Wilful blindness

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 19, 2003

Peaceniks in St. Petersburg [right], Russia, on March 18, protest against war in Iraq. Credit: Dmitry Lovetsky, AP Photo.

In 1981, when Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor to prevent it from making nuclear weapons fuel, Norman Rubin, my colleague at Energy Probe, lauded the Israeli action.

Energy Probe, and especially Norm, were then at the forefront of a worldwide effort to end nuclear proliferation, a movement in which Canada stood out for having supplied India with the technology that gave her the Bomb. Although India’s bomb had started an arms race with Pakistan – also the recipient of a Canadian reactor – Canada remained intent on selling more Candu technology to military dictatorships such as Romania’s Ceausescu and Argentina’s junta. Other Western countries including France, which had built Osirak for Iraq, played that same game of supplying tyrants with nuclear weapons technology, and were dogged by peace groups of their own.

That, my friend, was a peace movement to be proud of. To support their domestic nuclear industries, Canada, the United States, France, Germany, Italy and other Western governments were short-sightedly providing weapons technology to corrupt, politically unstable military regimes under the guise that the reactor sales were profitable and intended for civilian use.

In truth, nuclear technology was so uncompetitive at making electricity that the Western governments needed to subsidize the sales heavily, and leaked Cabinet documents showed that Prime Minster Trudeau’s government feared Argentina’s military would use a Candu nuclear bomb against the British in the Falklands War.

Thanks in good part to pressure from the members of this movement, Argentina, Taiwan, Turkey, Indonesia and most of the other military regimes that sought nuclear weapons technology never did complete their plans. Meanwhile, pressure on the United States and the U.S.S.R. contributed to a reduction of their nuclear stockpiles, too. Armed with the truth, the peace movement prevailed over the patent lies of the weapons proliferators, to the credit of all involved.

But I do not feel pride in what large parts of the peace movement have become. My first awareness that something had gone horribly wrong came after Sept. 11, when so many activists strained to justify the terrorists’ grievances. I was next amazed to see the annual demonstrations in Washington against World Bank and IMF policies delayed after Sept. 11, then cancelled, then converted into a demonstration to oppose military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was as if any cause would do – all that the demonstrators needed was a pretext to take to the streets.

The demonstrations against the policies of the World Bank and IMF had begun in the 1980s as environmental protests founded on years of painstaking research. The demonstrations against ousting the Taliban had no grounding in fact: The protestors’ claims – that there was no evidence linking Osama bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attack; that, even if there were, the Taliban could not be held accountable for bin Laden’s actions; that the United States had no right to overthrow the government of a sovereign nation – in retrospect are risible. The claims came of anti-Americanism, a visceral dislike of President Bush, and little else. Because the claims were groundless, they disappeared with the fall of the Taliban and the subsequent surfacing of the truth.

Much of the peace camp’s opposition to a war against Saddam Hussein is likewise based on anti-Americanism and a distaste for President Bush. It considers him a greater threat to peace than Saddam, whom Human Rights Watch holds responsible for the civilian deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. It accused Mr. Bush of acting contrary to international law even as he brought motions to the United Nations, while it defends a dictator who has continuously violated 17 United Nations resolutions over 12 years.

The anti-war movement perceives strength in numbers, but numbers will not trump truths. The anti-war movement in the 1930s – students, supporters of the League of Nations, supporters of disarmament, the Pope and the Catholic Church, isolationists, socialists, labour unions – was far more numerous and far better organized than anything mustered post-Sept. 11. In 1936, 500,000 U.S. college students boycotted classes in a nationwide “student strike” in opposition to war preparations. In 1937, Gallup polls indicated that almost 70% of Americans regretted U.S. involvement in World War I and 94% favoured containment in dealing with Hitler. After Hitler seized Moravia and Bohemia in 1939, Herbert Hoover, a former president and leading anti-war advocate, declared that Hitler presented no clear and present danger. The almost wilful blindness to the danger at hand persisted after Hitler was at war with England and France: More than 90% of Americans remained anti-war. Even into late 1941, more than 80% of Americans and 90% of Catholic clerics opposed entering the war. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the folly of anti-war views evident, the anti-war movement melted, many of its adherents immediately joining the war effort.

Despite the almost wilful blindness of many of today’s peaceniks, peace and human rights groups can claim genuine progress, and for this we should all be grateful. Their relentless focus on the civilian casualties of Israeli counterterrorism, and their success in forcing the U.S. government to criticize Israeli conduct, has led Israel to develop new military techniques and to enforce an unprecedented military culture designed to limit unintended casualties, even at the risk of its own troops. The United States, having demanded this culture of its ally, has had little choice but to adopt the culture for itself. Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, where substantial human “collateral damage” was accepted as a necessary evil of war, the U.S. army is now going to extraordinary expense to limit civilian casualties. In the war on Iraq, as in the war in Afghanistan, the Coalition of the Willing is sure to exact a much smaller toll on civilians than seen in previous times. This should be a war that peace-loving people everywhere can eventually praise.

Lawrence Solomon, a founder of Energy Probe, is a columnist with the Financial Post. E-mail: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

Related articles by Larry Solomon:

Bush the redeemer
Ignorant by decree
The consensus on Iraq
Iraq’s odious debts

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