Socialist Worker

Mass opposition they can't ignore

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1813

OPPOSITION TO a US attack on Iraq is mounting daily. Some commentators suggest Bush and his chief cheerleader, Tony Blair, can brush it aside. It would be foolish to underestimate either the arrogance of the warmongers in the White House or their determination to devastate the people of Iraq.

War is crucial to their drive to tighten their grip over oil supplies in the Middle East, and to demonstrate US global dominance to potential rivals. But it would be wrong to believe they can simply ignore mass opposition and resistance across the globe. The struggle of the Palestinian people has shown that. Their heroic resistance to Israel, the main US ally in the Middle East, produced a huge outpouring of solidarity.

Fear of stoking an anti-imperialist movement that could topple pro-US Arab regimes stopped Bush bombarding Iraq immediately after the war on Afghanistan. Now the madmen in the White House believe they have waited long enough and can withstand the fury war will bring. Their allies are far from sure. The rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have told Bush they fear rebellion in the streets if he attacks Iraq.

In 1991 Saudi Arabia was the main staging post for the US Gulf War. Saudi Arabia's rulers now refuse to allow their soil to be used by the US to attack Iraq. That came after advisers to US defence secretary (and chief warmonger) Donald Rumsfeld tossed around a report last month that called Saudi Arabia 'the kernel of evil' in the Middle East and the US's 'most dangerous opponent'.

The most extreme wing of the Bush gang believe they can impose regimes as favourable to the US as Israel across the whole Middle East, not just in Iraq. Some European leaders have had to respond to mass anti-war feeling. German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder supported the war against Afghanistan. Around 100,000 people held a mid-week demonstration against Bush in Berlin three months ago.

Schroeder has now put opposition to war on Iraq at the centre of his general election campaign as he struggles to overtake his Tory challenger. He sees an anti-war position as a vote winner. Now even Blair has felt forced to claim that 'no decision has yet been made' on whether to back Bush's war.

The New Labour government has stuck to the fiction that the issue is 'weapons of mass destruction', while Bush talks of a 'regime change in Iraq' whether Saddam Hussein allows weapons inspectors in or not. None of this necessarily means Bush will draw back, or that Blair won't back him to the hilt.

But it is an indication that an attack on Iraq already faces far greater opposition than at the start of previous wars by big powers. The seemingly most popular wars have been ended by mass opposition, not by peace conferences.

Few people today would describe the First World War as anything other than an obscene slaughter. Yet there was enthusiasm for it when it broke out in 1914. As often happens, the first impact of the war was to produce waves of jingoism among people who had hardly thought about politics before and got their ideas from the mass media.

Labour-type parties across Europe threw themselves behind the 'national war effort'. Opponents of war were extremely isolated. But as it ground on more and more people began to see through their rulers' lies as millions were conscripted and killed in the trenches. Economic suffering became unbearable as bosses squeezed workers to pay for the war.

It took years for feeling against war and hardship to build up and break out across Europe. In February 1917 a demonstration by women in Russia over rising food prices became a lightning conductor for all the pent-up bitterness in society. It sparked a revolution - and a second in October pulled Russia out of the war.

A year later sailors in the German port of Kiel refused to put to sea. There had been previous mutinies in armed forces across Europe. This time it connected with a wider anti-war sentiment and anger at living conditions in Germany.

The Kiel mutiny also led to a revolution, which decisively ended the war. Forty years ago the US ruling class could not contemplate defeat in Vietnam when it began sending troops. In 1964 just 600 people marched in New York against the war, and there were some small protests in a handful of colleges.

A year later the US military launched the biggest bombing campaign in history against the people of Vietnam. It did not produce an immediate mass movement, but it did lead layers of people to question the war. They organised massive teach-ins in universities, where pro-war and anti-war academics spoke.

In 1967 not a single mainstream US paper opposed the war. But the movement grew - 400,000 marched in New York in October. By 1968 a majority of the US population were against the war. The anti-war movement spread internationally. Around 100,000 people joined a militant march in London in October 1968.

Cabinet papers released 30 years later revealed that that demonstration tipped the balance in Harold Wilson's Labour government against joining the war. The US finally left Vietnam in 1975, but incredible Vietnamese resistance and the movement at home had already broken its war machine.

It was not known at the time, but nationwide demonstrations in 1970 forced US president Nixon to begin withdrawing from Cambodia, a neighbour of Vietnam, within a few months of ordering the invasion. Years later Henry Kissinger wrote, 'Nixon ordered troop reductions because of our domestic situation.'

Opponents of war have protested on occasions when they have been tiny in number, to make a personal statement, or to keep the anti-war message alive. There have been other times when anti-war demonstrations have suddenly focused a far wider mood in society and have had a huge effect in limiting a war or ending it.

Today is one of those times, and the anti-war demonstration in London on 28 September can be one of those demonstrations. There is greater global opposition to this war than to the last three launched by the US, with the backing of the British government, over the last 12 years - against Iraq, Serbia, and Afghanistan last year. Backing from other states for US actions has declined at each stage.

The other imperialist powers that run the United Nations Security Council gave the US the go-ahead for the first war against Iraq. The US relied on its NATO alliance to bomb Serbia. It attacked Afghanistan with only Britain and a handful of 'close allies' in tow. That is a sign of the Bush administration's sheer triumphalism.

But it also sparks increasing rage at US power among the mass of people across the globe. Movements against each of those wars have deepened that feeling. The marches in Britain against the war on Afghanistan were the biggest anti-war demonstrations since Vietnam.

Government ministers were reportedly 'surprised by the size of' the 50,000-strong demonstration in October last year. It forced sections of the media to report the 100,000-strong demonstration the following month. That and further anti-war mobilisations encouraged 170 MPs to sign a parliamentary motion against attacking Iraq. Protest has helped create a climate where establishment figures are speaking out against war - former generals and diplomats, bishops and so on, many of whom supported the last Gulf War.

Such divisions at the top of society feed the anti-war movement below. Two opinion polls have shown over 50 percent of people against war on Iraq. A huge march in September would intensify all the pressures on Blair and widen the divisions in the establishment, which reach right into the cabinet. It would leave more Labour MPs fearing for their political future if they did not speak out.

Mass demonstrations create many thousands of activists who will carry the anti-war argument to those who are not yet convinced, and will organise a multitude of local protests. They encourage people to connect the war to other issues sparking resistance, such as pay and privatisation. And they terrify our rulers, who fear losing control. That would have a tremendous impact across the globe.

Blair, together with Italy's Berlusconi and Spain's Aznar, is Bush's fifth column in Europe - the hard pro-war, pro-market axis. If Blair was prevented from going to war it would seriously damage Bush's claim to be standing up for an 'international coalition'. It would inspire anti-imperialist movements across the Middle East that can directly challenge US power in the region.

And it would breathe life into the anti-war movement in the US, which, though small, is growing as scandals surround Bush, and establishment cracks appear over the war. That is the prize for anti-war activists as we redouble our efforts to ensure the largest possible turnout on 28 September.


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Features
Sat 17 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1813
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