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A Naked Display of Imperial Power



The historic significance of the protests against the war in Iraq is that they have been unprecedented in size, scope or scale. This is the first truly global response to a political event: millions have come out on the streets of Western Europe, North and South America, Western Europe, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand and last week, the Arab street exploded with the largest spontaneous demonstration Cairo had seen since Nasser’s funeral.

What will be the effect of the war now raging in Iraq on the peace movement? Its fair-weather friends (symbolised in Britain by the pathetic and spineless figure of the Liberal leader Charles Kennedy) will naturally drop out, but the movement itself will grow in strength and determination. The US occupation of Iraq will necessitate a change in tactics, but the overall strategy of the global peace movement will not alter.

It is now obvious to a large majority of the world’s population that the real threat to peace and stability comes not from the depleted armouries of decaying dictatorships, but from the rotten heart of the American Empire or its regional satrapies (Israel, Britain). It is this new awareness of world realities that has radicalised a new generation across the globe. Those who accept the official justifications for the conflict simply cannot understand the resistance to this war. It has nothing to do with support for Saddam, but reflects a refusal to believe the untruths being spouted by Bush, Rumsfeld and Blair and their apologists in the media. Apart from the United States, few citizens elsewhere believe that the fiercely secular Ba’ath Party of Iraq has any links with Osama’s gang. As for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ the only nuclear stockpile in the region is situated in Israel. And even if Saddam Hussein had the capacity to acquire these weapons, an imperial princess had already pointed out that it would be a futile act.

In the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice wrote: “The first line of defense should be a clear and classical statement of deterrence‹if they do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.”

Unusable in 2000, but now Saddam must be removed by bombing Iraqi cities and a land invasion before he gets them? Like many of the other pretexts for this war it doesn’t add up, thus fuelling a broad-based opposition.

What appears to have happened is that a Christian-Jacobin faction from the extreme-right of the Republican Party (backed by hard-core Zionists) has utilised 9/11 to capture the White House, the Pentagon and the Department of Justice. Their aim is the pursuit of a bold and audacious imperialist agenda of which the occupation of Iraq is seen as the first step. Iran and the Korean Peninsula are the next targets.

Its spokespeople, compared to the flatulent rhetoric of their New Labour toadies, are refreshingly honest: in order to preserve US hegemony they will use force wherever and whenever necessary.

European hand wringing leaves them unmoved. If the United Nations can’t be used as an instrument of US power it should be dumped without too much delay. And, one could argue from the other side, if the UN is genetically incapable of preventing pre-emptive strikes by imperial rogue states that openly violate its charter (leave alone ratifiying the occupation of Iraq and becoming an after-sales service for the Empire) then it is time to think of other more effective arrangements. The creation or strengthening of existing regional associations of nation states would be an obvious next step. Recently, the Organisation of American States isolated the US and refused to endorse any attempts to topple Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (another oil-rich state considering moving from the dollar to the Euro).

The antiwar movement was given a tremendous boost by the French-German decision not to back the war. This is the first occasion on which a disagreement between the inner core of the EU and the United States exploded into a public rift and helped polarise public opinion both in Europe and North America. Add to that the Turkish parliament (unlike the House of Commons) disrupted the war effort and the Canadian Prime Minister used strong language to denounce the conflict. The opposition of these states is limited (only Belgium refused to permit the use of its air space), but that it exists at all marks a turning point in European-US relations. If the US continues on this course then the EU will have to re-open a public discussion regarding its future. A fierce private debate is already taking place in France and Germany. The ramifications of the assault on Iraq will have global consequences and a resistance to the Empire is inevitable. Its timing is the only point of dispute. Where will this take the peace movement?

The model of what needs to be done by today’s dissenters was established in the last year of the 19th century. Mark Twain, shocked by the chauvinist reaction to the Boxer Rebellion in China and the US occupation of the Philippines, sounded the tocsin. The problem, he argued, was imperialism. It had to be opposed. His call led to a mammoth assembly in Chicago in 1889, which founded the American Anti-Imperialist League. Within two years its membership had grown to over half a million and it attracted some of the most gifted writers and thinkers of the United States (Henry James, Charles Elliot Norton, W.E.B. Dubois, William Dean Howells, Frederic Douglass, Jr, etc.)

Today, when the United States is the only imperial power, the importance of a global Anti-Imperialist League cannot be understate, but it is the US component of such an organisation that will be crucial. The resistance can only be political. The history of the rise and fall of Empires teaches us that it is when their own citizens finally lose faith in the efficacy of infinite wars and permanent occupations that the beast implodes.

The World Social Forum (which hosts the movement of movements every year) has, till now, concentrated on the power of multinational corporations and neo-liberal institutions. But Friedrich von Hayek, the inspirer of the “Washington Consensus”, was a firm believer in wars to buttress the new system. The World Social Forum should think of campaigning against the military presence of the US in 120 countries. Economics is after all only a concentrated form of politics and war a continuation of both by other means.

TARIQ ALI’s latest book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms is published in paperback by Verso.

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

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