In today’s The Gaurdian Timothy Garton Ash goes beyond the ridiculous crap we’ve lately been given as opinions about Iraq and weighs arguments for and against the war on Iraq. You could easily add some more to that list. You’d think that you’d find something like this in newspapers of democratic countries. Sadly enough, that’s not the case. Shouldn’t we learn something from the very fact that what they give us a newspapers hardly qualify as anything else but - to quote Martin Luther - an “ass wipe”?
“In defence of the fence” by Timothy Garton Ash
After watching Colin Powell’s riveting performance at the UN security council, with its crackling phone intercepts, satellite photos and carefully crafted televisual moments, I asked myself: what does this change in your view of the Iraq war? The answer is: not much. I remain unconvinced by the case for - and doubtful of the case against.
“He has the fence firmly stuck up his arse,” a friend recently remarked of the poet laureate’s position on Iraq. “Fence-sitter” is rarely a compliment.
Most people admire decisiveness and despise vacillation. Adversarial party politics demands the immediate taking of stands and the exaggeration of minor difference. The media, fiercely competing for viewers, listeners and readers, cry out for strong, polarised positions: Bush v Saddam, Benn v Thatcher, Hitchens (C) v Hitchens (P). It makes better television, you see.
But on Iraq, I would still like to defend a position of tortured liberal ambivalence. Being liberal doesn’t mean you always dither in the middle on the hard questions. I was strongly against the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, against the American interventions in Nicaragua and El Salvador, for military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, and for the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, all on good liberal grounds. Iraq is different and more difficult. I see four strong arguments on each side.
1 Saddam’s regime is one of the nastiest in the world today. He has committed genocide against the Kurds and holds his own people in terror. To remove him would be a blessing for his country and the region. However messy postwar Iraq became - and it surely would be messy, like postwar Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan - it could hardly be worse.
2 Saddam has twice attacked neighbouring countries. He has, as Powell documented, stockpiled large quantities of horrifying chemical and biological weapons, and is hiding what remains of them. He is still trying to get nuclear ones. If he ever got an effective, deliverable nuclear weapon, this would be a major disaster for the world - as it would be in North Korea, but rather more so, because of who Saddam is and where he is. I support CNDD: the Campaign for the Nuclear Disarmament of Dictators.
3 He has flouted 16 UN resolutions over 12 years. He clearly does not want to disarm, or to cooperate fully with the UN inspectors. (What self-respecting sovereign dictator would?) The justification in international law for military action is stronger in this case than over Kosovo. A second UN resolution would give the “proper authority” required by Just War theory.
4 Consequences (optimistic). This could be a catalyst for democratic change in the Middle East. A peaceful, prosperous, reconstructed Iraq - an “Iraqi West Germany” - could be a model for the whole region. Next stops, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The spread of freedom might eventually transform the regional context for solving the Israel-Palestine problem, as the democratisation of eastern Europe finally brought the solution to the division of Germany.
1 War should always be a last resort. However magically precise the new American hi-tech bombs are, innocent Iraqis will be killed. Couldn’t Saddam be kept in check for years to come by the current combination of deterrence and containment?
2 Just War theory asks for “right intention”. On balance, I think Blair has the right intentions. I’m not convinced about the Bush administration. Different people there have different agendas, of course, and human motives are always mixed. As a crude indication, I’d put the motives index something like this:
· A feeling that this is part of a broader “war against terrorism” which since September 11 is a fight for the homeland security of the US, 20%.
· A genuine conviction that Saddam with weapons of mass destruction poses a major threat to the free world, 20%.
· Frustration at not being able to get Osama bin Laden or wrap up al-Qaida, coupled with the conviction that you can at least use your vast military power to defeat Saddam, 15%.
· A sense of unfinished business from the first Gulf war, plus George Bush’s personal anger at “the guy who tried to kill my dad”, 15%.
· An initial calculation by Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, perhaps now regretted, of domestic political advantage, 10%.
· A sense that there’s no way back. How can Bush go into the next presidential election with Saddam still in power? 10%.
· That hope of transforming the Middle East, also to the long-term advantage of Israel, 5%.
· Oil, 5%.
You can vary the percentages according to taste, but whichever way you turn it, this does not add up to a majority set of good liberal reasons.
3 Saddam’s links to al-Qaida are marginal. All the evidence that Colin Powell could muster showed little more. It just will not do to claim that war on Iraq is the continuation of an enlightened struggle against “Islamic fascism” that began on September 11. Osama bin Laden regards Saddam’s regime as apostate. They are two very bad things, but they are also two very different things.
4 Consequences (pessimistic). Even if Islamicist terror bombers hate Saddam, an American-British “imperial” invasion of Iraq will increase the chances of Arab terror attacks in Europe and America. If you want to democratise the Middle East, an imperial war is not the best way to start. Supporting a velvet revolution in Iran, fostering democratic reform in Saudi Arabia and knocking together the fat heads of Sharon and Arafat to advance an Israeli-Palestinian settlement would all be better. Anyway, the model occupation-born democracies of West Germany and Japan are historical exceptions. We’re as likely to see an “Iraqi Yugoslavia”, torn between Kurd, Shia and Sunni. Bush’s America has no stomach for “nation-building”, and the acronym-soup international administrations of Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc are hardly encouraging examples. Altogether, the regional consequences are more likely to be bad than good.
My hunch is that if you injected Tony Blair with a truth serum in the dark reaches of the night, he would confess to most of this liberal ambivalence. I don’t believe that he has secret intelligence of a kind that would convince us all if only we could be allowed to see it. And the Foreign Office is constantly whispering warnings in his ear. But in public, he is full of passionate, even missionary conviction. Why? Because of who he is, of course - a Gladstonian Christian liberal interventionist. Perhaps because he thinks that maintaining British solidarity and influence with the US is more important even than the probable negative consequences of a war with Iraq. But also because he’s prime minister, not a writer or commentator. He has to decide. He has to lead. He has to convince a sceptical public and resentful party.
That doesn’t mean we all have to do the same, putting just one side of a complex dilemma with passionate, simplistic conviction. Even if it does make better television.