All about George: Ten years on from the Iraq protests

Posted by Caabu on 14 Feb 2013

by Chris Doyle
14 February 2013

Back in February 2003, a BBC producer invited me for an interview on Iraq.  What were my views? My attempts at nuance were brought to a grinding halt and I was offered an unappealing choice: “Listen, do you support George Bush or George Galloway?” I responded, “How about George Clooney?”

Never having been a disciple of either of the ‘Georges’ meant that the BBC rescinded the invitation to be interviewed.  Amazingly, opposing both Saddam Hussein’s regime and the proposed war did not fit the required narrative. It would, I was told, ‘over-complicate’ things for the viewers.

Such was the climate in which the whole Iraq war debate was conducted. There were two views - two camps. It was polarised, bitter and frequently vindictive.  In such an atmosphere mature debate was almost impossible. As a result, one million protesters were not going to be listened to.

Ten years since the massive protests over the Iraq war and the whole sorry saga of that disastrous military adventure in the Middle East, one has to question what has been learnt from all this and what the protests achieved.

Most British Muslims and Arabs I have spoken to see the 15 February 2003 protests only in terms of failure. They argue that the protests did not stop Blair and Britain still went to war. Many even ask, “What sort of democracy are we living in when a government can ignore such huge opposition?”

Clearly the primary purpose of the protests was not reached: Blair went ahead with the war and with disastrous results. But that is not the whole story.

Firstly there was a huge impact on the British establishment.

It was never likely that a determined Prime Minister with a majority of 165 and the support of the main opposition party was going to concede, yet arguably one more Cabinet resignation would have forced Blair to step down. It was that close.

I am certain that when Blair started envisioning and planning a war on Iraq he did not expect such a backlash, such opposition and ultimately such personal hostility towards him. He had fought many other wars with little impact on his personal standing and prestige. In my view, Blair’s eventual resignation was largely brought about by his failure in Iraq having lost the confidence of so many of his colleagues. He may never recover his reputation – extraordinary for a man who won three consecutive general elections.

As a result, subsequent leaders have been more reluctant to be seen as gung ho and interventionist. It will be in the minds of any leader considering intervention in Syria and Iran. Over Mali, it is noticeable how nervous ministers are about any deployment of UK forces.

Secondly, the criteria for British involvement in future conflicts have changed. There is much clearer preference for getting UN Security Council backing, as in Libya, and for ensuring that there are solid legal grounds for action. In addition there is a far greater suspicion of untested intelligence and relying solely on that for intervention.  Any intelligence-based report on Iran is met with acute scepticism. It has even been argued that an aversion to foreign interventions has gone too far and that perhaps for example, there should have been humanitarian intervention in Darfur.

Aside from the policy impact, what about the protesters? A global movement was effectively created, with protests in around 60 countries. Three million people marched in Rome alone, a world record. The protests were an historical event in themselves regardless of whether they stopped the war or not. This global movement revealed a new conscience about international affairs.

It was an opportunity to create new alliances and develop strategic relations.  In Britain, the British Muslim and Arab communities for the first time marched side by side with all other sectors of British society from across the political spectrum.  I fear that such promising alliances were not built upon.

But there are lessons to be learnt from these protests. As a lobbyist, I was painfully aware of how few demonstrators had actively engaged their MP. To this day when asked by those still depressed about the Iraq war, I counter with the question: “Did you write to your MP or seek to meet them? Did you write to the Prime Minister? Did you write to newspapers?” Most did not, even though it takes less time and money than journeying to London to protest. Imagine if Tony Blair had had a million hand-written letters!

The lesson is that protests alone are never enough. If there were one million protesters in London spending, say, two to three hours marching, that represents a commitment of at least three million hours of work. If that had been harnessed in other ways, I believe Blair would never have survived.

Finally, the other great failure of the anti-war protests was not to speak out more clearly about the evils of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was a vile genocidal power with whom the West should never have dealt and should never have armed.

There should have been no role for tarnished political figures like George Galloway. It was as late as 1994, long after Saddam Hussein had perpetrated the Anfal campaigns against the Kurds and used chemical weapons, that Galloway infamously and despicably saluted Saddam Hussein for “your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”

Many MPs told me that they had concerns about the plans for war but were nervous of being linked in any way with Galloway. They wanted the comfort of more ‘reasonable’ figures to ally with.

Events in the Middle East should rarely be depicted and debated in such black and white terms much as the media may prefer it.  Choosing between the two Georges should not be the only option.