Letter From London

Letter From London

Europeans opposed to war in Iraq are united by a deep distrust, even fear, of America.


Not since the days when a young, bearded Bill Clinton demonstrated outside the US Embassy here has British opposition to an American war been so outspoken, so widespread and so politically impotent.

France may threaten a Gallic “Non!” at the United Nations, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder can give the German Sonderweg (special path) a whole new spin with his firm insistence that Germany will not join this war, but as far as Tony Blair is concerned if American troops march on Baghdad the British will be right alongside them–with or without the sanction of the UN. Blair’s defenders argue that his “shoulder to shoulder” engagement with the Bush Administration has already moderated the terms of the American “war on terrorism” and, in the case of Iraq, has encouraged Washington to rein in the Pentagon’s belligerent unilateralism in favor of the supposedly more nuanced approach favored by the State Department under Colin Powell. Blair’s critics, who tend to prefer a different anatomical analogy for the Prime Minister’s proximity to the President, point out that Powell makes an unlikely pacifist (an analysis borne out by recent events). They also increasingly question whether Blair’s efforts have amounted to even a speed bump in the path of the American juggernaut.

Memo to Donald Rumsfeld: War against Iraq is every bit as unpopular in Britain as it is in the rest of “old Europe.” When Blair made his case on David Frost’s morning TV show on January 26, a telephone poll afterward showed that two-thirds of viewers were still not convinced, a result in line with recent polls by the London Times and Guardian newspapers. Take away the cover of a second UN resolution and support for military action drops to 10 percent. Rowan Williams, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, has denounced the war as immoral, as have the leaders of Britain’s Catholics, Muslims and Methodists. Even the Chief Rabbi has expressed serious misgivings about the war unless “supported by a broad international coalition.” The Daily Mirror, a tabloid that generally supports the Labour Party, has used its campaign against the war to build circulation. But other papers have been just as skeptical, and recently the Daily Telegraph, the only daily to actually come out in favor of the war, worried that “as things stand, the noes have it,” because “the anti-war camp is getting the better of the argument.”

With opposition ranging from trade unionists to high Tories, how long can Tony Blair hold out? The Labour Party enjoys a huge majority, while Parliamentary elections are years away. If, as many here fear, Britain follows America into war without the UN, and Blair is faced with a motion of no-confidence, the Conservative Party would almost certainly back the government. (Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s slavish loyalty to Washington makes Blair look like Fidel Castro.) Nor is Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, whose outspoken opposition to the war has lifted his party into near-parity with the Tories, currently in a position to seriously damage Blair. The real threat would have to come from within Blair’s own party, and though an unpopular war might split the Labour Party, and a long, bloody, inconclusive war would probably do so, at the moment the considerable Labour opposition to the war has come entirely from the party’s backbenchers, not from within Blair’s Cabinet.

Which isn’t to say Blair hasn’t paid a price for his bellicosity. An administration already seen as highhanded and authoritarian in its dealings with teachers, firefighters and local governments now seems even further from popular sentiment. And a government that once defined itself partly in opposition to the cranky Europhobia of the Tories now finds itself at odds with its closest European allies. Whatever happens in Iraq, the fallout from George and Tony’s Big Adventure is likely to be toxic to Blair’s long-professed aim of putting Britain at the heart of Europe.

In the meantime, how strong is European opposition? On the streets of Paris, Rome, Amsterdam or Berlin the war is at least as unpopular as it is in Britain–though only in France and Germany has that unpopularity been reflected in government policy. Germany’s Schröder, who built his election comeback around opposition to this war, and governs as part of a coalition with the Green Party, is unlikely to waver. French President Jacques Chirac has much more room to maneuver. It is still unclear what prompted the French, whose recent declarations against the war seem to have caught both the British and the Americans by surprise, to rally to Germany’s side. Given France’s sizable Arab population, French interests in Iraqi oil, Chirac’s own recent electoral history (as the beneficiary of a broad coalition opposed to Jean-Marie Le Pen) and France’s debt to Germany for blocking British moves to curb European agricultural subsidies, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Chirac, though acting globally, is thinking locally. And local conditions are subject to change. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of French people say they don’t think war is justified. But only some 20,000 turned out for a demonstration in Paris on January 18–and most of them came from the Palestine solidarity movement.

