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The Soft Underbelly of the British Peace Movement



A massive majority in Britain is currently opposed to the war, but the anti-war movement confronts a virtually uniform House of Commons. Both major parties are united and Labour MPs incapable of mounting a parliamentary revolt to ditch Blair, the only thing that could halt the drive to war. The British peace movement, however, has a soft underbelly. A war that is unjustifiable if waged by Bush and Blair alone becomes acceptable to some if sanctioned by the “international community” – ie the UN security council. The consciences of those opposed to the unilateralist bombing of cities and civilian deaths are appeased if the weapons of destruction are fired with UN support. This level of confusion raises questions about the UN today. Do its resolutions carry any weight if opposed by the US, as has repeatedly been the case with Palestine and Kashmir?

The UN and its predecessor, the League of Nations, were created to institutionalize a new status quo arrived at after the first and second world wars. Both organizations were founded on the basis of defending the right of nations to self-determination. In both cases their charters outlawed pre-emptive strikes and big-power attempts to occupy countries or change regimes. Both stressed that the nation state had replaced empires.

The League of Nations collapsed soon after the Italian fascists occupied Ethiopia. Mussolini defended his invasion of Albania and Abyssinia by arguing that he was removing the “corrupt, feudal and oppressive regime” of King Zog/Haile Selassie and Italian newsreels showed grateful Albanians applauding the entry of Italian troops.

The UN was created after the defeat of fascism. Its charter prohibits the violation of national sovereignty except in the case of “self- defense”. However, the UN was unable to defend the newly independent Congo against Belgian and US intrigue in the 1960s, or to save the life of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. And in 1950 the security council authorized a US war in Korea.

Under the UN banner the western armies deliberately destroyed dams, power stations and the infrastructure of social life in North Korea, plainly in breach of international law. The UN was also unable to stop the war in Vietnam. Its paralysis over the occupation of Palestine has been visible for over three decades.

This inactivity was not restricted to western abuses. The UN was unable to act against the Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956) or the Warsaw Pact’s entry into Czechoslovakia (1968). Both Big Powers were allowed to get on with their business in clear breach of the UN charter.

With the US as the only military-imperial state, the security council today has become a venue for trading, not insults, but a share of the loot. The Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci predicted this turn of events with amazing prescience. “The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony,” he wrote, “is characterized by the combination of force and consent, in variable equilibrium, without force predominating too much over consent.” There were, he added, occasions when it was more appropriate to resort to a third variant of hegemony, because “between consent and force stands corruption-fraud, that is the enervation and paralyzing of the antagonist or antagonists”. This is an exact description of the process used to negotiate Russian support at the UN as revealed in a front-page headline in The Financial Times (October 4, 2002): “Putin drives hard bargain with US over Iraq’s oil: Moscow wants high commercial price for its support.”

The world has changed so much over the last 20 years that the UN – the current deadlock notwithstanding – has become an anachronism, a permanent fig leaf for new imperial adventures. Former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali was sacked on Madeline Albright’s insistence for challenging the imperial will: he had insisted that it was the Rwandan genocide that needed intervention. US interests required a presence in the Balkans. He was replaced by Kofi Annan, a weak placeman, whose sanctimonious speeches may sometimes deceive an innocent British public, but not himself. He knows who calls the shots.

As Mark Twain described it in 1916: “Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.”

If the security council allows the invasion and occupation of Iraq either by a second resolution or by accepting that the first was sufficient to justify war as a last resort, then the UN, too, will die. It is necessary to insist that UN-backed war would be as immoral and unjust as the one being plotted in the Pentagon – because it will be the same war.

TARIQ ALI is an editor of New Left Review and a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. This article is extracted from his new book The Clash Of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads And Modernity, published by Verso. He can be reached at:


Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

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