I have just come back from a two week trip to India, having stopped over at Dubai both on the way out and back. While still a comfortable distance from Iraq, the Gulf Emirates and even India felt much closer to the full horror of the Anglo-American invasion. Satellite and cable television ensured that the presence of BBC and CNN could be felt in a Calcutta restaurant and a Dubai café. But the availability of numerous alternative local television channels, newspapers, and above all the animated discussion in the streets suddenly made me realise what a bliss it was to be out of the suffocating shield of Anglo-American propaganda that passes, with grim irony, as ‘free press’ in the West.
Everywhere on my trip, as soon as it came to be known that I worked and lived in Britain, I was besieged with questions. Not only were the anguished queries about Blair’s motive behind destroying a society that he claimed he was ‘liberating’; it was too late for that, and Arabs and Indians know only too well about the sinister and murderous implications of ‘liberation’ by British and Americans. But what people wanted to know was about resistance to Blair within Britain.
In Calcutta, probably the most inspiring teacher and scholar I have ever met asked me with whispered urgency - what was happening to the long and venerable tradition of British dissent, which he traced as far back as Wat Tyler? People had seen more than a million march in London on February 14. They were eager to build bridges with them. The day I landed in Calcutta, 30th of March, more than 300,000 people gathered for an anti-war demonstration. They wanted to know where the anti-war movement in Britain would go next.
I flew back to Britain just in time to join the anti-war rally on April 12. I was back in the land of ‘embedded’ journalists being congratulated for having a good war. Where Geoff Hoon, Jack Straw and Tony Blair were publicly congratulating themselves for using cluster bombs, for having plotted the fall of Baghdad so meticulously, for having stood shoulder to shoulder with the Bush regime. The mood in the rally was sad, angry but also determined. A Guardian/ICM poll published today (15.4.03) showed what it calls one the most dramatic swing in public mood in Britain. Whereas at one point about 70 per cent of Britons opposed a war against Iraq without a second U.N. resolutions, now about the same number of people supported the war. What has changed between January and April?
During this period, the thinking of the British people seem to have developed along these lines -
(a) Britain has seen one of the most intense debates about its foreign policy in its entire history. The Parliament had taken note of the strength of the anti-war movement, but had voted to go to war. Once the troops go in, it is unpatriotic not to ‘back our boys’;
(b) The war has gone well - with minimal British casualties and ‘acceptable’ levels of Iraqi civilian deaths. Tony Blair has drummed in the message that although every Iraqi civilian death is regrettable, more of them were dying unheard and unseen under Saddam Hussein’s regime;
(c) Unlike the U.S., where companies have been lining up to carve up Iraq for their profit (the process that with cruel irony, has been dubbed the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq), the British role in the looting of Iraq has been a relatively low key affair so far. This surely means that Blair was in it for the reasons he tirelessly cited - bringing democracy to Iraq and the moral imperative of getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
Only one of these points, of course, begins to engage with the core arguments of the anti-war movement. Britain was taken into war by Tony Blair for three reasons -
- Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction and was capable of causing direct harm to Britain;
- Iraq was a direct military threat to its neighbours;
- Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator and Britain wanted to liberate the Iraqis.
Against this, the anti-war movement argued that there was no evidence of Iraq’s capacity to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction; Iraq’s neighbours did not feel threatened by it and there were no demands for the invasion from the region; and, while there was no doubt about the nature of Saddam’s regime, the history of Anglo-American support for him in the past as well as the proposed American occupation (direct and indirect) of the country after the war would not lead to either ‘liberation’ or democratisation of Iraq.
The war has almost entirely vindicated the anti-war movement’s position. The much-vaunted biological and chemical weapons of Iraq have failed to turn up. A regime of this nature and facing annihilation would almost certainly have used them if it had the capacity of developing, storing and delivering them. The repeated ‘news exclusives’ about US marines discovering these weapons have all turned out to be false. There is still a chance that US will plant some form of evidence in Iraq , perhaps some of the weapons-grade anthrax that seems to have ‘escaped’ from US army laboratories after September 11 and helped stoke the spectre of a world Islamic terror. A while ago I had written about a leaked Russian intelligence report that suggested Pentagon would plant some WMD in Iraq, after a decent interval, to vindicate the Washington hawks. All in all, the war has proved beyond doubt that Iraq was not a WMD threat to any country in the world.
