In an elemental tide of protest against US preparations to attack Iraq, millions marched against war on 15 February, an estimated 30 million in 600 cities. Big demonstrations took place in the United States, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities. In Europe the biggest demonstrations were in countries, like Britain, Spain and Italy, where governments are supporting Bush’s position. These phenomenal demonstrations represent a political earthquake.
No to war.
A human tide against the war
Bush, for his part, contemptuously dismissed the mass protests, asserting that he was not going to be influenced by ’focus groups’ (ironic in view of US politicians’ obsession with polls and focus groups). The USA’s leading capitalist newspaper, however, acknowledged that "there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion". (New Power in the Streets, New York Times, 17 February) Bush, supported by Blair, may go ahead with a military attack on Iraq, but the huge scale of the anti-war protest is a measure of the political price that Bush, Blair and any other capitalist leaders who go along with them will pay as events unfold.
The demonstrations included a layer of workers and young people who have been actively involved in the anti-globalisation movement and in fighting the neo-liberal policies of recent years. But they also embraced a much, much wider layer of school students, young people, middle-class people, and workers who have not been previously involved in political activity. While left organisations and trade unions played an important part in mobilising for the demos, the vast numbers reflected a spontaneous outpouring of anti-war sentiment. Beneath the surface, moreover, lies disenchantment with the whole bourgeois ’political class’, with capitalist institutions, and with the adverse effects of rampant free-market policies. Those who came out on the streets, we may be sure, were the active representatives of millions more who share the same feelings.
What could prove more clearly that Bush, Blair and the other vassals of US imperialism have failed to make a persuasive case for war against Iraq? The millions were not ’defending Saddam’, as White House propagandists tried to claim. Saddam is a vicious dictator who has ruled through barbarous repression and who still possesses a formidable arsenal of conventional weapons and quite possibly some concealed reserves of chemical and biological weapons. But his regime does not pose an immediate threat to the US or the Western states in general.
Despite repeated claims by Bush and Blair of links between Saddam and al-Qa’ida, neither the US nor the British government has produced any clear evidence of such a connection. In fact, through off-the-record briefings, elements of the intelligence services have made it clear that they do not believe there is any such link. The ’al-Qa’ida connection’ is a fabrication, the equivalent of the ’Tonkin Gulf incident’ used by the US as a pretext to begin a large-scale intervention in Vietnam.
Intensive inspections by Unmovic, with a greater level of Iraqi cooperation, have not uncovered any ’smoking gun’ of stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. The US has now more or less dropped its claims that Iraq has a nuclear weapons capacity, which has been refuted by El Baradei and the International Atomic Energy Authority. Given Saddam’s record, it would be unwise to assume that he has no biological or chemical weapons. However, his weaponry presents much less of a threat now than it did in the 1980s, when the US backed the Iraqi regime against Iran and turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iranian forces.
In desperation, Bush and Blair have now resorted to the ’moral case’, the need to rescue the Iraqi people from Saddam’s brutal regime. The hypocrisy is astounding. The US, Britain, France and other Western powers armed Saddam in the 1980s, reinforcing his repressive regime. After the 1990-91 Gulf war they imposed a sanctions regime which resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 children and imposed unimaginable suffering on the Iraqi people. And how is moral outrage against Saddam’s regime squared with long-term US support for Marcos (Philippines), Suharto (Indonesia), the Shah (Iran), Samoza (Nicaragua), Pinochet (Chile), Mobuto (Congo-Zaire), etc, etc?
No sooner had Blair turned to the ’moral case’, than the heads of both the Protestant and the Catholic churches made statements refuting his ’moral’ stance.
The ’liberation’ of Iraq by US imperialism will inevitably result in tens of thousands of deaths and casualties. Despite ’smart’ weapons, over 150,000 Iraqis were killed during the Gulf war in 1991. The overthrow of Saddam’s regime is a task for the Iraqi people themselves. The blatant statements of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other Washington hawks have made it manifestly clear to public opinion that the US’s real aim is not ’liberation’ but strategic domination of Iraq and the Middle East and decisive control of Iraq’s oil reserves.
