War opposition: unusual allies and their motives

One of the most interesting things about the recent invasion of Iraq is the different interests which have become united in both their support for, and their opposition to, the invasion. I’ve attended several anti-war rallies in London, including some of the less well-attended and much-criticised ones (such as the two which took place after the war had started), and the core attendees were a mixture of traditional centre-left and left-wing politicians, Muslim activists, peace and anti-nuclear campaigners, and hardline socialists. The rally just before the war began was much better attended than either the wartime or 2001 rallies, and included people who didn’t fall into any of these categories; they seemed to be just ordinary people who opposed the war. The reasons people opposed the war were these: that we could not guarantee that the invasion itself would be quick (although, in the end, it was); that the occupation would be a long and difficult one (correct), that the WMD claims were untrue (correct), that claims of a link to al-Qa’ida were unfounded (so far, no link has turned up), and that extremist groups (possibly al-Qa’ida types) would exploit the chaos following the fall of Saddam Hussain (correct). People also observed the shifting reasons for actually going to war; one moment it was “regime change”, next it was “weapons of mass destruction”, the incongruity of a centre-left British government cosying up to the hard right of the Republican party, the flimsiness of Blair’s evidence, which included an Iraqi-American student’s thesis downloaded off the Internet, complete with grammatical mistakes, and the distinct likelihood of bombs falling in places they shouldn’t, like on wedding parties, as had already happened in Afghanistan. Muslims didn’t want an American invasion of a Muslim country for other reasons, such as the potential for them to then occupy more Muslim countries. Finally, nobody believed the Americans (or British) were sincere; the likelihood is that once Saddam was gone, another dictator would be installed in his place, and even if he exhibited a commitment to democracy, the proof of the pudding wouldn’t be seen for many years.

The arguments in favour of the invasion have some emotional pull, but don’t stand up. The main American one is “it’s our security; we’ve had 9/11 and we think there’s some link between them and al-Qa’ida”. The answer here is that the invasion has not been a simple case of removing Saddam Hussain - the troops are still in Iraq more than a year and a half after the invasion. You (indeed we) may be in Iraq for a long time. There’s still the possibility of your president finding (or inventing) an excuse to take the war to Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia (and of our prime minister, if he’s still in power, umming and awwing and then following as usual). Sooner or later you will have to re-introduce the draft (a bill is already under consideration to do just this), or admit that you made a big mistake, and pull out.

The main British reason, articulated by the likes of Nick Cohen as in this article in last Sunday’s Observer, is that Saddam was a nasty piece of work, and that the demonstrators are making use of British freedoms to associate and demonstrate to deny the same to the good people of Iraq. After the invasion and big bad Saddam is gone, we can build a multi-party democracy and let civil society and trade unionism flourish. This, of course, is contingent on Allawi (even if people do not manage to assassinate him first) matching this expectation; since Iraq is now (supposedly) a sovereign state, we at least have missed our opportunity. Cohen is also concerned for the welfare of gays and lesbians, but in the case of Iraq his sympathies are misplaced: sodomy has in fact been legal in Iraq since 1969, according to this pro-gay website (another pro-gay site, UK Blackout, has the same information). Given that Iraq is a mostly Muslim country (and the Christians and the few Jews there are hardly your liberal Rowan Williams and Lionel Blue types), you’d have thought he’d want to keep away the possibility of a democratic Iraq tightening up the laws.

I don’t consider it all that contradictory that, as Cohen put it in the New Statesman, the enemies of economic freedom (the Socialist Worker people who are a major player, some would say the major player, in the Stop the War Coalition) and the enemies of sexual freedom (the Muslims, specifically the Muslim Council of Britain) would come together on the rare occasion that they find common cause. Then again, some Muslims are not entirely happy with this. In the comments to the just-linked blog piece, I mentioned that I thought the SWP were good organisers, but … and Saraji replied that this was a common observation: “good organisers, but …”. The people who opposed this war opposed it for reasons of their own: anti-war people because they don’t like war, anti-nuclear people because they don’t like the idea of depleted uranium being used (or because they don’t like war), Muslims because they don’t like the idea of yet another Muslim country being invaded, socialists because they don’t like the idea of an “independent” being kicked out in favour of another US lackey, or of a war for oil or to furnish reconstruction contracts for big political donors, and people generally because they didn’t believe the claims on which the justification for the war was based.

To quote Eric Raymond’s letter to Darl McBride (the owner of the SCO software company, which is currently throwing around lawsuits in order to destroy Linux because its own operating system has failed miserably to penetrate the market):

One of the many things they understand that you do not is that in the kind of confrontation SCO and IBM are having, independent but willing allies are far better value than lackeys and sock puppets. Allies, you see, have initiative and flexibility. The time it takes a lackey to check with HQ for orders is time an ally can spend thinking up ways to make your life complicated that HQ would be too nervous to use. Go on, try to imagine an IBM lawyer approving this letter. The very best kind of ally is one who comes to one’s side for powerful reasons of his or her own. For principle. For his or her friends and people. For the future. IBM has a lot of allies of that kind now. It’s an alliance you drove together with your arrogance, your overreaching, your insults, and your threats.

The strange bedfellows on the pro-war side are just as remarkable as those on ours. Dick Cheney is well-known for his corporate connections, Bush and some of his cabinet for their Christian fundamentalism. There is a reference here (admittedly on a left-wing looking website; also see here which is where I got the link) to “erroneous junk information” about connections between Saddam Hussain and al-Qa’ida being spread by evangelical pastors from their pulpits. Then there are people previously associated with the Left, like Christopher Hitchens, and even some libertarians like Eric Raymond, and the likes of Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, who regularly appear in the British liberal press; Cohen is well-known for his record of attacking British legislation which demonises “asylum seekers” (British term for would-be refugees) and attacks civil liberties. Eric Raymond blogged last September about why he is neither a Liberal nor a Conservative; he accused the conservatives of being sexist, censorious, backward-looking, anti-science, and “by and large … villains”. These are the people who pushed for the invasion - Cohen and Hitchens would still be writing about civil liberties and Mother Teresa if the Republicans hadn’t brought up the issue of invading Iraq.

Worse, Raymond declares that “even many of the Libertarians from whom we expected more intelligence have retreated into a petulant isolationism, refusing to recognize that, at this time, using the state to carry the war back to the aggressors is our only practical instrument of self-defense” (The Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto, 26th Dec 2003), demonstrating a delusion that the state is ours to use. It isn’t. The US “state” is in the hands of a certain group, and it’s not yours. It’s using you, not the other way round. He might at this point refer me to his words to Darl McBride, which I quoted earlier. But what if the people pursuing the war then realise they can’t pursue it with the troops they’ve got, including the reserves, and have to re-introduce the draft, as many liberals fear will happen? It will certainly detract from the freedom he so cherishes.

One final point. The point of the anti-war movement was not that Saddam being there was a good thing (or that his removal, in itself, was bad), or that the people he killed deserved to die. In the comments following Raymond’s entry on Susan Sontag’s death, one “Raymond” (not Eric Raymond himself - he commented that he would have “would have expressed similar sentiments more literately and moderately”) writes the following about the ex-dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet:

Even Pinnochet is better than any communist. He probably, by killing mass murdering leftists, by killing the killers, saved the lives of 2 or more million people. He certainly saved them from the leftist iron boot. Chile is free, not communist, because of Pinnochet

Saddam was no great lover of commies either. He had them thrown in an acid bath.

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