More to it than anti-war

Why does the anti-war movement focus on bombs when diplomacy can be just as dangerous?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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‘I am all for taking action against the perpetrators of the 11 September terrorist acts’, said Bruce Kent, vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), to a packed ‘Stop the war’ meeting in London on 4 October. ‘But I’m not for amassing troops on Afghanistan’s borders.’

Instead, ‘we should bring the terrorists to justice through the UN and international courts’, said Kent, to rapturous applause from the assembled peace protesters and left-wingers – ‘through diplomatic and political means….not through military action’.

This has been a familiar cry of the anti-war movement since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September – that the last thing we need is more bombing, bloodshed and war. Instead we should try a little politics and diplomacy to resolve the problem of terrorism and to help the people of Afghanistan – who, as one audience member reminded us at the 4 October meeting, ‘are as much the victims of terrorism – via the Taliban and bin Laden – as were the people of America on 11 September’.

Listening to anti-war campaigners over the past month, one thing has become clear: they may well be anti-war, but this is no anti-imperialist movement. They might oppose the West dropping smart bombs in Kabul (‘No bomb is smart’ is one of their slogans) – but they support the right of the West to intervene in Afghanistan and beyond in the name of removing terrorism and installing democracy. As one anti-war speaker said to the ‘Stop the war’ audience: ‘Bombs do not build – and we need to build.’

At the same meeting, Rob Whitely of the UK Green Party – which has thrown its lot in with the anti-war movement – spelled out his vision of a West which ‘doesn’t do military action’, but instead helps to ‘restore democracy’ in ‘shattered nations’. ‘Global justice is best developed by us here in the first world’, Whitely said, pointing out a special role for the UK. ‘In Britain, we must set an example for others in the world’ – and, ‘as the fourth largest economy in the world, which also has respect for other nations’, we should ‘lead the way’ towards ‘new values internationally’.

Even now that the West’s bombing campaign has started, the anti-war movement is finding it difficult to condemn Western governments outright for what they are doing to Afghanistan. In its official statement on the bombing of Afghanistan, CND doesn’t mention being opposed to the attacks until paragraph five – first taking time to remind us how it ‘unreservedly condemned the terrorist attacks on 11 September’ (as did everybody else, surely), how it ‘supported the principle of building international pressure with the objective of bringing those responsible for the atrocities to justice’, and how it ‘commended the Bush administration and our prime minister for toning down the earlier rhetoric about retaliation and retribution and for showing the restraint that we and others called for’.

By paragraph five, its opposition to the West’s attacks comes across like a damp squib: ‘CND is gravely concerned about the ramifications of these air strikes.’ Even when the West bombs a country that has been bombed so often there is little left to bomb, it seems that the anti-war movement finds it hard to hold a firm anti-militaristic line.

Throughout Europe and in the USA itself, anti-war movements have lobbied for a legal and diplomatic rather than a military solution. In France, one anti-war group has adopted the slogan ‘Diplomacy not death’. In Germany, anti-war protesters marched behind a banner calling for ‘International justice – not US militarism’.

At anti-war meetings in London, speakers have evoked a possible international criminal court as one way of bringing bin Laden to justice, and have called on Western governments and the United Nations (UN) to help set up a democratic post-Taliban government, which, as one ‘Stop the war’ attendee explained, should represent the Afghan people ‘in all their ethnic diversity’, rather than just ‘bombing the country back to the stone age’.

But what is this diplomacy that the anti-war movement is so keen on? Is it the same diplomacy that has seen Pakistan unravel and inch closer towards civil conflict as Bush and Blair put it under diplomatic pressure to support the West’s war? Is it the kind of diplomacy that has caused violent protests in Arab states – from Saudi Arabia to Palestine to Egypt – as Arab leaders attempt the tricky balancing act of remaining in favour with the USA while not giving the impression to their populations that they are too much in favour with the USA? To those on the receiving end, choosing between diplomacy and war is a bit like a rock and a hard place – like the choice between having a gun pointed at your head and having somebody pull the trigger.

And what sort of democratic government would the peace protesters like to see America/Britain/the UN/‘the international community’ (delete according to how radical your views are) install in Afghanistan? One led by the former mujahideens of the Northern Alliance, who many have pointed out are as lacking in progressive thinking as the Taliban? One headed by the former 86-year-old King of Afghanistan who was deposed over 20 years ago and hasn’t stepped foot in Afghanistan since then (an idea floated by New Labour ministers, among others)? Perhaps the anti-war lobby wants to see something similar to the post-conflict international protectorate in Bosnia – which in fact has given the people of Bosnia less say, not more (1).

The anti-war movement seems to have forgotten one important thing – democratic governments, by their nature, are not something that can be imposed from without.

And what are the new international laws and courts that the anti-war movement would like to see pushed through, to catch the likes of bin Laden? The kind of laws that would undermine nations’ sovereignty and allow Western powers to sit in judgement on less powerful states? (2)

Since 11 September, and since the bombing of Afghanistan started on 7 October, the anti-war movement has seemed at a loss – more confused and dithering, than confident and determined. In fact, the Western powers’ own caution about their war on terrorism – where Blair claims not to be a warmonger, while Bush modifies every war statement with reference to his ‘friends, the Afghan people’ – seems to be matched by the anti-war movement’s caution about opposing what the West is doing or putting forward a clear anti-war line.

As the conflict goes on, there is neither a pro-war fever (as there was around the Falklands War in 1982) nor an anti-war fervour (as around Vietnam in the 1960s). Instead, both sides seem unsure, full of trepidation and unwilling to commit themselves too fully to anything that might be called ‘a stance’. The West might be bombing a country in the Middle East as it has done many times before, but this is not traditional imperialism – as much as the response from the anti-war movement is not traditional anti-imperialism.

What we end up with are Western powers in denial about being at war, and an anti-war movement too fearful to be truly anti-war.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

The piece movement, by Brendan O’Neill

No politics please, we’re peace campaigners, by Brendan O’Neill

Anti-globalisation, anti-war, anti-everything, by Josie Appleton

What’s anti-war?, by Josie Appleton

Judging the war, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Third time wrong, by David Chandler

(2) In defence of sovereignty, by Jon Holbrook

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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