MoveOn.org sent out an e-mail with the subject
line "Don't Nuke Iran" to three million people on April 12. "There
is one place where all of us can agree: Americans don't support a preemptive
nuclear attack on Iran, and Congress must act to prevent the president from
launching one before it's too late," the message said. And: "Please
take a moment to add your name to our petition to stop a nuclear attack on Iran."
The petition's two sentences only convey opposition to a "nuclear"
attack on Iran: "Congress and President Bush must rule out attacking Iran
with nuclear weapons. Even the threat of a nuclear attack eliminates some
of the best options we have for diplomacy, and the consequences could be
In MoveOn's mass e-mail letter, the only reference to a non-nuclear attack
on Iran came in a solitary sentence without any follow-up: "Even a conventional
attack would likely be a disaster."
"Likely" be a disaster? Is there any U.S. military attack on Iran
that plausibly would not be a disaster?
There's no way around the conclusion that the signers of the letter
("Eli, Joan, Nita, Marika and the MoveOn.org Political Action Team")
to avoid committing themselves and avoid devoting MoveOn resources
to categorical opposition to bombing Iran.
In preparation for this article, I sent e-mails
to each of the four signers of MoveOn's "Don't Nuke Iran" letter,
(1) Why does the letter say nothing against a prospective non-nuclear attack
on Iran other than comment that "a conventional attack would likely be
(2) Why was the petition confined to opposing a "nuclear" attack
on Iran rather than opposing any military attack on Iran?
(3) Has MoveOn ever sent out a message to the three-million list taking a clear
position against the U.S. attacking Iran (no matter what kind of weaponry would
(4) If the answer to question #3 is "no," why not?
A response came on April 13 from Eli Pariser, executive director of
MoveOn. Here is his three-paragraph reply in its entirety:
"As you know, our focus is on bringing people together around points
of consensus. We build our advocacy agenda through dialogue with our members.
Since we haven't done any work around Iran thus far, we saw the prospect of
a nuclear attack as a good way to begin that conversation something everyone
can agree was nuts.
"As I mention in the ['Don't Nuke Iran'] e-mail, a conventional attack
poses many of the same risks as a nuclear one. But just as our Iraq campaign
started with a position that attracted a broad membership 'Ask Tough
Questions,' in August 2002 and then escalated, so we're trying here to
engage folks beyond the 'peace' community in a national discussion about the
consequences of war.
"We wouldn't have had the membership to be able to run ads calling
for an Iraq exit today if we'd confined our Iraq campaign to the true believers
from the very beginning."
I believe that the MoveOn decision-makers who
signed the "Don't Nuke Iran" mass e-mail are almost certainly aware
that if they surveyed a cross-section of those commonly referred to as MoveOn
members (people who are currently signed-up for MoveOn's e-mails), the overwhelming
majority would say that they're opposed to an attack on Iran with any weapons
not just nuclear weapons.
Opposition to any bombing of Iran inherently includes opposition to
bombing Iran with nuclear weapons. But vice versa is not the case. And so
far it is (so to speak) precisely the ambiguity of confining the MoveOn
position to "Don't Nuke Iran" that MoveOn's leadership has embraced.
As MoveOn's mass e-mail stated on April 12, "There is one place where
all of us can agree: Americans don't support a preemptive nuclear attack on
Iran, and Congress must act to prevent the president from launching one before
it's too late." As Eli Pariser wrote to me the next day, "our focus
is on bringing people together around points of consensus."
This approach debases the role of consensus in progressive political
organizing. It shouldn't mean tailing the opinion polls or waving an
organizational finger in the wind; nor should it mean taking cues from
power brokers among congressional Democrats.
Nor should a progressive organization avoid taking historically
imperative positions in real time because they might interfere with
feeding cash cows a diet of lines that seem optimum for maximizing the
flow of "the mother's milk of politics" to pay for ads.
The voices in Congress denouncing the prospect of a military attack on Iran,
period, are in short supply right now. Yet as it happens, according to a nationwide
poll jointly released by Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times on April
13, the current inclinations of people in the United States are about evenly
divided: "Forty-eight percent said they would support military action against
Iran if it continues to produce material that can be used to develop a nuclear
bomb, down from 57 percent in January. Forty percent oppose military action,
up from 33 percent in January."
As long as MoveOn's leaders (not to be confused with MoveOn's e-mail recipients)
want to confine MoveOn to mobilizing against use of nuclear weaponry in an attack
on Iran, they're actually aiding a process that can dangerously reframe policy
options so that some kind of military attack on Iran becomes increasingly
accepted while much of the debate shifts to arguments over whether use of nuclear
weapons in the attack should be ruled out.
Of course the official scenarios for use of nuclear bombs are
deranged and must be condemned. At the same time, in logical and practical
terms, unequivocal opposition to bombing Iran signifies clear opposition
to bombing Iran with nuclear weapons.
Will those who put out MoveOn's e-mail alerts and green light its advertising
campaigns eventually use some of the group's resources to promote opposition
to any and all bombing of Iran? It's probably a matter of time but every
day of holding back from engaging in solid unambiguous opposition to any military
attack on Iran is a day lost that can never be regained.
The MoveOn apparatus is the largest single online mechanism for U.S. progressives
to share information, present analysis, and take action. But no one should wait
for the people who control MoveOn's mass e-mail flow to come around. There are
significant efforts underway to utilize the Internet as part of efforts to prevent
any attack on Iran.
For example, as part of broader organizing campaigns, a coalition of groups
has begun a "Don't Attack Iran"
petition. And TrueMajority is promoting an equally valuable "Don't
Bomb Iran" petition.
An April 14 letter from TrueMajority says: "Click here to send a
message to top Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid
and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, insisting they speak out loudly,
now, against any plans to bomb Iran."
That's a message that MoveOn.org hasn't been willing to send.