Thursday, April 06, 2006

War on Iraq: reply to Paulie

In the comments box on ‘Why I opposed the war on Iraq’, Paulie – who blogs at the soundly-titled Never Trust a Hippy – makes some serious pro-war left points that deserve a serious reply.

First he accuses me of ‘privileging action against inaction here’. The straight answer is, damn right. I think we are all agreed that war is such a manifestly bad thing that any reasonable person should automatically start from a strong presumption against the use of armed force. People die. Things get destroyed. Misery is spread. About 99 times out of a 100, any alternative is preferable.

And there are alternatives. The most obvious possibility is to support internal democratic forces such as those that have assisted the 'colour revolutions' in some countries of the former USSR.

Ensuring a just settlement in places such as Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya is a sine qua non for democracy in the Middle East and the Muslim world – I use the latter expression as shorthand - more generally. More than other single thing, this process would diminish the environment in which Islamist terrorism flourishes.

Circumstances – think of the Spanish civil war or the Bosniaks - may sometimes justify the supply of arms. Propaganda can be broadcast, smart sanctions introduced, no-fly zones policed.

The measures above are enough to constitute a concrete alternative, and nail the PWL charge that because the anti-war left opposed war against Iraq, it therefore favoured doing nothing.

It is far too simplistic to conceptualise the matter as if there were only two polarised options, invasion and ‘leave well enough alone’. We need to avoid PWL reductionism. As Renegade Eye pointed out in one of the other comments to the thread, although most of the left has opted for one or the other, it is possible simultaneously to be against both imperialism and against Islamism.

By the way, what worries me about the very designation ‘pro-war left’ is that it – presumably unintentionally - makes war sound like something the left should favour in the abstract, using the same implicit semiotic assumptions one is entitled to draw when people refer to the ‘pro-choice left’ or the ‘pro-human rights left’.

So on what grounds should all the peacemakers turn war officer? I could turn the tables on Paulie and ask if he is ‘privileging action’. Is it OK for any government to invade any other nation it happens to disapprove of? And should that right be extended to rapacious imperialist governments, such as those of the US and its junior partner the UK? I sure Paulie would agree with me when I say, of course not.

So who decides when it is right that ‘action’ should be ‘privileged’? The track record of US foreign policy should not fill progressives with hope. Remember Nicaragua, Paulie? And consider the noises off from Washington about Chavez right now.

The ball’s in your court, Paulie. Does Syria deserve a good kicking? Or Iran? Would you favour armed intervention against run-of-the-mill semi-authoritarian gray area regimes that are kind of democratic, kind of not? You know the sort of place I mean. Singapore, say. Or Malaysia.

Why stop at these countries? Or is it that they don’t they torture enough political activists or supress enough newspapers for you? Is there a yardstick? Summary executions per 1,000 population, say? If so, where’s the cut off point? Let freedom reign! US troops everywhere now! Come to that, Bush knows a thing or two about rigging elections himself. Perhaps the US should invade itself?

Against the prevailing Marxist orthodoxy, there are actually circumstances in which I think armed intervention can be justified. Rwanda and Liberia both come to mind. Such missions need to be genuinely multinational, not dominated by one obvious self-interested power with a fig-leaf provided by a few token contingents from elsewhere.

They should predominantly be made up of regional armed forces, and with a clear peace-keeping role. But what is noticeable – and we’ll return to this below – these are precisely the occasions when the imperialist powers elect to do nothing.

Paulie goes on:

‘… if you had a powerful ally that was prepared to remove a vicious dictatorship for its own reasons, would you necessarily insist that your government should refuse to participate in that action because it is doing so for the wrong motives?

I think the analogy is misconceived. Sometimes there can be a felicitous side effect to a crime. That doesn’t justify the crime on anything but a fairly crude utilitarian calculus.

Even at that level, it’s not yet clear that the body count in Iraq is going to be any less as a result of the invasion than it would have been with a continuation of Saddam’s rule. Just to be clear on this, let me stress that I’m not saying that is the case. I’m saying that we don’t know yet, and that in any case, we can’t make the trade off in other people’s lives.

And I disagree that the real motive for invading Iraq was regime change as such, other than in so far as getting rid of Saddam was an inescapable by-product of the master plan to take control of the country with the world’s second-largest proven reserves of oil. That’s why entire sections of the Ba’ath party ready to reach accommodation with the new dispensation have been welcome back into Iraqi civil society.

Basically, the US and Britain justified invasion with a pack of lies about WMD and al Qa’eda. Agree or disagree, Paulie? And how do you feel about that? Remember the dodgy dossier, the Niger yellowcake affair, faked correspondence designed to stitch up a British MP, the Jessica Ryan ‘rescue’ and the commander in chief’s plastic thanksgiving turkey?

If there was a moral case, why was it only made in passing? My contention is that any claims from Bush and Blair to have been motivated by a desire for democracy are essentially window-dressing for militarism. I’m surprised any intelligent progressive should fall for it.

This wasn’t an invasion for democracy. It was an invasion for the imposition of neoliberalism at gunpoint. It was an invasion for the benefit of Halliburton and Brown & Root. It was war for oil

More Paulie:

‘And on the fourth point (international law, etc) are you saying that the current security council settlement is one that deserves respect? Or that the UN - as it is currently structured - should really be the arbiter of international affairs?’

I hold no particular brief for the United Nations. But if the alternative is simply to have the White House go it alone and invade any country it feels like, than I think the United Nations should prevail. Again to turn the tables, are you saying that there shouldn’t be an arbiter in international affairs and that the world should just learn to live with the consequences of unrestrained US unilateralism, Paulie? Although come to think of it, that’s not too far from what we have now.

Paulie then lambasts the UN for its inaction on Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, although I can’t help noticing he’s leaving Palestine off that list. But in a curious way, I think this argument actually bolsters the anti-war case.

Why didn’t the imperialist powers intervene in these situations? Because despite the line Bush spun in his second inaugural, they couldn’t care less about oppression per se. Areas without (a) massive reserves of oil or (b) some other factor of considerable geostrategic significance do not even make it on to the Washington foreign policy radar screen.

The US only underlines its blatant hypocrisy by its choice of allies, with Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan springing readily to mind here.

Careful Paulie, and any other PWLs reading this. It’s a short step from cheerleading for imperialism in what you consider to be exceptional cases to cheerleading for it all the time.


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