Tag Archives: protest

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 July 2019

Replying to a May 2019 tweet from Momentum which criticised ex-Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell for his leading role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, James Bloodworth countered “the war was led by the Americans and would’ve happened anyway” – i.e. without UK involvement.

Bloodworth, the former editor of Left Foot Forward website, likes to position himself on the left. He has certainly done important work highlighting the dark reality of low-wage Britain in his 2018 book Hired, but when it comes to foreign policy he is often a cheerleader for Western military interventions.

In 2013 Bloodworth proposed military action by the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education (he has since deleted the tweets where he stated this, though I wrote an article about it at the time). A year later Bloodworth called for the intensification of the US-UK military campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

Back to his May 2019 tweet: that the UK doesn’t have much influence over US foreign policy is a common belief (conversely, there is a broad understanding the US dominates and defacto directs UK foreign policy). However, it’s worth taking time to seriously consider the relationship because if the UK does have some level of influence on US foreign policy then a number of important opportunities and questions arise.

In his 2003 book Regime Unchanged: Why The War On Iraq Changed Nothing, Milan Rai argues Tony Blair was “politically indispensable” to the US drive to war on Iraq. He quotes Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from 2002 (Hagel went on to serve as Defense Secretary under President Obama): “I don’t think it is in the best interests of this country… or any of our allies for us to act unilaterally.” Polls provided more evidence of the importance of UK support, with an August 2002 survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and German Marshall Fund finding only 20 percent of Americans supported a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Echoing this, a January 2003 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 83 percent of Americans supported going to war if the United Nations backed the action and it was carried out by a multinational coalition, but without UN approval and allies this figured dropped to a third of the American public.

“Did we need the British troops to be there?” Andrew Card, President Bush’s Chief of Staff in 2003, rhetorically asked journalist Andrew Rawnsley in this 2010 book End of the Party. ”We needed them in the context of the world, but we didn’t necessarily need them in the context of the military action.”

Bloodworth’s dismissal of British influence on the US also ignores influence which may not have stopped the US war against Iraq but did impact the timetable for the invasion and how the war was eventually fought.

For example, it is likely the US and UK’s failed attempt to get United Nations authorisation for the war, a drawn out process which was likely a response to opposition in the UK and around the globe, delayed the invasion. This influence was illustrated by a 17 February 2003 Guardian report, which noted though “ministers and officials insisted the [15 February 2003] protests… would not delay military preparations for the war… a joint US-UK resolution authorising war… has been put on hold while Washington and London rethink their tactics.”

Indeed, Turkish-US relations at the time suggests less powerful nations can have big impacts on US foreign policy – as shown in the 2012 book Public Opinion and International Intervention: Lessons From the Iraq War. The US expected to stage the northern part of the invasion from Turkey, offering $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Turkish government had decided to cooperate with the US. However, the US and Turkish governments had failed to factor in the Turkish public, which polls showed was massively opposed to the war. With the Turkish constitution requiring parliamentary support for foreign troops to be deployed on Turkish soil, this public opinion was translated into a 1 March 2003 parliamentary vote against US troops being stationed in Turkey for the war. Blocked by Turkish democracy, the US had to change its plans at the last minute, with all its ground forces now entering Iraq from Kuwait in the south.

Beyond these constraining influences, the most compelling evidence of decisive UK influence on US foreign policy in recent years was the proposed military action on Syria in 2013.

Following claims that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, the US moved to conduct punishment airstrikes on Syrian government forces.

By 25 August the US Navy had five destroyers in position in the eastern Mediterranean ready for the attack, according to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal report. In December 2013 the Guardian noted that Obama had let Cameron know that the US might take military action between 30 August and 1 September.

The UK government supported the US plans but, unexpectedly, on 29 August the House of Commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the commons”, the Guardian reported. Prime Minister David Cameron was immediately forced to concede that “the government will act accordingly” – i.e. the UK would not take part in the airstrikes.

And here is the crucial point: this momentous vote – the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since Lord North in 1782 apparently – had a huge impact on the Obama Administration.

The next day US warships were “expecting launch orders from the president at between 3 pm and 4 pm”, with the Pentagon conducting a practice press conference about the airstrikes, noted the Wall Street Journal.

However, “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for the Obama Administration, the New York Times noted. After speaking with advisors Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the airstrikes, telling aides “he had several reasons… including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.” With opposition building in Congress, the attack was cancelled in favour of a joint US-Russian plan to make sure the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017. “The president had already decided to use force”, he noted, but “the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.”

Of course, contrary to Bloodworth’s certainty, we will never know for sure whether or not the US would have invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 without British support. Certainly if British support had been withdrawn days or weeks before the invasion date – Blair’s position was far more precarious than most people understood at the time – it seems likely the US’s momentum for war would have been too great to stop. But what if the UK had pulled out of the invasion plans in summer 2002? Or when Blair met Bush at Crawford in April 2002?

