Damned if you do, Saddam if you don't

A Matter of Principle
January 27, 2006

Together with an unending line of corpses torn apart by bombs and bullets, the Iraq war produced a singularly frenzied debate among Western intellectuals about the rights and wrongs of the US invasion. This richly informative book is a collection of essays almost all by pro-intervention writers. They explain what led them to a position hugely derided by the majority of the Western intelligentsia.

Some of the essayists are troubled by the practical sensibleness of America's actions, however sound the moral case. But only one opposes the invasion. Another, Johann Hari, though a supporter of the conquest, regards the motives behind it as suspect.

The best example of the ebullient drum beater for George W. Bush is probably Christopher Hitchens. In his usual truculent, monotonous prose, he sets out the reasons why his own erstwhile Western leftwing friends are so contemptibly wrong. Norman Geras, Ian Buruma, Anne Clwyd and others follow in a similar vein, drawing up, in the name of liberal internationalism, an apparently devastating moral indictment of anti-war liberal and leftwing opinion.

The case that emerges from nearly all these contributors' advocacy might be summarised thus: America, despite many deplorable mistakes, stands for humanitarianism in Iraq. A frivolous, kneejerk anti-Americanism has led much Western opinion culpably to ignore the fact that the terrifying human toll exacted by Saddam Hussein's regime would have continued had the US not deposed him. The despot's practices are well known: feeding victims into mincing machines, the use of meat hooks and poison gas. How can supposed liberals and leftwingers oppose acting to dispose of such a monster on grounds of Iraqi "sovereignty"? Even if no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were uncovered, why should the US regime have taken the risk of Saddam developing them?

Besides, the US is involved in something vital in the post-September 11 era: introducing liberalism into the Middle East. Subjects of tyranny elsewhere in the Middle East will see it is possible in the area to favour democracy and the US at the same time: a badly needed demonstration. And what if the US has been - and away from Iraq still is - the underwriter of cruel dictatorships in the Muslim world? Is the US forbidden to do good in Iraq because of its malign record in the region hitherto? As for armed resistance in Iraq to the US, opponents of the war are often appallingly oblivious to its ferociously Islamist nature.

A lot of what these writers say is true. Saddam's regime was one of murder and torture on a huge scale. Many prominent spokesmen for the Western anti-war movement - such as Michael Moore, John Pilger, George Galloway, Tariq Ali and George Monbiot - do indeed tend to demonise the US and overlook the heinous nature of its armed Islamist enemies. The victory of America's armed opponents would immensely boost militant Islam at its worst. It would impose a Taleban-style regime on Iraq and push the Middle East, and much of the rest of the world, into serious trouble.

Nonetheless, a comparison with George Orwell indicates what is wrong with these writers. Their case for Saddam's removal is formidable; but they show strikingly few doubts about US motives. Though sometimes bemoaning America's practical blunders in Iraq, they - with two exceptions - act as earnest spokesmen for Washington. (Tony Blair, supposedly representing "liberal statesmanship", is given two chapters to expound his views.) Orwell would not have fallen into that trap. He was a mordant critic of all established powers, not merely totalitarian ones. He chose Britain and the US against Nazi Germany, but he made it clear this was a forced choice of a lesser evil. He looked forward eagerly to the British Empire's demolition by anticolonial movements. He knew that to ascribe anything like consistently altruistic motives to powerful governments was folly.

These essayists lack Orwell's subtlety. They have nothing of his strongest trait as a political polemicist: refusal to underplay the negative aspects of the side he himself has to choose. They do not see that a very strong humanitarian case can be made against US invasion, too. Even if some kind of democracy comes to Iraq, it will be beholden to US power. Indeed, after their easy routing of Saddam's armies, the US forces gave every indication of settling in for a prolonged quasi-colonial rule of the world's second largest oil reserve. None of these essayists notes that it was the unexpected effectiveness of the Iraqi guerrilla resistance after Baghdad's fall that led the US to concede even theoretical sovereignty to Iraqis and hold elections without delay. Thus, uncomfortably for those who wish to see democracy in Iraq and a US willing to leave, progress has been dependent on blows struck by a viciously inhuman armed resistance. And what if the US does secure untroubled victory? This may well encourage Washington to move against Iran and/or Syria. In short, US victory, too, is likely to push the region and much of the rest of the world to the threshold of serious trouble.

Hari alone recognises that although Saddam's overthrow was hugely desirable, the US presence in Iraq is very problematic. Obviously, the ruthless resistance is not an alternative. Hari claims to have found a way out of this conundrum. Siding with the Iraqi people is the only decent choice, he argues. Opinion polls, he notes, indicate that the majority of Iraqis fervently wanted Saddam's Government smashed, even by a US invasion.

However, it is also clear that most now want the US out quickly, though - contradictorily - not until the Iraqi Army can cope with the Islamist insurgents. Hari is free of the credulity about US motives afflicting his fellow essayists. Yet even if Iraqi majority opinion is what he claims all it has needed to turn much of Iraq into hell is an armed minority. Hari does not indicate how US power can be controlled. We need a disinterested force to free the Iraqs of our world from their Saddam Husseins. No such force is in sight. Until we have it, those who believe that strong pro and anti positions can be taken in conflicts of this kind without associating oneself with wanton bloodshed and corruption are purveying an illusion.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq

Editor - Thomas Cushman
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 372
Price - £35.95 and £13.95
ISBN - 0 520 24486 9 and 24555 5

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