The Obscurer

Category: Iraq


PJ O’Rourke was interviewed for The Independent about his latest book …on The Wealth Of Nations, concerning, well, Adam Smith and The Wealth Of Nations. It was an interesting enough article, but it was when the subject turned to O’Rourke’s support for the Iraq War that I was particularly struck. Inquiring into the nature and causes of the current quagmire, he says

It’s amazing that no one seems to have foreseen the wrath, the bitterness and the depth of the anger and violence that followed the war. I never heard anyone predict what has happened. In fairness to all of us idiots everywhere, at least we have plenty of company on this.

As with that other fallacy often voiced by Tony Blair (who?) amongst others, that “everyone believed that there were WMD inside Iraq prior to the war”, the statement that O’Rourke “never heard anyone predict” the current chaos only goes to prove what those of us who opposed the invasion thought all along; that through all the parliamentary debates and televised discussions aired during the run up to the war; when individuals wrote dissenting newspaper articles and millions marched in defiance on the streets of the capital; as weapons inspectors and intelligence analyst presented reports full of doubts and grey areas; and while the anti-war movement put forward a string of arguments against military action; that those in favour of the war had already made up their minds, they had nothing to learn, and they simply weren’t listening.

The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This

I haven’t written about Iraq in a while; I think I’ve pretty much said all I want to say on the subject, and anyway events have moved on. We can still argue about whether or not the war was right or wrong, but that seems secondary these days to what we should actually do now. To surge or not to surge? I just don’t know the answer to that question, and although I weakly favour the former I think the question is best left to military strategists.

Anyway, despite all that, I did somehow manage to watch more of Question Time last night than I’d intended. It was an Iraq special, and it was annoying. Depending on your viewpoint certain bits would no doubt stand out as being more annoying than others, but for me the performance of John Bolton deserves comment. The Bush administration’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, he spent the majority of the programme despairing of other people; he was by turns astonished, depressed, or plain old disturbed that there appeared to be a large number of people out there who disagreed with him. This suggested a life so sheltered as to make him wholly unsuited for – but probably representative of – high office. But it was when summing up, when reflecting on the lessons of the Iraq war in general and the policy of pre-emption in particular, that he came up with this peerless gem.

You have to take action against these threats before they become real. It’s no solace to the victims that you can retaliate after. There’s no consequence that can bring back the people who have been killed by these weapons of mass destruction, or the consequence of what happens living under the threat of their use by people like Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad of Iran, Kim Jong Il of North Korea.

Well said, Sir! How ridiculous it is to expect us to just sit around waiting in case some dictator perhaps invades a neighbour, to idly daydream while he may sponsor havoc abroad, to patiently ignore that fact that he might be planning an attack and that innocent people could be killed. No thank you! Much better to remove such uncertainties, to ensure that people are killed, and to guarantee there are is a war, but a war fought on our terms, at a time of our choosing, to at least make sure that the first wave of people killed are either citizens of other nations or merely our own armed forces (that is their job); so we can be certain that those initial victims are at least blown to smithereens by our own sweet bombs of liberty. That’s the way.

By the by, I believe that if you lost 5 inches off the top of John Bolton’s heid it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

White Light / White Heat

Chemical weapons is yet another subject on which I have little knowledge. I know they are bad things, and illegal, but that is about it. As a result I have kept out of the debate over the use of white phosphorus in Iraq. If more knowledgeable people (not difficult) defend it’s use by saying that it is an incendiary rather than a chemical weapon, and that its use can be legal, then I have to take that on trust.

What doesn’t seem to be in doubt however is just what an unpleasant substance it is, and what a hideous effect it can have when it comes in contact with skin. For me it seems strange that when pro-war bloggers have defended its use (Scott Burgess at The Daily Ablution in particular has gone into great detail, and has summarised his views at Tech Central Station) there doesn’t appear to have been any disquiet at all in doing so. Rather than tackle the morality of using the ammunition in the way the Pentagon has now admitted, the pro-war commentator have instead picked holes in the opposing arguments. That is fine as far as it goes – to correct errors and deceits, to tackle the moral equivalence of comparing the use of WP with the chemical attack at Halabja – but it doesn’t deal with the principal concern that “our side” has used a weapon that burns the flesh off peoples’ bodies. Just saying that we are not as bad as Saddam doesn’t really cut it with me; it’s not a great defence.

