Time to draw a line. Time to move on. So the government exhorts us as it tries to turn its back on the monumental failure which is the war and occupation of Iraq. Yet the line persistently refuses to be drawn. The government lies crushed under the nightmare of the war, desperately trying to move on to any other issue. It is now nearly a year since the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad to proclamations of Iraqi liberation. It is ten months since George Bush piloted himself (that National Guard training came in handy for something) onto the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the war over against a banner stating ’Mission accomplished‘. But those photo opportunities didn‘t draw a line. Then the Hutton inquiry was launched in the summer, following the death of Dr Kelly. That didn‘t draw a line. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December was hailed as vindication of the war – but that didn‘t draw a line either. And the Hutton report, which finally appeared in January, was instantly greeted as a whitewash because of its slavishly pro-government position.
Such was the outcry after Hutton that Blair was forced to launch a further (secret) inquiry under former cabinet secretary Lord Butler. Composed of representatives of the two main pro-war parties plus figures from the Northern Ireland Office and the military, and with a remit to only examine systems failures, not the actions of individuals, it too is unlikely to draw a line.
It must seem to Tony Blair that he is under a particularly persistent curse. His thinking and that of his advisers over the past two years has not allowed for the eventuality of him being blamed for the war. They believed that wars are popular and that strong warmongering leaders gain from supporting them. No one thought back to Anthony Eden, the Tory prime minister broken by the Suez fiasco in 1956, or even Winston Churchill, who lost the election in 1945. And even if the war was unpopular for a while, it was reckoned, people would soon forget.
Instead everyone seems to remember what was said and done a year ago. As the government‘s desperation to prove itself right has increased, so has the sense of frustration and anger among many against it. Their reaction to Hutton demonstrated how out of touch they were, when a government supposedly expert at PR and spin allowed Alastair Campbell to parade round the television studios bragging of his vindication. We should not forget either how the government used the courts to suppress dissent and protest. The prosecution of whistleblower Katharine Gun and the infringement of the civil liberties of the Fairford protesters have now both been exposed in court as illiberal and repressive measures.
There are three interconnected reasons why the government is still in this mire of its own making: the disastrous strategy of the war itself, the resistance of the Iraqis, and the mass movement against war in the west. The ’war on terror‘ launched after 11 September 2001 has proved a failure. It has not stopped terrorism – a whole range of bomb attacks such as the one against British targets in Turkey or the Bali bomb have been aimed at the closest allies of the US. It has not even caught Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Omar, and Al Qaida is growing again in Afghanistan. The Middle East as a whole is more dangerous with Ariel Sharon using the pretext of the war on terror to further repress the Palestinians through the ’apartheid wall‘ being built through their territory. The balance sheet of intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq is negative, with instability, no attempt to redress the basic inequalities and economic problems, and no real democracy.
The ’war on terror‘ has also proved a failure in terms of winning hearts and minds domestically. The doctrine of pre-emptive intervention has led millions around the world to feel that the normal channels for dealing with international relations have been abandoned. The war on Iraq was the first one in which Britain has engaged on the basis of intelligence evidence alone, and that evidence has been shown to be false or exaggerated. There were no purchases of uranium from the African state of Niger, no threat of weapons being used against British interests and no weapons of mass destruction.
There are only two conclusions that one can draw about Tony Blair’s attitude to the evidence presented as the reason for going to war. Blair is either a fool or a liar. He claims he did not know when we went to war that the threat that Saddam Hussein’s weapons were ready for use in 45 minutes only applied to battlefield weapons. It is almost impossible to believe that the man who had time to appear on The Simpsons could not find the time to acquaint himself with these rather important facts.
But if the government used lies and deceit to take us to war, it did so in the confident belief that, once committed, any wrongs would be absolved by the welcome given to British and US troops. The reality was rather different. As soon as the occupation began, it was clear that the occupiers had given no thought to civil society and they presided over a worsening of conditions for many Iraqis. Notoriously US marines guarded the oil ministry while museums and other public buildings were looted. Today most Iraqis still do not have a continuous electricity supply, there is mass unemployment and many people, especially women, are scared to go out. The US based many of its views of the reception it would receive on ‘intelligence’ from exiles who had a self serving interest in saying how compliant most Iraqis would be to foreign rule. These exiles (now back in Iraq) are still claiming to speak for most Iraqis. They clearly do not but the delay in elections – which are not being allowed when the US hands over in June – denies the Iraqis the right to speak for themselves.
In the absence of such basic democracy, Iraqis are taking matters into their own hands. The resistance continues. The capture of Saddam Hussein made barely a dent in it and it continues to claim the lives of US soldiers on an almost daily basis. The Bush government dismisses the resistance as Al Qaida (clearly not true of most of it) while bringing its wounded from the war back to the US in the dead of night and preventing news film crews from showing the returning coffins. However, there is much more to the resistance than the military: there have been the mass demonstrations in the south for democracy and elections in June, but also protests around issues such as jobs, women’s rights and pensions. The protesters have not been helped by the occupying forces, who raided trade union headquarters in December in Baghdad and who are backing a return to religious law for women.
In Afghanistan, supposedly the blueprint for democracy in ‘failed states’, fighting continues on a wide scale. Rule by the warlords maintains repression and oppression of women and those who want democracy. The elections are being delayed again, partly because the occupiers have failed to raise the $98 million (a pittance compared with spending on war) to pay for an electoral roll. In both countries we are told the situation is too dangerous for elections – although the occupations themselves are making the situation more dangerous.
If the continuing discontent and opposition are preventing Bush and Blair from drawing a line in Iraq and Afghanistan, the domestic opposition is equally intractable. In the US opposition to war has grown with the various Democratic Party contenders voicing belatedly what is clearly a popular view. In Britain the movement has proved not just an anti-war movement but one which takes on characteristics of being able to transform society, in a way that the civil rights movement in the US did. In the past year it has organised strikes of groups of workers in protest at war in opposition to every piece of anti-union legislation. The school students’ strikes on 20 March were the biggest youth movement ever in Britain. The protests against Bush in November again reached record levels for a weekday, with many school students walking out on strike again, and huge turnouts from the big central London universities.
But this is not just a movement against war – it is a mass, diverse movement for peace, justice and civil liberties and against racism. It has opened up and continues to raise questions about democracy and politics in Britain, standing as it does in sharp contrast to the bankruptcy of parliament and the cowardice of most establishment politicians. It is also a highly informed movement, its ideas fuelled by the many books and articles produced by anti-war campaigners but also by the thousands of public meetings which have taken place in the past two and a half years in every town and city across the country.
The government has now conclusively lost the argument on the war, but it is turning its attacks to other issues. In particular, the attacks on civil liberties and the attempts to criminalise the Muslim community by association with terrorism have become the last refuges of a scoundrel government.
This 20 March there will once again be mass demonstrations around the world in protest at the war and occupation to mark the first anniversary of the start of hostilities. The movement will be on the streets once again. But it will not simply be looking back at a year of protests – it will also be declaring that it is still here and that it will continue to campaign around all these issues to bring about a transformation of the increasingly dangerous world in which we live.
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