Bloodworth’s dismissal is ultimately a disempowering analysis. In contrast, the historical record shows, especially with regard to Syria in 2013, that the UK has had a significant influence on US policy. Moreover, it is also clear British public opinion and anti-war activism can, in the right circumstances, decisively impact not just UK foreign policy, but US foreign policy too.

It’s a hopeful and empowering lesson we would do well to remember the next time the drums of war start beating again.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview

A Year of Rebellion: Rupert Read interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 June 2019

The past year has been the busiest and most exciting of his life, Rupert Read tells me when we meet in London before his appearance at a Guardian event on Extinction Rebellion.

Last summer Read, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and senior Green Party figure, refused an invitation from the BBC to debate a climate change denier. He went on to lead a short campaign which culminated in a BBC memo warning staff of “false balance” when reporting climate change. “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday”, wrote Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs.

For the past few years Read, 53, has also been giving lectures, speaking with a refreshing – perhaps shocking – honesty about the climate crisis. “I think there is a very real possibility that the latter part of the lives of most people in this room is going to be grim or non-existent”, Read told first year students arriving at the UEA in 2016 to nervous laughter.

“When I started giving these talks… I was worried I would just demoralise people and turn people off”, Read tells me. “I was worried I would be attacked for being a defeatist. But actually that didn’t happen. From the beginning the overwhelming response has been positive. People found it liberating, people have found it exciting, people have really related to the honesty of it.”

After watching a similar lecture online given by Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, Read quickly became involved in the grassroots organisation. What has become known as XR has three demands: the government must tell the truth by declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency; the government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025; and a citizen’s assembly must be established to lead the government’s response to climate breakdown.

On 31 October 2018 Read acted at the co-MC for the initial “Declaration of Rebellion” event in London, when a street was blocked in Parliament Square in London. “We didn’t really know if it was going to work, we didn’t know whether people were going to do it, we didn’t know how the police would react”, he says. “It was surprisingly easy, which is one of the things that is very interesting about large-scale nonviolent direct action. When you get a lot of people together it’s quite challenging for the police to deal with and stop”.

He also played a key role in the November 2018 “bridges action”, when thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters managed to block and hold five bridges in central London for one day. It was, Read explains, “proof of concept”, its success leading onto what he calls the “international rebellion” in April 2019. By now Read was part of Extinction Rebellion’s political strategy group and acting as one of the main spokespeople in the media.

During this action Extinction Rebellion occupied several key sites in central London – Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square – for an incredible eleven days. Over 1,100 people were eventually arrested.

“In the first few days the media were very, very hostile to us”, Read notes. “Then as we went on and we gradually grew and attracted more of people’s sympathy and support because of our persistence, because the message started to get through, that gradually changed. And then in the second week we were getting these massive transformational effects.” For example, writing in the Daily Telegraph former Tory leader William Hague argued “It is time to recognise that these young activists are indeed focused on the right issue. The solutions presented by protesters in London or by Green parties around the world may be ill thought-out, but the analysis is now hard to gainsay.”

More broadly, Read argues the April action achieved “a breakthrough in consciousness” on the climate crisis, with a YouGov survey earlier this month finding “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before”. This upsurge in anxiety was “undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion”, the pollster noted.

“The ground had been, in a sense, prepared”, Read says, highlighting the importance of the School Strikes for Climate and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, which aired during the rebellion.

“We achieved emotional resonance”, he continues. “A lot of our successful media coverage is, I think, based on the fact that we have allowed us to show and express our grief and our horror, and our fear, and our love in ways that were very unusual hitherto in the so-called environmental movement.”

Indeed, whilst others, such as Peace News, have been critical of what they describe as the group’s “apocalyptic organising”, Read argues the success of the April rebellion “has proved that it is false to claim apocalyptic messages and despair and climate honesty are demotivating.”

“In fact it is becoming clear they are hugely motivating, and hugely empowering, when they are done right, and when they are done honestly and when they are done in the context of taking action around them.”

Perhaps most impressively, the April protests led to Read and others, including student climate strikers, meeting Environment Secretary Michael Gove and other senior political figures including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

“That was all prepared way in advance”, he explains. “There were plans for how this would happen, who would do it, what kind of things we would do when we did it, who would we try to target for such meetings.”

“We urged him to tell the truth, we urged the declaration of a Climate Emergency”, Read says about the meeting with Gove, which was filmed and is available online. Gove didn’t do this, but he did admit there was an emergency in parliament and the Tories didn’t oppose the Labour motion to declare an emergency, meaning the House of Commons became the first national parliament to officially declare a Climate Emergency on 1 May 2019.

A few days after the interview Theresa May’s government accepted the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation the UK achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Read believes the difference between the 2050 target and Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 target is “probably the difference between a chance of a decent future and a near certainty of civilisational collapse.”

“Unfortunately the climate change committee report is essentially dead on arrival”, he says. Why? “It’s a report that is tailored to a sense of what is politically feasible and societally acceptable that no longer exists and has been transcended.”