What seems unlikely to change, and what unites demonstrators across Europe, if not their governments, is a deep distrust, often approaching fear, of the United States. The goodwill and sympathy so evident after the September 11 attacks has been replaced by anger at the Bush Administration’s contemptuous disregard for international opinion on a host of issues, from global warming to Israeli aggression to the International Criminal Court.

In the past, European resentment of American dominance was largely confined to intellectuals, politically active leftists and those who had been personally or professionally displaced (the post-Suez anti-Americanism of the British colonial classes, for example). The cold war also froze political alignments across Europe. But the antiglobalization movement has mobilized a generation of Europeans too young to remember the cold war, and too alienated from conventional politics to care who won or why.

In November nearly half a million people filled the streets of Florence for the European Social Forum. Intended as a sequel to antiglobalization protests in Seattle and Genoa, which were marred by sporadic violence and by the inability of the disparate elements to agree on anything resembling a common program, Florence was notable both for its peaceful atmosphere and for the discovery that there was one issue that could unite anarchists and academics, Greens and trade unionists, Catholics and gay liberationists: opposition to war in Iraq. Even the Pope eventually came out against the war.

Here in Britain a January organizing meeting for the Stop the War Coalition brought together union activists, Trotskyist veterans, stalwarts from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), antiglobalization campaigners, and a variety of Palestinian and Muslim groups. Holding such a disparate alliance together isn’t easy, and the Coalition, whose organizing sinew comes largely from the Socialist Workers Party and from the more militant unions, isn’t exactly a model of participatory democracy. At the meeting I attended the organizers kept tight control of the agenda, and though many items were put to a vote the results still hadn’t shown up on the Coalition website nearly a month later. There was also the sense, familiar to those of us with memories of sectarian politics, that much had been decided beforehand, and that certain groups were immune from criticism. As I walked into the room a speaker from the Muslim Association of Britain was explaining why the Mombasa hotel bombing should not be seen as terrorism, and though a few people walked out, and even fewer expressed agreement, there was little appetite for confrontation on this or any of the other questions that divided the participants. Nor, despite all the references to Iraqi suffering, was there more than lip service paid to Saddam Hussein’s role in his people’s immiseration.

These are all serious flaws, and if the antiwar movement in Britain is going to do more than provide occasions for people to take to the streets these issues will have to be confronted. At the moment, it seems enough of an achievement to give people a chance to express their opposition to the war–an opposition denied an outlet by conventional politics. In late September a similar coalition (but without CND) managed to get over 250,000 people out in London. This was an incredibly diverse demonstration, and though it is likely that very few of them shared the organizers’ sectarian priorities, the things they did share were sufficient: suspicion of American intentions, anger at a policy that excuses Israel but punishes Iraq, dismay at the rush to a war in which thousands of civilians will die, fear that we are sowing the seeds of many more 9/11s. On February 15 the antiwar movement will again seek to fill the streets–not just in London, but across Europe from Amsterdam to Warsaw. There will also be demonstrations across the United States.

If that happens there will be plenty of time to cultivate the grassroots, plenty of time for the French and Italian unions, which have so far been mostly spectators, to commit themselves, plenty of time for the people in Britain working to keep Wal-Mart from swallowing another chain of supermarkets here to make common cause with the campaigners organizing against the Blair government’s decision to let the radar tracking station at Fylingdales in Yorkshire become an outpost of Bush’s missile defense program.

Right now European opposition to the war is broad but shallow–probably too shallow to prevent war. But if the United States goes to war with imperial disdain for European opinion, the resulting cries of outrage and impotence may mark something else as well–the birth pangs of anti-imperialism as a genuine popular movement in Europe for the first time since 1968.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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