Activists Find Peace a Hard Sell : Protest: The ambiguities of the U.S.-Iraq crisis have left anti-war protesters confused. Despite uncertainty, local groups are starting to mobilize.


Pauline Saxon is unsure what to do--or whether anything effective can or should be done. And so are many of the people who have called her in the last few days, upset, confused and needing the solace of conversation.

Like many other peace activists in Southern California and nationwide, Saxon, executive director of the anti-nuclear Physicians for Social Responsibility, says she feels alarmed and helpless over the threat of war between the United States and Iraq.

"Everyone has a terrible sense of frustration. Who's right? What should we do? . . .The thinking people in this country are stunned, they don't know what to do," Saxon said, reflecting the mood she has sensed in friends and others over the confrontation in the Persian Gulf.

At least for the moment, such uncertainty seems to dominate the thinking of peace activists who in recent years rallied against U.S. involvement in Central America and for an end to the arms race.

"It's as if the radicals were rusty," said Clancy Sigal, a self-described "free-lance radical" and journalist, who says he has gotten little or no response when asking other activists whether they planned to protest a potential war in the Middle East.

But beneath the often-voiced uncertainty, individuals and groups are beginning to devise strategies and tactics to get across their view that the current crisis should be defused without war or long-term militarization of the Persian Gulf region. Many also argue that the crisis should not be used as a pretext for maintaining large U.S. military budgets, thereby erasing the "peace dividend" expected from the end of the Cold War.

Perhaps most visible locally, about 35 peace groups last week created the Los Angeles Coalition Against U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, spokeswoman Rhoda Shapiro said. The group held a press conference last Thursday and members of the group demonstrated against American intervention at the Federal Building in Westwood last Friday, she added, noting that the event was thinly covered by the press. The theme of the demonstration was "No Blood for Oil," she said.

The coalition was formed "to give people a way to express their anger" over the crisis, Shapiro explained. The group plans to meet soon to decide on a tactic that might encourage more widespread participation, she said.

Another California-based group, Beyond War, also raised its profile last week, publishing an advertisement in the New York Times calling for moderation in dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Copies of the advertisement will be mailed to the Palo Alto group's 10,000 members, said Joseph C. Kresse Jr., a national board member who lives in Los Angeles. Members will be asked to mail copies of the ad, or letters based on the ad, to elected officials and other influential people, Kresse said.

Although not a direct anti-intervention statement, the San Francisco Sierra Club also published an ad in the New York Times Monday, decrying price increases in gasoline and other oil products since the crisis began and calling for adoption of stricter fuel economy standards for automobiles.

The environmental group blamed oil companies and automobile manufacturers for thwarting a national energy policy that would leave this country less dependent on Mideast oil. It also charged that oil companies are using worries about fuel shortages as part of a "campaign to open up sensitive wilderness and offshore areas to exploration, drilling, oil spills . . . and environmental disaster."

Nonetheless, unlike political flash points of the past, the complicated U.S.-Iraq dispute "lacks the clarity that people feel is required for an immediate response," said Harold Meyerson, a national committee member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The ambiguities of the dispute, including Hussein's aggression and the United States' interest in protecting oil supplies, make the future of pacifism here cloudy, said Beyond War's Kresse. "I just don't know whether the peace movement is going to hit the streets on this one," he said.

It is "very hard to sell peace at this time," said Louisa Bauers, co-chair of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which sent a letter to President Bush urging a peaceful solution to the Mideast crisis.

Bauers, whose group has world headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and others noted that the apparent end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union's vocal opposition to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which triggered the crisis, may have muted peace movement response.

One strong response was the the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's opposition last week to deployment of U.S. ground troops in the Mideast. Among other things, the group called on the President to pledge "never to establish permanent military bases in the region." The group, active in Southern California, claims 25,000 members in 70 North American chapters.

Generally, groups opposed to U.S. military action argue that the United States should have been less eager to send soldiers to protect Saudi Arabia. America, they contend, should follow the lead of the United Nations in actions taken to resolve the Gulf crisis, such as the economic embargo, rather than resorting to armed intervention on the ground.

The Los Angeles coalition and other peace groups also are beginning to argue that domestic concerns such as education, homelessness, health care and child care should not be neglected to pay for military operations in the Mideast.

Peace groups acknowledge that they face a tough sell because of widespread public support of the President's policies and because of Hussein's action, particularly his holding of Western hostages as shields against military attack.

"Clearly, it's not a situation where we can join in solidarity with the Iraqi government," said Warren Witte of the American Friends Service Committee's national headquarters in Philadelphia. The committee has a long history of opposing wars and is rooted in the nonviolence of the Quaker religion.

Early in the crisis, the committee sent a letter to Secretary of State James A. Baker urging that diplomacy be employed to seek a resolution, said Linda Lotz of the committee's regional office in Pasadena.

Lotz said that area committee members will meet Thursday to hammer out plans for opposition to a military clash between the United States and Iraq. She noted that the committee has not joined the Los Angeles coalition.

Meanwhile, Lotz reported that this week her office has begun to get a few calls about draft counseling from individuals concerned that conscription might be implemented as the crisis drags on. Another peace activist, Jerry Rubin of Alliance for Survival, also reported he has received calls regarding counseling.

Lotz said the inquiries are the first her organization has received in "a long, long time."

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