Opposing War: What Is It Good For?

After a long drive from the Deep South, Diane McNaron rolled into Washington, D.C., in the middle of the night with four college kids in her car and the rock band From Autumn to Ashes on the stereo.

Their destination: the 200,000-strong demonstration last month that organizers claimed was the largest antiwar rally since the Vietnam War. Now, days after Republicans took back the Senate, McNaron feels let down by Democrats who have not, in her view, sufficiently supported antiwar efforts.

"We feel our job is to keep morale and spirits high to keep this movement fighting," said the 55-year-old musician from Birmingham, Ala.

After a midterm election widely seen as an affirmation of President Bush's popularity — and on the heels of the U.N. Security Council's approval of his Iraq ultimatum on Friday — passionate opponents of U.S. military action against Baghdad have to wonder where they stand.

Even the Democratic leader of the Senate suggested that voters had approved Bush's Iraq policy.

"I think it means that the president has an opportunity here to enact and proceed with the plan [on Iraq] as he has articulated it," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said after the election. "I think the American people appear now to give him the benefit of the doubt."

But it's not so easy figuring out just how many Americans do support the president, and how many would fall under the description of "antiwar" when it comes to Iraq — and harder still is figuring out how much public opinion matters and what difference it makes.

Before the election, ABCNEWS polls showed that 61 percent of Americans supported ousting Saddam Hussein, but that support was conditional — fewer than half agreed if U.S. allies are opposed and support dropped even lower if war required heavy casualties and ground fighting.

For their part, antiwar groups claim a mainstream following.

Soccer Moms Join the Fight

"It is absolutely a movement," said Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, which calls itself the nation's oldest multi-issue progressive think tank. "You see people like soccer moms, the regular middle class participating in a lot of these events. The Washington [Oct. 26] march was full of families and senior citizens. It was a mainstream crowd."

She pointed to some other antiwar efforts:

The Not in Our Name Coalition, one of the many antiwar groups focused on the Iraq situation, includes prominent intellectuals, activists and celebrities including Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Russell Banks, Susan Sarandon and Edward Said.

The venerable retired journalist Walter Cronkite, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo were among those who put their names on a full-page newspaper ad opposing Bush's Iraq policy that was sponsored by the consumer group Common Cause.

More than 13,000 American academics signed a petition opposing a U.S. invasion of Iraq and also purchased a New York Times ad.

The U.S. Conference of Bishops also expressed opposition to a pre-emptive strike against Iraq.

Not everyone thinks antiwar dissent has filtered through to the general public. Many protesters are just holdovers from the Vietnam era, said Ariel Cohen, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"It's the last hurrah of 1960s, extreme-left folks who are probably in their 60s by now who had a good time doing demonstrations and other legal, semi-legal and illegal things and fondly remember it and would like to relive their youth," he said.

Others who gathered in Washington last month are just fringe groups, Cohen said, with names like Dogs for Democracy/Paws for Peace, Grandmothers for Peace and the Institute of Xenomorphosis.

One historian says only time will tell who will come out against war.

"The movement's just beginning," says Melvin Small, a Wayne State University history professor who studies foreign policy and public opinion. "It's too early to tell who's really behind some of this stuff."

Taking It to the Streets

Other observers are impressed with the organization and popularity of current antiwar efforts.

The U.S. military was well into its involvement in Vietnam before massive protests took place in the late 1960s, Vassar College history professor Robert K. Brigham said.

"Having people in the streets by the tens of thousands before military action is even taking place suggests there is a movement here that's viable," he said. "This is the most active people have been since Vietnam."

But Cohen said current antiwar protests are just filled with the same people who have disrupted World Bank and International Monetary Foundation meetings in recent years.

"It's people just getting worked up about different causes that overlap," Cohen said.

How the specter of an Iraqi war affected the electorate's decision last week remains unclear, largely because a national news election consortium failed to process exit poll data.

ABCNEWS' pre-election surveys showed that Iraq was as strong a factor as the economy — the traditional election hot button — on voters' minds as they headed to the polls. Likely voters who gave more importance to the economy favored Democratic candidates for the House by 2-1, while those who cited Iraq as a higher priority favored Republican candidates by as wide of a margin.

Despite this, the actual election results sent mixed signals about how important the Iraq issue was to the fate of congressional incumbents.

Is Anyone Listening Out There?

In the U.S. Senate, two Democrats who voted last month in support of the joint resolution authorizing war with Iraq lost their re-election bids, while none who voted against lost. In the House, only one Democrat who voted against the resolution lost his seat, while four who voted with the president ended up losing their re-election bids.

American elections do not historically turn on foreign policy questions — a point likely not lost on those members of Congress who just ran for re-election, especially those who supported Bush on Iraq, Small said.

"Most politicians in contested districts saw it was dangerous for them to oppose a generally popular initiative," Small said. "Bush is still riding on the outrage of 9/11."

Despite the Republican takeover of the Senate, antiwar groups are claiming victories. Many were encouraged by the boost some Democrats got in pre-election polls after voting against the Iraq resolution.

Dolan credits antiwar protests with forcing the Bush administration and legislators to rethink an aggressive Iraq policy.

"Bush had to back off of his original proposal to the Congress simply demanding a carte blanche authorization to go to war," she said. "Although [the resolution] passed, it was weaker than the president wanted and it had dissent. The antiwar movement is having a tremendous effect; it is certainly slowing down the process of war."

But political scientists are torn about how antiwar demonstrations affect policymakers — primarily because it is so difficult to pinpoint direct cause and effect with something as complex as war policy. Among academics, the verdict is still out on whether massive antiwar demonstrations against the Vietnam War actually affected policymakers of that era.

"The antiwar movement built certain constraints around the administration [during Vietnam] but was not able by itself to stop the war," said Mitchell Hall, a Central Michigan University professor. "Here we won't know. If war [with Iraq] is avoided that will tell us something, but it's difficult to assess the impact of a continued policymaking process and opposition to that policy."

All the Tea in the Boston Harbor …

During wartime, government officials may leak information or write tell-all memoirs. But if they don't, the tricky job of figuring out how protesters affect policy goes to historians.

Researchers must attempt to piece together how decisions were made through government documents, memoirs and personal letters of key decision-makers. They also look for correlations between public dissent and public opinion by studying polls before and after major protests.

But no research method will definitively reveal just how much protesters weigh on the minds of presidents at war — unless of course, presidents tell us. For a sitting president, at least, such candor is unlikely, Small said.

"All presidents say, 'I am not affected by the mobs in the streets,'" he said. "Every president says that while in office."

Even if President Bush does not listen to antiwar demonstrators, some say forcing policy changes is not their only goal.

"Protests show people they're not alone. Whether or not the people in power choose to respond is a separate issue," said Rachel Jackson, a 28-year-old instructor at Seminole State College in Oklahoma who also attended the October rally. "Sometimes you can throw all the tea in the Boston Harbor and you're still going to have to fight a war."