This evening I went to a protest outside Parliament demanding an end to the bombing of Libya. The protest was organised jointly by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition.
It was wack. These two enormous left-wing organisations were not able to organise more than around 35 people to protest in London against our government’s participation in the brutal assault on Libya.
Why has the anti-war movement developed so little momentum in opposing war in Libya? Two million marched against the war in Iraq; how come a protest against the war in Libya can’t muster more than 35?
I think there are a few reasons. Surely the most important is that the British ruling class is united in its wish to get rid of Gaddafi and get its hands on more of Libya’s oil. A very significant section of the British ruling class was opposed to the war in Iraq, for a number of reasons. This division gave huge impetus to the anti-war movement, as the Stop the War Coalition found for itself a powerful ally in the liberal press. In my opinion, it is crucial that the anti-war movement reflect seriously on whether it became too reliant on that ally (one whose support was always going to be shaky and unreliable).
Second, there has been an incredibly effective campaign of demonisation waged against Gaddafi and his government. This character assassination has not been limited to the lunatic right-wing press but has also found its way into ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ and ‘socialist’ media. And, even though the reporting of Gaddafi’s alleged crimes has been shown by such respectable organisations as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to be totally biased and untrustworthy, very few have had the decency to retract the lies they were spouting just a few weeks ago. Again, there is a lesson that needs to be learnt: we need to instinctively distrust what the imperialist press is telling us. There were character assassinations of Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Ho Chi Minh and many others - when are we going to learn to understand that this criminalisation and demonisation is part of the west’s foreign policy propaganda?
Third, there was significant confusion about the situation in Libya. Lots of people thought the uprising was simply an extension of what was going on in Egypt (as it was painted in the press), and therefore afforded the so-called rebels uncritical support. Very few people managed to look into or understand the significance of the rebels’ links with western intelligence agencies.
Fourth, people were caught off-guard by the idea of a no-fly zone. We were fooled into supporting a war on the basis that we were simply preventing Gaddafi from “bombing his own people”. Hopefully we have all learnt now that ‘no-fly zone’ is another way of saying ‘vicious bombardment of civilians’.
Fifth, there was a major failure of leadership on the part of the resistance movements that have been leading the struggle against imperialism in the Middle East for many years. As a result, a lot of good anti-imperialists fell for NATO’s divide-and-rule game.
Lastly, the existence of George W Bush as US President was curiously effective in terms of galvanising resistance to the empire. Obama doesn’t do that job anywhere near as well (which is no doubt part of why he got to be President!).
Incidentally, the most passionate of the protestors this evening were the 7-8 Libyans that attended. In a rather alarming (but not untypical) example of the western left’s patronising attitude, a Stop the War officer asked them to put away their pictures of Muammar Gaddafi. Now, you may or may not like Gaddafi, but how can you ask Libyan patriots, protesting against the bombing of their country, to stop expressing support for their head of state? Gaddafi is the symbolic head of the resistance to this modern-day crusade, and on that basis he deserves the support of all those that oppose the war. I am not demanding you take a position on the nature of Libya’s political system, or on Gaddafi’s role within Middle Eastern politics over the decades, but surely it is uncontroversial to support those leading the resistance to colonial war?! Otherwise what is the meaning of this popular expression, ‘anti-imperialist unity’? I would posit that Stop the War are overly concerned about scaring off liberal ‘supporters’ (who have already shown their true colours).
There are a lot of lessons for us to learn from all this, and I hope people will take the time to engage in some critical self-reflection. Without that, there is no hope of moving forward.