Ten years ago I participated in the demonstrations in London against the invasion of Iraq, or more particularly, British participation in it. It was the biggest demonstration in London for a long time, one that was airily brushed off by Tony Blair, who had always been unwilling to say no to George Bush (regardless of what his defenders, who claim “he believed the intelligence”, claim — he would have believed anything), claiming that a similar demonstration against a government policy would not have been possible in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. The invasion led to a long occupation and a brutal civil war, and may have been a factor in motivating the group that bombed three London Underground trains and a London bus in July 2005. For all that, Nick Cohen, which responded to the demonstrations with a denunciation of “enemies of freedom” in the New Statesman in July 2003, responds with a series of straw men and irrelevant questions. (More: David Wearing @ New Left Project.)
Every few months a member of the audience at a meeting I am addressing asks whether I regret supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The look in their eyes is both imploring and accusatory – “surely you must agree with me now”, it seems to say. I reply that I regret much: the disbanding of the Iraqi army; a de-Ba’athification programme that became a sectarian purge of Iraq’s Sunnis; the torture of Abu Ghraib; and a failure to impose security that allowed murderous sectarian gangs to kill tens of thousands.
For all that, I say, I would not restore the Ba’ath if I had the power to rewind history. To do so would be to betray people who wanted something better after 35 years of tyranny. If my interrogators’ protesting cries allow it, I then talk about Saddam’s terror state and the Ba’ath’s slaughter of the “impure” Kurdish minority, accomplished in true Hitlerian fashion with poison gas.
I suspect this opening claim is false. What people are more likely to ask is if he regrets supporting the war, or the invasion. He is trying to equate opposition to the invasion with support for Saddam Hussain, which was never the case. Making out people who opposed the war as supporters of tyranny has been a stock tactic of supporters of that war since the beginning, as we saw from Cohen starting from the “enemies of freedom” piece, but most people who were present at that demonstration never were SWP or Muslim Brotherhood supporters but ordinary people who did not want their country sucked into yet another war in the service of post-9/11 America. Cohen and a bunch of his friends on the London intellectual left, mostly represented by the blog Harry’s Place, deluded themselves that the invasion could result in a secular democratic state with free trade unions, run by their friends, in Iraq. Most of us knew better: that the invasion was the product of the American hard right, led by a man who wanted to finish off the job his father had started, supported by right-wing American Jews who wanted to see off an enemy of Israel and by racist Americans who blamed Arabs for 9/11.
The Cohen-Harry’s Place-Dissent axis, which peaked in May 2006 with the release of the “Euston Manifesto” (the website is still there, but has not been updated since “11May11”), portrayed themselves as the “Decent Left”, styled themselves “muscular liberals” and persistently attacked the intellectual inconsistency of the mainstream Left for siding with Muslims, who they denounced as oppressors of women who would throw them all into burqas in a heartbeat, and they used slurs based on guilt by tenuous association (e.g. the Muslim Association of Britain is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded by Hassan al-Banna who expressed fascist sympathies in the early 20th century, therefore the MAB are tainted and left-wing intellectuals should not associated with them), and accused the Left of attacking the Western Right when it was upholding democratic values and reflexively supporting anyone who stood in opposition to American power, even when they were obviously tyrannical, fascist or racist, just because they were against American power. There was an overwhelming focus on the leadership, and an assumption that participating in a demonstration where a given group’s banners are being held as support for that group. Muslim demonstrators were assumed to be Muslim Brotherhood supporters (and it was never asked why Islamists opposed the rule of an Arab secular dictator when it would almost certainly lead to the legalisation of their own party); the rest were assumed to be the old rabble of CND, SWP and general oppositionists, and deluded fools. (These days, Harry’s Place has become increasingly flabby in its manner of argument, for example recently resorting to mocking the use of long words in Richard Seymour’s book Unhitched. Now that they can censor people they do not like by making a big noise and getting the offending speaker’s appearance cancelled, perhaps they think intellectual rigour is no longer required.)
Regarding the legacy of the war, he continues:
Iraq shocked liberals into the notion that they should stay out of the affairs of others. Of itself, this need not have been such a momentous step. A little England or isolationist policy can be justified on many occasions. There are strong arguments against spilling blood and spending treasure in other people’s conflicts. The best is that you may not understand the country you send troops to – as the Nato governments who sent troops to Iraq did not. But unless you are careful you are going to have difficulties supporting the victims of oppressive regimes if you devote your energies to find reasons to keep their oppressors in power. Go too far in a defence of the status quo and the idea soon occurs to you that an oppressive regime may not be so oppressive after all.
Liberals are always the first to walk into that trap. A conservative nationalist has few problems saying: “My country comes first. If foreigners are in trouble, that’s their lookout.” Liberals need to dress isolationism in the language of morality.
Iraq has not entirely blunted liberal support for intervention; there was widespread support for western intervention during the fight to remove Colonel Gaddafi, and much support for limited intervention in Syria, though much less than a full-scale invasion. Neither of those places were Saddam Hussain’s Iraq; Libya has a long Mediterranean coastline and all its major cities are there, and both had a popular uprising against their dictator in progress. Iraq did not. Furthermore, it is in the western instinct to support a genuine struggle for freedom, which is what the uprisings against Gaddafi and Assad were perceived to be; it is why liberals (and others) supported the first Gulf War and the long-delayed intervention in Bosnia. There would still be support for intervention to arrest an ongoing genocide, as the UN is mandated to intervene at the mere mention of that word (of course, it’s a word they studiously avoid mentioning, even when it is going on under their noses), but that was not happening in Iraq in 2003. The Kurdish region was already self-governing and protected by the “no-fly zone”.
It’s true, we cannot end every tyranny and injustice by military means or other. But before 2003, after Gulf War I, Bosnia and Sierra Leone, foreign humanitarian intervention had a fairly good name, and now, partly because of Iraq but also partly because of changed economic circumstances, people would be greatly more reluctant to support it. If Iraq had been well-managed, if they had established security and so on, the British involvement might have lasted a shorter time and been more successful, but it wasn’t and was never going to be, because the invasion was carried out in haste and driven by a mixture of opportunism and hatred. Nick Cohen and his intellectual friends lent an air of legitimacy to the involvement of a nominally left-wing British government, but they never had the slightest influence.
Image source: Wikipedia
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