'Don't attack Iran!' Five lessons from the Iraq war

| March 20, 2012
Photo: Shreyans Bhansali/Flickr

March 20 marks the nine-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, but it still feels a lot like 2003. The pro-war arguments that were exposed as lies almost a decade ago are now making a comeback, this time to justify an attack on Iran. As the U.S., Israel and their allies -- including Canada -- make the case for war, anti-war activists must respond with the case against it.

In the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003, an unprecedented anti-war movement emerged. Although it failed to stop the invasion and subsequent occupation, it still made history, and no doubt accelerated the hardening of anti-war opposition in the U.S. and around the world. Today's activists must learn from that experience, generalizing the lessons that could make us more effective.

Here are my top five.

1. Don't believe the hype.

The most popular argument to support the Iraq war in 2003 was the one about Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The U.S. went to great lengths to back its claims, even paying journalists to toe the line on television and in print. Secretary of State Colin Powell was dispatched to the United Nations armed with slideshows, diagrams, graphs, satellite images and intelligence reports. British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that Iraqi missiles could hit Europe within 45 minutes. A special "dossier" of evidence was released to the public.

All of it turned out to be lies. Iraq didn't possess a single WMD. Far from being a military threat to the West, the country quickly collapsed in the face of invading forces.

When it became abundantly clear that there were no WMDs, the official reason for war changed: suddenly, it was about toppling a dictator and "building democracy." Of course, there was hardly any discussion about the U.S. role in backing Saddam Hussein in the first place, or the West's role in arming him with guns and gas.

Today, the same kinds of arguments are being made by the same groups of people, but this time to launch a war on Iran. The Ottawa Peace Assembly summed it up nicely at a recent anti-war rally: "They lied about Iraq. They're lying about Iran. Don't let them do it again!"

2. There's no such thing as a 'surgical' strike.

The threat of civilian deaths and widespread destruction is always an obstacle to winning public support for war. It's why the Pentagon and the State Department profess to have the ability to make "surgical " strikes -- attacks so accurate and precise that they always hit their target and avoid any "collateral damage." This is the argument they're making about Iran: that they would only target nuclear facilities, far from where civilians live.

They made the same argument about Iraq -- that they would only target military facilities -- but the result was the opposite. Nothing escaped the destruction of war: from highways and bridges, to schools and hospitals, to oil refineries and sewage treatment plants, to mosques and cultural sites. In some cases, like Fallujah, whole cities were destroyed. The death toll of Iraqis is in the hundreds of thousands, with some counts as high as 1.2 million people -- and this after 1.5 million Iraqis died as a result of the U.S./UN sanctions regime.

An attack on Iran has the potential to be even worse: it has more than double the population of Iraq and hasn't been devastated by 12 years of crippling sanctions, the way Iraq was from 1991 to 2003. Iran's infrastructure is highly developed and its cities are densely populated.

The experience in Afghanistan should also be instructive. The U.S. has fired missiles at wedding parties, funeral processions, refugee caravans, and even Afghan troops training to support the mission. Far from being "isolated incidents," attacks like these happen all the time and with deadly consequences. If the U.S. or Israel launch a war on Iran, it would be a bloodbath.

3. We need broad and inclusive movements.

How we organize opposition to the war is important. In June 2002, during the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alberta, about 80 activists met outside the convergence centre in Calgary to discuss building a pan-Canadian network to oppose the coming war on Iraq. Their first action was modest: a few cities held pickets outside MPs' offices on Hiroshima Day in August, calling for an end to sanctions and opposing the war. More actions followed: public meetings and discussion groups, door-to-door petitioning, leafleting on street corners and at subway stations, and small-scale rallies.

By mid-November, the first large-scale demonstrations against the war took place, attracting thousands of people in every city that participated: Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax and others. In Toronto, the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War (TCSW) was launched, pulling together groups like the Toronto Committee Against Sanctions and War on Iraq (TCASWI), trade unions and student groups, the Canadian Arab Federation, a number of mosques and other faith groups, and many individual activists, some of them getting active for the first time ever.

Demonstrations like these continued well into 2003, culminating in the global day of action on February 15, which drew millions of people into protests that took place in over 700 locations around the world.

What united these disparate and diverse forces was a simple basis of unity, expressed most succinctly by the widely popular slogan, "Don't attack Iraq!" Many of these groups also united in opposition to racism, in response to the racist scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims, and in support of civil liberties, in response to so-called "anti-terror" legislation that had begun to criminalize protests.

Beyond these demands, most of the participating groups agreed to disagree on other issues. One early debate that emerged was whether anti-war coalitions should take a position on the nature of the Iraqi regime or what kind of state would be best for Iraqis. In they end, they largely decided to avoid taking such positions because it would have split the movement. They argued that only Iraqis could (and should) decide their own fate, including what kind of government they want and how they want to get it. It would be impossible for any coalition to endorse one or all the various tactical and political positions that existed within the Iraqi and Arab communities, and so most anti-war groups directed their demands at Ottawa, holding our own government to account and keeping it off the backs of the Iraqi people.

