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EU: Big Differences Seen Between Antiwar Movements Against Iraq, Vietnam

  • Valentinas Mite

The majority of citizens in the European Union are opposed to the war in Iraq. Opposition to the war is stronger and different in nature than the continent's last large-scale antiwar movement -- against the U.S. war in Vietnam in the 1960s. RFE/RL explains why.

Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Public opinion in the European Union remains hostile toward the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Recent polls show more than 80 percent of Germans and nearly 80 percent of French oppose the war.

Large antiwar demonstrations have been taking place in many EU countries. The protests in Western Europe have often been larger than those in Arab countries.

Britain is one of the few exceptions, with some 53 percent of the population supporting the war. However, analysts say the British public is supporting British troops fighting in the war, not necessarily the war itself.

Europe hasn't seen such a surge of antiwar sentiment since the 1960s, when U.S. troops were engaged in the eight-year conflict in Vietnam. But analysts say there are big differences between the antiwar movement of the '60s and the surge of antiwar sentiment in present-day Europe.

Daniel Keohane is an analyst for the London-based Centre for European Reform. He told RFE/RL that sentiments against a war in Iraq were strong among European Union nations even before the war began, when the issue of what to do about Baghdad's alleged weapons of mass destruction was still being discussed at the UN.

The antiwar movement of the '60s, on the other hand, was weak in the beginning but steadily gained force.

"The Vietnam War was already on for a few years before the anti-war campaign reached its zenith and its height of influence," Keohane said. "That's one major difference. Whereas in the Iraq case, the antiwar movement was already extremely powerful and loud even before the war had started."

While Western European governments did not send troops to fight in Vietnam, many of them nevertheless largely supported the U.S. actions. In the '60s, the world was divided into Western and Soviet camps, and in most official quarters in Europe the war in Vietnam was considered part of the fight against communism.

In another case of how the two antiwar movements differ, left-leaning students and organizations played an important role in the antiwar movement in the '60s. There were violent antiwar riots at French and German universities in 1968.

Today, the situation is different, and opposition to the war in Iraq is coming not only from the left. Many European leaders -- from centrist German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to center-right French President Jacques Chirac -- are vocal opponents of the war in Iraq. The pope is also one of the strongest critics of the war.

Michael Emerson is an analyst with the Centre for European Policy Studies, based in Brussels. He said that during antiwar protests in the '60s, people were opposing what they thought of as American neo-colonialism and supporting the Vietnamese drive for an independent state, even one ruled by the communists.

"The socialism, communism of the Vietnam regime was something which leftist movements in Europe were fairly sympathetic towards. So in this case [in Iraq], there's nobody who is considering that Saddam Hussein is a good guy." Emerson said Saddam is not a romanticized figure like Che Guevara -- the Latin American guerrilla leader and revolutionary theorist who became a hero to the left in the 1960s -- or even a Ho Chi Minh, the leader of communist Vietnam.

Today, Emerson said Europeans are not concerned about colonialism or communism. Instead, there is a debate about the concept of a just war in Iraq. Polls show the majority of the European public believes the war against Iraq is unjust, seeing the United Nations -- not military force -- as the best tool to deal with Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Charles Jenkins is an analyst of Western European policy at the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), a London-based research institute. He told RFE/RL that the majority of Europeans have no doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime is evil. They agree that Baghdad's failure to disarm must be dealt with but are concerned about the new tendencies in U.S. foreign policy.

"It's very disturbing that America has decided to invade another country for reasons which appear very unconvincing. I mean, it's a doctrine of preemptive strike. Now that's a doctrine which any country could theoretically apply, and it could lead to absolute anarchy around the world," Jenkins said.

Jenkins said many Europeans fear the U.S. will not stop in Iraq and will pursue this doctrine in other countries. The Europeans also fear that other states may decide to act in the same manner. Such fears were not on the agenda during the Vietnam War.

Analysts agree the war in Iraq is more unpopular in Europe than the war in Vietnam was. They say the growing numbers of civilian casualties may make such sentiments even stronger.

Keohane said the war in Iraq has become a live event for Europeans. All major European TV channels and radio stations are covering the hostilities live, bringing the war home to European families.

However, Keohane does not think such live coverage will harden antiwar sentiments very much. "But I think the attitudes to the war depend much more on how the war is conducted, not so much on the coverage itself. You know, if people have a sense that there are huge numbers of civilian casualties, that greatly affects their attitudes toward the war," he said.

He said the European public could radically change its antiwar attitudes if they begin to see their TV screens filled with images of Iraqis welcoming U.S. and British troops as liberators, instead of invaders.

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