As President Barack Obama formally declared an end to combat operations in Iraq this week, the anti-war movement that helped sweep him into office — and that worked for seven years to bring U.S. troops home — finds itself struggling for survival.
Several factors — war fatigue; a deep, lingering recession; and the presence of a Democratic president they helped elect — have drained the energy from organizations that led the fight against the Iraq war. Some of the most influential anti-war activist groups that once summoned half a million people to march against the Iraq war and the policies of President George W. Bush are straining to raise the money and attention to fight what they see as Obama’s military entrenchment in Afghanistan.
“We don’t have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore,” lamented Medea Benjamin, founder of Code Pink, one of the anti-war movement’s most visible organizations. “The issues have not changed very much. … Now we have a surge [in Afghanistan] that we would have been furious about under George Bush, yet it’s hard to mobilize people under Obama. We have the same anti -war movement and not the same passion.”
MoveOn.org, which produced a 2007 anti-war newspaper ad labeling Gen. David Petraeus “General Betray Us” for the surge in Iraq, has largely been silent, despite a similar U.S. strategy in Afghanistan with Petraeus at the helm. Cindy Sheehan, perhaps the most famous anti-war protester, believes the peace movement is over. And United for Peace and Justice — once the largest of three major anti-war coalitions — has practically dissolved.
Leslie Cagan, UPJ’s founder, resigned last year after nearly seven years leading the group.
“I was totally exhausted,” said Cagan, 63. “I have a long history of anti-war activism — about 45 years — but the last eight or nine years have been totally intense. In a post 9/11 world, it’s just nonstop.”
Liberals demanding an immediate withdrawal from Iraq after the 2003 invasion were largely ignored by the Bush administration, but their influence with Democrats and independent voters grew between 2004 and 2008, the height of the war — and the time of Obama’s emergence as a presidential contender. By 2008, the anti-war sentiment had fueled a surge in voter registration, while anti-war activists openly embraced Obama, whose early momentum was based largely on opposition to Iraq.