Oil, imperialism and "hypocrisy"

Among the hundreds of thousands protesting in London, most saw Bush and Blair as a bigger threat than dictator Saddam Hussein.

Published February 16, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

A slow, dense river of bodies flowed north from Blackfriars Bridge; another snaked its way south through Bloomsbury. They met at Piccadilly Circus. For four hours a tidal swell of placards, banners and flags flooded past the Ritz Hotel, DeBeers diamond showrooms and the Royal Academy towards the rally in Hyde Park. A million people, at least, and the organizers claim near 2 million. Clearly it was Britain's biggest political rally ever -- on this, everyone agrees.

In the park, the star speakers blasted high-octane rhetoric: Tony Blair is "the devil's chaplain" (the singer Ms. Dynamite); "American barbarism will destroy the world" (the playwright Harold Pinter); "carpet-bombing will not bring democracy to Iraq. Do we want this done in our name?" (Bianca Jagger); "No!" bellowed the crowd.

This issue is hot and getting hotter. The antiwar movement in Britain has been gathering momentum for months. Yesterday it found its voice. Whether or not to launch a war to disarm Iraq -- and possibly rid the world of Saddam Hussein -- threatens the leadership of Tony Blair like nothing else has since his election six years ago.

His long, sun-bathed political honeymoon is over now. Blair finds himself perilously short of goodwill and reliable allies. He faces major battles in Europe, at the United Nations, in NATO, perhaps above all among disaffected activists of his own "New" (for which read Clintonian Third Way) Labour Party. Only hours before yesterday's march, Blair assured a party audience in Scotland: "I do not seek unpopularity as some kind of badge of honor. But sometimes it is the price of leadership, the cost of conviction." Increasingly Tony Blair's spokesmen are speaking gravely of the prime minister's "moral certitude."

In these febrile times Churchillian metaphors and allusions are flowing like the old bulldog's famous brandy. The editorial pages of Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times sing a hymn of praise and say this may be Blair's "finest hour"; the leading antiwar tabloid, the Daily Mirror, characterizes it as (you guessed it) Blair's "darkest hour."

True, there are so many ways this could end fatally for Blair. Yet, though largely unacknowledged, there are also ways it may end well for him, better than most people here even dimly conceive. Certainly that's true for the million-plus marchers who tramped the streets of London yesterday in biting winds, good humor and high spirits.

I began a cycling tour of the long march at the Euston Road, a broad east-west arterial route bounding the northern limits of the city's West End (the theatres, shops, bars and club district). Pedaling sedately down Hampstead Road on my approach to the slow-moving serpent writhing east and west, I was assailed by a rising cloud of fragile bubbles -- the kind of bubbles kids love to blow. I dismounted as two tall, slim girls in woolly hats passed by bearing aloft a Pythonesque placard with a picture of Tony Blair -- frowning, but his eyes ablaze and wearing a teacup as a hat; across his chest he's clutching a heavy-duty military rifle. The caption reads: "Make tea, not war."

A police helicopter circles overhead and the piercing shriek of pee-whistles blown in dotted rhythms hint at urgency, alarm, almost panic as the slow-moving beast with cold feet heads toward Bloomsbury and the heart of London University. A party of mid-lifers in pastel car coats waits to cross the road. Their long banner reads: "Blair -- don't spend millions bombing civilians." Other banners assert: "Oil fuels war," or ask rhetorically: "How many lives per gallon?" I spot a flotilla of Palestinian flags waving above the slow-moving tide. This will be a recurring theme.

I broke into the crowd. Bill Dinsdale, a college teacher, traveled more than 200 miles down from Yorkshire to join the demonstration. The marchers' message was aimed squarely at Tony Blair, he assured me: This war is wrong. Stop it! I wondered if the P.M. gets any credit for bravery, for standing by a domestically unpopular choice. (Blair is often lambasted as a Clinton-esque, focus-group junkie, but opinion polls show his position contemplating war without a second Security Council resolution is opposed by a clear majority.) "No, it's not a matter for admiration. He's just wrong," Dinsdale says. "The evidence we have is not convincing."

