A historic turning point

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

With the spectacular anti-war mobilisation of February 15, the world's citizens have emerged as a moral-political force which no state can ignore. This civil society movement is the greatest, most reliable, antidote to an unjust war.

WHEN momentous events take place, it is sometimes hard to see that they are actually shaping or making history. Often, the closer you are to them as a participant, the harder it is to see them within a broad-horizon perspective and the tougher to detect qualitative change.

This is certainly true of the great global justice movement embodied in the World Social Forum. Many did not understand the true significance and import of the 1999 "Battle of Seattle" until much later, when the Prague and Genoa demonstrations happened, and after every single summit of the powerful (whether the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation (WTO), or the G-8, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the top 1,000 corporations' World Economic Forum) had been picketed by a rainbow coalition of popular movements.

Speaking from personal experience, I got acquainted with the process that eventually led to the World Social Forum (WSF) through interaction with Susan George (of How the Other Half Dies and Lugano Report fame), and Walden Bello (of the Focus on the Global South, and author of Dragons in Distress and A Siamese Tragedy). Both George and Bello are, like me, Fellows of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, a radical think tank/fellowship of scholar-activists spread over many countries.

Susan was the key inspiration behind the WSF precursor and activist coalition ATTAC (Association for Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), set up in France in 1998, which won a remarkable battle against the OECD's bloody-minded, but now-aborted, proposal for a Multilateral Agreement on Investment which would have deregulated all corporate investment flows and established the complete supremacy of private capital over governments, and more important, people.

I recall talking to Susan in May 1999 about ATTAC and other radical groups fighting globalisation. I must confess, I was a little sceptical when she confidently said: "We defeated the OECD, and now we will win against the WTO too." But Seattle happened, and my scepticism was gone. Here was history unfolding in a dramatic way to create, and be shaped by, a great movement of our times, with unparalleled creativity, freshness and energy.

I had exactly the same feeling on February 15 as a participant in the gigantic march organised in London by the broad-based Stop the War Coalition. Drawing in 1.5 to 2 million people, this was acknowledged as the single largest demonstration in British history. Its scale bears no comparison with the anti-Pershing missile peace mobilisations or the anti-apartheid marches of the 1980s, great as these were, with hundreds of thousands participating.

When marchers number in the million, they generate impact and energy all their own: two million marchers correspond to at least two out of every five London households being represented. The march was an exhilarating, energising and empowering experience, with speeches by the admirable Tony Benn, and Bruce Kent, Tariq Ali, Jeremy Corbyn, and others, music by trade union bands and innovative trumpeters, creative placards (most of them irreverently funny), and not least, imaginative slogans.

The marchers' composition was equally remarkable: representing more than 100 countries and ethnic groups, innumerable different constituencies and walks of life, and including "apolitical" students, bank clerks and housewives who had never before participated in a demonstration, as well as seasoned activists from organised groups - political parties, trade unions, feminists, writers, journalists, environmentalists.

The London march was only one contingent of the February 15 anti-war mobilisation in hundreds of cities the world over, with especially impressive numbers in Rome and Madrid (up to three million), Paris and Barcelona (one to 1.5 million), New York and San Francisco (100,000 to 200,000), Sydney (100,000) and Amsterdam (80,000, when only 10,000 were expected under the pro-war caretaker government). There were smaller rallies and vigils in Third Word cities too, from Algiers to Dhaka, Buenos Aires to Islamabad, Kolkata to Quito, Manila to Sao Paolo.... Unfortunately, the Indian protests were not coordinated with this international mobilisation. There was an impressive 7,000-strong rally on February 10 in Delhi, organised by the Left parties, Dalit organisations, people's movements and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. But on February 15, there were only small vigils and meetings in some cities.

February 15's impact was instantly noticeable in newspapers and television, street-level conversations and in statements by political leaders, even their facial expressions. Tony Blair and Jack Straw have started looking rattled and uneasy, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin very pleased, and Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer satisfied.

This impact was all the greater because the marchers could not be arrogantly described as "usual suspects". They were inspired not by self-interest, but by great ideals and noble causes related to universal principles.

The "World Says No To War" February 15 demonstrations - coming on top of hundreds of anti-war protests, including a half-million-strong rally in Florence in November, and the six-digit numbers mobilised in numerous cities including Washington since December - represent a powerful civil society intervention before, not during, a war. This is unprecedented at least since 1938. Even the great mobilisation against the Vietnam War began only after American soldiers started getting killed by the hundreds, infuriating a public already somewhat radicalised by campus-based activism.

IT is not hard to see why the anti-war cause has such massive appeal. The United States, the chief protagonist of bellicosity against Iraq, backed by the ever-loyal United Kingdom, has comprehensively failed to make even a halfway convincing case. Three points are pertinent. First, on February 14, Hans Blix reported, after 400-plus inspections at 300-odd sites, that there is no clinching evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD): "One must not jump to the conclusion that they exist", while adding "that possibility is also not excluded. If they exist they should be presented for destruction. If they do not exist, credible evidence to that effect should be presented." Equally important, Blix certified that Iraq is providing full access to inspection sites; there are no signs that the Iraqis advance warning of the inspections and sanitised the sites, as the U.S. alleges. Chairman of the International Atomic Energy Commission Mohammed El-Baradei also confirmed that there is no evidence whatever that Iraq has nuclear weapons. Iraq has even allowed its scientists to be privately interviewed and U-2 spy-planes to reconnoitre. (Imagine the U.S., or even Pakistan, agreeing to this!) Thus, Powell's February 5 presentation appears to have been based on hyperbole, illegitimate extrapolation and over- or misreading of spy-satellites' pictures (which being U.S. military property are in any case unavailable for public scrutiny). Equally damaging is the disclosure that the Blair government's dossier on Iraq was based on crude plagiarism from a journal article, with some lines doctored to enhance its the alarmist impact.

