarmament. We saw that in the 1980s, when a majority of people was actively participating and becoming actively involved in the anti-nuclear movement, that we made great headway in dealing with the nuclear buildup and the dangers of nuclear war.

But we also have many other areas that the peace movement needs to address – for example, the impact of US trade policies, and how it is that the war dangers are increased when US corporations are on a global drive for scarce resources, when US corporations are actively engaged in exploiting people in other countries. The antiwar movement, as it is today, has to begin to address the issues of globalization. And then there are so many challenges we need to face that have to do with the incredible militarization of the budget. The antiwar movement has to forge a strong justice-oriented edge.

Today’s antiwar movement, unlike our grandmothers’ antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, understands that there is a direct relationship between peace and justice at home, that you really cannot achieve justice at home and in our communities without ending the war in Iraq and without ending a policy of endless war. The justice community and people who are organizing around economic issues and the issue of racism have also taken up the issue of the war. So there is a consensus now that peace and justice go together. But without a movement that is actively organizing and making the link between justice and peace, it will be difficult for people to find the correct targets and move things forward systematically under a new administration, and under the administration after that, and after that.

I do think that in some ways in the United States we have a huge challenge, because the country is very large and very diverse, and people are dealing with all kinds of different realities. So we need a way, on a national level, to network the local grassroots organizing that goes on with national organizations and national issues.

I think the movement against the Iraq War has made a big breakthrough in being able to facilitate that kind of interaction between local organizing, national priorities, and national groups that both have the resources and a more long-term perspective – and who have decades of experience organizing around disarmament and peace issues. We need to bring that together with all the local organizing. But there is already a certain synergy that has developed that I do not think will be lost.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the Iraq War and the occupation are going to take many years to address. It involves not only bringing the troops home and making sure that there are no permanent bases in Iraq, but also the impact of having four million displaced people inside Iraq and millions who have become refugees. The whole region of the Middle East has been affected by this war, and it is going to take an organized movement to address the aftermath of the US occupation. So our work on Iraq will not be done, but it will also have to become more closely related to addressing other issues in the region – Israel and Palestine, US foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria, etc.

One of the big elements of the debate that has developed in the primaries has been the issue of diplomacy, whether or not the US should take the position that we will sit down and talk to governments and leaders we have fundamental disagreements with. That is critical in this word. It is critical, when you think about how the Bush administration has undermined most international institutions and treaties, for there to be a movement that puts at the top of its agenda the need to respect national sovereignty and international law and to play a different role at the United Nations. With a change of administration and a change in the balance of power in Congress, the peace and justice movement will have the opportunity to argue for a different role for the US at the United Nations.

Also, many countries that are suffering because of globalization, because of the various trade agreements, would have a new opportunity to rectify some of the wrongs done under the Bush administration and 30 years of right-wing domination of US foreign policy, and actually have a place to resolve some of the critical issues having to do with the environment, workers’ rights, and sustainable economic relationships. Now there is really no place where these things can be debated and discussed.

The peace and justice movement in this country will have so many interesting and important contributions to make – for the world really – and therefore it is necessary to have the outlook that for years to come there will be a need for a grassroots-based national movement for peace and justice.