Yet it appears that Bush and company still intend to launch a war – despite the mass protests, despite limited support in the US for unilateral action, and in spite of grave reservations by sections of the US ruling class. The Bush leadership, which controls the executive power of the state, is determined to assert the global strategic and military domination of US imperialism through pre-emptive military action. Their plans for intervention in the Gulf (and elsewhere) were formulated in the 1980s, and their military doctrine is reinforced by an extreme right-wing, neo-conservative ideology. They are linked to the most predatory section of US big business, to Big Oil, the armaments corporations, speculative finance companies, and the cut-throat technology companies that mushroomed during the 1990s. They have used their control of decisive sections of the mass media and the flow of corporate funding to consolidate their hold on political power. Bush has staked his political reputation on ’regime change’ in Baghdad – retreat now would unavoidably mean regime change in Washington too. Moreover, by mobilising huge military forces to the Gulf region, Bush has placed the prestige of US imperialism itself on the line. To pull back now would be a serious setback to US imperialism. Challenged by opposition from France, Germany and other lesser powers, as well as defiance by Saddam, the issue has become as much the power and prestige of the US as control of oil resources.
Rifts in the ’Western alliance’
Bush’s pursuite of hegemonic dominance has now triggered a crisis in three institutions which played a key role in the maintenance of the post-war ’Western alliance’, the US-dominated world order established after the second world war. The deepening fissures within the European Union (EU), Nato, and the United Nations (UN) reflect the growing tensions and even outright conflicts between the major capitalist powers. During the ’cold war’, the existence of the ’Eastern bloc’ of Stalinist states – non-capitalist, planned economies ruled by totalitarian bureaucracies – exerted a counterweight to capitalism and imperialism. The threat posed by a rival social system provided the glue which kept the Western alliance together. Since the fall of the Berlin wall there has been a cumulative process of rising tensions among the old capitalist powers, Russia and China. Far from cementing a new ’new world order’, war in Iraq and its aftermath will only exacerbate such rivalries.
Moves by the US, supported by Blair, Aznar, Berlusconi and others to force France, Germany and others into line have only deepened the rift in Europe. After the 15 EU states issues a statement (27 January) supporting the UN process, Britain, Italy, Spain and others, together with prospective EU members Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary, issued a statement supporting the US position. With US prompting, the ’Vilnius-10’ (ten former Soviet satellites, including seven prospective new members of Nato) issued a statement (5 February) backing the US position. This provoked the fury of Germany and especially France. Not only were they furious at being described by Rumsfeld and company as ’appeasers’, ’cowards’, and the ’Axis of Weasel’, but they became alarmed at the ’Trojan horse’ role being played by the former Eastern bloc states on behalf of the US. This provoked an extraordinary, most undiplomatic, outburst from Chirac, who denounced the EU candidate countries as ’rude and rather reckless’ for aligning themselves with the US. "If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining the EU, they couldn’t have chosen a better way", he warned. This display of ’big power’ arrogance no doubt foreshadows even bigger conflicts within the EU.
Chirac is not opposed to a US attack on Iraq for humanitarian reasons. In the past, French capitalism was to the fore in supplying Saddam’s regime with arms and materials and is eager to open up new economic opportunities in Iraq. Chirac has not held back from imperialist intervention, for instance in Africa, when it suited the interests of French capitalism. But the leaders of French capitalism are opposed to a military intervention in Iraq because they foresee that it will rebound on their interests. They are not directly threatened by the Iraqi regime, whereas they have already been attacked by al-Qa’ida (French engineers killed in Karachi, a French tanker attacked off Yemen). They fear a war will escalate terrorist attacks.
Chirac and his advisers recognise that it will not be easy, even after a US military victory, to stabilise Iraq. Moreover, war in Iraq could detonate explosions throughout the Middle East region. Within France, a war could trigger bloody conflict between the large Muslim and Jewish minorities. And not the least consideration, are the electoral consequences of 78% opposition to war amongst French voters.
The US’s attempt to bully the European states into line provoked the worst crisis in Nato’s history. Washington called on Nato to supply Turkey with defensive equipment, including Patriot missiles and Awacs (radar surveillance planes). Not even Schröder opposed individual alliance members, including Germany, informally supplying this equipment to Turkey. But the US wanted a public gesture, a ’signal of resolve’, while France, Germany and Belgium opposed such a public step towards war. Later a compromise was reached. According to the secretary general, Robertson, "alliance solidarity prevailed". However, Nato decisions were nevertheless linked to UN decisions, exactly what the US and Britain had opposed. This clash is an indicator of more clashes to come.
