The Obscurer

Category: Iraq


Were I to meet Norman Geras, I get the feeling that, overall, I would quite like him. He seems a reasonable person. In fact, based on Jonathan Derbyshire’s description of him as the “Sage of Didsbury”, he probably only lives a short hop across the Mersey from me. Perhaps we have met? Perhaps we both saw Fahrenheit 9/11 together in the UGC Cinema at Parrs Wood? Or perhaps not.

Of course, were we to meet, we would probably argue a lot over Iraq. Norman is in the pro-war camp, and made some interesting points in his post a couple of weeks ago entitled “The Four Wars for Iraq” (I know this is far from topical now, but I have been very busy recently with work, childcare and Christmas shopping, and there are a few points I would like to make).

The gist of the post, apart from separating the conflict into four distinct wars (which I don’t really agree with, but can’t be bothered arguing about) is that many in the anti-war fraternity seem to blame everything that is wrong in Iraq on the Americans and the Coalition, including the actions of insurgents and terrorists, and that this is unfair. You would think this didn’t really need to be said; that clearly the actions of al-Zarqawi and the other hostage-takers and head-hackers are there own responsibility and should not directly be blamed on the Coalition, but perhaps I am wrong. One criticism of the anti-war movement has always been that they seem happier to criticise Bush than Saddam, as if Bush were the real dictator. Of course, there is nothing worse than someone on your side of the argument making a stupid point, and I wince when I hear people say jokingly “We need regime change in Washington” as if Bush is a worse person than Saddam. But I think there are two reasons why the anti-war camp acts as it does. One is that they do not criticise the murders perpetrated by the insurgents that much because what is there to say? Murders are wrong. Full stop. There is not much scope for argument, you would think. Secondly, the reason the Coalition comes in for such criticism in the west is that it is our Governments that have committed themselves to the invasion; it is understandable, therefore, to criticise your own Government and its allies for a war being fought in your name. This does not mean you like the Baath party and admire Saddam. It is wrong to have a pop at much of the anti-war camp for blaming all the problem in Iraq on the Coalition; but for those people who do blame the Coalition for everything, Geras is right to criticise.

If Geras had left it at that then I think any reasonable person would agree with him; unfortunately he wants to go a little further. He criticises what he calls “all-or-nothing” thinking with regards apportioning responsibility for the problems in Iraq, yet in effect he tries to do just that. He tries to effectively chop the conflict up into four wars, and then suggests you can ascribes 100% blame to one side for each individual event. Therefore, although he does blame the Coalition for the “lack of post-invasion planning, the brutalities at Abu Ghraib”, the Coalition gets a free pass (in Geras’s article at least) for anything ugly which may have been a result of the War as a whole, but where the actual crime such as the murder of a hostage was the action of forces opposed to the Coalition. Geras starts by saying things are more complex, that the Coalition cannot be held wholly responsible for everything that has gone wrong in the war and its aftermath, but seems to end up by saying that it is very simple; and that the brutal actions of the insurgents are entirely the fault of the insurgents, and are divorced from the actions of the coalition. By way of analogy, he says “Adolf Hitler was responsible for many terrible crimes during the Second World War. But the fire bombing of Dresden?” But can actions really be so separated from their consequences? Sure, Hitler and the Luftwaffe did not drop the bombs themselves on Dresden, and Bomber Harris and the RAF must take ultimate responsibility for this action, but did Hitler bear no responsibility at all? Were the seeds for Dresden not sown in the decision in September 1940 to launch the Blitz, and deliberately target the civilian population of London. Or do the roots not lie further back, in the invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia, the anschluss with Austria, the desire for lebensraum. I don’t think we can let Hitler off the hook over Dresden, and I don’t think we can let the Coalition off scot free either.

Of course, traditionally people have played fast and loose with responsibility during conflicts, and have twisted things according to their own politics. This is something that has long fascinated me. When the IRA planted bombs in British cities, they said it was not their fault but the fault of the British Government. The British suggested that the blame lay solely with the people who themselves planted the bombs. But when we were the ones with the bombs, and were dropping them over Serbia in 1999, this all changed, and it wasn’t our fault; it was the fault of Milosevic. We always want to have it both ways, to suit our own needs. The masters of this are the Israelis and Palestinians, who both seem to think the blame lies 100% on the other side. I have my own ideas on the whole Palestinian situation which I won’t go into now, suffice to say that I support the right of the Israeli state to exist, and for the Palestinians to have a homeland; that I abhor the actions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but I also am sickened by much that the Israeli security forces get up to. But when you hear Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen on TV I find it hard to believe they are talking about the same conflict. Their statements of fact are diametrically opposed, and they feel that one action cannot possibly beget another.

