For many, those marches failed despite their awesome scale. They did not prevent the catastrophic failure of the US and UK-led coalition’s ouster of Saddam Hussein and his regime. Many of those millions who marched returned home enraged and ignored. The lies and the spin that accompanied the war propaganda expedited a deep, long-lasting disenchantment with the ruling elites and mistrust of political leaders.
War became a tough proposition to sell, as indeed it should be. For the US, its post 9/11 wars have cost, according to some estimates, in excess of $5.5 trillion and 370,000 lives.
The British Parliamentary vote against war on Syria in 2013 was a prime example of the Iraq War hangover. Declaring previous opposition to the Iraq War is a badge of honor and an electoral asset. President Donald Trump claims to have opposed it, as did Barack Obama before him, while Hillary Clinton was wounded by her warm support for it. In Britain, the leader of the Labour party Jeremy Corbyn had opposed this and other failed British military adventures for some time, and claims he was right not just on Iraq, but also Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
A sizeable portion of the anti-war movement was motivated by a demand to solve problems at home, rather than gallivanting halfway across the globe to sort out other issues. This was a less principled approach than others who were opposed to the war on the grounds of the havoc and death it would wreak, its illegality and likely failure. It is why there seems to be so little concern at the horrors visited on Iraqis through war and terror nearly every day.
The anti-establishment rage created by the Iraq War only reinforced the populist isolationist movements that have prospered in the US and across Europe. The pull-up-the-drawbridge approach to international politics was given a huge boost. Parochialism is on the march.
The anti-war marches were barely a coalition but a brief coming together of numerous constituencies. Yet it was the isolationists who have perhaps prospered most since, largely on the far-right but not exclusively. For all his well-highlighted faults and failings, President Trump is tapping into the zeitgeist of the time: What happens “over there” should not, it seems, worry us over here, so put your country first and let everyone else sort out their own difficulties. Putting up walls and barriers is part of this. The welcome mat to other peoples is being removed. Trump wants his wall with Mexico and even many European states have put up walls and fences to keep immigrants and refugees out.
The anti-establishment rage created by the catastrophic conflict only reinforced the populist movements that have prospered in the US and across Europe, giving a huge boost to the pull-up-the-drawbridge approach to international politics.
Globalization is less and less popular and protectionism is making a return. A poll at the end of 2016 showed that less than half the population in the US, France and Britain approved of globalization.
For Britain, the isolationists won the debate with Brexit and now want a “UK is full up” sign put up for the world to see. Some Brexiteers do argue for a global Britain, but many abhor the term.
Of course this is hardly the first ever bout of isolationism and destructive nationalism. The United States of the 1930s was hugely isolationist after the horrors of the First World War and the agony of the Great Depression. Even earlier, George Washington warned in his farewell address against getting involved in European affairs: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
Is this isolationism a passing phase? As ever, the young hold the key and polls show that it is the young who are most likely to unlock barriers. The young were against Brexit, for example. Attachment to isolationism will wane again, but a love for rampant globalism is unlikely to return in the West.
The isolationists and unilateralists have no answers to the challenges we face, nor of course do others, as yet. Hiding away behind barriers will not resolve issues such as climate change, extremism, child poverty and overpopulation. It needs massive cooperation, sharing of ideas and real purpose.
It is the other constituents in those 2003 protests who might make a difference. Internationalists who respect international law and care about the fate of others marched too.
But preventing wars since those marches has still proved tough, whilst ending conflicts appears nigh on impossible. Are the limitations of military-only “solutions” properly understood? Have all of the lessons of recent wars been learnt? Diplomacy and soft power seem to have taken a leave of absence.
Yet the challenge for us all is finding lasting solutions. The Iraq War was a five-star, blood-soaked catastrophe, but most of those who advocated for and those who raged against it had few or no solutions to a regime like Saddam Hussein’s.
Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech