Building a New Peace Movement, an Interview with Judith Le Blanc

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Editor's note: Judith Le Blanc is the national field organizer for Peace Action, the country's largest grassroots peace organization with 100,000 members across the country. She is also formerly the national co-chair of United for Peace and Justice.

PA: Currently it seems as though the economic crisis and the health care debate have really pushed peace movement issues off the priority list? What do you think the peace movement can or should be done to re-center that effort?

Judith Le Blanc: The peace movement played a critical role in the results of the 2008 elections, and for anybody who has read Game Change and was active in the anti-Iraq War movement, you can really can see that it made a difference. Behind the scenes in the campaigns, both during the democratic primary and in the general elections, people were concerned about the positions the candidates were taking, because they knew the power of the grassroots sentiment opposing the war in Iraq.

The peace movement is now in a period of transition, transitioning from a kind of historical role of being one of the decisive movements working on one of the most critical issues facing the country. Now organizations that sprang up from the grassroots and formed national coalitions that were able to mobilize hundreds of thousands are in a transition from that historic moment to a moment where we have to build a new kind of peace movement from the grassroots up, a peace movement that links the issues and organizes on the basis of relating to other movements which are adjusting to the economic crisis.

Across the board many organizers at the local level, as well as at the national level, are grappling with how to build this new peace movement. The new peace movement has to find ways to help people understand the impact wars and war spending is having on our lives and on the spending priorities of the federal government. Now 57 percent of the federal discretionary spending is on preparation for war or wars, for the military budget. We need a fundamental shift in spending priorities. So the new peace movement that needs to be built is really a peace and justice movement. It is about making the connections between the sacrifices that go on in our communities, the cuts in human services, and waging a battle to take the money from where it is going now, to begin to reduce spending on the military budget and move that money into funding education, health care, and infrastructure rebuilding. There are some things in the military budget that should not be cut and in fact should be increased: we are talking about things like veterans' benefits and about how to get rid of nuclear weapons. There has been a huge historic increase in the funding going to nuclear weapons laboratories for the research and development of new nuclear weapons, when in fact the money should be going into how to break down a nuclear bomb once we reduce the stockpiles. That is what is needed in today's world.

There are many groups at the local level, especially in communities of color and immigrant communities who have always had strong sentiments against the war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, and always have had a very up close and personal understanding of foreign policy and the impact of US foreign policy on their countries and communities. Many people are driven out of their countries because of wars and occupations, and the economic wars that are the result of US foreign policy.

In communities of color where there is very high unemployment and the budget cuts at the state and local level are hitting very very hard, people understand that there needs to be more money for human services and that the military is a wasteful way to spend money. Many organizations, like the National Priorities Project, have documented that money spent on education, for example, creates three times more jobs than money spent on weapons systems. McCain and Obama both ran on a platform that there was waste in the military budget, and Rep. Barney Frank advocated about a year ago that 25 percent of the military budget could be cut without harming or affecting in any fundamental way national security.

The new peace movement has to begin a process of not only just calling for changing the spending priorities of the federal budget, but looking line by line at the military budget and targeting weapon systems that should be cut because of cost overruns and war profiteering, while also working with Congresspeople in congressional districts which could lose jobs. For example, the F22s were produced in 42 states, and that the F22 fight last year kind of highlighted the fact that when weapon systems are cut from the military budget it does affect jobs at the local level. Given the economic crisis, this means that labor, the peace movement, and local elected officials have to work with Congresspeople to develop new economically sustainable models for how to deal with the impact at the local level of job losses if a weapons system is cut.

What I am saying fundamentally is that we need a new kind of peace movement that deals directly with the economic impact of war spending and wars, at the economic costs, but also looks at the human costs, the human costs on the soldiers, on the people in the countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also at the human costs in our communities, where unemployment is skyrocketing and there is no end in sight.

PA: Iraq has been off the front page, except for the recent elections there. What is your assessment of the direction US involvement in Iraq is taking? Is it going in the right direction? Is it going fast enough?

Le Blanc: I think the peace movement under Bush really won very few big victories, but it did win some small victories like increasing the number of Congresspeople who voted in opposition to funding the war in Iraq. Our biggest victory was that we, the peace movement and the antiwar sentiment, played a critical role in the defeat of McCain.

