Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Free Life Commentary
Issue Number 101
Monday, 14 April 2003
This article and many replies to it will be published in the next issue of Free Life Magazine:

The War: Won but not Over
by Sean Gabb

Though the pacification is as yet incomplete, Baghdad has fallen and the war seems in the conventional sense to be over. I am glad that the Allies have won, and that they have won so quickly. I did not think they would. I really did expect the Iraqis to use their advantages of defence to greater effect. I expected them to blow up all the bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates, and to spread rubble over all the roads into Baghdad - thereby preventing the Allies from driving straight in - and to use snipers to hold up attempts at clearing the rubble. Above all, I expected the Iraqis to defend the city from behind a large and shifting mass of civilians. I do not know why they failed to do any of this, deciding instead on strategies that an idiot child - let alone the Americans - might have countered. As said, I am glad that they failed. But it has made me wrong so far in my gloomy predictions. I was wrong and my more bellicose friends and opponents were right.

This being said, it does not affect my belief that the war was unnecessary and therefore should not have been fought by this country. Success does justify many risks - and this was a risk. But no degree of success can justify a risk that was unnecessary, that has brought human, financial and diplomatic costs, and where the longer term consequences of success may involve still greater costs. Such was this war.

I know that I am repeating myself. Then again, repetition is a valid form of argument where new or forgotten propositions are concerned. But I regard the proper duty of the British Government to be the protection of British life and property. The duty may occasionally require interventions abroad, but will mostly require action only within the borders of the United Kingdom. I believe this for two reasons.

First, a government is an agent of its people, not a principal, and so must take care to spend lives and money on ventures that relate directly to its duty.

Second, when governments set their foreign policies according to known and predictable interests, the chances of war are much reduced. Even when wars do happen, they are for obvious and limited ends, and do not require people to be lied into states of hysteria that are far easier to excite than to abate and that may complicate efforts to make peace.

Against this proposition, three arguments have been raised. Once again, I know that I have disputed these on many occasions. But I have not so far been successful in winning my case. I will therefore risk the impatience of my readers in repeating myself here as well.

First, we were told that Iraq had weapons that it was willing and able to use against this country, or that it was willing to give to others for use against us. Day after day, the media poured out claims to chill the blood. To these were added claims from within my own circle. One person told me - he promised me he had inside knowledge - that there were tunnels under the presidential palaces in Baghdad up to a mile long, filled with chemical and biological weapons. Someone else assured me that there was a secret nuclear programme, but that Tony Blair was unable to reveal its details to us. Someone else told me in a semi-closed meeting about the “verified links” between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Iraq was cried up endlessly as a clear and present danger.

If true, this would have justified war on the principles given above. But I doubted if it was true. Iraq is a poor and barbarous country. It lost a war with the more civilised countries in 1991, and after that was continually monitored and blockaded. That it could, even so, develop weapons for use against us struck me as absurd - and that was without considering the evidence. But just look at the evidence given. Assertions and plain forgeries aside, not even an opportunistic connection was shown between Qaeda and the Government of Iraq.

As for the alleged threat posed by the Government of Iraq in its own right, we can now see the quality of that evidence. Doubt has been justified by events. If I was wrong in my military predictions, it was only so far as I believed the Iraqis to be more effective than they were. Their inability to defend their own country showed the nature of their threat to ours. They used throughout nothing better than old conventional weapons. Many of these they had trouble making to work. If Saddam Hussein had been the lunatic he was claimed to be, he ought surely to have used his chemical and biological weapons on the first day of the war. If he was the scheming tyrant he was also claimed to be, he ought surely to have used them on the last. He did not use them because he did not have them.

Until Saturday, I was willing to believe that such weapons would be “found” by the Americans. They had the means, motive and opportunity for planting them. But the surrender of Amir Humudi al-Sadi has complicated any such plan. He was the chief weapons adviser to the Iraqi Government. Before the war, he had repeatedly denied that his country had any of the weapons it was alleged to have. He helped reveal the report on Iraqi weapons published by the British Government as a mass of lies - and often of plagiarised and obsolete lies. For his own safety, it was in his interest, once the war was over, to confess that he had been lying, and to validate all American claims. In fact, he called a news conference before surrendering and repeated his earlier denials: “I was knowledgeable about these programmes” he said. “I never told anything but the truth and time will bear me out”. Bearing in mind how little shame the present Government of America has about torturing prisoners of war, it will be interesting to see how long Mr al-Sudi maintains this insistence. But no amount of retraction will now be believed. There were no “weapons of mass destruction”. There was no danger to this country. We were lied into this war.

And so this first claim has been dropped for the moment. The war is now justified on the second grounds of “rĂ©gime change”. Some of my friends have always supported the war on these grounds, and, while I do not agree with them, I do not accuse them of discreditable motives. But I am shocked by the sudden change of excuse in Washington and London. Interference in Iraqi internal affairs was expressly and continually disclaimed before the war started. The talk then was all about disarmament of Mr Hussein. He had only to comply with the weapons inspectors, we were assured, and his country would then be left alone. To see the politicians now changing their story reminds me of the Victory Square parade in George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

But let us set aside the manner of its advancement, and consider instead the substance of the claim - that we have a right or obligation to overthrow tyranny throughout the world. Of course, I deny the claim. So long as it does not endanger us, I do not see what happens in other countries as any business of ours. I know there has always been a strain of liberal imperialism in the libertarian movement. But this is misguided. It is no more the business of our government to liberate foreigners from oppression than it is to feed them if they are hungry. If we oppose foreign aid, why support humanitarian invasions? They both involve spend the taxpayers’ money. Why the inconsistency?

