Lessons from the Gulf crisis

Published in Tribune, 30 January 1991, p. 11
pdf of published article

Brian Martin

How could nonviolence be used to stop Saddam Hussein? That is a question that many people have asked me since the development of the Gulf crisis. Since I have been promoting nonviolent action as an alternative to military methods for many years, people expect me to come up with an answer to all the problems created by the war system.

Let me respond to some of the questions I've been asked

Surely you oppose the deployment of Australian military forces in the Gulf?

Yes, but it's a bit of a side issue. Just being against Australian involvement doesn't provide any positive alternative. There has to be a way to actively oppose ruthless military regimes such as Iraq.

Isn't the main thing the hypocrisy of Western governments launching a crusade against Iraq when there are many other cases of aggression that have not been 'punished'?

The hypocrisies are indeed blatant and numerous.

Western governments did nothing to oppose the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, the US invasion of Panama, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or indeed the Iraqi invasion of Iran. There was silence about Iraqi use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and against the Kurds in Iraq.

But what is new? International relations are a politics of power, not of principle. Pointing out hypocrisies does not provide a solution to the real problems of aggression and abuse of human rights.

What's your solution then? Surely nonviolent methods couldn't stop an invasion?

Some useful precedents

There are some useful precedents. For example, in 1968 Soviet bloc forces invaded Czechoslovakia to smash 'socialism with a human face'. There was no military resistance.

Instead there were rallies, attempts to win over Soviet soldiers, delays in rail transport of equipment and a general refusal to cooperate.

The Soviet government had planned to install a puppet government within a few days but was unable to do so for eight months. The unified nonviolent resistance severely weakened Soviet legitimacy around the world in a way that no violent struggle could have.

The Czechoslovak resistance was spontaneous. A preplanned nonviolent resistance would involve appropriate technological infrastructure, extensive training and development of links with sympathetic groups in many other countries, all of which would considerably improve the capacity for deterrence and defence.

Are you saying that the Kuwait people should have opposed the invasion by concerted nonviolent action? Surely it would have been fruitless?

Enormous inequality

Kuwaiti military resistance was fruitless. Nonviolent resistance was a possibility in principle but not in practice. The main reason is that Kuwait never was a unified country. It was built on enormous inequality and exploitation. Few Kuwaiti people would have risked their lives to defend their rulers.

Nonviolent resistance depends on support from the people. The largely nonviolent Palestinian intifada against Israeli rule has been effective because of widespread support from the Palestinian people.

What about the boycott of trade with Iraq? That's a form of nonviolent action isn't it?

Right, boycotts are an important method of nonviolent action.

But the trouble is, this boycott was backed by a military blockade. There had been a massive military build-up and threat of invasion. These military measures served to mobilise greater support for Saddam Hussein within Iraq.

So what would you do that is different?

The weakest part of the Iraqi military state is the loyalty of the, Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein was and is a ruthless dictator, killing opponents and crushing any form of internal opposition.

Authoritarian regimes are vulnerable to collapse if enough people refuse to cooperate. That is basically what happened in Europe in 1989. It was also the basic process behind the Iranian revolution of 1978-79: concerted nonviolent opposition eventually won over enough of the troops so that the regime collapsed.

The time to oppose the Iraqi regime was in the 1980s, or even earlier. However, Western powers were supporting Saddam Hussein massively. During the 1980s the Western peace movement gathered enormous support but the focus was on nuclear weapons. The Iran-Iraq war didn't attract all that much attention.

You mean that nothing much can be done using nonviolent action now?

Actually, there are some things being done. The courageous nonviolent activists of the Peace Camp on the Saudi/Kuwaiti border are doing something, going into the Gulf region to try to prevent the outbreak of fighting.

Billions of dollars

But remember that governments spend billions of dollars and deploy massive human and material resources on military methods. The proponents of nonviolent struggle have only tiny resources by comparison.

The Gulf crisis was created by those powerful governments that provided arms and legitimacy to ruthless dictatorships. To expect the peace movement to step in and provide a magical solution now is wishful thinking.

It sounds like you think it is completely hopeless.

The main lesson is to take action now to prevent the "next time". A key thing is to oppose repressive, dictatorial governments. This is a big challenge. Western governments continue to support brutal regimes in Latin America. Africa and Asia. Examples range from China to Guatemala.

Repressive governments need to be opposed whatever their political persuasion or their alliances. Support should have been given in the late 1980s to the people of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, among others, against oppressive rulers.

People need to take action

Since many governments support these regimes, people need to take action independently of governments.

This means doing things like writing letters, making public statements, supporting actions by trade unions and other organisations, joining boycotts, communicating with opponents of regimes through organisations such as churches and corporations, sponsoring refugees and communicating via short-wave radio.

Some actions of this sort are being taken by groups such as Amnesty International, Article 19, War Resisters International, International Fellowship of Reconciliation and Peace Brigades International. Their efforts do make a difference.

However, compared to the resources spent on international trade, diplomacy and warfare, the development of ways for people to take action against repression in other countries is rudimentary.

The invasion of Kuwait and the Western military response represent a massive failure in the Gulf - a failure to develop nonviolent methods to prevent and oppose aggression.

Dr Brian Martin lectures in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong. He is a member of Schweik Action Wollongong, a group investigating nonviolent alternatives to the military.

See also

"Gulf War shows it's time to set our own agenda"

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Brian Martin's publications on nonviolence

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