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The choice for protesters: anti-war or peace?

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
20 March 2003

The start of war with Iraq has provoked protest action on a very wide scale, involving large numbers of people. But this could also be the last big manifestation of the impressive anti-war movement that has grown up in recent months. Already, as war begins, public opinion in the belligerent states (United States and Britain) shows some return to support for governments.

In Britain, newspapers like the Daily Mirror that have swum with the anti-war tide are starting to count in the fact that soldiers are at risk. And the intimidating effects of ‘shock and awe’ may not be confined to the Iraqi army. Publics also feel the promised demonstration of American might. So the activists now, paradoxically, find the going tougher as the bombs fall.

The problems will get sharper still, however, when the bombs stop falling. The slogan ‘stop the war’ will not resonate so strongly if Bush does indeed stop it, more or less successfully, in a short period of time. The three-day war may be a figment of American over-optimism, but the three-week war is not unlikely. Even pundits who told us that the Gulf war in 1991 and the Kosovo war in 1999 would be ‘long wars’ are not pushing that argument this time. But only a long war, with serious casualties among both Western troops and Iraqi civilians, would give anti-war protest a really significant role.

The evasion of ‘anti-war’

Even in the coming days or weeks of war, ‘stop the war’ may not the only guide to action. The course of a war throws up its own issues. Sticking to your initial mantra may not help to address them. Given that the war is now a reality, demands that the US fights the war in a just way, protecting civilians, become critical, as highlighted by organisations like Human Rights Watch (HRW). So far, anti-war campaigners have shown little interest in these questions, and some have attacked HRW for failing to oppose war as such. But they are matters of life and death for many thousands of Iraqis.

Likewise, many in the anti-war movement are focusing on British International Development minister, Claire Short’s decision not to resign from the government despite her obvious disagreement with the resort to war. They would do better to pick up the issues that she is concerned about – effective humanitarian aid for displaced people, a role for the UN in post-war Iraq, constructing Iraqi democracy rather than US military rule, as well as justice for the Palestinians.

The anti-war movement has sidestepped practical answers to Iraqi human rights abuses – how many took up Amnesty International’s crucial demand for the UN Security Council to send human rights monitors? But the war will accentuate these issues. ‘Ethnic cleansing of Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians is ongoing in the Kirkuk region – have any anti-war groups noticed? What will be the anti-war movement’s response if, like Milosevic in answer to the US campaign over Kosovo, Saddam escalates this campaign into more extreme violence against civilians?

The challenge of peace

It would be good to think that the lessons of 1991 have been learnt. In the first Gulf war, anti-war campaigners stuck doggedly to their opposition to any extension of the war – even in the face of Saddam’s massacres of Shi’a and Kurdish rebels and the plight of millions of civilians forced from their homes. The then US president, George Bush senior, stopped the war after the liberation of Kuwait: the ‘stop the war’ activists followed him by stopping their campaign, just when solidarity with the Shi’a and Kurds demanded otherwise.

As I pointed out in an argument over John Pilger’s stance on Iraq: “The left - mainstream social democrats, pacifists and radicals alike - had put all its eggs in the ‘sanctions not war’ basket. [Yes, back then sanctions were an anti-war policy.] It had identified the continuation of the war, through the widening of war aims to include the overthrow of Saddam, as the main danger. It continued to press for an end to the war, even at precisely the point when the insurrections demanded not just the neutrality of the coalition forces but their active support.”

So anti-war activism may become a victim of its own narrow ideology as well as of US victory. The movement is united only around the minimal idea of opposing the resort to military action. It has generally refused to recognise that Saddam’s regime is a big problem, and regime change enormously desirable.

Iraqis needed an alternative international solution if there was to be no war - but how many in the anti-war movement have addressed their needs? They will need practical solidarity even more in the face of the new privations that war forces on them, and in securing their rightful place in the rebuilding of their own country.

The problem of today’s protest campaign is that it is only an anti-war movement. Peace demands not only opposition to war, but also a full-hearted and determined embrace of the demands of justice and solidarity. Will the activists rise to the challenge?

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