Today's degenerate means yield compromised ends

The Iraq War and Democratic Politics - The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq
May 20, 2005

Despite the barbarity that accompanied it, A.J.P. Taylor described the Second World War as "a good war". Will history judge the US-led invasion of Iraq to be a good war, one that enabled the beginnings of democracy and responsible governance in Iraq? Or should we hold on to the principled belief that even the establishment of democracy is insufficient grounds for the harm caused to the Iraqi people and their society? Given the complexity of the issues and the fact that the war has been so divisive, it is superficially attractive to sit back and hope that a longer perspective will generate better judgments. To the credit of the contributors to these two outstanding collections, they have not sought shelter in the comfort zone of detachment. Both books illustrate the virtue of academic engagement with current predicaments.

Despite this shared sense of commitment, the books provide contrasting accounts of the Iraq war and its impact on regional and global politics. The Iraq War and Democratic Politics , edited by Alex Danchev and John MacMillan, casts a critical eye over the increasing propensity of democracies to go to war. The book examines the war from the perspectives of its key actors (the US, UK, Turkey, the European Union and Iraq) as well as covering key issues (law, liberal theory, failed states, intelligence).

In his introduction, MacMillan recognises the tension between war and democracy in the case of Iraq, "for the war marks both the crisis and the continuation of democracy, the contravention and the extension of democratic politics".

Not only are democratic governments uncertain when force is necessary and just, domestic publics have shown themselves to be deeply divided on intervention. It was only in the US that public opinion stood squarely behind the war and several chapters in The Iraq War and Democratic Politics explain how this came about. The 9/11 attack was crucial in reminding Americans that their national security was connected to remote regions and the activities of relatively unknown networks. Such a shift bolstered those in the George W. Bush Administration who yearned for greater power projection. In his West Point address, Bush articulated a doctrine of pre-emption in which the US had to "confront the worst threats before they emerge". John Dumbrell cleverly shows the continuity between this post-9/11 doctrine of pre-emption and the pre-9/11 doctrine of humanitarian intervention. There are now two triggers for intervention: one when a state commits grave abuses of human rights, the other when a state supports terrorism.

Dan Keohane's chapter looks at the Blair government and asks why a centre-left administration should have taken such risks in aligning itself so closely with Bush's neoconservative Iraq policy. As John Vogler shows, the war was unpopular across Europe. A poll of EU member states in October 2003 found that 68 per cent of respondents believed the war was not justified. Why, then, did the UK Government offer such stalwart support? Keohane's answer is that, first and foremost, Blair was determined to keep Britain's place at the American high table. Seasoned analysts of British foreign policy will instantly recognise the terms of the bargain: we pledge unflinching loyalty in return for uncertain influence. Such a pledge would indeed have been sacrificial had Blair been sceptical of the policy of regime change, but we know this was not the case. Going back to the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, the Prime Minister has been committed to defeating the threat posed by authoritarian regimes in possession of, or seeking to develop, weapons of mass destruction. Despite the fact that we all now know Iraq had no usable WMD capability, Blair stands by the decision. "This is remarkable," concludes Keohane, "for an event that cost thousands of lives and casualties, was based on no reliable evidence, divided the Labour Party, public opinion, the EU, Nato and the UN Security Council, and undermined the UK's international standing".

Exactly how many thousands of lives were lost in the conflict is examined in detail by John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan, co-founders of the web-based Iraq Body Count project (www.iraqbodycount.net). Unlike General Tommy Franks, who famously said "we don't do body counts", the project is committed to measuring the human costs of the war and its aftermath. At the time of writing, the count had reached a minimum of 21,523 civilian deaths directly arising from the military intervention.

Several chapters in The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq reach a different conclusion on the Iraq war. In their preface, Brendan O'Leary, John McGarry and Khaled Salih (advisers to the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdistan National Assembly) make it apparent that the war was right. In a sentence that could be read as a challenge to a number of contributors to The Iraq War and Democratic Politics , O'Leary et al note that "unlike some critics of the invasion of Iraq, we look forward to the termination of the political institutions of Baathist Iraq and the opportunities that would create for a democratic and just reconstruction". This is a clear statement that democracies can and should use force to bring about higher values.

As the title suggests, The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq recognises that Iraq is not a unitary state and that the goals of stability and justice require autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds. This is not simply an aspiration, rather it is "the decisive test of whether there can be a renewed and democratic Iraq". Many chapters are concerned with the interim constitution, of which the formal handover of sovereignty on July 1 last year, and the elections of January 31 this year, were part. The constitution recognises the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government. On the face of it, this ought to be good news for the Kurds. But Gareth Stansfield, a contributor to both books, cautions against an overly optimistic assessment. Underlying his caution is the historic tension that exists between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "Quite simply," Stansfield argues, "they find it easy to fall into conflict, and there is not enough evidence to suggest that this has really changed."

Aside from a chapter by Michael Gunter on Turkey's perspective, The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq is strangely silent on the regional and international context. A key issue here is the impact that greater autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan is going to have on neighbouring states with significant Kurdish populations. Instead, the editors have included commentaries from specialist negotiators - such as Peter W. Galbraith, who was US ambassador to Croatia - that set out the flaws in the strategies adopted by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Karin von Hippel takes a broader look at the past 15 years of interventions and state-building policies. In a chapter that ought to be required reading for all senior military and political staff on the ground in Iraq, she argues that only two lessons have been learnt (being prepared to sustain casualties; being there for the long haul) while many more remain "unlearned" (power vacuums lead to criminality; guardians must also be guarded; the military should not have directed the reconstruction; joint civil and military planning is needed; and unilateralism leads to resistance).

O'Leary's concluding chapter returns to the theme of whether the war was just. The West ought to have rested its case on moral grounds. Instead, it made a bad case for the invasion and in so doing "lost much of the legitimacy it so desperately needed". Danchev's conclusion to The Iraq War and Democratic Politics parallels O'Leary's ending. Blair and his advisers oversold the threat and discounted evidence that did not fit their policy.

What they failed to see is that democracy is a process as well as a value and that degenerate means today lead to compromised ends tomorrow.

Tim Dunne is head of politics, Exeter University.

The Iraq War and Democratic Politics

Editor - Alex Danchev and John MacMillan
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 2
Price - £75.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 415 35147 2 and 35148 0

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments