I was reacquainted with an old friend last year, after nearly a decade apart.
The American anti-war movement measurably dwindled under the Obama administration, even as the president continued or expanded many of the controversial policies of the Bush administration. The movement came back in a big way in 2017, in opposition to President Donald Trump.
To be fair, the anti-war movement never went away altogether. Movement leaders continued to criticize then-President Barack Obama, but their throngs of angry demonstrators went missing.
“There were a lot of people who, if they like and trust their world leader, they don’t have to pay attention. Obama was a well liked and respected president and I think a lot of people let things slide, frankly,” said Laura Crossett, now board president of the activist group Peace Iowa.
For many years before that, Iowa played an important role in the anti-war movement.
Voters here have elected a long list of non-interventionist politicians to represent us in Congress. That includes some notable Republicans, like Harold Gross, who vocally opposed the Korean War, and Jim Leach, who vocally opposed the Iraq War.
In the 1960s, Iowa City became a hub for the anti-Vietnam War effort. 1970 saw a string of rowdy demonstrations, including vandalism to the National Guard armory, and a fire that burned down a building on the University of Iowa campus.
And in 2008, Iowa Democrats helped jump-start Obama’s journey to the White House. Obama was seen as the pro-peace candidate compared to hawkish Hillary Clinton, and his Iowa caucuses victory was seen as a major turning point in his campaign.
Dedicated peace activists on the right and the left were frustrated at the cognitive dissonance on display during the Obama era. He continued many of the worst anti-terrorist strategies of former President George W. Bush, yet faced little of the same public backlash.
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Research published by University of Indiana and University of Michigan researchers shows activity among anti-war protesters began to wane after the 2006 election, when Democrats made sizable gains in the U.S. House and Senate, and it appeared likely they would retake the White House in 2008.
Large-scale protests and lobbying efforts activated hundreds of thousands of demonstrators during the first half of the Bush presidency. By the beginning of the Obama presidency, the mass movement had almost disappeared.
“At exactly the time when anti-war voices were most well poised to exert pressure on Congress, movement leaders stopped sponsoring lobby days. The size of anti-war protests declined. From 2007 to 2009, the largest anti-war rallies shrank from hundreds of thousands of people to thousands, and then to only hundreds,” researchers wrote in a 2015 report.
When the new Republican administration took power in 2017, skepticism of American foreign policy was restored. We now see widespread criticism of Trump on global affairs, even among those who gave Obama a pass.
Is Trump really more pro-war than Obama? By traditional measures, Trump has offered mixed results in his first year — he’s ramped up some overseas operations, and showed greater restraint in some others.
However, Trump critics say he starkly differs on so-called soft power issues. Analysts worry his brash public comments diminish U.S. influence, or even make nuclear war more likely.
Some of my fellow right-wing doves are tempted to wag their fingers at the anti-war-again left, to say “I told you so” after their eight-year hibernation.
However, that attitude serves no benefit. Instead, we should embrace our left-leaning friends, in hopes of building a sustainable anti-war movement during this administration and the next.
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“I certainly hope that this helps to motivate a lot of people to pay more attention to their government and to engage more with it. I think it often takes something extreme for many people to become, as they say, woke, and to realize that they can have effects on their government,” Crossett said.
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