“Between the time of them drafting their report and it actually being published – it was published immediately after the end of the [April] rebellion – that whole landscape has been transformed.”

Looking to the future, Read notes the group is planning for the next stage of the rebellion, likely to take place around 20 September 2019 – the date student climate strikers have asked adults to strike alongside them. This mobilisation “will probably mark the first step in the build-up to the autumn phase of Extinction Rebellion, which we intend to be longer and deeper than the spring phase.”

With the Metropolitan Police Commissioner recently telling London Assembly members her force would learn from the April protests, how do Extinction Rebellion intend to deal with the police? “The aim of many Extinction Rebellion actions is to create what we call action dilemmas – action dilemmas for the police, for the authorities”, Read replies. This staple of nonviolent struggle is about forcing a ‘lose-lose’ situation upon public authorities, in which they either concede the space and initiative to the protesters, or risk looking repressive if they try to deal with them too harshly.

“They are going to risk creating more sympathy for us if they end up locking people up who are clearly decent non-violent people who are doing this knowingly and accountably for a cause that more and more people recognise as just”, Read says.

Hopeful the group can attract significantly more people than it did in April, Read thinks the size and impact of the autumn mobilisation could be unprecedented: “If we could get 20,000 or 30,000 people willing to take direct action on the streets in a concerted fashion for a long period of time, who knows what we could achieve next time?”

Co-authored with Samuel Alexander, Rupert Read’s new book This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the End of Empire – and What Lies Beyond is published by the Simplicity Institute.

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview

Hitler’s Compromises: Nathan Stoltzfus interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 June 2019

The popular perception of Adolf Hitler is of an all-powerful leader, the most evil individual in modern history, using extreme barbarity to crush his opponents at home and abroad.

In 2016’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany Nathan Stoltzfus, professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University in the United States, challenges this simplistic representation, raises important questions about our understanding of the Nazis in power, while providing a hopeful analysis about the possibility of non-violent resistance in highly repressive societies.

Ian Sinclair: What is the central thesis of your book?

Nathan Stoltzfus: Hitler’s Compromises makes an argument about the nature of the Nazi state.   I do not question Hitler’s reputation as the most evil person, only the common image of him as a madman, carpet-biter foaming at the mouth. Hitler was able to achieve such monumental evil only because he used a range of tactics. While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed his “German-blooded race” with persuasion, enticement, cooptation, compromise – tactics scholars now associate with ‘soft’ dictators of the twenty-first century. Hitler aimed to shape the “German-blooded” people into Nazis – fellow perpetrators and ruthless enslavers and murderers of “racial” and war enemies, the “incurables” and outsiders. “We must be honest, decent, loyal and comradely to those of our own blood and to no one else,” Heinrich Himmler told his SS. “Whether other peoples live well or whether they die from hunger is important to me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our culture.” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels said, “We do not subscribe to the view that one should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty or clothe the naked… We must have a healthy people in order to prevail in the world.”

In Hitler’s cold, cost-benefit calculations, Germans could not be refashioned as Nazis by terror alone. Stemming political opposition with terror, Hitler then led by incentives – the familiar ones of material well-being and future prosperity, national prowess and domestic security. As the foundation of his 1000-year Reich that would pass on Nazism as a way of life, Hitler sought to refashion popular attitudes and social patterns. To build a total society to buttress a total state, Hitler had to annihilate some Christian norms. He aimed to change their hearts and minds rather than to merely control their outward behaviour by police force.

Hitler led a dance with his own people, pausing and even backtracking if the people stumbled or hesitated, so that they remained united about his authority over them. Hitler was willing to move laterally so that he could resume moving toward his goals while sidestepping frontal attacks.

These compromises worked in tandem with Nazi terror. Hitler did not compromise his ideology but he remained willing to compromise with his people, particularly when popular obstinacy was based in traditional habits and customs, up until late in the war when he became convinced that popular backing would not win the war.

Hitler’s compromises began with his decision to seek power the ‘legal way’. They continued in power with a recognition that he must win the people away from their non-Nazi traditions and into unquestioning obedience by awing them with his great feats, which all previous German leaders had failed to deliver. A key benefit for Hitler of his willingness to compromise was in maintaining the notion, widespread across Germany regardless of denomination, region, or class, that Hitler always made things right, as soon as he learned about injustices. Across Germany people maintained their belief that “if only Hitler knew” all would be well, blaming what they did not like on officials they thought were working against Hitler.

IS: Your analysis seems to contradict the traditional understanding of how Nazi Germany functioned?