Bill's marching companion, Chris Ketchen, a social worker also from Yorkshire, was a stalwart of the anti-Vietnam and anti-apartheid campaigns of earlier decades and is still an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. "I left the Labour Party when we went into Afghanistan," she said, "and I wrote to Mr. Blair then telling why." I asked her about one of the "moral" counterarguments for military action in Iraq now -- that we have a duty to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam's brutal tyranny, which we had, in times past, supported and helped sustain. She was unimpressed. "No! That would be total hypocrisy. The only effective way is for the Iraqi people to change the government themselves, otherwise it's just imperialism and bullying, with America and Britain bigger bullies than Saddam." To my knowledge Tony Blair and George Bush don't routinely drown their political rivals in acid baths or gas recalcitrant voting districts, but I'm not here to argue points of moral relativism.

Fearing a descent into clichi, I went in search of someone who was neither a teacher nor a social worker. I found Mr. Shahid, a bearded and "observant" British Muslim of Pakistani ancestry. He disagreed about Tony Blair's credit rating. "Oh yes, he gets credit, but not for standing out against public opinion," Shahid says. "He gets it for controlling and tempering George Bush. But now he's not representing his people." I ask about Britain's relationship with the U.S. and with Europe. "We're European and we ought to be European," he says without any trace of doubt. I ask why he thinks Tony Blair had taken such a firm stance with the U.S. "He's trying to make a name for himself. Britain's role as an imperial power has declined and he's trying to rekindle that through the United States."

I was about to thank him and move on when Shahid volunteers: "We should have finished Saddam off the first time!" He'd caught me short. "You mean George Bush senior should have extended the war and gone all the way to Baghdad in 1991?" "Exactly." I hadn't expected this. "In which case, why should the current George Bush not put right his father's mistake and finish the job?" Shahid wasn't falling for that one. "Because containment has now worked. There's no need. Saddam isn't a threat now -- and if he is it should be dealt with regionally. Anyway, this war isn't being done for the Iraqi people -- it's being done for American and British interests. They want world dominance, we know that. And they want the oil."

Oil, imperialism, "hypocrisy" -- this is a the charge sheet and lexicon of the "antiwar" movement. Whatever possible benefits might flow from military action are, it seems, rejected and disparaged, either on grounds of the means (the cure is worse than the cold), or on grounds of America and Britain's corrupt and hypocritical motives.

Before the outcome of any war in Iraq, critics will likely maintain this rhetorical arm-lock on Blair. But the prime minister has been here before. The same moral high tone, the same dire predictions of incalculable human misery and warnings of the impossibility and immorality of the mission were prognosticated by opponents and critics from the left before both Tony's Blair's previous wars, in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In fact, Blair emerged from both conflicts with enhanced authority and a rosy balance sheet in mainstream public opinion. Could it happen again? Possibly it could. But everything has to go right.

"He's between a rock and a hard place," the commentator Jonathan Freedland told me in a telephone interview a day after the march. Freedland is the U.K.'s current Columnist of the Year, and though he's far from a knee-jerk pacifist, he is "not yet persuaded" by the case for war. Freedland writes regularly for the up-market, liberal-leaning Guardian newspaper and the mass-circulation tabloid Daily Mirror, which has placed itself in the vanguard of the antiwar movement. "The stakes could not be higher for Blair," he says. "This is Afghanistan to the power of 10; the risks are perilously high and he's gambling everything on it. The scenario that most people now imagine is that the U.S. will go it alone if it has to -- the predicament Blair fears the most. It could destroy him. Although," he adds, "it has to be wondered whether the U.S. would really feel able to go it alone in the absence of any significant ally."

The internationally respected academic and Middle East specialist professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics believes that Blair now has no choice but to join the U.S., even if it defies the will of the U.N. and proceeds to war without a further resolution.

This realpolitik analysis contradicts the sentiments expressed by several of the protesters yesterday. "A lot of people here say they'd forgive him if he changed his mind and backed down," said Haydn Wood, a builder from the far southwest county of Cornwall. "If he joined the French and German side and went for more inspections, people would forgive him."