Similarly, Iraq’s neighbours had always expressed deep misgivings about the invasion, not because of the possibility of Iraqi retaliation but because of the consequences of the destruction of the remnants of Iraqi society. Turkey, deeply threatened by Kurdish nationalism, had at one point in the war actually ordered its army to cross over into Iraq to pre-empt any Kurdish nationalist aspirations. It remains extremely wary. Syria finds itself being branded as a Ba-athist dictatorship with weapons of mass destruction by the Pentagon and the warlord Rumsfeld, and is looking nervously across the border at the massed US troops and firepower, wondering when its turn will come. There is absolutely no doubt that these states are far more threatened by the proximity of US military machine than they ever were by a degraded and contained Saddam Hussein.
This brings us to the only position of the warmongers that has any validity - the removal of Saddam Hussein. Despite allegations that the anti-war movement was actually a front for Stalinists and authoritarians of all shapes and kinds secretly in love with the Ba-athist ideal, there is almost no individual in it who mourns the departure of Saddam Hussein. What they mourn is what has come to pass in post-Saddam Iraq.
As I write this piece, news is filtering in of 12 Iraqi protesters shot dead by the US marines at Mosul. They were demonstrating against the occupation and the US appointed ‘governor’. The Shia organisations have boycotted the talks about the political future of Iraq because they have been outraged by the fact that only those invited by the US and were on the occupying army’s ‘guest list’ could attend the meeting. The massive condescension with which Blair and Bush declared that Iraqi civilians would welcome the invading army with flowers and music has been exposed by the Iraqi civilians - ‘No Saddam, No US’ was the chant in ‘liberated Iraq’ yesterday captured on BBC news.
In the face of this evidence, why then has a majority of the British people apparently swung back to a pro-war position? I think a number of factors interlock to produce this particular British structure of feeling.
First, there is the persistent ‘Little Englander’ parochialism that battle against the instinct of internationalism in Britain. During one of the more energetic anti-war rallies, one of my students said how surprised she was to find so many young people there because no one in her generation really cared about what happened to Iraqis anyway. A portion of the anti-war sentiment was certainly generated by a fear of the consequence of British entanglement in Iraq - army casualties, increased risk of terrorist attack, global resentment against Britain etc. Once it became clear that British soldiers would not die in large numbers, that Britain was probably not a less safer place than before the campaign, and that global resentment was overwhelmingly focussed on the US - these fears were allayed.
Then, there is the deeply rooted British nostalgia for global imperial and moral authority. Despite its murderous history, the British empire had always been sold and repackaged to Britons as a force of moral good. In contrast to the French, Spanish, Belgian, Russian, and now (whisper it) American imperial systems, the British has always claimed to be a force for the rule of law and moral authority. Blair understands this and has cleverly pitched his argument accordingly. Britain’s stake in the war, claims Blair, - unlike the US- is not Iraqi oil or reconstruction, but the moral and ethical satisfaction of seeing a murderous tyrant removed.
This façade is carefully maintained by differentiating British rhetoric British battle strategy (for example in Basra) from the American. We talk about liberating and compassion, we don’t carpet bomb Basra, our forces ensure access to humanitarian measures, our boys don’t hide behind space-age helmets and shades but chat to Iraqis in their berets - the British public murmur. This appeals to their sense of decency. They begin to grudgingly admire the Prime Minister.
Finally, this confluence of British parochialism and latent ‘moral’ imperialism are maintained in Britain by an almost blanket bombardment of misinformation and propaganda by the media. This is not just that portion of the media owned by the self-confessed admirers of the US imperium like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black whose newspapers and television channels regularly convey vitriolic and militant racist calls for the subjugation of Muslims, immigrants, Arabs, liberals and other ‘aliens’.
What has affected those Britons sceptical or opposed to the war is the much more insidious campaign by the so-called ‘objective’ or ‘liberal’ organs of information. ‘Embedded’ reporters have regularly presented the campaign from either the invading army’s perspective, or from the perspective of the crumbling Iraqi information ministry. The effect has been the further demonisation of the Iraqis as habitual liars (summed up in the presentation of the hapless Iraqi Information minister nicknamed ‘comical Ali’) and pathetically defeated people against the earnest, triumphant, organised British and American forces.