One of the reasons is that Obama from the very beginning, even before he was a senator, opposed the war and spoke at the largest peace demonstration that Chicago had during the Iraq War. And he made a campaign promise that one of the first things he would do if elected would be to gather his military advisors and set a date certain for withdrawal. His second campaign promise, which he also fulfilled, is that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. So on one level, when he made that speech back in February last year about a date certain for withdrawal, and the need for a diplomatic solution to involve the countries in the region to help the Iraqi people regain their national sovereignty, leading to taking back their country, it was big victory. At the same time, we knew in the peace movement that there would be many twists and turns in the road between then and August 20, 2011. Right now the main job of the peace movement is to continue to keep the situation in Iraq on the front burner and keep it in the public eye. People are watching very closely what is going on with the elections in Iraq, and we continue to watch very closely and support the initiatives and struggles the labor movement in Iraq is waging.

In a certain sense, Iraq is not the top priority for the peace movement, because the majority of the people in our country believe that the Iraq War is winding down, and hopefully, if things go as they seem to be going, the troops will be withdrawn and there will be no permanent US bases, which has been the will of the Congress under Bush and continues to be the popular sentiment in our country – that no permanent bases will be left behind. And it looks like the troops will be withdrawn. The problem is where will they be sent and what will happen in Afghanistan. That is the cutting-edge issue.

Going back to your first question, I believe that there are two trajectories for the peace movement. There is going to be a peace movement, a small one in size but continuing to be vocal, to bring all the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, but there is going to another kind of peace movement that is more centered on making the links between the economic crisis and militarism, in effect a new kind of movement that is more, in a basic sense, an anti-militarism movement, one that is taking up some of the basic cornerstones of US foreign policy in the longer term and in the bigger picture.

First by addressing the the growth of the military budget, but also by dealing with the effect of having over 700 military bases around the world, and also by dealing with the issue of nuclear disarmament and how we begin to reduce the number of nuclear weapons that the US has, and the role that the US must morally play in taking the steps that Obama talked about in Czechoslovakia last year in Prague in his speech in April about the moral necessity for the US to take steps towards nuclear abolition.

Then there are a number of issues that are connected to militarism and the cost of that militarism that a bigger, broader movement of peace and community movements - economic justice, social justice, and racial justice movements - need to take up. There are those who say that the troop withdrawal from Iraq is not going fast enough - of course, absolutely it is not fast enough - but it is a deadline, and we have to take credit in claiming that victory next August when the last troops leave. Because if they don't leave we are going to have to re-energize and build momentum, but it looks like the Obama Administration remains committed to that deadline being met.

PA: You mentioned that the struggle end US military involvement in Afghanistan is the cutting edge issue. Could you describe some of the key legislative points at which people who are involved in the peace movement can make Congress set deadlines to bring the troops home, to stop the momentum for more troops there, and that kind of thing? What are some concrete ways we can do that?

Le Blanc: As your readers know, Afghanistan is not Iraq. We can't say, well Afghanistan is just another war for oil. It is a much bigger question. It is a much bigger struggle that has gone on over decades of US involvement, for decades in Afghanistan and in that region. We are talking about a geopolitical struggle that has to do with Pakistan and India, and with China and Iran. One of the most important handles for mobilizing public sentiment for US and NATO forces to leave Afghanistan is public education.

It is a long and tangled web of lies that began to be perpetrated by the Bush administration right after September 11. And we in the peace movement have to find many different ways to help people understand what is going on in Afghanistan, and therefore build pressure on the administration to negotiate, and to help foster international support for negotiations between the Afghan government and all of the militias. Now these kinds of negotiations have been going on, back-channel negotiations. They began under the Bush administration and they continue under the Obama administration, and there is no way out from Afghanistan without negotiations.

As for the legislative handle, right now we are hearing that both on the Senate and the House side there is some motion towards legislation that would ask the Obama Administration to set a deadline for withdrawal. That would be an important and good initiative. It would be a way for us to begin to talk about these issues with our Congresspeople. But I think the peace movement has to be very realistic that between now and the end of this session, and potentially in the next session of Congress after the 2010 elections, it is going to be extremely difficult to move legislation in the Congress.