NS: According to the earliest perspectives, the Nazi state ruled Germans of the Reich by terror; Germans were forced to cooperate against their will as the Gestapo crushed every sign of dissent from Germans. These interpretations, which still hold sway today, coincide with one-dimensional images equating monstrous evil with uncontrolled fits of rage and brutality. Scholars have come to acknowledge the role of popular support – when it buttressed Nazi terror tactics. Germans joined the party, denounced outsiders, stole Jewish property. These mainstream perspectives, however, have shied away from acknowledging the corollary popular influences on Hitler of mass popular noncompliance and public protest. Standard interpretations screen this out; they challenge entrenched common wisdom that resistance by ordinary persons was always futile (even the resistance of mighty military men failed). While support for Hitler can be written off as a response to terror, any indication that the regime was sensitive to collective, popular opposition in public raises questions about public responsibility for Hitler’s crimes. Also according to common beliefs, Jewish assimilation or integration did not aid Jewish survival. But history shows that 98 percent of the German Jews who survived without going into hiding or being sent to the camps, survived because they were married to non-Jews.

Hitler also did not rule by charisma alone but as a politician and strategist. Many wish to portray Hitler as monster rather than mortal. Demonization is comforting, suggesting that neither we do not share anything with Hitler and will not face a similar threat. Flat moral condemnations are easy and popular but do not sufficiently disclose the complexity of Hitler’s evil; he was able to do so much evil precisely because he knew how to manage and manipulate, throwing fits of rage for effect.

The grassroots perspectives on the influence of masses that grew in the decades following the war was illustrated by the bottom up approach of historians examining East German communism after 1989. It’s very possible that the established history of Nazi Germany would be different today had scholars and others approached it with the help of bottom up perspectives emerging during the 1970s and 80s. Many views on popular autocracy in our own era not only apply to Hitler’s rule but were defined by fascism – which recognized that the masses could no longer be left out by claiming to rule on their behalf.

IS: Can you give a couple of examples when the Nazi government compromised in the face of nonviolent resistance to its policies? 

NS: Hitler’s effort to centralize control over the Protestant Church foundered in 1934 – within months of the gory Night of the Long Knives purge. Two bishops (out of 28) mobilized their congregations in peaceful protests, resulting in strife among Nazi regional leaders and the house arrest of the two bishops, causing churchgoers to rise up in protests more fervently than ever. To stem this unrest and its danger of slowing his momentum, Hitler restored the arrested bishops to their dioceses, sidelining his plans. To stem Christian influence, some Nazi leaders replaced crucifixes in Catholic schools with pictures of Hitler. This sparked nonviolent Catholic revolts, leading in more than one case to restoration of the crucifixes. Mass unrest and public protest by a Catholic bishop also caused Hitler to halt and then radically alter the way he carried out “euthanasia” of the “incurables” and “useless mouths.”

The defining example of defiance by street protest and Nazi compromise is the Rosenstrasse Protest by non-Jewish women that persuaded Hitler to release rather than deport their Jewish husbands in early 1943. Many Germans compromised step by step, accepting or perpetrating Nazi crimes, but the personal lives of intermarried persons forced them into a series of increasingly demanding steps of defiance, beginning with Hitler’s first days in power and culminating in a street protest that thwarted Goebbels resolve to declare Germany free of Jews in March 1943. Again Hitler relented, releasing some 2,000 intermarried Jews from the deportations.

Cases of social dissent and mass noncompliance so visible the regime could not ignore them were common enough that by November 1943 Goebbels wrote in his diary that the people were already sure that they could use public protest to assert their will on the streets: “The people know exactly where to find the leadership’s soft spot and will always exploit it.”

Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany is published by Yale University Press.

How three courageous individuals saved humanity

How three courageous individuals saved humanity
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 December 2018

What difference can one person make when it comes to influencing global politics?

Very little, you might think. However, a careful reading of several crisis points in modern history throws up inspiring examples of individuals acting courageously under intense pressure to save humanity from itself.

One such person is Vasili Arkipov, a Soviet naval officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, whose story activist Milan Rai rivetingly tells in a 2014 article for Telesur (and which the account that follows is based on). With the US and Soviet Union on the brink of nuclear war, on 27 October a US taskforce of surface ships and aircraft was harassing, in international waters, a Soviet submarine, B-59, on which Arkipov was second in command. In an attempt to force the submarine to the surface and drive it away from Cuba, the US ships conducted extreme sonar sound attacks on the B-59, and dropped five practice depth charges. The number is important. A few days earlier the US had sent a document to the Soviet forces explaining their signalling system for a ship to surface was five practice depth charges. The commanders on B-59, who were used to three warning practice depth charges as the signal to surface, never received this information.

With the submarine crew enduring temperatures of around 45oC and dangerous levels of CO2, the captain of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch, concluded that a war between the US and the Soviet Union had started and ordered the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the US taskfore. The firing of the “special weapon” required the consent of the captain, the Political Officer and the second in command, Arkipov. The Political Officer consented. Arkipov refused to give his consent. “He halted the firing of a nuclear weapon that would almost certainly have triggered US retaliation against Cuba and the Soviet Union that would have led to a devastating global nuclear war”, Rai notes.

