From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Ending the War in Iraq

By David Cortright

The campaign against the war in Iraq was the largest, most intensive antiwar mobilization in history. On February 15, 2003 an estimated 10 million people demonstrated against the war in hundreds of cities across the globe, the largest single day of antiwar protest ever recorded. A month later another massive wave of global protest occurred, this time at the local level, as millions of people gathered in 6,000 candlelight vigils in more than one hundred countries in a last minute plea against war. People across the globe spoke out as never before in a unified voice against invading Iraq.

The New York Times dubbed this mass movement a global ‘superpower,’ an unprecedented transnational mobilization that exerted significant influence on numerous governments.[1]  In the United States the antiwar movement reached levels of mobilization in the course of a few months that during the Vietnam era took years to develop. Almost every major religious body in the country spoke out again the war, as did many trade unions, women’s organizations, Hollywood artists, musicians and others.

I was part of that movement and helped to create one of the major antiwar coalitions, Win Without War.  In contrast to the Vietnam antiwar movement, the Iraq campaign was relatively effective in communicating its message to the media.[2] The movement was largely internet-based and was an early manifestation of the power of online activism to mobilize massive levels of social participation on short notice with limited resources. The major player in Win Without War was MoveOn.org, which mobilized local action and raised funds from a list that tripled in size to more than 2 million in the months preceding the war.

On the first and second-year anniversaries of the invasion, Win Without War and other coalitions continued to organize protests and prayer vigils, but the level of street protest gradually diminished and by 2006 was barely visible. Opposition to the war did not end, however. It merely changed form as the movement began to adopt the methods of conventional political action. Activists increasingly focused on lobbying Congress in support of legislation to withdraw U.S. troops and cut funding for continued occupation. In the Republican-dominated 108th and 109th Congresses (2003-06), neither approach garnered much support. This prompted many to shift toward electoral politics, with the goal of electing an antiwar Congress and hopefully an antiwar President.

The 2006 congressional elections were a turning point. Antiwar activists were heavily involved in many local races and played a significant role in the election of dozens of new antiwar members. Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives and gained a slight edge in the Senate, a result widely seen as swayed by antiwar sentiment.[3] In Virginia antiwar activists helped Jim Webb win a razor-thin victory for the Senate, and in Connecticut they propelled Ned Lamont’s upset victory over pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary, although Lamont lost the general election. The results of the elections sent a clear message that antiwar activists were a force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party—a message that was not lost on the junior Senator from Illinois.

The principal distinction of Barack Obama’s candidacy was his forthright stance against the Iraq War. Hillary Clinton was heavily favored, with substantial financial backing and the support of many Democratic Party leaders, but she waffled on ending the war and was burdened by her Senate vote in 2002 to authorize the use of military force. Obama by contrast had spoken against the invasion at an October 2002 antiwar rally in Chicago, and he remained unequivocally opposed to continuing the war. He repeatedly pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops and end the war. This won him the endorsement of MoveOn’s antiwar support base and generated a massive wave of volunteer and financial support from the seasoned activists of the antiwar movement.

Obama’s electoral strategy played to the strengths of this activist constituency. His campaign created an extensive field presence in dozens of states, built on the foundations of already existing activist networks—principally the antiwar movement, but also labor, women’s, environmentalist, African American, Latino and other established organizing networks.  Obama’s victories were concentrated in caucus states, where success is determined by the strength of local activism rather than big name endorsements and large television advertising budgets. In Washington Obama won two-thirds of the caucus delegates but only 51 per cent of the popular vote and came away with two-thirds of the state’s delegates. In Texas Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama won more of the caucus delegates and ended up with the majority of the state’s delegates. Nationwide Clinton won the popular vote, but Obama held a two to one margin in the 13 caucus contests, enough to win the nomination. Obama’s victory was the result of his superior ability to mobilize tens of thousands of strongly committed loyalists from the antiwar movement. [4]

