Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction in retrospect

RwandaMacheteI supported the US-led military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime in Iraq and, like most people who did, I have had plenty of second thoughts about it. But I can say, hand on heart, that I never felt the question of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was in any way relevant to whether the war was justified or not. The Baathist regime may not have possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction according to some technical criteria, but it certainly possessed what I would call ‘weapons of mass destruction’, meaning weapons capable of destroying masses of human beings. In the Rwandan Genocide, between 800,000 and a million people were killed mostly using technologically simple weapons, above all the machete. This is several times more than were killed by the atomic bombs that hit Japan in 1945. Judging by the twentieth-century historical record, the machete is a more dangerous weapon of mass destruction than the nuclear bomb. Saddam Hussein had repeatedly carried out genocide and mass murder against the Iraqi population. With the weaponry still available to him in 2003, he was entirely able to do so again. That he did not possess what are technically classified as ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ may make a difference to how one evaluates the justification for the war, if what concerns one is British or American national security or even Middle Eastern regional security. But for those of us who thought about the intervention in Iraq primarily in humanitarian terms, what mattered most was his ability to harm his own people. The failure to discover ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq following the invasion made no difference in this regard.

In considering whether invading Iraq to overthrow the Baathist regime was the correct course of action, the number one question is whether it made life better for the Iraqi population. On this basis, it is very difficult not to have, at the very least, profound misgivings about the whole enterprise. The failure of the intervention to create a stable Iraq and improve the quality of life of the Iraqi people has been due to the prolongued, murderous insurgency by ultra-right-wing Islamist and former Baathist elements; if we have failed, it is essentially because the enemy has been too good at killing Iraqi civilians and because we have not been good enough at stopping it from doing so. The US and its allies of course made many mistakes that have helped to fuel the insurgency, and it is impossible to know what the situation would be like today had these mistakes not been made. Nevertheless, the principle of democratic accountability requires that the occupying powers bear responsibility for the poor record, particularly given that the population directly concerned – the Iraqis – had no say in the matter. So far as the wider region is concerned, it is a moot point whether the Islamist insurgents now ensconced in Iraq represent a greater danger than the former expansionist, genocidal dictatorship. But perception arguably matters as much as reality, and the perceived failure of the action in Iraq has greatly set back the noble cause of humanitarian intervention. The successful international interventions in Kosovo and East Timor in 1999 have undoubtedly been vindicated from the perspectives of both humanitarianism and justice and the balance sheet in Afghanistan remains positive. It is a great tragedy that the perceived failure in Iraq has made the case for a similar military intervention to liberate Darfur that much more difficult to argue. A tragedy, that is, for the people of Darfur.

Neverthless, if the intervention in Iraq is to be condemned, it should be condemned because it hasn’t worked very well, not because it was wrong in principle. Helping to overthrow dictators is something our elected leaders should be doing more of, not less. The representatives of the Kurdish victims of Baathist genocide supported the invasion, as did many other of the best representatives of democratic Iraq, such as Kanan Makiya who, despite all the horrors his country has experienced since the overthrow of Saddam, still believes that it was the right thing to do. I do not for one minute regret standing behind these people, and behind Tony Blair – Britain’s greatest prime minister since Clement Attlee – against the Baathists, Islamists and phoney ‘anti-war movement’ spearheaded by apologists for Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic and other fascists. Let’s be clear about this: most of the people who marched in Britain against the war in Iraq may have done so for the best of motives; it was not they, but the leadership of the movement that was rotten. This leadership included Tony Benn, who praised Mao Zedong as ‘the greatest man of the twentieth century’, though Mao’s policies make the Iraq war seem positively bloodless and successful; the Socialist Workers Party, which continues to revere the Bolshevik Revolution, which was an unequivocally greater and bloodier failure than the Iraq war, and whose supporters continue to deny the Srebrenica genocide and support Hezbollah; George Galloway, who praised Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose leading lights in the 1990s joined with Alfred Sherman, a political friend of Jean-Marie Le Pen and political advisor to the genocidal murderer Radovan Karadzic, to form the ‘Committee for Peace in the Balkans’; Harold Pinter, a supporter of the ‘International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic’; John Pilger, a denier of Milosevic’s atrocities; and so on. Any movement spearheaded by such people should automatically be opposed, regardless of what it claims to be campaigning on. This does not mean the war was necessarily right, but it is a factor in the balance sheet.

Ultimately, the real division was not between those who supported and those who opposed the Iraq war – there were many honourable members on both sides of the debate – but between those who supported the Iraqi people and those who supported their oppressors. All those who supported the Iraqi people were, once the invasion had occurred, on the same side in support of the struggling Iraqi democracy, regardless of whether or not they had favoured the invasion. This essential division will repeat itself in future conflicts across the globe. In future crises, solidarity with freedom fighters struggling against a dictatorship, fascism or genocide may mean supporting military intervention, if that is what the freedom fighters feel is best for their country. Support for military intervention is a tactical question; solidarity with the oppressed against the oppressors – defending them against weapons of mass destruction, whether the machete or poison gas – is a matter of principle.

Monday, 26 November 2007 - Posted by | Iraq, Middle East, Red-Brown Alliance, The Left

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