As we approach the global climate justice protests at the end of November, and the mass civil disobedience planned for Paris on Dec. 12, it’s worth confronting some of the despair many people feel about demonstrating. There is a specific despair that many climate activists feel about international negotiations and summits as the result of the failure of the Copenhagen talks in 2009. As I write, there’s tremendous frustration as the French government bans mass protest, and the global climate movement seeks ways to respond creatively and effectively. As someone cycling to Paris with 100 other climate activists from Britain, and intending to join in civil disobedience in Paris, I have confidence that ways will be found to express the hunger for climate justice in Paris in December.
At a deeper level, I’d like to address a more general scepticism about protest itself. This generation has been marked by the failure of the anti-war movement to prevent the assault on Iraq in 2003, and the way that failure has been recorded in mainstream culture. One important weapon in the armoury of the powerful is the air of invincibility they manage to create, the sense of inevitability that is woven around their victories. It is the conformist intellectual class who collaborate in creating this aura of irresistibility, and of popular powerlessness.
In the case of the 2003 war on Iraq, the facts give a very different impression. If we roll back to the beginning of the crisis, that comes in a sense on Sept. 11, 2001. While the Pentagon was still burning after being attacked by al-Qa’eda, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo including these words: “Judge whether good enough to hit Saddam Hussein at the same time. Not only bin Laden. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
U.S. President George W. Bush was clearly committed to war on Iraq from the middle of 2002, regardless of the lack of evidence tying the Saddam regime to 9/11. The trouble was that the U.S. public opposed such aggression. In January 2003, a poll in the U.S. found 83 percent support for war endorsed by the United Nations and major U.S. allies; but only 47 percent support if the invasion was backed only by one or two allies. If the U.S. acted completely alone, support dropped to 34 percent. Other polls found similar results.
Despite his unilateralist instincts, Bush was forced by the strength of antiwar opinion in the U.S. to create an international coalition to make his invasion of Iraq politically viable. That meant, crucially, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The trouble was that Blair was facing a massive anti-war mobilization at home, particularly in his own Labour Party. This forced him into a long, gruelling, and ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of a ‘second’ U.N. Security Council Resolution to authorise military action by the U.S. and U.K.
As the months went by, Blair argued that if he managed to line up nine positive votes in the Security Council, he would have won a moral victory, even if the ‘second’ Resolution was vetoed by France or another permanent member. The war would have some kind of legitimacy from the U.N. system. But Blair couldn’t win even this pseudo-legitimacy, as the smaller countries then on the Security Council refused to line up behind the Resolution he was proposing. One factor was anti-war opinion. Chile, for example, was shaken by anti-U.S. demonstrations, and began increasingly to work with anti-war Mexico.
Bush was forced by the strength of the anti-war movement in the U.S. to make the British Government an indispensable (legitimising) ally. Blair was forced by the strength of the anti-war movement in the U.K. to make the U.N. Security Council an indispensable (legitimising) authority. The global anti-war mobilisation helped to prevent the Security Council lining up nine positive votes for war, leaving Blair perilously exposed. He was forced, reluctantly, to call a vote in the House of Commons on March 18, 2003, which he wasn’t certain that he could win. Blair’s key test was whether he could gain the support of a majority of Labour Members of Parliament.
In these circumstances, the mammoth anti-war demonstration in London on Feb. 15, 2003, involving perhaps a million people, was a huge blow to Blair’s credibility. Blair had to threaten to resign as Prime Minister if he lost in order to secure enough Labour MPs to proceed with the war.
We know that the Blair administration panicked in the aftermath of the Feb. 15 march.
On Tuesday March 11, 2003, just a week before the vote in the Commons, the Ministry of Defence ‘was frantically preparing contingency plans to “disconnect” British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.’ That is a report from the Daily Telegraph, the British newspaper most closely associated with the Armed Forces.
On that day, March 11, the then British Defense Secretary, Geoff Hoon, tried to explain the risks that the British Government was running to his counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, characteristically, immediately told the media that going to war without the U.K. was ‘a matter that most of the senior officials in the government discuss with the U.K. on a daily or every-other-day basis.’ It was ‘unclear’ to what extent they would be ‘able to participate in the event the president decides to use force’ against Iraq.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, at the end of that week, ‘Mr Hoon [had] stressed the political problems the Government was having both with MPs and the public’, two wings of the British anti-war movement. Prime Minister Blair had to phone President Bush to offer his personal assurance that British troops were ready to make a ‘significant contribution’ to the invasion.
This was known in Whitehall, the centre of British government, as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’, the moment that the global anti-war movement came closest to derailing the war on Iraq. In those days, Tony Blair came close to losing the support of Labour MPs over Iraq, which could have forced Britain to pull out of the invasion force. This in turn could have forced the US to put back its invasion timetable (British forces were entwined with U.S. forces, so detaching them would have been no simple matter). The breathing space this created might have given the U.N. weapons inspectors time to win more time from the U.N. Security Council, pushing the war back into the autumn and derailing it completely.
In British activist circles, the February 15 march is remembered as a wretched failure, a huge disappointment. It deserves, instead, to be remembered as a near-win, a political earthquake that shook the British Government to the core.
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