Two relatively minor events marked the height of the campaign against the sanctions in Iraq in the 1990’s, a disruption of a televised town hall meeting in Ohio held by members of the Clinton administration and the disruption of a speech by UN ambassador Bill Richardson at the University of Minnesota. The actions sank the impending plans on the part of the Clinton administration to increase the aerial assault on Iraq and possibly introduce troops on the ground, but did little to challenge the sanctions themselves and their destructive effects on Iraqi society. Moreover, the small impact of the campaign disappeared with the election of the Bush administration in 2000 and the transformation of the destructive sanctions campaign into an even more destructive invasion of the country. The campaign had very little impact and disappeared into the mists of time. Unlike the protests around prisons or the anti-globalization campaigns that arose around the same time, it has very little impact on either the political imaginary of radical politics or much to do with the tactical or strategic aims of the formations that define that politics.
However, it was my first sustained entry into political activism, and has had a deep influence on my understanding of politics in this country. In the early 90’s, the Bush administration was driven out of office by the Clinton administration, who promised a much more domestic focused national policy, and the situation in Iraq had been largely forgotten by public institutions, but the Clinton administration continued and in some cases even expanded the sanctions on Iraq started just before the Iraq war. The sanctions covered anything with a conceivable military use, and therefore covered many of the necessary equipment needed to rebuild the war-torn country, and even affected items such as pencils and materials needed to clean and purify water. The results on the country were devastating, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Those deaths received only minor attention from the press and were of a concern of only a small number of activists. Some officials from the UN protested the effects of the sanctions, but there was no opposition to the policies from Democratic politicians, even those who had opposed the war in 1991 or those who opposed the later invasion.
Although I would not want to dismiss the lessons in organizing that I learned from my fellow activists in the Progressive Student Organization, I think that seeing the collusion of the Democratic Party, even its left wing was the most significant lesson I learned from the campaign. Because the campaign was directed against the actions of a relatively popular Democratic administration, it removed the illusions that the dominant system could offer a way out of the situation. Just as significantly, I entered the practices of activism not in response to a state of emergency or a crisis of governance in the country, but in response to the immense violence that the United States government was capable of in ordinary times. The United States government actively aided and abetted the death of hundreds of thousands and virtually destroyed a generation of Iraqis as a matter of every day policy, policy that was embraced by both parties and had no substantive official opposition. It operated in full legality, and was not the product of a subversion of either the constitution or ordinary forms of governance. It was an ordinary form of that governance.
The campaign itself lacked the enormous rallies that defined the two anti-war movements that bookended it. The largest rallies involved hundreds, rather than thousands and lot of the events were small and often frigid affairs in front of the federal building. Most of the work was rather thankless and was responded to by the larger public with indifference, contempt, and occasionally, hostility. By the time we disrupted the speech of Bill Richardson, the core of the activists involved in the action had been to dozens of often small and ignored actions that preceded it. Richardson represented a face of the awful activities that we had protested and attempted to educate the public about, and he had that anger directed at him in an hour-long event where he was unable to say anything more than a few syllables. However, that brief triumphant moment was unique in our work, which was hidden from public view. That work made me see the daily work of activism in non-spectacular terms, building small campaigns that often had very little in terms of immediate results or gratification, but were still attempting to challenge important issues.
In this sense, I feel that my experience in this campaign put me in a far better position to understand the politics of the country than many of my counterparts who entered activism through the 2003 anti-war movement, a movement that was dismantled by the illusion that the Democratic Party was the answer. This is not too say that the campaign was not without flaws. Using a somewhat dated understanding of anti-imperialism, our organizations were far too reticent to acknowledge the real flaws of the Iraqi regime. At the time, I was deeply critical of this error, and it contributed to my participation in the huge and, retrospectively, somewhat mistaken factional fight that undermined the PSO in the mid-nineties. But looking back, I don’t think that this error had any real substantive impact on the efficacy of the campaign. Instead, we probably accomplished all that we could have accomplished within those structural limitations. Our ability to move beyond those limited accomplishments would have required actions and events that were substantially outside of our control.
It’s also a forgotten moment that is worth remembering at this moment. We’re continually being told that the oppressive and destructive actions of the Trump administration are truly exceptional. It is challenging the constitutional limitations put upon it in a variety of ways, and is actively allied to fascist elements in a way that our government has not done for over a half a century. In many ways, I don’t disagree with that assessment, but we also shouldn’t ignore the very unexceptional forms of violence that occur within the very ordinary governance of this country, a country that is desperately holding onto its position at the center of the capitalist world system, a system built on systemic dispossession and the theft and exploitation of labor. We shouldn’t allow the extraordinary actions of Trump to slip in the kinds of erasure that we saw with the anti-war movement, and we shouldn’t accept the current nostalgia for the immensely destructive Clinton administration. (This essay doesn’t touch on this, but in many ways this narrative of exceptionalism is also challenged by the thread of white supremacy that defines our country’s history, which structures that dispossessio, theft, and exploitation.)