A fictional analogy now. I am a Manchester City fan, and let’s say I decide to go to the Manchester derby, but to sit in the United end. Before going I speak to my friends and tell them that I intend to sing Munich songs throughout the game, and cheer any (unlikely) City goal; I am advised against this action, but go ahead and do it anyway. What would happen? Well, I may escape with my life, but probably not all my teeth, or indeed with many of my limbs intact. I would be battered, I expect; seriously assaulted. And who would be responsible? Ultimately, and legally, my attackers would be at fault. There would be no justification for their actions, and the offenders would probably turn out to be common or garden thugs, used to meting out summary justice on a Friday Night to anyone who looked at their pint funny. But somehow, I feel, I would have to bear some responsibility for their actions, if I carried out a stupid and ill-considered act, in the face of the warnings of my friends. I may not be wholly, or even primarily, responsible for my predicament; but to some extent I would have to shoulder some of the blame. By the same token, surely the Coalition must take some responsibility for a situation they instigated.

On the other hand, I wonder? If, as Geras seems to be suggesting, Hitler bears no responsibility for Dresden, or the Coalition for the insurgency, then surely the opponents of the war cannot be associated with whatever atrocities Saddam’s regime would have inflicted on the Iraqi population if they hadn’t been toppled by the United States and its allies? The moral guilt tripping by some pro-war commentators is therefore faulty. As I have said previously, my main concern when opposing the war was that I knew I was also opposing the most obvious means of deposing a tyrant. Had I known before the war what I know now, that I am in the clear and that Saddam’s crimes and criminal intent cannot be held against me, then I would have argued against the war even more strongly than I did at the time.

Two Poems By Kipling

for Remembrance Sunday


They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us; the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide –
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us – their death could not undo –
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

A Dead Statesman

I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young.

And More

Chris Bertram, writing in “Crooked Timber” about the recent study published in The Lancet, which claims there have been nearly 100,000 additional deaths in Iraq as a result of the war, wonders if “there is some figure which, if verified, would lead the enthusiasts for this war to conclude that it was a mistake.” I suspect that there isn’t, and the reaction to the report shows why; any figure produced which casts a negative light on the invasion will simply not be believed by the supporters of the war.

Now I am not going to get into a lengthy debate about statistics; if I had a decent understanding of them then I would have a better job than I currently do. In any case, if you get hung up on any particular statistic, you are likely to come unstuck fairly soon when a conflicting statistic is produced, as almost inevitably it will. But I found some interesting reading in a number of reports critical of the study, in particular Fred Kaplan in Slate and Tim Worstall in Tech Central Station. If I have understood correctly, then one of the main concerns expressed is that the report suggests the number of deaths since the war lies between 8,000 and 194,000, and so may be well short of the headline figure of 100,000. Of course it may well also be much higher that 100,000, but those supporters of the war are unlikely to want to believe that figure, and understandably so. But what struck me was that if we take the lowest, most conservative figure of 8,000, that this is still 8,000 extra deaths compared with the number of dead in the equivalent period prior to the war, when Iraq was under the brutal and murderous dictatorship of Saddam’s regime. To put that in perspective, that is still more than the highest estimate for the number of deaths that occurred in Halabja in the terrible gas attack of 1988. It is still a considerable figure.
A number of reports, (see “Lenin’s Tomb” and Tim Lambert for examples) rebut these complaints of the study and in some quarters there has been a certain amount of rowing back. Tim Worstall has subsequently said that he “completely bollixed the statistical part of my argument”; however he still insists there is “something fishy” about the study. Natalie Solent is generous enough to include links to both Lambert’s article and Worstall’s apology, but still says it is her “gut feeling” that the Lancet study is wrong.

Well, in relation to gut feeling, none of us are experts on everything, and we often rely on our gut feelings to inform our opinions; I am no exception. I am certainly not qualified to say whether the Lancet is right or wrong, and scepticism towards any statistic is healthy I feel. But if the supporters of the war are unlikely to accept the figures in the Lancet, perhaps the study may achieve something, as is shown at the end of Kaplan’s article.