Fast forward to 1983 and another Soviet commander single-handedly stopped another catastrophic nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union.

It was a time of high tensions in the Cold War. US president Ronald Reagan had recently called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire”, and was modernising the US’s nuclear weapons, with medium-range missiles about to be moved into Western Europe.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet air defence forces, on 26 September Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, a secret command centre near Moscow that monitored the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites orbiting over the US.

“Early in the morning alarms went off and computers sent signals that a US Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile had been launched from an American base”, the Guardian noted in its obituary of Petrov, who died last year, aged 77. “A few seconds later they seemed to detect that four more missiles had been launched.”

Petrov’s job was to tell his superior officers, who would report to the Soviet military’s general staff, who would then consult the Soviet leader at the time, Yuri Andropov, about launching a counterattack. “Petrov’s computer systems said the reliability of the satellites’ information was at the ‘highest’ level’”, explained the Guardian. “Only 25 minutes would pass between the missiles’ launch and their detonation.”

Luckily, Petrov decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he explained to the Washington Post. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” He was right. The alarm was apparently caused by a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a US missile launch.

More recently, an American intelligence analyst played a key role in stopping US military action against Iran, supposedly because of Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.

In October 2007 US President George Bush had given a press conference with hostilities rising between the US and Iran. “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three it seem like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon”, he said. Discussing this period of US-Iranian relations in his 2010 memoir Decision Points, Bush noted “military action would always be on the table”. However, the interventionist Bush Administration didn’t contend with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”, were the report’s first words, which represented the consensus of the 16 US intelligence agencies. The principal author of the report was Thomas Fingar, an intelligence analyst who became Chairman of the National Intelligence Council in 2005, following the intelligence catastrophe of the Iraq War. According to former CIA officer Ray McGovern, Fingar was “a practitioner of the old-time ethos of objective, non-politicized intelligence.”

Bush described the NIE as “an eye-popping declaration” in his book. It “tied my hands on the military side… after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program”, he wrote.

“Almost single-handedly he [Fingar] has stopped or, at the very least, postponed any US military action against Iran”, the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill noted a few weeks after the NIE was made public.

Comprised of senior people in the military or intelligence services acting in extraordinary situations to prevent mass killing, we should remember and celebrate all three of them. Rai suggests 27 October should be Arkhipov Day, a world holiday, for example.

But what can normal people like you or I do to make the world a better place?

Speaking in the essential 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, US dissident Noam Chomsky maintains critical thinking and resistance is extremely difficult on your own: “You can’t fight the world alone. Some people can, but it’s pretty rare.”

“The way to do it is through organisation”, he says. Individuals can maximise their influence and power by joining together with others, providing the opportunity for the pooling of resources and knowledge which may, with lots of work, eventually create the conditions in which elites can be challenged and possibly defeated.

From Extinction Rebellion to political parties such as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Green Party and grassroots media outlets like Peace News and Novara Media, there is no shortage of organisations working for substantial change who would welcome any support they can get.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2018

A common response to those protesting is to dismiss it is a waste of time – “the government doesn’t listen”, “things never change” opine the naysayers. Frustratingly, this argument is sometimes even made by those doing the protesting themselves. On the 10th anniversary of the huge 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park that day – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.

Leftists and activists working for progressive social change would be wise to steer clear of this kind of negativity, and instead remember that actions and protests often have unexpected, positive effects on other people and the wider world.

This rule very much applies to protests that seem like a failure at the time.

For example, in the early 1960s, Lisa Peattie, a young American widow, took two of her children to a vigil in front of the White House to protest nuclear testing.

“The vigil was small, a hundred women at most”, Paul Loeb, a friend of Peattie’s, writes in his bestselling 1999 book The Soul Of A Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. “Rain poured down. Lisa’s children were restless. Frustrated and soaked, the women joked about how President Kennedy was no doubt sitting inside drinking hot chocolate, warm, comfortable, and not even looking at their signs.”

A few years later, Peattie attended another march in Washington D.C. about nuclear testing, this one significantly larger. One of the speakers that day was the famous paediatrician Benjamin Spock. “Spock described how he’d come to take a stand on the nuclear issue”, Loeb notes. “Because of his stature, his decision was immensely consequential, and would pave the way for his equally important opposition to the Vietnam War.” And here is the kicker: “Spock mentioned being in D.C. a few years earlier, and seeing a small group of women marching with their kids in the pouring rain.”

“I thought that if those women were out there,” Spock said, “their cause must be really important.”

According to the author Tom Wells, “few activists” in the anti-war movement Spock went on to play such an important part in “fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed.” Despite this ignorance the movement “played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, Wells concludes in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam. This analysis was confirmed by Admiral Moorer, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon Administration, who told Wells, “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.”

The Vietnam War provides another case of the unexpected impact of activism. In the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg worked as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation where he helped to compile a top-secret study of the history of the war that had been commissioned by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “He was very hawkish”, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett said about Ellsberg, having met him in Vietnam in 1966 when he was leading a patrol to locate an enemy sniper.

