Dead Men Left

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Ok, continuing the general theme of trying to get the software to work before posting anything more recent/worthwhile, here's something I bashed out for publication elsewhere shortly after the Madrid attacks:

As the awful Madrid bombings made clear, the “war on terror” must now rank as possibly the greatest policy failure in recent history. The Spanish people delivered it a clear verdict in their election, and it is not hard to see why. Civilian deaths from the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are conservatively estimated to be in the region of 12,000. Beyond the confines of Kabul, Afghanistan has lost even the semblance of civil order, with a re-emergent Taliban, conflict between forces in the Northern Alliance, and al-Qa’ida scattered along the border with Pakistan. As an Amnesty International report from October last year details, abuses of women’s rights persist on a huge scale. In Iraq, the tragedies of the occupation continue daily: the violence and the bloodshed, with more US soldiers killed since the war supposedly ended than prior to it and Iraqi civilians drawn into the cross-fire. “Stability” and a “functioning democracy” seem a very long way off, though this has not prevented US corporations enacting an enormous carve-up of Iraq’s vast natural resources. Iraq’s fabled weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) remain just that – fables, with all the senior weapons inspectors, from Scott Ritter through Hans Blix to David Kay, admitting they will never be found for the simple reason that they did not and do not exist. Gross human rights abuses take place in Guantanamo Bay, where former detainees allege torture was routine, and prisoners continue to be denied legal advice or even the promise of a fair trial. Racism has been fuelled, with verbal and physical assaults on Muslims in UK, for example, hugely increasing alongside clear evidence of the racist abuse of “anti-terror” measures by the police.

The “war on terror” has imposed huge costs. It has produced one definite benefit in the overthrow and capture of Saddam Hussein. Donald Rumsfeld guessed right: although UN sanctions and prior US policy implicitly supposed a substantial base of support for Saddam within Iraq, Rumsfeld and his planners, in changing US policy, clearly thought otherwise – that sanctions were failing precisely because they provided the Hussein regime with a passive base of support where none would otherwise exist. This support melted away as soon as the US/UK invasion was launched. Where they guessed wrong was in assuming the UN inspections regime also failed. It would appear rather to have been highly successful in permanently removing Iraq’s WMD capability. Saddam was left as a threat to his own people, but few others. Both Bush and Blair governments have attempted to draw a link between Saddam and Al-Qa’ida: even glossing over the hatred al-Qa’ida had for the secular government of Iraq, without WMDs Saddam had little to offer, and no reason to offer even that. Pre-invasion, the supposed connection between Iraq and al-Qa’ida was only marginally more plausible than that suggested between al-Qa’ida and Eta: post-invasion, al-Qaida – if occupation authorities are to be believed – now has a firm base in Iraq. The “war on terror” has created a connection where none existed, and its consequences reach far beyond the Middle East. As is becoming clear from investigations into the Madrid bombing, al-Qa’ida now has a base in Europe with the political motivation to act.

Aznar’s desperate lies about responsibility for the Madrid bombing did not cover for the catastrophic failings of the “war in terror”. From the knee-jerk bombing of Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq last year, it has become increasingly clear to many that this “war” has been less designed to “combat terrorism” than as an attempt to extend US power, with precious little regard to the consequences. Donald Rumsfeld, sitting in the Pentagon on 13 September 2001, penned a memo suggesting Iraq should be attacked; the softer target of Afghanistan was settled upon, and a quick victory secured prior to last year’s fully-fledged invasion. More than just oil, Iraq offered an opportunity for the US to utilise its overwhelming military superiority to – as the neo-conservatives put it – decisively “re-order” the Middle East in Washington’s favour. Whilst Clinton had failed to effectively exercise the US’ unique post-Cold War military advantages, the opportunity now existed to make good on those wasted years, securing a “new American century”, as the influential think-tank and pressure group, the Project for a New American Century, announces. Commitments to both “establishing democracy” and “combating terrorism” are a secondary matter to the considerations of geopolitics and, more bluntly, the corporate bottom line: a new century with old-fashioned imperialism. Ordinary citizens in the US, as in the rest of the world, have little to gain from this and plenty to lose.