Ironically, just as Nato reached a compromise the Turkish government announced that it would not be seeking parliamentary approval for the use of Turkish bases by US invasion forces. Offered $6bn in grants and $20bn in loans, the Turkish government demanded an additional $6bn and written guarantees of payment. As we go to press, there is no agreement between Turkey and the US, though they may well reach a deal soon. The Turkish government’s position is no doubt influenced by the 95% popular opposition to war, and also by the desire of the Turkish ruling class to send its own forces into Northern Iraq to prevent the consolidation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Denial of passage through Turkey to open a northern front against Saddam would be an enormous complication for the US’s invasion plans.
UN crisis of credibility
The United Nations is also in ever deeper disarray. Bush was forced by pressure from allied states and US public opinion to take a detour through the UN. For Washington, however, the UN process was merely a diplomatic ploy to legitimise a predetermined decision to launch a war against Iraq. On the other side, the majority of the major powers, supported by a majority of Security Council and General Assembly members, supported weapons inspections as a way of postponing a decision and possibly avoiding a war. France, Germany and others favour tightening the containment policy in the hope of achieving ’regime change’ without a war. The struggle within the UN between Bush and his supporters, on the one side, and those who support the containment policy, on the other, has steadily intensified.
The smaller states, including most of the Arab states, face a harsh dilemma. They are afraid to oppose the US, which would mean inevitable punishment; but they are also afraid to vote for war, because they will then face the fury of their own masses.
The Bush regime was incensed by the refusal of the chief weapons inspector, Blix, to produce a ’causus belli’ (cause for war) when he reported on 14 February. At the same time, the opposition of France, Germany and others has been stiffened by the swelling tide of opinion against war, especially after 15 February. Now it is uncertain whether the US will be able to get a second Security Council resolution explicitly authorising the use of force, and it remains to be seen whether they will even attempt to move such a resolution. It now seems increasingly unlikely that France, a veto-holding power, could vote for war. It is more a question of whether it uses its veto or merely abstains. Moreover, if France withholds support for US action it would be difficult for Russia and China to give support. The outcome is in the balance. Saddam’s response to the weapons inspectors’ demands to destroy hundreds of Al Samoud-II missiles could be a crucial factor.
Either way, the UN is facing a crisis of credibility. For the capitalist powers, the role of the UN has always been to legitimise imperialism’s policing role, to cover intervention with a cloak of ’supranational legality’ and ’humanitarian’ concern. By delivering an ultimatum to the UN – support our military action or face irrelevance – the US threatens to destroy the UN’s credibility. If the US succeeds in forcing through a vote for war, the UN will come to be seen as a mere appendage of the US superpower. While there is support for multi-national action through the UN, the devastating effects of a military assault on Iraq and its aftermath will erode what legitimacy may be bestowed by a Security Council decision. The UN would come to be seen as sharing responsibility for the war and the predatory role of US imperialism. Yet if the UN votes against the US, the Bush regime will no doubt attempt to consign the UN to the dustbin of history, along with the former League of Nations.
With or without UN backing, it seems likely that the US will go ahead with military action – despite profound misgivings among the strategists of the US ruling class and a section of its military commanders (see p17). The aftermath of war in Iraq will be far more complicated for US imperialism than its relatively rapid intervention in Afghanistan.
The unprecedented mass anti-war movement – the potential superpower revealed on the streets on 15 February – now has to be given clear political aims and organised form. We will strive to build the broadest possible anti-war movement. As socialists, however, we will strive to give the movement clear political aims and effective organisational forms. We are opposed to imperialist intervention in the Gulf and other neo-colonial lands, whether or not ’legitimised’ by the United Nations. We support the struggle of the Iraqi people against Saddam’s dictatorship. Opposition to imperialism has to be linked to an anti-capitalist struggle with a programme of the socialist transformation of society. The mass protests on 15 February also underscore the need to build new mass parties of the working class (see article on Britain, A new movement emerging, p12). More immediately, the mass protest must be channelled into the organisation of mass civil disobedience, including occupations, strikes and, if possible, general strikes.
This article appeared the March edition of Socialism Today, monthly journal of the Socialist Party, the CWI’s affiliate in England and Wales