Late on Monday the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) wrapped up, allowing the host city of Chicago to stand down from three days of public protests against, well, it's hard to say against what exactly...
The protests ostensibly were meant to be directed against NATO, but few seemed to directly take on that great hulking zombie bureaucracy; a bureaucracy for the past 20 years has stumbled about looking for a reason to justify its continued existence now that the Soviet Union is gone and the cause of European unity has been taken up by the European Union. (An old joke said that the purpose of NATO was to keep the Soviets out, the French in, and the Germans down.)
In practice, post-Soviet NATO has served as a useful fig leaf for the United States to stick onto its global military adventures and give them the pretext of being the actions of an “international coalition”. Most recently NATO was involved in the, allegedly, humanitarian mission that drove Moammar Gadhafi from power, though in practice “NATO” was really the U.S., Great Britain, and France. NATO has also been engaged in Afghanistan, which was one of the reasons for the summit, though this presence has again largely been the U.S./GB/French triumvirate; the Germans have contributed thousands of troops under the stipulation that they be kept out of combat, while other member states have sent token numbers of soldiers.
Yet to some of the protesters, NATO represents some type of super military machine of oppression not seen since the end of the Third Reich – not bad for an alliance that has repeatedly failed to protect its own supply lines out of Pakistan from ragtag bands of insurgents. Other signs carried by protesters called NATO the “enforcement arm of the 1%”, another claim that doesn't make a lot of sense when compared to the reality of NATO today. On Monday, the protests came to a conclusion with a march to the headquarters of Boeing, a company best known for its civilian passenger jets, to protest their “providing war machines to the war mongers”; Boeing suggested that their Chicago employees work from home on Monday to avoid the protesters.
But while these protests had some relevance to the NATO Summit, there were plenty of othersthat did not. A scan of the media coverage of the protests showed many, many signs being held up by the crowd. There was a large contingent there to protest Israel's policies towards the Palestinians, demanding an end to the occupation of Palestine and demanding that Israel respect the global norms of human rights; others protested the construction of a detention facility for illegal aliens outside of Chicago – what either of these topics had to do with NATO is anybody's guess. The day before the summit started, the first public action was a simulated die-in where participants covered themselves in oil and laid on the sidewalk to protest the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry petroleum from Canada's Oil Sands region in Alberta (another non-NATO issue). More generically, there were plenty of people on hand to protest income inequity, the lack of jobs and upward mobility, and to speak out against the global financial system in general.
This isn't meant to offer a value judgment for or against any of the topics mentioned, it is meant to say though that none of these topics – from Israel/Palestine, to immigration, to Keystone XL, to the causes of the Great Recession – have anything to do with NATO. And that is the recurring problem with protest movements on the left, from Occupy Wall Street, to last weekend's NATO protests – they take on such a stew of issues, it becomes impossible to determine just exactly what it is that the protesters want, aside from the complete and total overthrow of society as it currently exists. And that makes the protesters easy to dismiss.