Both Freedland and Halliday demur, arguing that for Blair to flip-flop now would rob him of his strongest card: his steadfast "moral certitude." A conversion might be welcomed by a small minority of die-hard pacifists; for the wider world, it would surely convey wobbly nerves and a wildly irresponsible faint heart. In any case a victory with or without Britain seems likely. In this logic Blair can only stick with the U.S. and hope for a quick and (relatively) "clean" victory, with Saddam ousted -- perhaps even assassinated by a countryman -- and the invading troops hailed as liberators by overjoyed Iraqis dancing in the streets.

"The key factor for Blair is the outcome of the war. If it's quick and successful he'll be able to ride out the domestic difficulties," says Halliday, who wrote "Two Hours That Shook the World," the first academic analysis to be published in Britain after 9/11.

"The antiwar movement has to prepare itself for this scenario, which looks quite likely," says Freedland. "If the war works then the doubts will be drowned out. Once Baghdad is liberated, in the fogginess of the aftermath the right-wing press will crow victory and Blair will have prevailed."

As in Kosovo. As in Afghanistan.

Then there's the Middle East. With Palestinian flags fluttering in the hundreds along the route, this is perhaps the most potent entry in the antiwar movement's ledger of "hypocrisy." Harriet Martin, a Quaker from Birmingham, though born and educated in upstate New York, puts it bluntly:

"Look, if we're talking about U.N. resolutions, let's start with the resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Territories," she said. It was a refrain I heard over and over again. Palestinian literature was easy to find -- trodden underfoot in gutters and on sidewalks. I picked up a crushed leaflet in Trafalgar Square: "Friends of Al Aqsa: Did you know that Israel stands in defiance of over 80 U.N. resolutions?"

Tony Blair knows this. It is the issue that currently most clearly divides the U.K. and U.S. governments. Blair recently proposed rekindling the Middle East peace process with a London summit as a gesture of his personal good faith in seeking wider peace and justice in the Mideast.

"A Mideast settlement depends on the U.S., but any progress won't harm Blair domestically," Halliday says. "It can only help."

But on Palestine, Halliday points out a real-world irony for the antiwar movement. "We are far more likely to see real progress on Palestine if there is a war in Iraq," he says. "The Americans will push on it and compromised Arab leaders will probably try to revive the Saudi proposals that came through the Arab League last year and have since been on ice." Halliday points out that the aftermath of the last Gulf War produced the Madrid Conference, which eventually led to Oslo. "There was this positive linkage," he says.

"The Palestinians have also helped themselves by nominating a prime minister, Abu Ala, who Israel and the U.S. are willing to treat as a serious interlocutor, which is not the case with Arafat. So anyone who wants a just Palestinian solution should be supporting a war in Iraq. That's the reality of the situation. It would be good for Palestinian aspirations."

None of the protesters I spoke to on Saturday saw it quite that way.

I continued my walk with Harriet Martin, the U.S.-born Quaker. "My own reasons for being here are endless," she told me. "I don't believe Iraq has stocks of weapons of mass destruction. I think if this war happens it will provoke more terrorism in the world because people will become so disaffected and angry." I ask whether she feels 9/11 has revived the demonizing of Saddam and propelled Iraq back up the U.S. foreign policy agenda. "I think Bush declared a war and then had difficulty finding an enemy," she says. "Saddam Hussein was left over from 11 years ago and could be tied in ... with a bit of difficulty." We were drowned out by a deafening wave of sound -- a spine-chilling swell of noise echoing off the four-story facades of Gower Street that swept over us and back into the Euston Road.

The "leftover" and further demonized Saddam is, however, the most persuasive recruiting sergeant for Tony Blair and the advocates of "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to comply with U.N. demands. I found no faint apologists, let alone defenders of him or his regime among any of the marchers.

At the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, gateway to London's theatreland, two youthful retirees from the midlands city of Leicester, Julian and Pat Pollock, are happy to damn Saddam from every angle. "We know he's a bastard," says Pat, "but we have no right to change another country's leader. And there are plenty of others as bad, like Mugabe, so why him? Why Saddam?" I play devil's advocate: Perhaps because Saddam has murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people, invaded one neighbor, waged an extraordinarily bloody war on another, caused the death of more than a million people in the process and gassed the Kurds, I ventured. (To say nothing of the acid baths.)