That activist support base also propelled Obama to victory in the general election. The Obama campaign pioneered the use of social media to harness volunteer and donor support. The campaign had 13 million people on its various email and Facebook lists. Many of these names were drawn from the MoveOn list (which had grown to 5 million) and other pre-existing activist networks. With 8 million visitors a month, the Obama web site was used to create 35,000 volunteer groups and organize 200,000 offline events. The campaign had 3 million online donors, who gave a total of 6.5 million contributions at an average gift size of $80. Obama raised twice as much money as McCain, a record $750 million, two-thirds of it from grassroots contributions.[5]

Scholars often consider participation in institutional politics and mobilization for street protest as distinct subjects, but in the case of the Iraq antiwar movement the connection between the two was direct and strategic. Organizers made a conscious decision to shift their activism from street protest to voter canvassing. A similar pattern had developed during the Vietnam antiwar movement, although with less impact. The ‘Dump Johnson’ movement on behalf of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 came within a few votes of defeating Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. This opened the door to the candidacy of Robert Kennedy and convinced Johnson to withdraw from the race. Johnson also announced a temporary bombing halt and the beginning of peace talks and refused the Pentagon’s request for 200,000 additional troops. This was a major turning point in the war, although it took several more years to end the slaughter.[6]

The election of Obama was more decisive and led directly to the end of the war. Soon after taking office Obama established a schedule for the withdrawal of troops. In December 2011 he announced that the last troops had left the country. The Pentagon and most military analysts had expected that at least some troops would remain. Writer Tom Ricks predicted that the U.S. would keep 25,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely.[7] The Iraqi government would not stand for it, however, and insisted on sticking to the December 2011 target date for the departure of U.S. troops stipulated in the security agreement signed with the Bush administration in 2008. As the deadline approached in 2011 Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno called for keeping a residual force in place, but Obama stood firm.

On the day of the President’s announcement I received a phone call from the White House Office of Public Engagement. “We just want to say thank you,” the director of the office said, “to you and other activists in the antiwar movement. What the president accomplished today would not have been possible without the work you and many others did over the past few years.” I was humbled and overjoyed to receive the call and grateful that what he said was true.


[1] Patrick E. Tyler, “Threats and Responses: News Analysis; A New Power in the Streets,” New York Times, 17 February 2003, A1.

[2] Rebecca Solnit, “Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage,” Orion (20 May 2003).

[3] Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas, “The Partisan Dynamics of Contention: Demobilization of the Antiwar Movement in the United States, 2007-2009,” Mobilization: An International Journal 16(1): (2011): 45-64. See also Michael Grunwald, “Opposition to War Buoys Democrats,” The Washington Post, November 8, 2006.

[4] “2008 Democratic Primary Election Results,” http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?f=0&year=2008&elect=1; see also “Caucuses vs. Primaries: A Report,” http://www.talkleft.com/story/2008/5/27/92144/7994

[5] Martin Walker, “The Year of the Insurgents: The 2008 US Presidential Campaign,” International

Affairs 84 (2008): 1095-1107. See also Jose Antonio Vargas, “Obama Raised Half a Billion Online,” The Washington Post, November 20, 2008, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2008/11/20/obama_raised_half_a_billion_on.html; see also http://opensecrets.org/pres08/index.php; and Monte Lutz, “The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama’s Social media Toolkit,” (Washington, DC: Edelman.com 2009).

[6] Charles DeBenedetti, Charles Chatfield, assisting author, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 200-01, 211-12; David Cortright, Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 159-60.

[7] Tom Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: Penguin Press, 2009).

2 Comments

Filed under Essay Dialogues, The Iraq War Protests: 10 Years Later

2 responses to “From the Streets to the Ballot Box: Ending the War in Iraq

  1. Pingback: analyzing the anti-iraq war movement 10 years later « orgtheory.net

  2. Pingback: Ending a War by Electing a President « David Cortright

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