Here, in attacking the Lancet, he praises the work of Iraq Body Count, whose “count is triple fact-checked; their database is itemized and fastidiously sourced.” Their figure for deaths in Iraq is currently between 14,219 and 16,352. Perhaps the lasting result of the Lancet report is that more credibility will be given to the Iraq Body Count; after all, 14,219 additional deaths sound bad enough to me.

Briefly on the US election, and the electorate’s choice of the dunce over the dullard, I don’t think I can put it any better than in this post in “Shot By Both Sides”. As I’ve said before, the American public had an uneviable choice; I’m just glad it’s all over.

Don't Look Back

I have considered The Guardian’s kind offer for me to interfere in the US Election, and I have decided to keep my nose and my bad English teeth out of it. For one thing, I know how I would react if I received a letter from an American telling me how to vote; for another I just have no enthusiasm for Kerry, no matter how much I may dislike Bush. Quite frankly, I am glad I don’t have to choose between them. In any event, I have little idea about their individual domestic agendas; I don’t believe British politicians much when they start quoting statistics and criticising their opponents policies, so I am not going to start on Americans. And on foreign policy, if this article on BBC News is to be believed, there may be little difference in practice whoever wins next week.

In case you can’t be bothered reading the link, the gist of it is that there has been some criticism recently within Republican circles, led by former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, that the neo-conservative experiment under the Bush administration has run its course, and that it is time for the United States to operate a more pragmatic foreign policy, more akin to that which Kissinger was so associated with.

To some extent this is a bit harsh on the neo-cons; as William Kristol explained on Newsnight last week, many neo-cons are as annoyed as anyone about the way Bush has enacted their ideas, and the quagmire (well, everyone else is using that word, so why shouldn’t I?) in Iraq reflects unfairly on their theories. Just because Iraq hasn’t worked out (yet) according to plan, doesn’t mean that the neo-con theories themselves are dead.

The problem I believe is that even if I agreed with the idea of unilateralism which is intrinsic to the neo-conservative agenda (I don’t), and even if I thought its motives were entirely honourable (I don’t), the idea that the USA and whichever allies decide to tag along will go around benevolently knocking nasty regimes off their perches is totally unrealistic, as I argued in “The Next War”. The theory that an altruistic America would democratise the world has much appeal, but even America doesn’t have the resources to do it; I don’t believe for one moment that I am the only person to realise this, and to that extent the war in Iraq was in some ways as pragmatic a decision as those made during the Kissinger era. Whatever the claims of the pro-war supporters, I believe that if Iraq had less oil, was in Africa, had a more fearsome armed forces and hadn’t pissed-off the President’s Dad and his old buddies in the new administration, then the war would not have happened, no matter how deep the mass graves in Halabja. Pragmatism still allows us to cosy up to nasty regimes such as the one in Uzbekistan, where the British Ambassador was recently suspended.

But at least there is some sort of moral compass buried deep in the heart of the neo-cons ideas (although always near the surface when they run into difficulties on Iraq) about involving ourselves in other countries when the ugly side of humanity gets busy. In contrast the Kissinger-Scowcroft ideology has no such redeeming feature; it is purely driven by American self interest, and if that means supporting mass-murdering dictatorships in South East Asia and undermining democracies in South American then that is what it will do. Sorry, that is what it did do.

Now it is entirely understandable that the USA, like every other country, is going to be driven largely by self interest, and it would be unrealistic for it to be any other way. And of course pragmatism is often a very good idea for many obvious reasons. But I find it deeply depressing to hear John Kerry in the States, and the likes of Menzies Campbell in this country, getting massive rounds of applause when they say that if they were in Government they would not commit troops under any circumstances unless it was in the national interest. That wasn’t why I opposed the war; I wasn’t thinking just of the national interest.

Whatever the faults of the neo-con agenda, to return to a Kissinger-type policy would be a retrograde step. I know it may sound idealistic, in fact I know it does, but is it not possible to combine the idea of pre-emption against dangerous and despotic regimes with a genuine multilateral approach, perhaps under the UN but under a new organisation if required, which could be housed in a framework of fair International Law? Can we not get an independent body, free of national interests, perhaps guided by the likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to decide which are the most abusive regimes currently in existence, and where the most pressing current human rights crises are, and then to methodically bring them to book? Perhaps then we could actually intervene meaningfully and swiftly in the worlds troublespots, with the richest countries leading the UN’s work rather than leaving it to the poorest countries as we often do now.