Similarly, there were other debates about whether anti-war coalitions should be explicitly "anti-imperialist." Again, most of them agreed to keep things broad, to attract a much bigger audience of people than just the existing left.

The same approach is needed today. Without a doubt, there is a wide range of views within the movements and among the Iranian community about the nature of the Iranian state, its government, and what it does -- but it's not the role of the anti-war movement in the West to take any one side in those debates. Our job is to raise demands against our own government and attempt to limit its interference, including its threats of war, in the lives of the Iranian people. If we succeed in doing that, we create more space for Iranians to decide for themselves what kind of country they want.

4. Islamophobia is our Achilles' heel.

Islamophobia is nothing new. It emerged near the end of the Cold War when the West began searching for a new threat to replace Communism. But Islamophobia intensified in the wake of 9/11 and with the launch of the War on Terror. For more than a decade, pro-war forces have cultivated fear of Muslims and Islam in order to generate support for the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sadly, this fear-mongering has had an impact, and it continues to this day. In his now infamous CBC interview, Stephen Harper recently claimed that the single largest threat facing Canada is "Islamicism." Conservative cabinet ministers frequently use the term "Islamo-fascist" to describe resistance movements in the Middle East. Others casually equate Muslims with terrorism. Cultural groups like the Canadian Arab Federation and Palestine House have had all their federal funding cut.

On the left, Islamophobia has played a role in dividing us. Some activists have complained about the participation of "religious Muslims," claiming that anti-war coalitions should be "secular." However, the same complaint is never raised against religious Christians, Jews or other faith groups who have long been active in the movements. Secular means being open to the participation of all faith groups, not endorsing one or some over others.

Islamophobia has also had the effect of cultivating paternalistic attitudes, especially in relation to Muslim women. This has led some groups to endorse the war in Afghanistan, even if reluctantly, in response to the argument that the war is about "liberating Afghan women" -- as if dropping bombs on them would achieve that goal. Another effect of Islamophobia has been a general reluctance by some activists to defend the right of Muslims to practice their faith in Canada in the same way that other faiths do. This response usually conflates the defence of a basic civil liberty, religious freedom, with an endorsement of the religious practice itself. The debates about hijab and niqab provide good examples of this, with some in the movements backing the French government's crackdown on how Muslim women dress in France.

These kinds of attacks play into Harper's divide-and-conquer agenda, contribute to the further erosion of civil liberties, and end up isolating Muslims (regardless of whether they identify as religious) from participating in the anti-war movement. The consequence is a divided, less effective and weaker opposition.

5. Resistance can make a difference.

This is probably the most important lesson: that what we do to resist the war actually makes a difference. When a few dozen or so activists first met in Calgary in 2002 to discuss building a pan-Canadian anti-war network, they probably had no idea how big the movement would become. Indeed, many of the earliest actions were dismissed as a waste of time because "the Canadian government never says no to Washington."

But those small actions mattered. They helped establish new relationships among groups that had never worked together before. They helped build trust among all the participants. They helped train a new generation of activists entering the movement for the first time. And they laid a foundation for what grew into an unprecedented movement.

In the first few months of 2003, there were frequent demonstrations across the country that mobilized tens of thousands of people. On February, the global day of action, hundreds of thousands of people participated in over 80 actions in Canada, the biggest of which was a march of 250,000 in Montreal.

Quebec's anti-war movement played a decisive role. At the height of the anti-war movement, a provincial election was underway in Quebec, which the Liberals risked losing had they backed the war. Although it was a federal issue, every party in Quebec expressed opposition to the war. Just two days after another 250,000 people demonstrated in Montreal on March 15 (and two days before the war began), Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced in the House of Commons that Canada would not back the invasion of Iraq. Hundreds of Canadian troops who had been deployed on a warship to the Persian Gulf had to be called back.

Perhaps no one more than anti-war activists themselves were surprised that the movement had created enough political pressure to keep the Canadian government out of the war, further isolating the "Coalition of the Willing" and setting the precedent that it could be done again. Without a doubt, the impact on public opinion of the anti-war movement in Canada has been so great that Stephen Harper had to admit his error in support the invasion, and that former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was permanently dogged by his "human rights" defence of it. It also made it easier to erode support for the war in Afghanistan, which a clear majority of the public now opposes.

The recent demonstrations in a handful of cities across Canada actually attracted bigger numbers than the first actions against the Iraq war in the summer of 2002. That is a good sign, and speaks to the potential to build a broad and effective movement in the weeks and months ahead. Not everything the anti-war movement has attempted in the last decade has been effective or successful, but these lessons -- if replicated today -- would surely contribute to our most urgent task: building the kind of movement that could stop a war before it starts.

For more information or to get involved, please email the Canadian Peace Alliance: cpa@web.ca.

James Clark is a member of the steering committee of the Canadian Peace Alliance and a founding member of the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War. Follow him and the CPA on Twitter: @2JamesClark and @CanadianPeace.

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