The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, December 29, 2003

For the sake of the argument

I and Norman Geras seem to have struck our spades on different bedrock. To caricature (in both cases, but of his more than mine): I say 'It was an imperialist war!' He says 'It was the liberation of Iraq!' I say 'But it was an imperialist war!' and he replies 'But it was the liberation of Iraq!'

Instead of persisting in this particular argument, within which I have at the moment nothing much new to say, I'll continue to argue against the war, and add to my sidebar links to Norman Geras and others (some on different sides of this argument) with whom I don't necessarily agree but whose writings make me, and I hope will make you, think.

The laughter of Carthage

'Weapons of mass destruction or no weapons of mass destruction, it's important to step back a little bit here, to see what we have done historically,' says Paul Bremer, after inadvertently trashing Tony Blair's latest claims. 'We, the coalition, the British and American people, have done a noble thing by relieving 25 million Iraqis of one of the most vicious tyrannies in the 20th century.'

Is regime change in itself a justification for the war?

I don't think so, for the following (and other, but already repeated) reasons.

In the first place, it's always wrong to lie to the soldiers. People who went to war to defend (as they thought) their own country, in the absence of a real threat to their own country, are not subsequently vindicated in what they have suffered and inflicted by the liberation of another country. I can't begin to express how wrong I think this is. Actually, I can: it's murder to send someone to their death or disability for a lie; it's theft to take taxes paid for national defence and spend them on (someone else's) national liberation. There are plenty of Iraqis who will say the war was worth it for getting rid of Saddam. They were all, in different and often appalling and unspeakable ways, victims of Saddam, but (and this is a terrible thing to say, but it seems to me true, so I'll say it) their opinion solely on the question of the war, and not that of the nature of the regime has less moral weight than is sometimes claimed. When it came to the regime's overthrow they weren't the ones who paid the butcher's bill. They are, by definition, the survivors and beneficiaries of the deaths and injuries among both the invaders and the invaded. The war was worth it for them. If they weren't willing to die in their streets, why should hundreds of Western (and other Coalition) soldiers and uncounted thousands of Iraqi conscripts and civilians die in their stead?

In the second place, it's always wrong to lie to the workers (or the people, if you prefer; not that there's much difference, in this our Capital Volume One world). Popular support in the metropoles for the war was predicated on the belief that Iraq presented a real and imminent threat. It didn't. An immense amount of lying was indulged in on this matter. That no decisive majority support was authoritatively sought for the war on the basis of regime change is evidence (not conclusive, but suggestive) that none would have been found. Deceiving democracy at home is a bad way to spread it abroad; relying on ignorance, disinformation, and chauvinism is a rotten plank for a platform of enlightenment.

Thirdly, it's by no means given that the overthrow of the dictatorship is the same as the liberation of Iraq: a state which, as Churchill put it, united two widely separated oilfields by uniting three mutually antagonistic peoples. An independent (Kurdish) north is unacceptable to Turkey (and to the region's non-Kurdish residents); an independent (Shia) south would gravitate towards Iran, which is unacceptable to the West and the Saudis; and majority rule means a Shia republic, which is unacceptable to the Sunni heartland. Iraq can only exist as a state if it's ruled from Baghdad; it has only ever existed as a state when dominated by the Sunnis; and it can't cease to exist as a state without further (national or civil) wars, or a revolution across the region. In the meantime, what exists under the occupation is an anarchy that fills graves faster than the immediately preceding (though not, of course, the less recent but still burning) years of tyranny. The proposed, and in part implemented, solution of integrating into the new security forces the militias of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Iraqi National Council, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Iraqi Communist Party is ... well, you can see the problem.

It's possible, of course, that in the months and years to come Iraq will become as free, independent, and democratic as, say, Turkey; and if it does so as a result of the occupation, rather than as a result of a successful revolt against it, I'll admit that at least my worst suspicions were wrong. But for now, I doubt it. And even then, I'd hear down two millennia the laughter of Carthage.


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