Although the peace movement will need and will have a use for legislative initiatives like the one just mentioned, we have to focus on grassroots public education. We have to focus on re-building the public sentiment and the public pressure, and building this new kind of peace movement that deals with some of the fundamental aspects of US foreign policy. Obama won based on the platform, and many people supported it, that the hard edge of US foreign policy should be diplomacy, that the US should be one among many in the world working on an equal footing with countries around the world. Now, of course, objectively, when you have over 700 military bases all over the world then you are not on an equal footing. And when you spend more on the military than any other country in the world, you are not on an equal footing. What we need to do, as a peace and justice movement, is to begin to educate people about an alternative foreign policy, what it is that we want the Obama administration to do on a number of issues, Afghanistan being the first - negotiations not escalation – Afghanistan being the place which in some ways is the hardest hole to dig out of that the Bush administration and the neo-conservatives dug. We have to link what is going on there and what we want US foreign policy to be in Afghanistan, to what we want US foreign policy to be vis-a-vis the rest of the world. So legislation will be a smaller item on the agenda of the peace movement. The big item on the agenda is public education, public discussion, our own national dialog, about why and how we can get US troops out of Afghanistan.

PA: You talk about a new peace movement that takes a bigger look and makes more links between domestic and international questions. Do you know of an example where people are doing that in a way that seems successful and provides a good model for how others can go about doing it?

Le Blanc: I think there are some interesting initiatives, the first small steps toward building this movement. There are a number of places in the country, in Maine, Massachusetts, and Illinois for instance. In Massachusetts, as a result of Barney Frank calling for a 25 percent cut in military spending, a project has been developed in the Boston area, in Dorchester and Roxbury specifically, that is being led by community groups, Black and Latino, and peace groups, to do an educational campaign called "The 25 Percent Campaign." They have educational material about the economic costs of wars and war corporations. They have been holding public forums, and they are actually getting the attention of community groups that may not have marched in opposition to the Iraq War, or do not have antiwar or anti-militarism as a part of their program of work. They are getting groups together to talk about what the military budget has to do with you and me, how it is possible to cut 25 percent from the military budget, and what we need to do in order to make that a reality.

In Illinois there is a project that was initiated by peace groups and involves Jobs with Justice and other labor and community groups. The project is called "The New New Deal." They have a web-site and they just held a four-hour seminar that brought together the labor movement, the peace movement, the health care movement, and the immigrant rights movement to talk about, one year after the election of Obama, where do we go from here? It was on a Saturday afternoon and there were over 200 people who came for this dialog, labor folks, peace activists and community folks, because people at the grassroots level are very concerned about the future direction of the country.

There were a lot of lessons that were learned in eight years under the Bush administration, and one of those lessons was that although the movements, the health care movement and the labor movement, the educational reform and the immigrant rights movement, all have very specific agendas and are fighting like hell to mobilize grassroots pressure on the administration and Congress on their separate issues, they do not work in a unified way. There is now an incredible awareness of the need for united efforts, for solidarity between movements, that things are really interrelated, and that war and foreign policy are, in fact, part and parcel of what communities and labor must address.

PA: How do you assess the President's nuclear weapons policies? What possibilities do they create in terms of the movement for peace and all of the other things you are talking about?

Le Blanc: Last year President Obama made a speech in Prague that outlined the moral necessity for the US to begin to take steps toward a nuclear-free world. People across the world breathed a sigh of relief, because it was such a radical departure from the Bush administration, but also from the direction of all the administrations of the past. But right now within the Obama administration there is an incredible struggle going on between the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the White House about the Nuclear Posture Review, which is the policy that every new administration puts forward about their attitude toward the use of nuclear weapons. It was supposed to be released in December, then it was postponed to January, then it was postponed again to February, and now it is postponed at least until some time in April.

The struggle that is being reported in the New York Times and other publications is about the definition of when nuclear weapons would actually be used. It is clear that Obama is probably the most personally committed of any president we have had to reducing the stockpiles and working toward a nuclear-free future for the world. But the truth is that there are very powerful forces at work who believe that the only way for the US to maintain its position of dominance both in the economic and political arenas is to use nuclear weapons as the cornerstone, as the deterrent, as the way to drive our foreign policy – and to try to control who has access to nuclear weapons. Well, that theory is outmoded.

