Published on Monday, March 10, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
Defiance of Global Will
This war is not only about Iraq, but about who runs the world and how to make them accountable to us
by Gary Younge
He could have chosen anything. With such a huge majority and so little coherent opposition in parliament, there have been no end of issues on which Tony Blair might have taken a moral stance and shown leadership against either popular opinion or powerful vested interests over the past six years.
He might have faced down the tabloids and made a stand against the scapegoating of asylum seekers, or resisted the pressure from the markets and raised taxes to fund increased investment in public services.
But the issue on which he chose to set himself against the wishes of the country and his party has been international law; if necessary, to embark on military action to secure cheap oil supplies for the world's wealthiest nation.
Were this an aberration it might be worthy of disappointment. The fact that it is entirely consistent is a source of exasperation. For while Blair's support for the war has never been inevitable, it is nonetheless a logical progression of the path he has traveled thus far.
Under his leadership, New Labour has now leapfrogged European Social Democracy and even Gaullism and landed in the lap of the most rightwing forces on the planet, from America's Republican president George Bush to Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. This result is the most glaring example of the fundamental dislocation between popular political culture and an isolated political class. We are stuck with a government that does not represent us, prosecuting a war we do not want.
The conditions from which this dilemma emerges might be particular to Britain. But the issues of representation and accountability that underlie them are not. We are not grappling with a local difficulty but a global crisis in democratic legitimacy.
It is difficult to find a nation that supports a US-led war against Iraq, and difficult to find a nation where people do not think it is inevitable. Every time we turn on the news it is like watching a juggernaut heading towards a crowded playground in slow motion. We can see the catastrophe coming, but feel powerless to stop it.
Take the "key allies" with whom Bush will bomb regardless. Only 39% of Americans, 22% of Australians, 15% of Italians and Britons, 13% of Bulgarians and 2% of Spaniards back a war without UN approval. So much for the "coalition of the willing".
The irony of a man who lost an election and won a court case "installing" democracy in the Arab world is not lost on many. Not least because if we had anything like representative democracies in the west he would be in no position to do so.
So while the millions who took to the streets last month have finally found their voice, they have yet to find anyone with their hand on the tiller to heed it. The question is, what are they going to do about it? Where will all the political energy and activism, that has produced the largest demonstrations and one of the most vibrant anti-war movements in the post-war era, go? How will it get there, who will lead it and what will it look like when it arrives?
The most pessimistic scenario is that it will not go anywhere. This is Blair's most fervent hope. That after the arm-twisting, horse-trading, phone-tapping and vote-buying is over they will receive enough votes on the security council to claim they have a UN imprimatur even if the resolution is vetoed. Whether the votes come through or not, they hope that, within a week of bombing, Baghdad will be trashed from a great height, Saddam will be captured or killed and a US-sponsored viceroy imposed. Then the spin doctors will come in to clear up the mess. They will claim victory and their electorates will lose interest in the trail of mayhem and broken promises about installing democracy that follows, just as they have done with Afghanistan.
This could happen. Demonstrations are expressions of popular public sentiment - an intangible commodity that often burns brightly and then fades away. They occasionally secure single-issue concessions but rarely make lasting imprints. Remember the fuel protests and the Countryside Alliance march? Powerful while they lasted, forgettable once over. Marches can express popular public disaffection, but it takes a movement to translate that into a coherent, political challenge.
And the war may well be swift. Nobody doubts America's military superiority. And if that were not enough, the UN will have forced Saddam to destroy most of his weapons of mass destruction by the time the US employs its own weapons of mass destruction to destroy him. But for all that, this scenario is unlikely. The anti-war movement has already made its mark on the mainstream. It has stopped the Turkish government in its tracks, forced the Pakistani regime to pause for reflection and given German chancellor Gerhard Schröder another term in office.
In the line-up for the Democratic presidency, four of the nine nominees are standing as anti-war candidates. None of them has a chance of winning, but all are shifting the debate to the left and between them they make a solid bloc that will have to be catered for and cannot be ignored.
Likewise, a critical mass of Labour backbenchers has finally discovered a purpose - to represent the people who elected them to the government rather than the interests of the government to the electorate. As former ministers Frank Dobson and Chris Smith will testify, dissent is an acquired taste. Now they have tried it they might extend the practice to other areas of government policy.
But while these dissidents should be supported, they cannot be relied on. They gain their strength from the pressure coming from outside parliament. They can follow a movement but they cannot lead it.
If and when military action begins, many of these domestic rebellions may well fizzle out. But the pressure that brought them to bear will persist. The war is not, and never has been, solely about Iraq. It is about who runs the world, to whom they are accountable and how we might influence them. As such, the issues it raises are inextricably entwined with those the anti-globalization movement has been addressing for the best part of a decade.
They will not go away if Baghdad falls but will go on as long as there are sweatshops in Thailand and banana fields in the Caribbean. It is not only the US and UK's role in the UN they question but their role in the World Trade Organization and World Bank too. While anti-war movements must be focused on the issue at hand - protesting against the bombing of Iraq - they must be prepared and able to embrace the broader issues, which are the source of much of the anxiety that brought people to the streets last month. Both Bush and Blair have made clear the current crisis is about what kind of world we want to live in and whether one nation has the right to defy international will. We should take them at their word.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003