Growing increasingly disillusioned by the war, around 1969 Ellsberg began going along to anti-war movement events and protests, encouraged by his then girlfriend, and now wife. While attending a War Resister’s League conference and listening to draft resister Randy Kehler talk about his fellow activists going to prison, Ellsberg experienced a kind of epiphany. “It was as if an axe had split my head”, Ellsberg recounts in the 2009 documentary about his life, The Most Dangerous Man in America. “But what had really happened is that my life had split into two. It was my life after those words that I have lived ever since.” This life famously included deciding to leak, in 1971, the top secret history – now known as The Pentagon Papers – which exposed the lies the US government had been telling the American people for decades. “If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy those papers”, Ellsberg later said.

With the release of the Pentagon Papers failing to rouse the American public to rise up and stop the destruction of Vietnam, the documentary describes how Ellsberg felt he had failed. But while his actions may have failed to stop the war – an impossible feat for one individual, of course – he had a huge influence on another whistleblower more than four decades later: US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

“While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary [The Most Dangerous Man in America]”, Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents in 2013, told the Guardian in January. “Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.”

This process of apparent defeat turning out to be the start of something hugely influential and powerful can be seen in UK protest too.

In the early 1990s a group of concerned young people set up camp at Twyford Down in 1992 to try to stop the building of the M3 motorway extension through beautiful chalk downland. This construction was part of “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”, the Tory government had boasted in 1989. After living in tents in terrible conditions for several months, in December 1992 the protesters were violently evicted in what became known as Yellow Wednesday. Defeated and physically exhausted the group left the camp, and while there were many other protests, the road went ahead.

However, though the road was built, the Twyford Down protests lit the fuse for a growing movement against road building across the UK, with camps and nonviolent direct action sprouting up against the M11 Link Road in east London, at Solsbury Hill, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle, the Newbury Bypass and many other places, causing the government and road builders huge problems. With the Tories on their last legs and public opinion shifting, the road building programme was effectively scrapped. The 600 proposed new road schemes dropped to 150 by 1997, with Labour putting the whole programme on hold after that year’s general election. The activists at Twyford Down and the other anti-roads protests had lost nearly every individual battle, but in the end they won the war. Moreover, the anti-roads activists influenced the next ‘war’ by inspiring the founders of Plane Stupid direct action group, who played a key role in the halting of Heathrow expansion in the 2000s.

In a perfect world, every protest would produce clear, direct and quick results. In (messy) reality the exact impact of a protest or movement is often difficult to discern, with its full effects sometimes not felt for years, decades even. The 2003 anti-Iraq war march and movement that Tariq Ali disparages has had a whole host of long-term influences, from helping to shift public opinion against UK military interventions and shortening Tony Blair’s political career, to being a key factor in the historic 2013 parliamentary vote that stopped British military action in Syria. In 2016 Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, argued “We cannot overlook the fact that widespread opposition to the [Iraq] war… played a big part in [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s rise.”

Indeed, as Snowden shows above, it’s possible the people who will be inspired by a protest are not even born when it takes place.

More broadly, it’s always good to keep a positive attitude about the possibility of making a difference. As Bertolt Brecht is said to have argued, “Those who struggle may fail. But those who do not struggle have already failed”.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral history of the 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Iraq War and the international anti-war movement

The Iraq War and the international anti-war movement
by Ian Sinclair
Socialist Unity
12 February 2013

Ten years ago over one million people marched through a bitterly cold London to oppose the looming war in Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration in British history. Ken Livingstone told me that he had calculated the number of people on the march was the equivalent of the entire population of England circa 1200.

However, a common argument today is that the march was “an absolute failure”, as a UK Uncut activist said in 2011. I wrote my new book, The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, to challenge this negative view of the march. As peace activist Milan Rai told me when I interviewed him: “If someone was to say the anti-war movement achieved nothing, I think that is plain, flat wrong. We achieved a lot, and a hell of a lot more than we realise.”

Rai is particularly interested in drawing attention to what has become known as ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ – “the lowest point of the crisis for Mr Blair”, according to the Sunday Telegraph at the time. The same report explained that the panic and concern in Government was so great that the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” What had brought this crisis to a head? According to the Sunday Mirror Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon had phoned the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.”

Of course Blair didn’t pull back and British troops played a key role in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. An attack, let’s not forget, that directly led to over one million Iraq dead, along with around four million refugees. But while the anti-war movement couldn’t stop the war, several people in the book argue that the anti-war movement, as a key driver of public opinion at the time, influenced how the war was fought and when British troops were withdrawn. In addition the peace march and anti-war movement has had a number of important and long-lasting influences on the British political landscape – from fatally wounding Blair, to having a profoundly positive effect on community relations in the UK and politicising and radicalising many of the young people now involved in groups such as UK Uncut and Occupy (I explore ‘Wobbly Tuesday’ and some of the march’s short and long-term influences in a little more detail in a recent Morning Star article and in a lot more depth in the book itself).