Looking at the world today, the fact is that the US can no longer control who gets nuclear weapons and who can use them. It is also clear from the horrendous experience of September 11 that no matter how many nuclear weapons you have, it does not make for national security. The nuclear disarmament movement in the US and around the world is beginning to rebuild, premised on the idea that if President Obama is able to challenge those who want to maintain nuclear superiority, it is going to take a grassroots movement like the one in the 1980s that compelled a nuclear disarmament agreement and moved the US government to sign treaties. Now at this point the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which has been languishing in the Senate for decades since the Clinton administration and has never been brought to a vote again for ratification after it was defeated. As for the START treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia, which expired in December and is continuing to be negotiated, if that bill is brought before the Senate at this point, just like many other pieces of legislation the Obama Administration supports, it would be doomed.

So we are in the midst of trying to rebuild a grassroots nuclear disarmament movement that can build on the antiwar sentiments that still remain very strong in our country, building on the idea that, in fact, the best way to change US foreign policy is for the US to take steps to reduce its nuclear stockpiles, but to also take some extraordinary steps that would send a signal to the world that the US is ready to begin comprehensive negotiations on a real nuclear convention, a real document that would set the guidelines and the deadlines for nuclear disarmament, total nuclear disarmament.

The UN Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is reviewed every five years. It began in 1970 and the majority of the countries in the world have signed on to it. The UN every five years reviews the progress on the implementation of this treaty. This is the first review under the Obama administration, and there are thousands of nuclear disarmament activists and organizations who are coming to New York City for that Review Conference at the United Nations.

We are hoping that it is an opportunity for the US peace and nuclear disarmament movement to voice in a very dramatic way grassroots support for the Obama administration to not only move forward in the negotiations on the START Treaty, but to actually take some extraordinary steps, for example, if the Obama administration were to decide to take all of our nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert, which means that within a minute, a nuclear attack could be launched against another country. This hair-trigger policy is unnecessary.

After the end of the Cold War people began to believe that it was going to be a whole new world, but one of the remnants and relics of the Cold War is that we have nuclear weapons that are still targeting major cities in Russia, and they are on hair-trigger alert. One of the measures the Obama administration could take is to take those weapons off of hair-trigger alert, so that the possibility of an accident happening is greatly diminished, and it would signal to the whole world that we are beginning to move away from the abyss of a nuclear war.

We have a long road ahead of us in helping to educate people about not only the dangers of nuclear weapons, but about why nuclear weapons are not necessary in the 21st century in order to have strong national security, and to show people what could take the place of a nuclear deterrent. What is an alternative foreign policy? Now, the Obama administration has proposed the largest increase in funding for nuclear research in decades. That was a concession to the right wing in Congress. At the beginning of the year in January, 40 Republicans and one former Democrat from Connecticut sent a letter to the Obama administration saying that unless new funding was allocated to renew and modernize existing nuclear weapons, they would not sign or ratify any nuclear weapon reduction treaties.

One of the things we are trying to do in the peace and disarmament movement is to highlight that not only is more money being proposed by the Obama administration for nuclear weapons modernization, but also new money is being allocated to develop more deadly conventional weapons. The outlook of the administration is that there are weapons, conventional weapons, that could be based in the US that would be as effective a deterrent as nuclear weapons have been, nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert targeting cities overseas.

So we have a dual-edged sword here. You really cannot just struggle for nuclear disarmament and the reduction of the stockpiles of US nuclear weapons. What we also have to struggle against is the idea that war is inevitable or that conventional weapons are going to make the country a safer place. The main weapon that is needed is a new foreign policy based on diplomacy. It is a great opportunity for us that the Obama administration is debating the issue of a new nuclear weapons policy and taking some steps back from the nuclear weapons policy that has existed for decades. On the other hand, it is not a struggle that can be waged without bringing into play the full spectrum of military as well as foreign policy issues.

Hopefully in May we will have thousands of people from the US marching in midtown Manhattan to the United Nations to bring the message that the time is now to disarm for peace and justice, for jobs creation, for health care, that the time is now to abolish nuclear weapons and cut military spending. There are going to be thousands of people from around the world. From Japan alone there will be two thousand, and amongst those two thousand there will be a very large labor delegation. There will be people from every continent here to participate in the non-governmental organization gatherings that will be going on, with an international conference happening at Riverside Church from April 30 to May 1, and then marching on May 2. So this is an opportunity to voice those sentiments, but the real work will happen after that international conference and after that international demonstration, to continue the work at the grassroots level to educate people about the dangers of nuclear weapons.

(Photo by Fibonacci Blue, courtesy Flickr, cc by 2.0)

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