World opinion moves against Bush

by Simon Tisdall (Guardian, January 23, 2003)

Those who are opposed to the George Bush administration's policy towards Iraq, and specifically its threat to launch an unprovoked invasion of the country, must surely be immensely heartened by the discernible shift in worldwide public opinion on the issue.

Last weekend's well-supported demonstrations in cities as diverse and far apart as Tokyo, Islamabad, Damascus, Moscow, Washington and San Francisco are indicative of the gathering power and reach of the anti-war movement.

For every person who took to the streets, there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, who share their concerns. As the crisis appears to move towards some sort of denouement, the size and potency of this international resistance can be expected to grow.

It has been clear for some time that most people in the Arab world and Muslim countries worldwide would fiercely object to any US-led intervention in Iraq. Among the many reasons cited is the fear that war will increase regional instability and inflame the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The rising tide of anti-war sentiment has produced some remarkable recent poll findings in western Europe. Three out of four Germans, for example, say that they consider President Bush to be a greater danger than Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

As is also the case in France, three out of four of those polled in Germany say that they are opposed to a war in Iraq, even if it is specifically authorised by the UN security council.

In Spain and Italy, majorities against war are over 60%, despite the expressed support for US policy of the countries' respective leaders, Jose Maria Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi. These largely Catholic countries will have listened to the Pope's recent denunciation of war as a "defeat for humanity".

The developing position in Britain is, in a sense, even more remarkable. For historical and cultural reasons, the British feel a greater affinity with the US than people elsewhere in Europe. Their instinct is to support the US, as the response to September 11 showed.

During the past six months or more, Britons have been repeatedly told by the prime minister, Tony Blair, that the threat posed by Iraq is urgent and must be dealt with, if necessary by force, as the US says.

Mr Blair's government has published dossiers on Iraq's estimated weapons of mass destruction capability and its human rights abuses in a bid to bolster the case for war. It has also followed the Bush administration's lead in drawing a link, without any evidence, between al-Qaida terrorists and Iraq.

It argues that the worldwide problem of weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and particularly the threat of weapons falling into terrorist hands, will somehow be curbed if Iraq's regime is ousted.

Yet from beneath the weight of this official, and media-backed, scaremongering and arm-twisting, a near-majority of Britons opposed to war is emerging. Over the past three months, those against an attack on Iraq has risen by 10 points to 47%, according to a Guardian poll.

Other polls show that more than 80% of Britons believe clear evidence of Iraqi non-compliance with the UN inspection regime's requirements, and specific UN authority for the use of force, are essential prerequisites for military action.

Yet for all this, perhaps the biggest turnaround in opinion is taking place in the US itself. Last summer, and throughout early autumn, many Americans complained that they were opposed to President Bush's plans but that their views were not being heard by the administration, Congress or the mainstream media.

They felt that they were talking into a vacuum, said there was no debate on the issue and feared being branded "unpatriotic" if they questioned their government's strategy.

The change since then has been startling. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that American grassroots support for the Bush administration's policy on Iraq is falling steadily. Seven out of 10 Americans want the UN inspectors to be given more time to do their job, according to the findings. They therefore oppose Mr Bush's anticipated attempt to curtail or cancel the inspections prior to launching military action.

As in Britain, this shift comes despite a daily diet of self-justifying speeches by the government, and a stream of new charges being levelled against Iraq. It is also occurring in the context of a gradual fall, as evidenced by other polls, in Mr Bush's overall approval rating. Confidence in his handling of the domestic economy is also dwindling, and it seems likely that these trends are connected.

For those opposed to war, this is all very jolly. But the key question remains: will it actually make any difference? A few weeks ago, the answer might have been a gloomy no. But now the picture has become more confused.

Responding to the concerns expressed by its people, the French government is currently trying to delay, at least for a few weeks, the onset of hostilities. It is backed in this aim by Germany, Greece and others - not an unpowerful alliance. France is also attempting to create a united EU position against an invasion.

Following France's lead, and perhaps reading the international public mood, veto-wielding China and Russia have called for an indefinite continuation of weapons inspections.

Another issue of particular concern to the hawks in the Bush administration may be Turkey's unexpected but dogged reluctance to allow its territory to be used as a large-scale base for war. Ankara has this week called a regional summit of all the major Middle East countries to discuss a non-violent solution to the crisis.

Even Mr Blair is showing signs of strain as he tries to take command of public opinion in Britain, but finds himself continually rebuffed. He will face stiff opposition from within his own party and government if, as seems increasingly possible, the US government asks Britain to join it in going to war without a clear UN mandate. Some commentators foresee his political demise in such circumstances.

And what of President Bush? Is there any sign that the pressure of growing public disapproval is telling on him? He certainly appears to be more than usually grumpy, and keeps saying that his patience with Iraq is running out.

But perhaps Mr Bush is beginning to wonder whether US voters are running out of patience with him. He wants to bring down President Saddam. He wants to vanquish his other perceived "rogue state" foes, such as Kim Jong-il in North Korea. He wants to win his "war on terror" at almost any cost, continuing to play the role of war president. It has worked for him so far.

But there is one price that Mr Bush will not pay, because there is one thing he wants more than anything else: a second term in office. He is unlikely to do anything to jeopardise that ambition, and up until now has seemed to think that starting a full-scale war in the Middle East, with all its potentially bloody consequences for Americans and others, would help him win another four years in power.

But perhaps even he is starting to worry that war, along with rising oil prices, unemployment, public and private debt and a faltering economy, could have the very opposite effect. Perhaps those around him, like campaign adviser Karl Rove, are worrying even more.

It remains unlikely that President Bush will back off now. But if he does, it would truly be a triumph for democracy in the very best sense of the word - and it would make all those street demonstrations worthwhile.

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