Spain has now suffered what Chalmers Johnson described as “blowback” from foreign policy decisions: dragging the Spanish people into a bitterly unpopular war, Aznar left them to its appalling consequences. Their response was to hold Aznar and his government responsible; that reinforcing the inequities of the world, as the “war on terror” demands, killing the poor and the weak in the interests of the very strongest, are no way to secure peace, still less to enact justice and merely provide the political space in which terrorism can operate. The political reverberations of that war have been felt in the US, too: indirectly through the Congressional hearings on 9/11, more directly through the clear popularity of appeals to anti-war sentiment in the Presidential race, and the very large, almost unreported demonstrations against the war.

Britain, too, has seen huge political consequences post-invasion. As the cautionary adverts on the tube make clear, few will now claim the country has been made safer. The recent round of arrests must be treated with caution: fewer than one in ten arrested under “anti-terror” laws are charged, and few than one in ten of them are convicted. Hysteria prevails on immigration policy, reinforced by the supposed necessity of controls to “combat terrorism”. However, the war has proved deeply polarising; although the Right maintain a hold on Parliament, New Labour ministers vying with Conservatives to beat the “anti-terror” drum the loudest, a clear extra-parliamentary opposition has emerged.

It proves difficult, even for the extraordinarily stable liberal democracy in Britain, to contain a mass movement on the scale we saw, from the two million demonstrators on February 15th to the school student strikes. In an issue of the Script this time I last year, I wrote that the anti-war movement had forced a breach in the solid walls of British politics: growing out from six years of bubbling discontent with New Labour, it had created the opportunity to build a credible Left alternative to the Labour Party perhaps for the first time in eighty years. Since then, we have seen the domestic fall-out from the invasion of Iraq: the death of Dr Kelly, the subsequent Hutton Report and its whitewash conclusions; the Brent East by-election, a safe Labour seat won by a Liberal Democrat apparently opposing the war; the suspension of the anti-war MP, George Galloway, from the Labour Party; the farcical Butler Inquiry into Britain’s WMD intelligence from which even the Conservatives have withdrawn their support.

The anti-war movement has weakened the Blair government perhaps beyond rescue: Blair scraped his theoretically huge Parliamentary majority through the vote on top-up fees, some Labour MPs utilising the independence they found prior to the war. Blair is a man visibly clinging on to power, propped up only by the almost innate cowardice of most Labour MPs and presiding over a party whose active base of support is in a state of collapse. All the bitterness New Labour had built up - through privatisation, attacks on the welfare state, assaults on civil liberties and all the rest - burst through in the anti-war movement, corroding Labour’s base of support to a remarkable extent.

The potential this corrosion has released is starting to coalesce around Respect: the Unity Coalition. Launched at 1,000 strong convention in London in February, Respect is the initiative of a group of anti-war campaigners, most prominently George Galloway, but drawing in others from a variety of backgrounds: a common platform on opposition to imperialist wars, attacks on asylum seekers, privatisation; and support for redistribution, environmental protection, Palestine – agreed to by progressive Muslims, peace campaigners, green activists and others alongside the organised socialist Left. It represents a realignment of the Left, comparable to initiatives taking place in France, under the joint LO/LCR bloc, in Italy through Rifondazione Communista, and in Germany with the recent launch of an organised Left opposition to Schroder. All are basing themselves on a similar discontent with traditional social-democratic parties; Respect is different, both in challenging a far stronger social-democratic organisation and in forming on a strongly anti-imperialist basis.

Elections under PR – a rarity in Britain – are to be held for the European Parliament and the Greater London Assembly in June. Both present themselves as a critical test for the Left: either a substantial minority are broken away from the Labour Party in the polling booth, or the Left must seriously reassess its strategy. The potential for a breakthrough against a Labour government that has so dramatically failed its supporters is there, but realising that potential is a further challenge. Whilst the British Left has all too often squandered its potential, the scale of opposition to Blair and the determination of Respect’s supporters suggest this occasion may be different.