It now turns out that the U.S. charge, strongly made by Bush himself, of an Al Qaeda-Saddam nexus is fabricated. In his latest tape, Osama bin Laden reviles Saddam as a "socialist, communist and infidel". Bin Laden has always hated the "godless" Baathists.

Second, while it is nobody's case that Iraq is a benign democracy, it is ludicrous to claim that Saddam Hussein is about to attack the U.S. or even his own neighbours. His air-power is pretty much crippled, and his Al Samoud-2 missiles (range 150 km or so) have been banned. It is important to note that Iraq is not recklessly expansionist. In 1980, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran after its Islamic-fundamentalist government tried to assassinate Iraqi officials and topple him. The 1990 Kuwait invasion was over a dispute over war debts and oil prices.

There is no casus belli or cause for war, because Iraq today is threatening no one - least of all, the U.S. It is preposterous to say that America feels genuinely threatened by a beleaguered, besieged, sanctions-battered, state located 10,000 kilometres away.

Third, even pragmatically, it makes more sense to disarm Iraq - if that is indeed the objective - via tougher U.N. inspections rather than war. Some 150 inspectors will probably be more effective here, at a cost of $100 million, than 250,000 soldiers at a cost of $200 billion-plus. Pragmatism, not principled opposition to use of force, is the reason why many U.S. establishment figures oppose war on Iraq. Former officials like Warren Christopher and Brent Scowcroft disfavour it. Even former generals like Norman Schwarzkopf, Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark have serious reservations. Gen. Zinni says of the pro-war hawks: "I'm not sure which planet they live on, because it is not the one that I travel".

Simply put, Washington's motives in invading Iraq have to do with oil, Islam and Israel. With new discoveries, Iraq is believed to have added nearly 200 billion barrels to its impact reserves over the proven 115 billion barrels making it richer in oil than even Saudi Arabia. Besides, the Tigris and the Euphrates hold the key to water in West Asia. The U.S. also wants a regime change in Iraq as part of its plan to reorganise the entire West Asia - favouring "moderate Islamic" (read, pro-U.S.) states. The plan also aims to further privilege and favour Israel, America's lynchpin in the whole region.

These goals are parochial, self-serving - and a recipe for a catastrophic implosion in West Asia. An unjust war on Iraq will also be seen as vengefully anti-Muslim the world over. Yet, the U.S. is boxing itself into a corner as it continues to pour troops and armaments to surround Iraq in keeping with preparations launched as early as August. Already, about 200,000 troops are in place. Their presence has turned into a "prestige" issue. No one has spelt out this logic more frankly or crudely than Henry Kissinger: "If the U.S. marches 200,000 troops... and then marches them back out, the credibility of American power will be gravely, perhaps irreparably, impaired." In other words, U.S. leaders' priority is to save their own face, not human life! The profound irrationality of the U.S.' case for war, and its bullying, chiding and lampooning of the U.N. have put off its closest allies in NATO, besides the vast majority of the world public. Repeated statements by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and even Powell that the U.S. will go to war with or without Security Council authorisation, show boorish disregard for multilateral institutions and international norms of diplomatic conduct.

Bush rails against the Security Council for not enforcing "its own Resolution" on Iraq for 12 years. But he is silent on the fact that Israel has brazenly violated the far more important and substantial Resolution 242 on Palestine all the way since 1967 - with U.S. complicity and encouragement.

Such duplicity compounds the original sin.

If the U.S. bypasses the U.N. or bludgeons it into submission, it will destroy its integrity, credibility and effectiveness. Most of America's own allies think that cannot be in their (or even the U.S.') interest. It will be an invitation to global instability, chaos, brigandage and the law of the jungle. But U.S. neo-conservatives think that America will thrive in such a world, without multilateral institutions which have been built painstakingly over two centuries. It has not been easy for nation-states to accept a reduction of absolute sovereignty and evolve international humanitarian law, covenants on people's rights and disarmament treaties.

THE Atlantic Divide is now a reality. Indeed, it has widened in recent weeks thanks to Rumsfeld's denigration of "old Europe" and Franco-German initiatives in the European Union and the Security Council. This sobriquet has shocked Europeans, but also produced some mirth in the peace movement: one of the February 15 slogans was "Come and Join Old Europe!" More seriously, the term is based on complete misrepresentation, as if the E.U. (or France and Germany) were mired in "old" thinking and outmoded values, while the U.S. stands for "new", forward-looking values, as the leader of the "future" or "coming" world. The absurdity of the image becomes clear when the identity of the "new" Europe is considered: the battered, disoriented and vulnerable countries of the former Soviet bloc, whose leaders are too insecure to chart out a self-assured course in economic or foreign policy.

More substantially, the E.U. does represent a bold attempt at a different model of social and political coordination between states: a union with open borders, shared currency and the broad contours of a common foreign policy.

This has become possible because centuries-old feuds have been put behind in favour of cooperation. E.U. members have accepted a genuine reduction of traditional forms of state sovereignty.

At least ostensibly, the E.U. membership is premised upon democratic governance, protection of human rights, and the unthinkability of war between member-states. It can be further democratised and radicalised into a Peoples' Union. But even in the present form, it represents progress over the crassly hegemonic notions of power on which the U.S. defines itself, with a nationalism that is deeply jingoistic and domineering.

Widening rifts on Iraq will further polarise differences between the two models. Whether this leads to greater plurality in the world will be determined significantly by what the U.S. does, or is allowed to get away with, in Iraq and broadly in West Asia. A critical component of this will be global civil society. Only a powerful peace movement can keep the resistance to America on course and eventually make Washington see reason.

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