Anti-war – but what for?

London's big demo against invading Iraq let Blair off lightly.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘We’re saying no to Bush, no to oil, and no to Israel’s occupation’, said an out-of-breath organiser of London’s ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ demo on 28 September 2002, as Muslims, peace protesters, left-wingers, eco-warriors, ‘marching virgins’ and ‘marching veterans’ made their way into Hyde Park.

‘This is big, diverse and it has a clear message’, the organiser said. ‘No more war.’

It was certainly big – though nowhere near the half a million claimed by some. ‘Thank God there are 400,000 people here’, remarked an overexcited Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. ‘It would have been a damning indictment of British values if we couldn’t get more on a march to oppose killing Iraqis than on a march to defend ripping up foxes’, he said, referring to the previous weekend’s 400,000-strong Liberty and Livelihood demo organised by the Countryside Alliance.

The self-described ‘ordinary urban folk who hate war’ were desperate to outnumber the ‘privileged country folk who hate foxes’, but the police estimate of 150,000 ‘Stop the war’ marchers seemed nearer the mark – bigger than last October’s 20,000-strong demo against the Afghan war, but not quite the quarter of a million that marched against The Bomb in the 1980s or the 400,000 that marched for the right to ‘rip up foxes’.

The march was certainly diverse: there were veil-wearing Muslims alongside dog collar-sporting priests; pensionable CNDers marching next to green-haired anti-globalists; a Jewish anti-war delegation doing its best to avoid a group of young British Muslims who kept burning the Israeli flag. ‘It is the diversity that makes it’, claimed one student marcher, though she was a bit ‘put off by the flag-burning stuff’.

But did the demo have a ‘clear message’? If so, it was well hidden. Some banners called for a ‘UN solution’, others for an ‘Islamic solution’; some marchers wanted no war at all, while two speakers favoured ‘pinpoint attacks’ that got rid of Saddam without harming civilians. One placard claimed that ‘Bush, Blair and capitalism’ were the real axis of evil, while another said it was ‘Bush, Blair and Israel’. Other placards said ‘Imagination not annihilation’, ‘Ride a bike for peace’ and ‘Love your mum’.

The only thing that seemed to tie the disparate elements together is that they were all pro-intervention. The nebulous anti-war brigade may be anti-bombing, anti-missiles and anti-violence, but it supports the right of Western governments to change regimes and sit in judgement on countries like Iraq.

But such ‘diplomatic intervention, which follows the rules of international law’, as one speaker described it, shows scant regard for sovereignty or self-determination in third world states. It most often heightens divisions and tensions rather than bringing peace. Neither Western diplomacy nor a Western war will benefit the people of Iraq, instead ensuring that their future is decided either in the UN building in New York or in the battle plans of the British and American military.

One of the main themes of the demo was the charge that UK prime minister Tony Blair is acting like a poodle/lapdog/cheerleader to US President Bush. Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, said she was ‘ashamed that we have leaders who think their first duty is to Bush’, denouncing her boss Blair as a ‘propaganda machine for the Bush administration’. Journalist-turned-radical-Muslim Yvonne Ridley called Blair the ‘Billy No Mates of British politics’ and accused him of shacking up with ‘his evil twin, President Bush’. ‘Blair is like a little lapdog’, said Ken Livingstone, to rapturous applause.

‘STOP BUSH’ screamed the huge headline on Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, while SWP supporters carried placards saying ‘No to US imperialism’. ‘Stand up to Bush’, said one set of banners, calling on Blair to ‘stop taking orders from the White House’.

This all sounds very radical, challenging Britain’s support for American imperialism. But there is a thin line between slating Blair for being a poodle and calling on him to take a lead in deciding the future of places like Iraq. ‘Bush is like a cowboy’, said Evelyn from London. ‘Blair should try to control him rather than tripping around after him.’ The Bishop of Bath and Wells opposed Bush’s plans for war and called on Blair to ensure that ousting ‘evil Saddam’ was done through ‘international law and moral principles’, rather than ‘American military might’.

This wrongly depicts Britain as a benevolent force on the international stage, as if British intervention, unlike the American version, is carried out in the interests of beleaguered peoples around the globe. It misses the point of Britain’s role in international affairs, which is every bit as self-interested and self-serving as the Bush administration’s. After all, it was British colonialism that caused most of the problems in the Middle East in the first place, which were later inherited by the Americans.

Blair is no poodle. Since he came to power in 1997, he has shown that he is predisposed to intervening abroad and launching wars. From the joint British/US air strikes on Iraq in December 1998, which Blair said were an attempt to put Saddam ‘back in his cage’, to the Kosovo war of 1999, to New Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy’, to the way in which Blair jumped on the post-11 September war against terrorism, Blair has fancied himself in the role of moral crusader – the knight in shining armour that bestrides the world. Depicting Blair as foolishly tripping after Bush detracts from the New Labour government’s drive to foreign intervention.

Instead of challenging New Labour’s taste for war, the poodle accusers depict Blair as gullible and foolish for allegedly following Bush. This does more than let Blair off the hook – it helps to champion his ethical foreign policy by contrasting it favourably to Bush’s unethical foreign policy, when in fact British intervention abroad is every bit as dangerous and divisive as ‘American imperialism’.