Although the focus of my book is the march in London on 15 February 2003, I want to use the rest of the space I have here to think about the international anti-war movement because the achievements of the anti-war movements in several nations are largely unknown to most people in the UK, including many activists. The Guardian reported that on 15 February 2003:

“Huge waves of demonstrations not seen since the Vietnam war jammed more than 600 cities around the world over the weekend as protestors from Tasmania to Iceland marched against war in Iraq. Up to 30 million people demonstrated worldwide, including around 6 million in Europe.”

Edited by three American academics Public Opinion and International Intervention. Lessons from the Iraq War (Potomac Books, 2012) is an important assessment of the role of public opinion on policymakers around the world in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Of particular interest to anti-war activists in the UK are the chapters on Mexico and Turkey. (NB: All the unreferenced quotes that follow are taken from this book).

In 2003 Mexico was occupying a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It should be noted that despite the neo-conservatives public antipathy to the UN, polls suggest the blessing of the UN on Iraq was important to the American public. For example, a January 2003 Knight Ridder poll found 83 per cent of Americans supported going to war if this was in concert with major US allies and the full support of the UNSC. If the US went to war with just one or two of its major allies – without the support of the UN – this support fell to 47 per cent. Polls taken in the UK at the time showed a similar concern among the British public for UN support.

Desperate for legal and diplomatic cover, in early 2003 the US and UK were pushing hard to gain support in the UNSC for a second resolution to authorise war on Iraq. Bush is reported to have plainly said to Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake.”

Mexican public opinion was strongly opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq, with a February 2003 poll finding 81 per cent of people did not support the US position. Even when those polled were made aware there could be significant costs to Mexico for not supporting the US, a majority of Mexicans still opposed the US on Iraq.

Mexico’s leaders, then, were in a tight spot – caught between their own public and under intense pressure from the US to support the American position. However, while Mexico’s anti-war stance was not as strong as much of Latin America (presumably because of their close relationship to the US), it never backed the US position at the UN. The authors of the chapter on Mexico note that “the reluctance of Mexico, Chile and Germany to support the [US] initiative” at the UN was “especially noteworthy” as it meant the US was unable to negotiate a majority of votes from the non-permanent members to support their aggressive stance on Iraq. Public opinion was a key factor in this process, with a senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs arguing Mexican public opinion “immensely influenced the decision not to support the US in the war against Iraq”.

Turning to Turkey, the book quotes a 2008 interview with Yaser Yakis, the Turkish Foreign Minister in 2003, about the position of Turkey on the US-led invasion of Iraq:

“From the very beginning, we were opposed to an invasion of Iraq and argued that this should not be the way. However, when it became clear that the invasion was inevitable and we could not prevent it, then we concluded we should participate in it and cooperate.”

For the US, cooperation meant that US troops would be allowed to launch their attack on Iraq from Turkey. To this end the US was offering Turkey $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles TimesHowever, the US and Turkish Governments did not count on the Turkish people, 86 per cent of whom were opposed to the invasion according to March 2003 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.

With the Turkish Constitution requiring a parliamentary vote for the deployment of foreign troops on Turkish soil, the policy decision was open to the influence of public opinion: “To block passage of the motion, there were many demonstrations, campaigns, messages by citizens to MPs, and visits to MPs’ offices by NGO representatives and private individuals.” With “MPs and ministers… under a strong pressure from the grassroots” on 1 March 2003 parliament voted against the motion to station US troops in Turkey by three votes. According to the authors of the chapter on Turkey: “Our case study provides support for the argument that in democracies public opinion plays a major role in constraining the decision of policymakers. With regard to the Iraq War, the disapproval of the Turkish public was quite strong, and it served as a major constraining factor for the government.”

So Mexican public opinion was a contributory factor in the US and UK not getting UN authorisation for their invasion of Iraq. This outcome has had a long-lasting negative effect on the global public perception of the invasion and occupation. Meanwhile, by pressuring their government to reject the US request to use Turkey as a staging post for the invasion the Turkish public forced the US to invade Iraq from just one front in the south, meaning Iraq could safely deploy more forces south of Baghdad. They may not have stopped the war but the Mexican and Turkish populations had significant constraining effects on the ability of the US to act as it wished in 2003.

More importantly the Mexican and Turkish experiences present an awkward question for the UK anti-Iraq War movement: If public opinion in Mexico and Turkey was able to force their government to resist strong pressure from the US over Iraq why couldn’t the UK anti-war movement force the British Government to do likewise?

The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is published by Peace News Press, priced £11.50 inc.p+p for UK delivery. Copies can be purchased from www.peacenews.info

 

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement

The Power of Protest: the anti-Vietnam War movement
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 October 2017

The new 10-part Vietnam War documentary from legendary American filmmaker Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has garnered much praise (in the Guardian and the Morning Star television guides), along with some searing criticism from journalist John Pilger.

