A damaging misinterpretation of events a decade ago is that the tremendous demonstrations in Britain and around the world against a war on Iraq made no impact.
As the discussion about a new war in the Middle East intensifies in Washington, Whitehall and Tel Aviv, disbelief is turning to anxiety in the minds of many who opposed the wars launched by George Bush and Tony Blair last decade.
It may seem difficult to comprehend why a new generation of politicians is contemplating more of the same, but the evidence is accumulating.
Repeated claims that the time for negotiations with Iran is running out, the increasingly strident tone of the weapons inspectors, the progressive tightening of sanctions and the general demonisation of the Iranian regime all give events a nightmarish familiarity for those of us who remember 2002 and 2003.
More sanguine observers are saying that to strike Iran would carry too many risks for the US and Israel, including the danger of conflagration in the Middle East.
The problem with this argument is that it too is familiar. We heard it back in 2002. An attack on Iraq would have incalculable consequences across the region, we were told, and therefore will not be risked. Right and wrong, as we now know.
The consequences were indeed immense, and are still playing out across the region. They include the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the displacement of four million people, a continuing cycle of violence across Iraq and many other horrors. But the risks, even though well rehearsed, didn't hold up the war plans.
War is rarely rational. It is caused by conflicting interests in times of great stress. And from Washington and Tel Aviv, the world - and particularly the Middle East - looks extremely conflicted and very stressed. One outcome of the Iraq War has been to increase Iran's influence.
Another has been to raise question marks about the US's continued clout in the Arab world. The Arab revolts have generated new threats but also new opportunities for the US. Behind these events looms the central obsession of Washington foreign policy, the growing influence of China, a country with rapidly increasing trade and investment links to Iran.
War is not inevitable. Unlike over Iraq where a secret decision was made to go to war in early spring 2002, there is a real debate raging amongst policy makers over Iran. But this should be a spur to action not complacency.
A damaging misinterpretation of events a decade ago is that the tremendous anti-war demonstrations in Britain and around the world made no impact. 'Two million marched and they didn't listen' is a disheartening, not to say demobilising, mantra. Of course we failed to stop the attack on Iraq, but the anti-war movement has had a deep effect on British politics.
Blair never recovered from his arrogant dismissal of visibly mobilised public opinion. More fundamentally, the movement has helped make war something that politicians regard as a vote loser rather than the election winner it was for Margaret Thatcher after the invasion of the Falklands in 1982.
Ten years, and many political memoirs on, the historical record of the build up to the Iraq war is instructive. It shows that the wave of opposition to an attack on Iraq in 2003 caused a political crisis that came close to bringing Tony Blair down and Britain out of the war.
In the aftermath of the great demonstration of February 15, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon made a phone call to his US opposite number Donald Rumsfeld to tell him that Britain might not be able to participate in the invasion ‘because of political difficulties’. In the same period Tony Blair has admitted he thought he might be facing his last days in office and that his Cabinet Secretary, Anthony Turnball, was making preparations for the fall of the government.
Cabinet and parliamentary cowardice saved the day for Blair and condemned the Iraqis to years of suffering. But mobilised popular opinion, dubbed the second superpower by the New York Times, came much closer than we may have thought to stopping them. Now with more prevarication and division amongst policy makers, we have a chance to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Chris Nineham is a Vice Chair of the Stop the War Coalition. He is currently researching the history and media coverage of the anti Iraq war movement at Westminster University.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- No government should survive this kind of rout. May must go.
- The establishment seems to have forgotten we live in a parliamentary democracy: let's remind them
- What motivates the man in the White House? A study of Trump's foreign policy
- Hundreds rally in London to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia
- May's Brexit deal is a dead duck: the only option now is a general election
- Britain must stop arming the Saudi war criminals now
- How to influence people: Saudi Arabia, Yemen and British bombs