Blair himself has turned the poodle accusations to his advantage. In April 2002 he said: ‘It’s a good thing that the British prime minister has influence with the American president. There are forces inside America that believe that it should be on its own, entirely unilateralist. It should be part of our job constantly to say “no, there are good allies in the world who can work with you”.’ (1)

There may have been thousands of anti-war protesters kicking up a stink in Hyde Park – but their demand that Blair do more of his own thing in international affairs and rein in Bush is not likely to rock the UK government.

The other major theme of the demo was Israel-bashing. It may have been a march against invading Iraq, but many marchers carried anti-Israel placards and banners. In the run-up to the demo, the organisers had changed the demand from ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ to ‘Don’t attack Iraq, Free Palestine’ – ostensibly to get the Muslim Association of Britain to agree to steward the march and offer its support, but also because the Palestinian cause is now one of the biggest draws for anti-war, anti-globalist and anti-American protesters alike.

The platform speakers soon realised that the quickest way to raise a cheer was to have a go at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its flouting of UN resolutions. In the middle of speeches about Iraq, American imperialism or the need for decent public services in Britain, every speaker managed to slip in an ‘Israel is the real terrorist in the Middle East’ or a ‘Why not disarm Israel?’ or a ‘Sharon is more of a threat than Saddam’. And every time, the crowd went wild.

Of course Israel is a big problem in the Middle East, particularly for the beleaguered Palestinians. But today, there is sometimes something disingenuous about anti-Israel sentiment. Many disparate groups – from British Muslim organisations to the anti-capitalist movement – have oriented themselves around the Palestinian question, taking every opportunity to have a go at Israel.

Often this is driven by an understandable sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. But the strength of feeling against Israel among so many diverse groups in the West, and the sudden sentiment that we’re all Palestinians now, reveals more about us in Europe and America than it does about events in the Middle East. Sympathising with the Palestinian cause seems to be more the result of the widespread politics of victimhood, with many in the West wishing to empathise and emote with the world’s ‘ultimate victims’.

This kind of anti-Israel rhetoric is cheap – with protesters challenging Israel’s unapologetic violence against the Palestinians, rather than asking awkward questions of Blair’s foreign policy or the confused and confusing war on terror. Ariel Sharon has become the punchbag of the anti-war movement – the easy target ‘mass murderer’ who everybody loves to hate.

And often, criticising Israel for being vulgar and violent sits perfectly well with calling for further intervention in Middle Eastern affairs – which is the last thing either Israelis or Palestinians need, after decades of British and US meddling.

‘If we need a war against anyone, it’s Israel’, said one speaker. Others pointed out that Israel has ignored every UN resolution going, that it has far more weapons of mass destruction than Iraq, and that Ariel Sharon has killed more Palestinians than Saddam has killed Kurds. ‘We should focus on Israel, not on a piss-poor country like Iraq’, said James from Liverpool. ‘We should weapons inspect the Israelis, not the Iraqis – though we’d find the same in both cases: weapons from America.’

Anti-Israel sentiment has little to do with demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East, and more to do with calling for Britain and America to ‘sort out Sharon’. Many seemed keen to convince Bush and Blair that they should focus their efforts on ‘stopping Israeli violence’ and ‘ending the Israeli occupation’, instead of bombing Baghdad.

Between big bad oil-lovin’ Bush and big bad child-murderin’ Sharon, Blair got off quite lightly. In fact, he came out of the demo fairly well – as the man who should try to control these two lunatics of the international stage. With protesters like these, Blair doesn’t need many supporters.

Being anti-war now seems to be synonymous with being pro-intervention. Just about everyone I spoke to on the demo had an ‘alternative to war’, a preferred plan of action to resolve the Iraqi crisis/oust Saddam/change the Baghdad regime. Some were keen for the weapons inspectors to get back into Iraq and to disarm Saddam through peaceful means; others favoured ‘pinpoint attacks’ on the Baghdad regime that would not repeat the carnage of the 1991 Gulf War.

I had a glimmer of hope when I saw a group of young British Asians wearing t-shirts that said ‘No Western solutions’ – until I saw the back of the t-shirt: ‘Islamic solutions instead.’

During her speech, Labour MP Alice Mahon announced: ‘There is a better, more police, I mean more peaceful solution to this crisis: send in the weapons inspectors.’ She should have stuck with her Freudian slip, as she and the other speakers did not for one minute question Britain and America’s right to sit in judgement on Iraq and to police it if necessary – they would just rather it was done peacefully and sensibly, rather than through all-out war.

The marchers’ and speakers’ opposition to invading Iraq seemed to be based more on tactics than principle – more a question of how to best sort out Saddam, rather than challenging America or Europe’s right to do it in the first place. At times, the anti-war protesters almost seemed like the rank-and-file foot soldiers of the United Nations’ secretary general – calling for UN-led intervention in Iraq rather than allowing the USA to take the unilateral route.

‘See, we care about people, they only cared about killing foxes’, said one protester as I was leaving, capturing how the previous week’s Countryside Alliance demo had cast a long shadow over this anti-war one. But isn’t there something to tie these two things together, I asked? Couldn’t you be against both New Labour’s petty bans here at home and also its desire to intervene abroad? The protester shook his head: ‘They’re totally different issues. We’re fighting against killing, they’re fighting for the right to kill.’

So the ‘Stop the war’ protesters don’t like military intervention, but they agree that ‘something must be done’ about Saddam and the problems of the Middle East. They may have more in common with Bush and Blair than they think.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
spiked-issue: War on Iraq

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) I’m not America’s poodle, says Blair, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2002

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Topics Politics


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