Blair, please save the Middle East – and us!

How the anti-war movement flits between telling Tony Blair to butt out of the Middle East and pleading with him to protect it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

In anti-war circles, ‘Stop the war’ used to mean telling Blair to stop his war on Iraq. Now, if Saturday’s demo in London against the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon is anything to go by, it means pleading with Blair to use his clout to stop Israel’s war. Anti-war activists have gone from demanding that Blair butts out of the Middle East to asking him to save the Middle East, to separate those crazy Israelis and Lebanese and bring ‘peace’ to their blood-stained cities and landscapes. This confirms that, while the anti-war movement may be anti-war, it is 100 per cent pro-intervention. It does not question for a second the right of Blair and others in the West to dictate and determine the affairs of states ‘over there’. On the contrary, the anti-war movement has provided Blair with a much-needed boost to his international moral authority by charging him with the responsibility to resolve other peoples’ conflicts.

Organised by the left-wing Stop the War Coalition and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), and also the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, RESPECT and others, the demo kicked off in Whitehall, snaked along the Thames and past the US Embassy, and ended with a rally in the rain in Hyde Park. It was a mishmash of left-wing campaigners and Muslims, a sea of red-and-white Lebanese flags, placards by the Socialist Workers Party describing President George W Bush as ‘The World’s No.1 Terrorist’, and banners held aloft by young Asian women in hijabs and men in beards saying ‘Stop attacking Islam’. The unholy alliance between leftists and Islamists was most apparent outside the US Embassy, where those of a generally left persuasion chanted ‘George Bush, terrorist!’, while those young men and women who fancy themselves as radical Islamists preferred ‘Down, down, USA!’ But the slogans were pretty much interchangeable; I saw more than a few T-shirt-wearing secular lefties joining in the chants to topple ‘evil’ America.

These disparate groups shared one aim: to encourage and implore Blair to intervene in the Middle East and demand that Israel call a ceasefire. Betty Hunter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign said that the ‘main purpose of this demonstration’, no less, ‘is to say to Tony Blair and our government that we are ashamed of the position they are taking’. She insisted that the government must ‘change its policy. We really must have an immediate ceasefire.’ Others were there to ‘urge the prime minister to join international calls for an immediate ceasefire’. The Stop the War Coalition encouraged marchers to sign An Open Letter to Tony Blair that said, ‘We call on the government to change its position and join the vast majority of the world’s states, the UN secretary-general and the Archbishop of Canterbury in calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Lebanon to save lives and prevent the destruction of that country.’ (1)

The anti-war movement has gone from describing Blair as the destroyer of lives over Iraq to asking him to join up with men of the cloth in order to save lives in Lebanon. They seem to believe that the man they recently slated for his role in the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq can now play the knight in shining armour who saves Lebanon from destruction. No one seemed to ask what right Blair has to demand a ceasefire, or anything else for that matter, in the Middle East. More to the point, they seemed to ignore the central lesson of Blair’s and Bush’s recent interventions in that region, from Afghanistan in 2001 to Iraq in 2003 to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself: that internationalising local tensions and divisions only makes matters worse. Afghanistan has split asunder, into various unstable territories overseen by ‘warlords’, while sectarian divisions are intensifying in Iraq, leading to an almost daily diet of horrific car and suicide bombings. Calling on all of the ‘world’s states’, as well as the UN and holy men, to intervene in the Middle East is likely only to inflame tensions and entrench divisions. Indeed, it now seems that the UN, backed by Bush and Blair, will send thousands of troops to enforce a buffer ‘peace zone’ between Israel and Lebanon – a de facto form of partition that seems set to increase antagonisms between these two states that apparently cannot live side-by-side without massive intervention from without. How will the anti-war movement protest against such a dangerous Western intervention in the Middle East, when it spent Saturday effectively demanding it?

Saturday’s demo showed that the anti-war movement is less an independent grouping that properly challenges Blair’s penchant for foreign interventionism, and more the mass expression of contemporary political prejudices. Indeed, there is little to distinguish between the positions of the Stop the War Coalition, RESPECT, MAB and others who marched and editorials you will read in various newspapers. The tabloid Sun recently called on Blair to demand a ceasefire in Lebanon under the headline ‘WE MUST STOP THE CARNAGE’. On the other side of the political spectrum, the polite, left-of-centre, Brown-leaning think-tank Compass called on Blair and his Cabinet ministers to issue ‘a clear and immediate call to all combatants to implement an immediate ceasefire aimed at preventing further death and destruction to civilians of all nations involved’ (2). The anti-war movement can be seen as the militant wing – or at least the protesting wing – of these self-righteous media demands for brave Britain to knock together the heads of those silly Johnny Foreigners bombing each other in a strange faraway land. Indeed, the anti-war movement provides a radical gloss and sense of urgency to these calls for Blair to act, allowing the prime minister to present his self-serving interventions in the Middle East as brave and principled acts for the benefit of both the Lebanese and concerned British citizens at home.

In this sense, far from challenging Blair’s thirst for foreign interventions, which have caused much division and destruction over the past eight years, the anti-war march on Saturday boosted Blair’s claim to be a force for good in international affairs. Anti-war activists seem to be among the only people who still believe Blair’s self-publicity about his role as a warrior for decency in international affairs. Indeed, the Stop the War Coalition seems to be just as concerned with preserving an image of Britain as a respectable and caring nation as it is with protecting Lebanese civilians from Israeli bombs. Part of its reasoning for asking Blair to demand a ceasefire in the Middle East is that ‘our country is being humiliated and our isolation from world opinion underlined once more’. Like good little Britons, both the anti-war movement and Blair are concerned with demonstrating good and proper British values in international affairs; Saturday’s march was as much about saving ourselves as anybody else.

The demo also captured the politics of fear and victimhood that drives the anti-war sentiment today. It was not about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Lebanon as citizens with whom we share an interest in opposing Western intervention in the Middle East; rather, it was about an imagined collective victimhood between Britons and Lebanese, where some demonstrators saw themselves as also being victimised by big bad evil forces. Some of the Muslim protesters carried placards saying ‘We are all Hezbollah’, with a picture of a dead Lebanese child spattered in blood. ‘This is all of us’, said one protester, pointing to another picture of an injured and dazed child. This is not the politics of solidarity but the politics of pity – a kind of narcissistic posturing that sees all of us, from Britain to Lebanon to Palestine, as the pathetic victims of forces beyond our control, who can only gather together to bleat and shout about evil Israel, wicked Bush, or inactive Blair. No wonder such a movement requires a saviour – in this instance Blair – to resolve things on its behalf. This was a demo demanding that Blair feel our pain as well as rescuing the Lebanese from theirs.

The biggest losers in all of this are likely to be the people of Lebanon. They are presented by the anti-war movement as hapless victims who require further Western intervention, even a UN occupation, to protect them from harm – which overlooks the fact that decades of Western intervention in that region have consistently stoked tensions, heightened divisions and led to war. If, like me, you oppose Israeli and Western intervention in Lebanon, then you should steer well clear of the UK anti-war movement.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) An Open Letter to Tony Blair, Stop the War Coalition, July 2006

(2) Middle East conflict: Compass statement, Compass, 25 July 2006

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