The obligatory shots of the Iraqis celebrating their ‘liberation’ have been fed directly to bolster the moral claims of Jack Straw and Tony Blair without any qualifications - that the handful of Iraqis who did come out to celebrate were also a part of the overwhelming majority who are opposed to US-UK presence in their country just as they were against Saddam Hussein.
The murder of the protesters in Mosul by the US marines on the 15th of April is a clear signal of the US empire’s lack of patience with any Iraqi demands for genuine democracy. In British liberal press today, this first significant murderous crackdown by the US on free ‘Iraq’ is buried deep within accounts of the ‘reconstruction’ meetings organised by the American Generals Jay Garner and Tommy Franks.
Despite its commitment and occasional living up to the standards of ‘objective’ reporting, even those sections of the British media outside the baneful influence of Murdoch and Black are saturated with (ultimately racist) assumptions about Iraqis and remain biased in favour of the spurious ‘liberation’ rhetoric of Downing street and the so-called achievements of the invasion. As these remain the main sources of information for the war-sceptics, they make the relatively easy switch to being in favour of Blair’s position once the war has been declared a success.
What then of those in Britain who have remained convinced about the political, ethical and moral failings of this invasion? Does the anti-war movement have enough reserve to continue the slow and painful task of winning the hearts and minds of the British majority?
I hope so.
I have seen British school children mobilise and unite against the war, often in the face of serious disciplinary threats, with a conviction that has put veteran trade union leaders to shame. I have seen Labour party members occupy their own regional offices to protest against their party leader and prime minister. I have seen the senior Labour MP Tam Dalyell take the extraordinary step of calling for the indictment of Tony Blair. I have seen journalists walk out of their jobs in frustration with their bosses who have instructed them to follow the government ‘line’ on the war. I have seen teachers suspend their classes and organise debates with their students about the invasion of Iraq.
The roots of the movement are sinking deep in Britain. Even more crucially, the movement has internationalised Britain to perhaps an unprecedented degree. Over Afghanistan, and now Iraq, the Britons have felt that they are a part of a global movement against war, an international coalition for peace and justice and against the US imposed ‘new world order’. This ‘alternative’ globalisation will also sustain the people here.
Perhaps even more than during the conflict, it is now the time for the anti-war movement in Britain to make its presence felt. Leaders like Bush and Blair rely on apathy and amnesia to push through their agenda. How else can Tony Blair look his MPs and the electorate in the eye and say ‘just as we did in Afghanistan, we shall liberate Iraq’.
Afghanistan, where even last week ‘stray’ American missiles killed at least 11 villagers; where the puppet ruler Hamid Karzai’s closest associates have been assassinated and Karzai himself relies on American protection for survival; where the promised elections have failed to materialise and the country carved up again by the warlords; where less than a month ago a western Red Cross worker was gunned down and his Afghan assistants warned that the same fate awaited them if they worked for ‘foreigners’.
This is the result of ‘liberation’ US style. Blair can afford to shamelessly use this as a justification for further wars precisely because he knows that the media will work tirelessly to make people forget what happens when the cameras leave. The same way the media is now lying, omitting and manipulating the reality of post-Saddam Iraq.
It is the instilling of this amnesia that the anti-war movement has now got to fight in Britain:
We must not forget the reasons we were given for this invasion and we must not let them forget that none of them have been justified by the subsequent events
We must call Blair and his coterie to account every time the army of occupation kills Iraqis protesting against the American presence
We must ask what is happening to Iraqi oil, to Iraqi reconstruction, to the American companies circling like vultures to move in for the kill as soon as the country is ‘pacified’
We must call on the media to keep following up on Iraq. Iraqis, Afghans are not circus creatures whose torture, death and grief can be served up as prime time television and then replaced by East Enders once the war is over. We want their oppression under US occupation to be kept in the full glare of the cameras. We want to see what Blair-Bush’s liberation looks like in real life.
We must extend our support to Iraqis in the democratisation of their society, and oppose Pentagon-appointed rulers and governors who will oversee the transferring of Iraqi wealth to the US and its allies.
To do this we must continue to write, to march, to strike, to protest, to discuss as long as it takes. This is not going to be a soft ride.
Iraqis have been repeatedly betrayed by both the official ‘left’ and ‘right’ in Britain for too
long. For the sake of our common human future, we cannot betray them once again through apathy and amnesia.
Dr. Pablo Mukherjee teaches at the University of Newcastle.