"He's utterly appalling, I agree with you," says Pat, "but this is about the means, not whether it's justified to kill him. It's who else you take out in the process." I asked if she would support a covert assassination of Saddam? "No, no, no," said Pat. "I'd support going in to bring him out." Pat used to be a social services manager. Her husband ran a small agricultural business. "I might well support a covert assassination," he says, smiling. His wife laughs and lights up a Marlboro Light.

In response to this week's Franco-German veto of plans to send Patriot missiles and AWACs to defend Turkey from Iraqi missiles, sections of the British press launched searing attacks on European hypocrisy. "MONSTROU.S. INGRATITUDE" thundered the Daily Mail's front page on Tuesday; over a moody sepia print of U.S. soldiers on Omaha Beach in 1944, a strap-line detailed the cost of defending Europe in U.S. lives over half a century. Rupert Murdoch's Sun, never slow to take a pop at Johnny Frog, called the Chirac-Schröder plan "cynical and shameless opportunism." The London Evening Standard ran a trenchant feature: "The Selfish Men Wrecking NATO."

Not far from the Ministry of Defence, in Whitehall, Mike Mortimer, a retired motor trader from Surrey has a different view: "I don't think America came into World War II only to rescue us. They had their own reasons -- Pearl Harbor being a major one." Fair point. He adds: "But for Blair I don't think oil is the whole story. I'm sure he does believe that Iraq is a threat to world peace."

And if we had to choose between the U.S. and Europe? Not now, not next year, but in 20 years perhaps? "I really hope we don't have to choose," says Harriet Martin, the Anglo-American Quaker from Birmingham. "I consider myself a citizen of the world rather than of any one country. But I suspect that if Britain did have to choose, it would go across the Atlantic, because of the cultural ties."

As dusk falls on this bitter Saturday afternoon, I lock my bicycle at the end of Piccadilly in the shadow of the Boedica, the ancient British warrior-queen carved in stone thrashing the stallions that draw her powerful chariot. I wandered into the park. Like hundreds of thousands of the marchers, I'd missed the speeches. But it didn't seem to matter. I'd been listening to most of the speakers for at least 20 years, since I was a student and attended Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rallies in the early 1980s (as we all did). Sister Dynamite had strutted her finale and the stage was being struck. Here and there groups gathered around small fires warming their hands and feet around pyres made of used placards. Mission accomplished.

Would it make any difference? Would Tony Blair hear the roar of the crowd?

"He's gone up to Scotland today so he's not even here", says Ryan, an illustrator from the city of Sheffield. "But there's a good feeling here. Lots of peace, lots of love. People are smiling and happy. That must have good connotations."

From a neighboring pyre a cheer goes up; I looked round. Flames were consuming a bulky papier maché effigy of Bush and Blair painted blue and red. I strolled back to a girl called Hylie, a finance worker who says she is Iranian by birth. "So do you think this will make any difference?" I ask. "So many people turned up it must mean something," she smiles. "But I don't suppose it will. In the end the governments do what they want." And Tony Blair? "He's a puppet of the Americans. But they're puppets too, aren't they? In the White House they're all Jewish. This is all being done for Israel."

I headed back to my bicycle. The uphill ride home was chilling. I reflected ruefully that in one respect, I had surely failed. There are several hundred thousand Iraqis living in Britain. I'd kept a sharp eye out, but didn't find a single one all day. Could they all be political dissidents? Later at home, on the 9 p.m. radio news, I learned that one BBC reporter had fared better. She had found an Iraqi citizen, a young woman living in London who had turned up to berate the marchers. "Everyone here is wrong," she said. "Everyone in Iraq wants to get rid of Saddam, but they are realistic enough to know they cannot do it themselves."

But on Saturday in London, it was a million and a half voices against one lone voice.

By David Akerman

David Akerman is a producer for the BBC.

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Afghanistan British Election France George W. Bush Germany Iraq Middle East Rupert Murdoch