Friday, January 28, 2005

Confessions of a pro-war skeptic

I've avoided writing about Iraq up to now for mainly professional reasons; this is not what this blog is supposed to be for and the blogsphere is already replete with the various shades of pro and anti-war opinion and commentary.

But there was a more melancholy reason: I didn't want to be involved in a debate that I've found profoundly depressing at times; lots of jeering and sneering and a really quite unpleasant tendency to impute moral and/or intellectual failure to one's opponents. Often, both camps have carried out what could only be described as a sort of intellectual scorched-earth policy towards the middle ground.

However, this neutral pose - I thought - was looking increasingly silly, not least because of the forthcoming elections. Despite a number of very profound misgivings - most of which had to do with the nature of the Bush Administration - I reluctantly supported this war (it might be more accurate to say I found myself unable to oppose it).

On the reasons why, I have no particularly novel insights; they were much the same as those expounded by most of the "pro-war left". The Ba'athist regime in Iraq was, in my view, accurately described as a fascist regime of exceptional depravity and in a country where literally every other mechanism for regime-change had been attempted and failed. I would add, however, that I understood the arguments against the invasion perfectly well; I'd used most of them myself when in 1991, some of my contemporaries argued that the US-led force that expelled Saddam from Kuwait should press on to Baghdad to topple the regime.

However, while having the same reasons as them, I don't know if I could claim to be a member of the pro-war left; I'm of a skeptical disposition and, on the whole, theirs is the politics of faith. I could never agree, for example, with the extraordinary statement by Oliver Kamm of the Times who said, "the supporters of war have a monopoly of morality on the subject. There is no reputable anti-war position." I thought in my simple fashion that those who opposed the war did so for the same reason that I supported it - because they considered it the lesser evil.

I didn't doubt that I'd made the right decision when I saw the mass graves being opened - or when I saw the jubilant crowd celebrating Saddam's capture, but I can't claim that this has been the case when confronted with the mess that is the post-war occupation: the pulverisation of Fallujah; the stand-off in Najav; and the shame and disgrace of Abu Ghraib. Again, to elaborate would only be to repeat what has been ably and amply covered elsewhere, except to add that I consider the dissolution of the army to have been a catastrophic decision, the implications of which have been under-acknowledged by both sides in this debate.

And I've been astonished that up to now, Johann Hari of the Independent has, to my knowledge, been alone (in public, anyway) amongst the pro-war left in candidly acknowledging exactly how disastrous the conduct of the post-war occupation has been.

However, I fundamentally haven't changed my position because it wasn't, at base, a consequentialist one. It is, for example, an unhistorical and pointless question to ask whether the Russian people would have fared better had the Tsarist regime survived. The same with apartheid South Africa: before the collapse of that degraded and corrupt regime, everyone on the centre-left understood that the only position one could take was to desire its overthrow - and nobody would have dreamed of using the subsequent post-regime change difficulties this country undoubtedly had as evidence that the National Party's regime should not, after all, have been opposed.

Also, if I was coming from a consequentialist position, while I'd have no problem admitting I was wrong (I've had plenty of practice) - in the case of Iraq, I think people are being premature. It's probably apocryphal but I like the quote attributed to Mao Zedong: on being asked what he thought about the French Revolution, he was supposed to have replied, "it's too early to tell".

This is why I've been unwilling to give the Stop the War Coalition the benefit of any doubts I may have. One might have expected, for example, that if it were really believed that opposing the war was the lesser evil, those who went marching would have done so with a heavy heart, knowing that the position they'd adopted was a Hobbesian one more severe than anything found on the pages of Leviathan.

I don't think much of this was in evidence on the peace marches. Like the novelist Ian McEwan, I too was troubled by the "sheer level of happiness on the street." Many of the good, well-meaning people probably weren't aware of what they were asking "more time" for - but I do think that there were others who really should have known better and these tend to be the ones who are now suggesting that we back the "resistance". Now, if I thought this would do any good, I would - because I too want the occupation to end. But these are not like the resistance in Vichy France, as the gruesome alliance of Ba'athists and jihadis have been (absurdly) compared to. Historical analogies are always dodgy but to me a better comparison would be with the Afrikaaner AWB in post-apartheid South Africa.

Some members of the anti-war left have argued that, while they don't support the agenda of the opposition, one has to understand that compromises have to be made if the objective of ending the occupation is to be achieved. But that doesn't appear to be the case if the compromise that is made is with the Americans, in which case you find yourself (noisily) put beyond the pale by the likes of George Galloway who disgracefully described those co-operating with the provisional government and the election plans as "quislings". This from a man who has spent most of the 1990s with his lips pressed firmly against Saddam Hussein's ring-piece. Most critics of the war/occupation have avoided being so crass but it's difficult to avoid the impression that those groups in Iraq, such as the IFTU and the ICP, who opposed the invasion but support the moves to democracy, have at best had their voices ignored by a large swathe of the left in Britain and the United States.

I do think the critics of the occupation have been right to say that the Bremner administration have been far too slow in a process that should have begun during the first year of the occupation - and I suspect the key reason for this was the fear of a pro-Iranian, Shia theocracy - the main reason why Bush Snr left the Shias and the Kurds to twist in the wind after the first Gulf War.

But the elections represent a hope, not that a fully functioning democracy will suddenly appear, but the more circumspect prospect that, in the short run, mechanisms and institutions will be established that allow future successions to take place without resort to military coups, wars, assassinations, and outside interferrence.

As for the long-term, one would hope that the occupation will end as soon as possible and some kind of real democracy will eventually emerge; this would have a significance for the region, which I think tends to be under-estimated even by a number of supporters of this war. I'm not overly optimistic but I'll dispense with my customary agnosticism and pray to god that on Sunday, more goes right with this election than not. After all - this was done in my name.

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