In a strange inversion, and in contrast to the pro-war arguments made in the run up to the war, there has been no plea to the moral high ground on this one; those arguments have been sidelined. Rather we have heard plenty about technical definitions, and a detailed insistence on the weapons legality as enshrined in international conventions. Ironic, really, to compare then with now. Ah well, any port in a storm.

Signed D.C.

I’ve already written that if it’s a straight fight between being legal or illegal, then I believe the Iraq War was illegal. In brief, I think that even if you agree that Iraq was in material breach of UN resolutions, and you accept that the cease fire after the 1991 Gulf War is therefore rescinded, and that consequently in 2003 we were once more at war with Iraq, the existing resolutions only allowed us to use military force in order to liberate Kuwait, not to invade Iraq and remove Saddam. Unless someone explains where it states that there was some authority for coalition forces to go beyond the Kuwaiti border, then I will stick by my belief that the war must be considered illegal.

Now, supporters of the war often argue that international law is far from set in stone, that it is a complicated and nuanced business, and this is true; further, it is often argued that the legality or otherwise of the invasion is irrelevant next to the moral rightness of the liberation, and perhaps they have a point. I guess if I passionately believed that a certain course of action was justified and moral, and was then told that it was illegal, then I would probably say “sod legality, let’s do what is right”. If back in 1994 a veto from a Security Council member was the obstacle preventing a UN intervention in the Rwandan genocide, then I would know where they could stick the veto and I would support any illegal action required to save lives (in practice I believe the threat of the veto was enough to stall an intervention in Rwanda).

I expect the moral case will now be made to excuse the fact that, according to the documents obtained by Channel 4 News, between the 7th and 17th of March 2003 the Attorney General’s legal advice was stripped of all its conditions and equivocations. The argument as ever will be that removing Saddam was the right thing to do, whatever the Lord Goldsmith said on the 7th. Well perhaps, but is this really relevant? What is needed now is not an explanation of the moral rightness of the war, but of the moral rightness of presenting an unbalanced and one sided version of the legal advice to parliament and the nation in order to persuade and cajole MP’s and the general public into going to war. Unless I hear a reasonable explanation for this action, or some evidence that the document is a forgery, then I will treat any reference to the war itself as an evasion. So far I have heard Clive Soley make the moral case for war on Channel 4 News, while on Newsnight Jack Straw was at his unconvincing best suggesting that all of the Attorney General’s doubts evaporated in the fortnight between the publication of the leaked document and Baghdad’s first taste of shock and awe. Straw suggested that dramatic events during that time (eg. Hans Blix saying Iraq was disarming) made Goldsmith’s caveats redundant; presumably without such vital developments the less strident version of the legal advice would have been published and we wouldn’t have trooped diligently behind the US on the 20th of March. Yeah, right. I wasn’t persuaded and will await developments.

But why am I worrying? Speaking to Sky News Tony Blair says he has never lied; not just on Iraq, but on any matter. He has never told a lie. That means that in the history of mankind he has just joined the exalted company of George Washington and, well, no one else basically. And we only really know that George was happy to own up to some minor peccadillo in his youth regarding a cherry tree; would he have been so forthcoming if he had invaded Iraq? Anyway, how can we be sure that Blair isn’t lying now? That’s the problem with liars; you can never really tell.

Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale

At work the other day I read a copy of The Sun that someone had left lying around. It didn’t take long, of course, but I was struck by one article by Trevor Kavanagh, the Political Editor (I can’t find it online, so you will just have to take my word for this). If you ignore Kavanagh’s usual slagging off of the “many sneering western lefties” who opposed the Iraq war (who he associates with “clerics who claim the Boxing day tsunami was Allah’s vengeance on homosexuals” and who accept “the treatment of women as slaves”) then it actually makes interesting reading. He quotes the Lebanese political leader Walid Jumblatt (via a David Ignatius article), a man noted for many loopy and insanely nasty anti-US and anti-Israeli statements in the past; but this time we are invited to take him seriously. Regarding the current developments in Lebanon Jumblatt says “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world”. He goes on “The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it”. Oliver Kamm writes in a similar vein, calling the cause of democracy and liberty “the crux of the case for the grand strategy that the US and UK have pursued since 9/11”.