In addition to the conflict in South-East Asia, the series covers the extensive and diverse anti-war movement back in the United States, the influence of which continues to be contested today. For example, in his 2012 study Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement Simon Hall, currently a Professor of Modern History at the University of Leeds, argues “when it comes to the ultimate test – whether it helped to end the war in Vietnam – it is far from clear that the anti-war movement had any meaningful impact at all.” Interestingly, many anti-war activists at the time also saw the movement as powerless against the US military machine, according to historian Tom Wells.

The impact of social movements is certainly often difficult to quantify. The evidence is messy, sometimes contradictory. ‘Decision-makers’ are usually loath to admit they have been swayed by public opinion on matters of war and peace. And there are many influences on governments and public opinion during wartime, including domestic and international politics, geopolitical concerns and the progress of the war itself.

However, despite these caveats the evidence of the power of the anti-Vietnam War movement is clear. Wells, who interviewed over 35 senior US government officials from the period for his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, notes “If many protesters failed to appreciate their political clout, officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations did not.” Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon administration: “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.” For Moorer the movement “had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of the government.”

Wells elaborates: “The movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.”

US dissident Noam Chomsky remembers becoming active against the war in 1962, when the US intervention in Vietnam was still relatively light. “You couldn’t get two people in a living room to talk about it”, he notes. “In October 1965… in Boston… we tried to have our first major public demonstration against the war on the Boston Common, the usual place for meetings”, he recalls. “I was supposed to be one of the speakers, but nobody could hear a word. The meeting was totally broken up—by students marching over from universities, by others, and hundreds of state police, which kept people from being murdered.”

From these modest and difficult beginnings, the movement – which continued to be unpopular throughout the war according to opinion polls – grew in tandem with the increasing levels of US military aggression in Vietnam. According to Gallup, in 1965 24 percent of American felt sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake. By 1971 the figure was 61 percent.

Like Wells, the historian Melvin Small also believes the anti-war movement had “a significant impact” on the Johnson and Nixon administrations managing the war, highlighting two key points of influence – October 1967 and October 1969. Informed by interviews with US policymakers and archival research, Small argues in his 1989 book Johnson, Nixon and The Doves that the famous March on the Pentagon in 1967, which involved 35,000-50,000 protesters marching to the heart of military power in Washington, “shocked” the Johnson administration. By early 1968, Pentagon officials were warning a further increase in US troop levels in Vietnam in the face of the public’s “growing dissatisfaction” risked provoking “a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” Clark Clifford, who served as US Secretary of Defence for a short period from 1968-69, said this advice had a “tremendous” impact on him.

In autumn 1969, President Richard Nixon was threatening North Vietnam with an escalation in violence if it didn’t play ball in peace negotiations. The historian Marilyn Young notes the proposed assault – known as Operation Duck Hook – “explored a new range of options, including a land invasion of the North, the systematic bombing of dikes so as to destroy the food supply, and the saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong.”

However, Small notes The Moratorium – a series of demonstrations held across the country in October 1969 that drew more than two million people – “helped to convince Nixon that Americans would not accept the savage blows envisaged by Operation Duck Hook.” Nixon’s memoirs support this conclusion, with Tricky Dicky writing that after the huge protests “American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war.”

“The protester’s victory over the war machine was not, of course, absolute”, Wells notes. The movement had not prevented the war’s escalation, some two million Vietnamese deaths, or the 58,000 Americans who returned home in a body bag. “Nonetheless, their influence on their government had been profound”, he explains. “Had they not acted, the death and destruction they mourned would have been immensely greater.”

Wells sets out a number of other effects of the decentralised, often chaotic anti-war movement: it fed the deterioration in US troop morale and discipline; hastened troop withdrawals, promoted congressional legislation that limited US funds for the war; and applied pressure on the Nixon administration to negotiate a settlement of the war. Writing in 1988, McGeorge Bundy – National Security Advisor to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson – argued that public opinion was a key factor behind why the US government never seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. One could also point to longer term influences, including playing a key role in germinating other social movements such as the environmental movement, and its constraining effect on US military actions abroad until the epoch-changing 9/11 attacks.

“The movement cannot be measured on the basis of its instrumental achievements alone”, argues scholar Winifred Breines. “The whole culture was transformed.”

Why is it important to highlight the power and influence of the American anti-Vietnam War movement over 50 years later in a British newspaper?

Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary introduction to the new edition of her powerful book Hope in Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities provides a good explanation. Quoting theologian Walter Brueggemann that “Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair”, Solnit argues established power is always keen to present the status quo as “immutable, inevitable and invulnerable”. Highlighting the success of the anti-Vietnam War movement gives hope, showing people that protest and activism – broadly nonviolent in nature – is a powerful force that can compel significant changes in government policy and save lives.