The Impact of the Anti-War Movement 20 Years After the US Invaded Iraq

The Impact of the Anti-War Movement 20 Years After the US Invaded Iraq

The Impact of the Anti-War Movement 20 Years After the US Invaded Iraq

It’s a reminder that protest can and does matter.


On February 15, 2003, in hundreds of cities across the world, some 10 million people demonstrated against the United States’ impending invasion of Iraq. By many accounts, it was the largest single day of anti-war protest in history. More than a million people jammed London’s center, while huge throngs marched in Rome, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and Sydney. In New York City, hundreds of thousands braved the bitter cold to rally against the war. “The world says no to war” was the slogan and the reality.

A few days after the February demonstrations, the New York Times reporter Patrick Tyler wrote that the huge anti-war demonstrations were indications of “two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” The Nation’s Jonathan Schell wrote of the movement’s “immense power” in winning the hearts and minds of the majority of the world’s people.

Yet this vast mobilization of political opposition was unable to halt the march to war. The unavoidable reality, Schell poignantly observed, was that “candles in windows did not stop the cruise missiles.” Some believe the protests had no influence, but in my view and that of many others, this is shortsighted. The movement in fact had significant impacts in the United States and internationally, prompting politically motivated decisions that undermined the military mission and contributed to what the US Army’s history of the war termed “strategic failure.”

The George W. Bush administration manipulated post-9/11 fears to gain support for the use of force by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be used by terrorists. As critics countered the WMD deception, public support for attacking Iraq began to erode. Polls around the world showed overwhelming opposition to war.

The White House was frustrated by the lack of international support. This was evident in Bush’s conversation with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in early January 2003, as recounted in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack. The campaign against Iraq “isn’t holding together,” the president said to Rice. “We are not winning. Time is not on our side.” Bush was also worried, Woodward wrote, that “antiwar protests in European cities and in the U.S. would fortify Saddam and make him think the U.S. would never invade.”

In Germany, Turkey, Canada, and many other countries, political leaders faced public pressure to reject the US entreaties for participation. Bush’s only significant ally was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who faced domestic criticism for being Bush’s “poodle.” To assuage the skeptics in his government, Blair persuaded a reluctant White House to seek authorization from the United Nations. When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the Security Council in February 2003, however, he was decisively rebuffed. Despite its determined efforts to twist arms, the US was only able to muster the votes of the UK, Bulgaria, and Spain. Rather than face the humiliation of such a paltry showing, the White House withdrew the proposed resolution and proceeded with the attack.

Bush’s so-called “coalition of the willing” was a threadbare arrangement that provided little military help. The massive scale of public opposition prevented many countries from joining and convinced most of those that did to limit their role to noncombat duties. The US Army history says the coalition was “largely unsuccessful” at the operational level, with American troops doing almost all of the fighting and suffering 93 percent of the casualties.

The international rejection of the US-led war was significant. It was the first time since the UN’s founding that the United States could not get full Security Council approval on a national priority.

A creative dialectic developed between the Security Council and global civil society: The stronger the anti-war movement in Germany, Mexico, and other countries became, the greater was the determination to resist US pressure at the UN. And the stronger the objections at the UN became, the greater was the legitimacy and impact of the anti-war movement.

The ways in which protest influences policy are not always apparent. Movements can win even as they appear to lose. While the anti-war movement did not prevent the invasion of Iraq, it helped set the terms of the debate by insisting on UN approval for the use of force and by convincing key governments to refuse to participate, thereby shaping the war’s eventual outcome. The Bush administration was unable to win the larger struggle for hearts and minds at home and abroad. The White House lost the war politically before it ever began militarily.

The same is true today for the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, which, like the US invasion of Iraq, is an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign state. A new global anti-war movement is needed now with the same message as 20 years ago: “No to war.” Oppose military escalation. Pursue peace by aiding Ukrainian victims, supporting Russians who reject the war, and demanding international negotiations for the withdrawal of Russian troops.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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