Two years after the invasion of Iraq, the biggest thing that has changed for me is this: When I go to antiwar demonstrations like the one held March 19 in Squirrel Hill and Oakland, it's the signs held by counter-demonstrators that make the biggest impression:
"Real liberals fight tyranny," one sign read.
The sentiment stood out amid a rally that included many of the same talking points, many of the same protest signs. The same paddy wagons and Port Authority buses were parked behind the same University of Pittsburgh buildings, in case things got out of hand. But it wasn't the kind of demonstration you'd get arrested for. Some younger demonstrators weren't even paying attention to the speeches at march's end: They danced to an impromptu drum circle instead.
They missed some good speeches, including a wrenching address by Diane Davis Santoriello, whose son was killed in Iraq. Still, something was missing. I only realized what it was a week later, talking to peace activist Tim Vining of the Thomas Merton Center.
If freeing people from oppression was the goal of the Iraq war, Vining wondered, "Why didn't we invade Sudan?" After all, a genocide is taking place there even now.
For Vining, the question raises moral doubts about our actions in Iraq. For me, however, it also raised doubts about our failure to act in Africa. Bush's "cowboy unilateralism" (to borrow a phrase from Santoriello) may be failing in Iraq. But tepid mulilateralism isn't faring much better in Sudan. If neither approach works, aren't we all morally obliged to come up with a humane alternative? How do we "fight tyranny" in places like Iraq and Sudan? Is it really good enough to fault Bush's global vision, or are we obliged to come up with one of our own?
Bush's incompetence has meant we haven't needed to answer such questions. We can point to headlines every day and say we were right -- just like the people on the other side.
Someone has to do it, of course. Vining, for example, is beginning an outreach and education effort in area schools, telling students about the false promises of military recruiters. "A lot of younger kids are really concerned about being drafted," he says. "At the same time the Bush administration is trying to recruit people, they are reducing Pell grants to pay for college." And if public opinion turns against Bush, he says, "I don't think it's going to be leftist rhetoric. It will be when they start asking people to do a lot more than wear a yellow ribbon. Then people will ask, 'Is this worth it?"
Still, there's an uncomfortable irony here: Lefties, who profess the virtues of idealism and selflessness, are stuck couching arguments based largely on self-interest. As Vining himself puts it, "We keep putting out these higher values, and calls for a higher ethic, but we're not winning at that level. And so we're back to saying, 'It's going to cost you.'"
Yes, but relying on cold realism has costs too. Some are political: If nothing else, George Bush's idealistic worldview makes for better speeches. But others are moral. Say we didn't invade Iraq: How long would we have let U.N. sanctions harm the Iraqi people? How long are we content now to let the Sudanese be butchered?
The goals of a public march -- like "raising public awareness" -- are needed in Sudan at least as desperately as they are in Iraq. Thanks to the film Hotel Rwanda, Americans know more about genocides of the 1990s than they do about genocides taking place today. Lefties can, and should, start thinking about how to change that. Doing so wouldn't replace Iraq war protests; it would give them a deeper meaning. It would mean not just reacting to the Bush agenda but transcending it. And it would frame opposition to the war in the same way Bush framed his decision to wage it: as part of a global strategy to reduce both terror and terrorism.
U.S. troops will still be in the streets of Baghdad a year from now. Protesters will probably be in the streets of Pittsburgh too. I'd feel better about that if we said something about Sudan before then.