Politics, the media and the anti-war movement

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Ten years on: The lessons of the mass protests against the Iraq War

On Tuesday, March 11 2003, British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon phoned Donald Rumsfeld, his opposite number in the U.S., and told him Britain might not participate in the invasion of Iraq. "We in Britain are having political difficulties," he said, "real difficulties, more than you might realise." He explained that there was a real chance an upcoming vote in parliament would go against the war, in which case Britain would have to 'disconnect' its troops from the operation. That night, Donald Rumsfeld went public about Blair's problems at a televised White House press conference, admitting Britain might not be showing up for the invasion. He reassured the media "there are workarounds." Blair, Hoon and their colleagues were furious.

This was nine days before the invasion of Iraq. Hoon's phone call reflected panic in Blair's camp. A few days earlier Home Secretary Jack Straw had told Blair that if he went to war with Bush without a second UN resolution, "the only regime change that will be happening will be in this room." Next day, Jack Straw was apparently one of a number of senior figures arguing with Blair not to join in.

In Alistair Campbell's words, "Jack S said that Rumsfeld's idiotic comments gave us a way out." One Guardian journalist reported in a piece headlined 'Brought to the brink of defeat,' "Senior civil servants began to check the procedures that might be necessary if Mr Blair was forced to quit."

Panic in Downing Street

 Whatever Donald Rumsfeld might have meant by 'workarounds' if Britain had pulled out of the war it would have been catastrophic not just for the government but for the whole Iraq operation. As Hoon himself admitted later, the British and U.S. forces were so intertwined there would have been a massive hole in military planning. Worse, the U.S. would have lost vital political cover for an invasion that was leaving it more and more isolated.

The panic in Downing Street was largely a result of public opposition and protest, the impact of what the New York Times two days after the February 15 global protests called "the second superpower." That day was the highest point of a movement that Blair admits shocked him and "reminded me of my isolation." It took place at a time of maximum international disarray about the war. As Alistair Campbell noted in his dairy the morning of the march, they had both slept badly, "every part of the strategy was in tatters -- re the EU, re the UN, re the US, re the party, re the country which was about to march against us."

All this and more has found its way into the public record, at least in the last few years, but it is not in the standard account of the time. The received wisdom is that Blair and his team sailed through those months blithely ignoring all criticism, unimpressed by popular protest and unconcerned by public doubt.

Largely of course, this is because he did in the end get away with it; the parliamentary revolt was contained -- just -- and the war went ahead with all its predicted horror. But it is not just that. Panic and disarray don't fit the 'Teflon Tony' image that has been constructed by Blair and his admirers. More generally the last thing rulers want to do is admit they have been shaken by the action of those they rule. So it should come as no surprise that it is only years after Tony Blair's resignation that the full extent of the crisis caused by opposition to the Iraq war has begun to surface.

The media 

 Accompanying this crisis was unusual media behaviour. The mainstream media normally ignores, marginalises or even criminalises radical protest. For a short period around the start of the Iraq war something different happened. Not only was there widespread and at times celebratory coverage --including demonstration supplements in the Sunday papers -- but some newspapers actively encouraged their readers to participate in demonstrations with maps, arguments and even banner headlines.

While the Murdoch press was uniformly hostile and most of the media supported the war, the protests could not be ignored. The Mirror took the decision to actively back the anti-war movement. In the run-up to February 15 it regularly carried articles explaining why marching mattered. Senior staff from the Mirror actually met with march organisers to discuss how to promote the protest and produced thousands of placards to be distributed on the demonstration itself.

All this reflects the depth of the crisis created by the Iraq war and the movement against it. It is a challenge to the pessimistic view that marching and mass movements change nothing. The Stop the War movement generated not just the biggest demonstrations in British history but also an unprecedented outbreak of direct action, including the biggest wave of school walkouts in British history. In fact the movement broke a series of protest records.

February 15 was the biggest protest of all time in Britain and many other countries. Britain's biggest weekday protest took place when 300,000 confronted George Bush on his November 2003 visit to London; and its biggest protest in wartime took place when around half a million marched two days after the bombing started.

As the decade went on the movement also organised further massive demonstrations over Iraq and a series of important marches and protests against the occupation of Afghanistan. In 2006 Stop the War called two very large emergency demonstrations against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and in 2009 co-organised two massive demonstrations against the Israeli incursions into Gaza. Most important, the real history of the anti-war movement suggests that in fact, co-ordinated mass action does have the power not just to change minds but to challenge governments.

Anti-war movement reveals empire's vulnerability

This isn't just a debate about the effectiveness of protest; there are also wider analytical questions at stake. Bush and his coterie were nothing if not self-confident. After a shaky start, 'success' in Afghanistan had the effect of supercharging both Bush and Blair's sense of mission.

Anger at the massive build up of power at the centre of imperialism, the arrogance and cynicism of the Western leaderships, and the more and more obvious links between governments and the corporations can lead to an overestimation of the power of imperialism. Certainly some left-wing analyses of imperialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union reflected Western triumphalism more than real power relations. As we shall see, internal U.S. foreign policy documents from around the turn of the 21st century in fact reveal a mixture of hubris and anxiety, reflecting the U.S.'s still dominant but increasingly challenged position in the world. The anti-war protests at the time and in the ten years since the invasion of Iraq have underlined imperialism's vulnerability just as much as its terrible capacity to unleash carnage on the world.

Media behaviour is a constant frustration to those who seek change. Owned and run for the most part by big corporations or governments, the media has a built-in tendency to favour the status quo. This can lead to a sense that the corporate media has a grip on the collective consciousness that can't be loosened. Nick Davies ends his brilliant critique of today's news media Flat Earth News with a despairing description of the impact of the corporate media on our future by U.S. radicals John Nichols and Robert McChesney:

In the place of informed debate or political parties organising along the full spectrum of opinion, there will be vacuous journalism and elections dominated by public relations, big money, moronic political advertising. It is a world where the market and commercial values overwhelm notions of democracy and civic culture, a world where depoliticisation runs rampant, and a world where the wealthy few face fewer and fewer threats of political challenge.

As the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the demonstrations comes around, we can assume that normal service has been resumed in the media for the time being, and that the anniversary of the historic protests will largely be ignored.

It seemed wrong that the anniversary should pass without these demonstrations and their tremendous impact being re-examined. The aim is to remind ourselves of the sheer criminality of Bush and Blair's conduct, to try and explain what was behind it and how they got away with it, but also to underline, in very dangerous times, the power of mass, popular protest.


A version of this excerpt was originally published by Counterfire.

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