If this does indeed come to pass and freedom sweeps through the Middle East, where does this leave those of us, like myself, who opposed the war? Since the war is the event that has brought about the democratisation of Iraq, and could therefore bring democracy to the whole Arab world, is it time I just accepted that the war was ultimately a good thing, a bitter pill perhaps, but one that has resulted in a freer world?

Well I don’t, and there are at least two main reasons. Firstly, I still have this quirky idea that invading other countries in an unprovoked attack is wrong, even if that country’s dictator is an evil piece of work. This I feel is more or less an absolute; I am not saying there aren’t any circumstances where such a war could be justified, but in laying down the conditions where I feel such an action could be acceptable I set quite a high bar. The Iraq war, in both the Coalition’s stated war aims, and in what I feel were its real aims, doesn’t meet those conditions.

But secondly, I believe war should only be used as a last resort. This is hardly a revolutionary statement, it is one I think most people would accept, even if we may differ on exactly when all other options have been tried and failed and we have to resort to war. So, with regards the spreading of democracy, can the Iraq War be in any way described as a war of last resort? Even nearly? Was this the only way to spread democracy throughout the Middle East? Are we really saying that all other avenues had been exhausted, and war was the only option left?

I cannot think of many attempts at peacefully spreading democracy through the region, and it is not as if it couldn’t be tried. Leaning on Iran in the hope that they will set elections is unlikely to prove fruitful, but there are pro-western countries in the area who we could at least attempt to persuade to reform their institutions. Wasn’t there a golden opportunity after the 1991 Gulf War when we could have liberated Kuwait on the proviso that, once reinstated, the Kuwaiti royal family would make moves towards democracy and a more open society? If democracy is so important then why wasn’t that ever considered? If Iraq can apparently set off a domino effect transforming the Middle East, then why couldn’t Kuwait? Imagine the TV screens full of Kuwaiti voters, going to the poll, hopefully untroubled by the sort of terror being endured by the Iraqis; why wouldn’t that similarly snowball through the region, triggering election after election? Perhaps if that had been done in 1991 the tremors could even become felt in Saddam’s Iraq, and with support a popular movement could depose the tyrant. Wishful thinking of course, but any more wishful than the theory that Iraq can be the catalyst for a Berlin Wall style makeover? And even if you think my suggestion is silly, can anyone say, with their hand on their heart, that every other peaceful method of spreading democracy has been tried, that they have all run their course, and that war was the only answer?

Anyway, my suggestion didn’t happen, and nothing like it would ever happen. Kuwait was liberated and handed back to the old autocrats, and why not? Far nastier regimes than the emir’s have been supported in the past, and are being supported now. Democracy has its place, and its place is clearly after the self-interests of the Western nations. It has always seemed preferable to have pro-western dictatorships than unreliable democracies.

But we have had our war, and Iraq has had its elections, and I sincerely hope that a democracy can take root there. I hope the theory that there will be a clamour for votes in the neighbouring countries turns out to be true, and will lead to the spread of democracy across the region. Time will tell whether this is a genuine “Cedar Revolution” or just a kind of “Beirut Spring”. I guess the real test will be if Saudi Arabia becomes a democracy and looks like it will “do an Algeria”, but we are a little way off that. Perhaps we will be able to look back in a few years time and see that the war did lead to a much-improved situation in the Middle East, but I will take a lot of convincing to believe there could not be another, less bloody way. For all the comparisons currently being made with the fall of the Berlin Wall, what some people seem to overlook is that it didn’t take a war to bring freedom to Eastern Europe; the most important single factor was probably that a superpower decided to stop interfering and propping up its friendly despots. South America can tell a similar tale.

In the end, though, I think that rather than the onus now being on me to accept that the war was justified, it is up to others to prove that military action was the only way to advance democracy through the Middle East; and until they do I will accept it as a truism that good ends can spring from bad means.

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