Naive ideas, I suppose, and naively put, but at least it shows the direction I think we should be going in.

Fly-A-Kite 9/11

On Monday, Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11” was released on DVD, and I am quite looking forward to seeing it. It is not to see what all the fuss has been about; I saw it at the pictures when it was first released. And it is not because I thought it was so good that I can’t wait to see it again, although I did think it was good. It is because there has been such criticism leveled at the film, that I really want to see for myself if it is as good as I remember, or was my anti-war prejudice blinding me to its many faults.

First of all, I must explain where I am coming from. I have been a fan of Moore’s from his early “TV Nation” days. I have bought 3 of his books and enjoyed them, although I always read them as subjective satirical writing rather than books of incontrovertible fact; any statement he makes I take with a pinch of salt but try to bear it in mind. His Website has been an excellent source of information. That said, I wasn’t a fan of “Bowling for Columbine”; its approach often seemed scattergun and directionless, its conclusions woolly, and the final interview with Charlton Heston was a toe-curlingly embarrassment, a guilt tripping haranguing of a confused old man. Also, his website has recently gone seriously downhill; it is currently little more than publicity for his books and films, and his self styled one man mission to prevent a Bush second term smacks of egotism.

“Fahrenheit 9/11” does have its fault; japes like reading the Patriot Act from an ice-cream van and asking Senators if they would sign their children up for military duty in Iraq are TV Nation style sketches which have passed their sell by date. Trying to build a conspiracy theory from the White House’s blocking of James Bath’s name when publishing Bush’s National Guard record is very weak. (James Bath is named as a money manager for the Bin Laden family, and a link between the Bin Laden’s and the Bush’s). A perfectly reasonable reason for blocking the name out is one of privacy; I have subsequently read that for the White House not to have blocked the name would have been a breach of federal law. But whatever the reason, conspiracy theory it is not.

In many ways there is not much in the film that is new for those who have followed Moore’s work and read the newspapers, but it is still well done. The links between the Bush’s, the Bin Ladens, the Saudi’s and the Carlyle group may not land a solid blow, but I thought they built up an effective picture of potential conflicts of interests in the White House. The Patriot Act is dealt with well (apart from the ice-cream van moment), and the absurdities of Airline security allowing 2 lighters and 4 boxes of matches on a plane while not allowing expressed breast milk in a plastic bottle is a neat juxtaposition. Some have criticised the intrusion into the grief of Lila Lipscomb who’s son was killed in Iraq, but although I normally hate this sort of thing, I thought it was extremely well done; indeed it reduced me to tears. Perhaps it was because I felt the issue warranted it, or perhaps it was because Ms Lipscomb has been a vocal promoter of the film.

What has interested me about most of the criticisms of the film has been how poor and nonsensical they have been; if people have to criticise the film by talking rubbish, then you feel perhaps Moore is doing something right.

Top of the shop is Dave Kopel’s “59 deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11”. When I first learned of this website I rushed to read it, anxious to see if I had swallowed a pack of lies. And I am glad I did, as it was hilarious. Kopel wants you to know, for example that Bush wasn’t reading “My Pet Goat” in a school class when he heard word of the second plane hitting the twin towers. No. the book was “Reading Mastery 2”; “My Pet Goat” was just an exercise within the book. Admittedly that is listed just as a “cheap shot” rather than a full blown “deceit”, but it illustrates well where he is coming from. Another supposed deceit is that at one point Moore says of Bush “perhaps he just should have read the security briefing that was given to him on August 6, 2001 that said that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack America by hijacking airplanes”, then goes on to say that perhaps the vagueness of the title “Bin Laden determined to strike in US” put him off. This qualifies at 2 deceits; there is no evidence given that Bush did not read the memo, and the memo’s title is given as a reason it was not read. Kopel clearly has no sense of humour to take this point seriously; even the slowest child watching the the film would not think Moore is actually alleging that Bush didn’t read the briefing. He is making a satirical and sarcastic point. Later Kopel says “…Flint, Michigan, which Moore calls ‘my hometown.’ In fact, Moore grew up in Davison, Michigan, a suburb of Flint. Davison is much wealthier than Flint”. This qualifies as a deceit apparently, one of the 59. Now you know. So, just in case you bump into Dave Kopel, just be careful on how precise you are about where your hometown is, or you too may be accused of deceit. For me the only deceit it that Mr Kopel thinks he should be taken seriously. He makes about 5 decent points, a poor strike rate out of 59. The rest are either nit picking, nonsensical or due to a sense of humour failure.