I suppose the alleged answer is that foreign aid does not work, but that liberation does. But what reason have we to suppose that it does work? If the Americans were to conquer Iraq and its neighbours, as we conquered India, it might work. We had not only the will to put down widow burning and sacrificial murder, but the means to enforce our will. We stayed there long enough to remake Indian civilisation. Will the Americans now rule Iraq for two centuries? I think not. The intention seems to be to set up a new government there and then withdraw.

Now, liberal democracy requires more than a written constitution and a few bribes. Though all human beings may want to be free, I doubt if all have an equal capacity for freedom. Free institutions are not the same as satellite television dishes and motor cars. They cannot be exported to and established in countries that have not previously had them. Instead, they proceed from the cultural values of a nation. They can be gradually transplanted. They can even spontaneously evolve. But they cannot be unpacked as if from a box.

Unless they can be taken apart and remade, the various civilisations of the Arab world all require strong authoritarian government. The looting and communal violence we have seen in Iraq since the collapse of its government may be in part a reaction against tyranny. But it is also what happens when order is destroyed in a deeply corrupt society. It will be ended when order is restored, but this order will not be liberal or democratic. To set up a constituent assembly that is any more than a fraud will mean reproducing indoors the hatred now running wild in the streets. This is a truth that liberal imperialists need to learn in every generation. Because of this war, we are now due for another lesson in true sociology.

There is worse. By conquering Iraq, we may have destabilised the country and the entire region. The Arab mind of the past hundred years has been divided between secular nationalism and radical Islam. The first of these now looks to have been comprehensively defeated. The resulting void will not, I think, be filled by liberal democracy. Instead, millions of young men can be expected to grow their beards and pay attention to the usual texts. They will probably make everyone around them unhappy. And I am reasonably sure they will contrive to make us unhappy before the fiends who direct foreign policy in Washington move on from preventive war to preventive genocide.

But I turn to the third justification for a specifically British involvement in the war. This takes it as given that the Americans wanted to invade Iraq, and does not ask why. It simply looks at the advantages for Britain of supporting the Americans. The main advantage alleged is that the war may have destroyed all chance of our integration into Europe. There are persistent claims that Tony Blair will use his restored popularity to call a sudden referendum on the Euro. More likely, though, it seems that the French and Germans have just had all their suspicions confirmed that Britain will never be a loyal and contented member of the European Union, and that our leaving it could be more a question of when than whether.

Before the fighting started, I might have been willing to accept this Machiavellian justification of war. Getting out of the European Union, after all, is a first rate British interest. But, having looked at the civilian casualties - small in number as they have so far been - I have changed my mind. I cannot stop thinking about that poor child who last week had his arms blown off and his lower body scorched all over. If the war had been for our immediate defence, I have no doubt I should have hardened my heart and agreed that his suffering was regrettable but necessary. But the war was not for immediate defence. It was at best in pursuit of an interest that requires further contingencies before it can be achieved. His life has been destroyed for nothing. Perhaps worse, it may have been destroyed because we as a nation are too decadent to save ourselves by other means from a wholly political threat. If we cannot use our still formidable constitutional freedoms to save ourselves without that, I do not believe we deserve to be saved. There is a story that Pope Innocent VIII was prescribed human blood to keep him alive. Three boys were chosen and bled. Too much was taken and the boys died. The Pope still died. Perhaps that is now what we have become.

Since that picture of Ali Ismaeel Abbas was published, some of my critics have stopped denouncing me for my cold-hearted nationalism. I am now accused of being soft-hearted - almost a “leftie”. The reason for this is that I have not made myself sufficiently clear. I deny that it is our duty to go out of our way to help foreigners when they are suffering. But I also deny that it is our right to make them suffer when it serves some doubtful interest of our own. What was done to that boy would always have appalled me. But the knowledge that I share in the corporate responsibility for it almost maddens me with shame and horror.

I hear the liberal imperialist argument that he has been destroyed so that others in Iraq might live in peace and freedom. As said, I doubt if they will live in peace and freedom. I am also not concerned. I am suspicious of caring about people whose faces are invisible. I prefer to look at individuals. Perhaps this leads to an imperfect view of suffering. On the other hand, it keeps one from the callous indifference to actual, known lives that has been shown over again these past few centuries by men who killed even as they paraded their universal but abstract love of humanity.

I am told that the American Government has a list of future targets, and that on it are Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Already, it seems, opinion is being softened for war with Syria - it has, we are told, “weapons of mass destruction”. I do not know whether to laugh or cry. How could these psychopathic children have been elected in London and Washington?

I do not yet know how Mr Blair will emerge from this war. My fear is that he will be strengthened in his ability to do evil at home as well as abroad. But perhaps the people of Britain have not joined in the worship of power so fully as the opinion polls now indicate. Perhaps they will turn on him. We cannot unwrite this page of our history, or even blot it out. But perhaps by destroying the career and execrating the memory of its author, we can yet rescue some of our self-respect.

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