Monday, March 28, 2005

Norm's argument over Iraq


Norman Geras has completed his series on  Iraq with Part 5 here. I have replied to him as follows.

Concerning your argument against an alternative scenario of war in 6 years, this seems to me to be a bit of a 'straw man', though I suppose you were structuring your piece to dispose of the most absurd arguments first, to concentrate on the serious ones later. Still, the idea that war would have been OK if Bush had not been at the helm is not one that was actually put forward. People did not oppose the war because Bush was in charge: they attacked, or found fresh reasons to attack, Bush because he proposed a war, which they see in its illegality as being of a piece with his previous contempt for international law - from his attitude towards the International Criminal Court to indefinite detention without trial of 'illegal combatants'.

Legality, or otherwise, is one of the key issues that draws 'moderates' - people beyond the 'usual suspects' into opposition to the war. For example, Channel 4 News Thursday leads again with the story of what  an FCO legal official thought was the Attorney-General's position on the war. The Independent the next day has the same story on its front page and 3 (tabloid) pages inside. In the second of the Attorney-General's alleged 3 positions he is supposed to have thought the war could be 'open to challenge'. I'm not sure quite where such a challenge could be mounted - even the absurd 'impeach Blair' campaign has focused more on the alleged misleading over weapons of mass destruction.

Legality, of course, meant with UN approval. At the time of the big demonstrations in 2003 the LibDems maintained that they were the 'pro-UN, not anti-war' party. The reasons given in the Attorney-General's  public summary seemed to me at the time to be casuistry. The war was not approved by the UN, but neither was it condemned (any resolution to condemn it would have run into a US veto). Exactly the same applied to the Kosovo war in 1999, enthousiastically supported by Robin Cook and Clare Short.

The real position of those who opposed the actual course of  action taken by Bush and Blair in March 2003 was either war in 6 months or war never.

The first of these positions was taken by 'moderates' - people proposing a realistic policy alternative, such as US Democrats, for example James Rubin (for references, see here). This was for continued inspections. With Saddam Hussein failing to comply, the war would have taken place anyway, in autumn 2003, with UN approval and the support of France and Russia. That was how it looked in summer 2003. Since then, with no WMD found, we have to face the possibility that there would not have been a war.

The truth is, that if there had not been a question over weapons, war to remove Saddam Hussein's regime would not have been on the agenda. Why Iraq and not Zimbabwe - or Uzbekistan. When asked this question, Tony Blair replied, I do it because I can: 'I do it' - provide diplomatic support, a military contribution (not really needed) and undoubtedly useful British presence in the current phase to establish a new Iraqi state - 'because I can' - because the US administration wanted to do it, to end the long war of manoeuvre that started in August 1990 and, in the light of 11 Sept, to reverse the policy of propping up dictators in the Middle East.

At the same time, Iraq might have been given a bit more benefit of the doubt over WMD if it had not been such a particularly brutal regime, but merely a run-of-the-mill less than fully-free-and-democratic country (like Iran?).

As for the 'war never' position, this stresses the costs in terms of human suffering of the invasion. There is rarely much consideration of the costs of doing nothing, but there was the argument from Kenneth Roth / Human Rights Watch (as you noted in your 'Part 4'), that Saddam Hussein was not actually killing enough people at the time to justify an intervention on humanitarian grounds. Of course, we will never be able to be sure of the 'balance sheet' of this, do a return on investment calculation on the lives saved over how many years, compared to the lives lost due to the invasion and its consequences. And the fascistic forces, whether islamist or old regime are still killing people.

Update (29  Mar):  I heard 'The interview' on the BBC World Service at the weekend (link here). It was with Philippe Sands, who is in the same chamber as Cherie Booth / Blair. He is a strong advocate of the illegality of the Iraq war, but he does see the Kosovo war as justified, due to the imminent 'humanitarian crisis' (in other words, massacre of large numbers of Kosovans).

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