Christopher Hitchens in Slate got himself worked up into a such a state he clearly couldn’t think straight. He argues that in the film, Moore makes it clear he thinks that “Osama Bin Laden is as guilty as hell” for 9/11, and that the Iraq War was a distraction from bringing him to justice. This, says Hitchens is at odds with Moore stating in 2002 that Bin Laden “should be considered innocent until proven guilty”. Well obviously they are not at odds, and for someone as intelligent as Hitchens to not get it, and indeed to regularly repeat his contention that these two beliefs are at odds is quite depressing. It is of course totally consistent to think someone is guilty, to want every available resource to be spent on detaining them and bringing them to justice, and yet still think they should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Later Hitchens states Moore “wants to have it both ways” when he accuses the Bush administration of “overlooking too many warnings” in relation to 9/11 itself, and yet then taunts them for “issuing too many” terror warning to stoke up fear among the public after 9/11. Now whether or not you agree with Moore’s point, there is clearly a difference between “overlooking” and “issuing”. You would hope no warning is overlooked, and that only the relevant warnings are issued, but quite apart from the fact that Moore is comparing two different time periods (ie. before and after 9/11), it is quite possible for bogus warnings to be issued to stoke up fear at the same time as serious threats are being overlooked. Hitchens also objects to Moore’s reference to Iraq as “a sovereign nation”. Hitchens points out that “In fact, Iraq’s ‘sovereignty’ was heavily qualified by international sanctions, however questionable, which reflected its noncompliance with important U.N. resolutions”. True, but by that measure all nations sovereignty is qualified by the UN, the EU, NAFTA, the IMF etc. Iraq was a sovereign state, albeit a brutal and tyrannical one.

Mark Steyn’s criticisms are fewer and a little less daft in the Telegraph. He thinks the main problem with the film is that it just makes George Bush look stupid. He is right, it does, but that is not necessarily Moore’s fault. But he also goes for the idea that Moore contradicts himself when he paraphrases Moore as saying “Because of Bush, the Taliban were in bed with Texas energy executives. Because of Bush, the Taliban got toppled.” “Whoa, hold up a minute,” says Steyn “I thought he was all pals with the Taliban.” Again, this is not a contradiction. Yes, Bush ousted the Taliban after 9/11 because of its links with al-Qaida, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t act very differently towards the terrorist sponsoring, human rights abusing Afghan leaders whilst he was governor of Texas. The contrast between his attitude to the Taliban before and after 9/11 is a valid point.

Kopel, Hitchens and Steyn, along with others such as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen all complain about a particular scene in “Fahrenheit 9/11”; images of happy Iraqis going about their daily business peacefully just before the Coalition start bombing, most notably a boy flying a kite. Now, this is without doubt the worst moment in the film; it has the feel of propaganda about it, a real Leni Riefenstahl moment, and in my opinion it shouldn’t be there; although why an Oscar winning film-maker should listen to me I really don’t know. Now perhaps I am being unduly generous to Moore, but I don’t think for one minute that he is claiming that Saddam’s Iraq was a “sweet and simple” “peaceable kingdom”, a”Baathist utopia”. He was trying to humanise the people of Iraq under Saddam, to say they were not just people under the yoke of oppression who didn’t mind bombs falling on them for the cause of WMD, democracy or oil. I don’t think this scene is aimed at the writers I have already quoted; it is aimed at the the sort of people I have spoken to who morally pronounced that we “have to do something” about Iraq, but who also said “why should we bother” about Liberia, Haiti, Congo and Sudan. One charge is that Moore could have shown some pictures of people being tortured by Saddam’s regime, to show the reality in Iraq. Well, yes, he could, but in fairness his film wasn’t about the brutality of Saddam, it was about Bush. Are we saying that whenever we see images of mass graves or torture in Iraq we should also see images of happy boys flying kites to show another side of Iraq? No, of course we are not, yet that is the logic of this criticism.

I have picked just a few of the bizarre complaints about the film, and I could be accused of being selective, but believe me, there are many more strange points in the articles I have mentioned. I am not saying that these critics didn’t raise any good issues, and I will try to bear them in mind when I watch the film again. But by making so many out and out silly points, they have clearly shown the sort of lack of objectivity they so dislike in Moore.

Actually, I don’t know if I can be bothered. I may wait until it is shown on telly.