I am not into self-celebrations, but maybe this time I ought to make an exception. Those of us who took part to last weekend’s massive anti-war demonstrations have got every reason to congratulate themselves. If anything, it looks like to have successfully brought back public opinion at the center stage of international politics, at least as far as Europe is concerned.
It took over a million demonstrators in London, over two million in Rome, over three million in Spain, and slightly lower yet impressive figures in the Old Continent’s main cities, for European leaders to officially acknowledge what opinion polls have been saying for months: that the overwhelming majority of their citizens fiercely oppose an attack on Iraq, and that public opinion on this delicate matter can no longer be ignored.
During an interview given to the BBC in the wake of London’s largest ever rally, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was forced to admit that “it is patently more straightforward for governments to take a country to war if they palpably have got the whole of the population behind them than if not”, and that “it would be incredibly difficult indeed” for the UK Government to go to war against the public wishes. In Italy, the February 15 demos appear to have worked the miracle of creating within the center- left coalition a united front against the government’s decision to grant full logistic support to the US military in case of war. In Spain, according to the Guardian, “ministers admitted that the government’s position was ‘causing significant electoral damage’”, although Aznar appears to remain unswayed by the massive turnout in Madrid and Barcelona, where the largest Spanish rallies took place. “In cities across Europe, people were clearly showing that they did not want war. I hope this… will help the EU to find a common position…” Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told reporters after the demonstrations.
And no doubt people’s antiwar sentiments seem to have made it right through to the final statement on the Iraq crisis issued by the EU heads of state on February 17, after an emergency summit meant to piece together the leaders’ diverging views over war that have been emerging over the past few weeks: “The Union’s objective for Iraq remains full and effective disarmament in accordance with the relevant [UN Security Council] resolutions… We want to achieve this peacefully. It is clear that this is what the people of Europe want.” A view that was then reinforced by the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, during a press conference at the end of the summit, when he mentioned the “millions of voices that took the streets this week-end to say no to war”, a feeling “we definitely cannot ignore”.
So it seems that the largest ever international anti-war rally has scored the global peace movement a few points. But has it really? On taking a closer look at the EU statement, it is clear that we have very few reasons to rejoice. For one thing, EU leaders have not ruled out military action against Iraq: while they agree that “war is not inevitable”, they still contemplate the use of force, “only as a last resort”, “in the absence of full Iraqi co-operation”. Moreover, while re-stating their “full support to the ongoing work of the UN inspectors”, EU leaders made it clear that “inspections cannot continue indefinitely”, a position that sounds more in line with the Bush Administration’s war plans that with any slogan that was shouted from the streets on Saturday. And indeed, reliable sources confirm that Washington regards the EU statement as a “success”, for mentioning military action among the possible options and for highlighting the importance of EU-US cooperation “for the disarmament of Iraq, for peace and stability in the region and for a decent future for all its people.”
The truth is, EU leaders are only paying lip service to the views voiced by the global anti-war movement, hoping that the tide of public opinion will change once military action is backed by a new UN resolution. US diplomatic sources have confirmed that Washington is already working at a second resolution, to be presented to the UN Security Council next week; according to the latest reports, the UK administration has been trying to convince its US allies to postpone any final decision until March 14, the date proposed by the French Prime Minister at the UN Security Council last week to give UN inspectors sufficient time to ascertain any violation of Resolution 1441. The UK is hoping this way to have enough time to convince France and other countries that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating with the UN’s inspectors, which would trigger the approval of a second resolution authorizing the use of force. And since EU countries have agreed that “inspections cannot continue indefinitely”, it is quite possible that the UK’s strategy may yield the results it is hoping for.
Where do these developments leave the global anti-war movement? Now that the enthusiasm of the week-end is making way to the need for an the assessment of our strategy and tactics, we ought to realize that, rather than factoring in the public’s views into their decisions, European leaders are using the demonstrations to legitimize an attack on Iraq under the UN’s approval. They say “we know the citizens of our countries are against war on Iraq: so are we. Since we care about public opinion, we are only willing to use force as a last resort, if all else fails, and only with full respect of international law. But it increasingly looks like Baghdad is unwilling to accept our offer of a peaceful resolution of the conflict, failing to cooperate with the inspections. Although we would like to avoid war, Saddam Hussein leave us no other option: war may become necessary, but it’s not our fault.” In other words, they are trying to portray themselves as benign leaders who are going out of their way to avoid war (fully knowing that this has been their preferred option all along), trying to keep the public at bay while pressing on with their agenda.
What does this tell us about the success of the antiwar demonstrations? For one thing, it is obvious that our leaders fear the rising tide of public opinion, to the point that they felt obliged to acknowledge civil society’s opposition to war.
On the other hand, they think we are not threatening enough yet, that our opposition can still be domesticated by pretending they are paying heed to our wishes, fully knowing that war is not only not inevitable, but indeed necessary to maintain the current system of economic domination the western elites are benefiting from. They are banking on the fact that opposition to war has reached its peak (how many more people can the movement hope to bring to the streets?), and that our opposition may wane once they convince us that they have done whatever they could to avoid war, and there is no other option but to turn to a new Security Council resolution to get rid of the most evil dictator on earth.
The implications for the anti-war movement should be fairly obvious. We should keep the pressure high, making it clearer than ever that we are going to oppose this war with or without the UN consent. And we should do so in new and creative ways, more threatening to their interests than a few million people legally obstructing the normal functioning of a few big cities every now and again.
Let’s not put limits to our imagination: as citizens and consumers, we have a tremendous power over the functioning of the economy, although we often fail to realize that. Why can’t we stop using our cars, why can’t we walk out on our employers all together, why can’t be block the main infrastructures of our own cities, why can’t we can clog the email systems and websites of the institutions that are currently supporting war?
The possibilities are endless. We simply ought to ask ourselves: “What price am I willing to pay in order to stop this war? Indeed, what price am I willing to pay to bring down this logic of violence and exploitation, and start building a whole new world from scratch?”, and then act accordingly.
A number of mobilizations are being called all over Europe in the event a war begins: sit-in, general strikes, demonstrations, and direct actions of civil disobedience. This is all very good, but it will be too late. We ought to act now, while the memories of the millions peaceful protesters are still fresh in the mind of the powerful few. They think we have reached our peak, we should respond by showing them that our struggle has only just begun.
Adele Oliveri is an economist and political activist from Italy, now living in Spain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.