One Winner in the Syria Debate: Code Pink

After years in the “wilderness,” popular opposition to intervention in Syria has been a shot in the arm for groups such as Code Pink.

Code Pink protester Rae Abileah yells out during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Sept. 10, 2013, 11:10 a.m.

The corner of New Jer­sey and In­de­pend­ence av­en­ues out­side the Cap­it­ol on Monday night felt a bit like a time warp to the Bush era as Medea Ben­jamin, the long-mar­gin­al­ized founder of the roguish an­ti­war group Code Pink, was sud­denly rel­ev­ant again. Graced by the im­prim­at­ur of at least three mem­bers of Con­gress and sev­er­al ma­jor news out­lets, Ben­jamin whipped up a crowd of about 100 at one of the dozens of an­ti­war ral­lies hap­pen­ing con­cur­rently across the coun­try, and re­marked, “The an­ti­war move­ment is rev­ving back up in a very strong way!”

In re­cent years Ben­jamin, who rose to prom­in­ence lead­ing com­bat­ive protests against the Ir­aq War, has be­came more ac­cus­tomed to heck­ling mem­bers of Con­gress than in­tro­du­cing them at ral­lies. She’s been ma­ligned by the main­stream Left and mocked by the cen­ter (the Right al­ways re­viled her), and dis­missed as speak­ing on be­half of her­self and not many oth­ers. But pop­u­lar op­pos­i­tion to po­ten­tial airs trikes against Syr­ia has been a shot in the arm for her and the rag-tag an­ti­war move­ment, which sud­denly finds it­self be­ing backed by the ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans.

“I feel, on one level, vin­dic­ated, I sup­pose. But on an­oth­er level, I would rather con­tin­ue to be mar­gin­al­ized and not be on a path to war than be in the cen­ter of a new peace in­sur­rec­tion,” Ben­jamin told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

If law­makers ever ac­tu­ally vote on a bill to au­thor­ize strikes against Syr­ia, Obama will need that sup­port un­like at al­most any oth­er point in his pres­id­ency. He can’t count on many Re­pub­lic­an votes and in­stead has con­cen­trated his ef­fort on reach­ing out to House pro­gress­ives, giv­ing the grass­roots Left a pre­cious mo­ment of in­flu­ence after years dom­in­ated by their ideo­lo­gic­al op­pos­ites in the tea party.

Code Pink once had 300 loc­al chapters and plenty of al­lies on the Left, but saw its sup­port evap­or­ate with the rest of the an­ti­war move­ment after a Demo­crat won the White House. Some pro­gress­ive groups were slow to join more rad­ic­al an­ti­war stal­warts such as Ben­jamin, but the lib­er­al po­s­i­tion has so­lid­i­fied in the past week, and now or­gan­iz­a­tions such as Mo­ve­On.org and Credo have start­ing run­ning ads on TV, or­gan­ized thou­sands of calls to mem­bers of Con­gress, col­lec­ted hun­dreds of thou­sands of sig­na­tures, and mo­bil­ized in the street against the pres­id­ent’s plan.

“So many of our col­leagues that were so act­ive on these is­sues dur­ing the Bush years just faded away. Sud­denly we have a lot of col­leagues again,” Ben­jamin said.

While it feels a bit like the anti-Ir­aq War gang is back to­geth­er, 2013 is very dif­fer­ent than 2003 for at least one big reas­on — the party af­fil­i­ation of the oc­cu­pant of the White House.

Ac­cord­ing to Mi­chael Heaney and Fa­bio Ro­jas, pro­fess­ors at the Uni­versity of Michigan and In­di­ana Uni­versity, re­spect­ively, who are work­ing on a book on the an­ti­war move­ment, par­tis­an­ship es­sen­tially sucked the wind out of the move­ment’s sails after Obama’s elec­tion. “Demo­crats, who had been mo­tiv­ated to par­ti­cip­ate by anti-Re­pub­lic­an sen­ti­ments, with­drew from an­ti­war protests when the Demo­crat­ic Party achieved elect­or­al suc­cess,” they wrote in a much-cited 2011 pa­per, based on thou­sands of sur­veys they con­duc­ted with pro­test­ers.

“There’s al­ways a hard­core group that doesn’t care who’s in the White House. They’re al­ways there, but they’re small in num­bers,” Ro­jas told Na­tion­al Journ­al, re­fer­ring to Code Pink and sim­il­ar groups. But with Syr­ia, “It’s mov­ing from what you might call the hard Left to the lib­er­al core of the Demo­crat­ic Party.”

Al­most two-thirds of lib­er­als op­pose at­tack­ing Syr­ia, ac­cord­ing to a Pew sur­vey re­leased Monday. Mo­ve­On polled its mem­bers and found that 73 per­cent op­posed air strikes, while VoteVets, the largest pro­gress­ive vet­er­ans’ group, re­por­ted that 80 per­cent of its mem­ber­ship op­posed in­ter­ven­tion. And at the same time, con­ser­vat­ives have joined pro­gress­ives in ral­ly­ing against mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion un­like any time un­der Bush, pre­sum­ably — at least in part — out of the same kind of par­tis­an mo­tiv­a­tion that pushed Demo­crats to op­pose Bush.

Pro­gress­ive act­iv­ists bristle at the sug­ges­tion that they gave Obama a pass be­cause he’s a Demo­crat. Rather, they say Syr­ia is the latest in a string of con­front­a­tions between the Obama White House and what former White House press sec­ret­ary Robert Gibbs once de­ris­ively re­ferred to as the “pro­fes­sion­al Left.” There was the back­bit­ing over who killed the pub­lic op­tion dur­ing the health care re­form de­bate, Obama’s foot-drag­ging on the Key­stone XL pipeline, and the all-out Demo­crat­ic civil war over the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­al to trim So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits.

Those fights, along with the more re­cent bi­par­tis­an up­roar over the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s snoop­ing on Amer­ic­an cit­izens, helped prime the pump to make it easi­er for lib­er­als to op­pose the White House on Syr­ia than they may have been in years past, act­iv­ists say. “There’s not a lot of good­will left,” said one, who asked not to be named so as to avoid dam­aging re­la­tion­ships.

That’s a big prob­lem for a White House that is try­ing to con­vince Demo­crat­ic law­makers that Obama’s pres­id­ency de­pends on their sup­port for air strikes.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate be­cause I want to see my pres­id­ent suc­ceed. But I took an oath to up­hold the Con­sti­tu­tion, not the pres­id­ent,” Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who has been whip­ping his col­leagues against in­ter­ven­tion, said in an in­ter­view in his of­fice after he ral­lied the faith­ful at the Code Pink vi­gil. “The pres­id­ent is ask­ing mem­bers of Con­gress to choose between him and their con­stitu­ents. For most mem­bers, that’s an easy choice.”

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