Tuesday, October 17, 2006



I was - slightly, weakly, on balance etc. - in favour of the Iraq war (on regime change/humanitarian intervention grounds) when it began in March 2003. For me it was always an extremely difficult, almost incalcuable dilemma. I was never able to understand those who seemed to see either no good arguments for or no good arguments against the war.

I haven't really posted anything here relating to my own views on Iraq. This is partly because I felt the blogosphere (or at least that part of it I follow) could do with a bit less on war, terrorism etc. and a bit more on, well, other important stuff. But it's also because any thoughts I might have had about the situation now or since 2003 have just been overwhelmed by my sense of horror at how things have turned out. Truth be told, this horror, and an associated sense of disgust, have led me to follow the news from Iraq in less and less detail. Of course, events in Iraq have come to be reported in less and less detail too, simply because there are so many bloodsoaked details to choose between. I remember already being horrified in April 2003 when 15 demonstrators were shot dead by the US Army in Fallujah. I remember being disturbed at how little attention the incident recieved. I remember thinking about how important a role the shooting dead in Derry of 14 unarmed demonstrators by the British Army had been in propelling the IRA to 25-odd years of "resistance" in Northern Ireland.

I can't say with any confidence that I will long remember the deatils of any incident in which so few as 15 people die in Iraq this week, or that I will even read about it.

I have long since ceased to identify with the "liberal hawk" or "pro-war-left" side regarding Iraq, but it is only relatively recently that I have resolved in my own head that the invasion has been a disaster which cannot be redeemed. By this I do not mean that all hope for anything but a bloody abyss of Yugoslavia-style civil war and break up, or regional conflagration, or genocidal massacre is over in Iraq. Rather I mean that I see no plausible outcome that could possibly lead anyone reasonably to say that the decision to invade had - despite it all (and those two little words, "it all" don't really signify the signified very adequately) - been vindicated.

The only thing that held me precariously back from this conclusiion was the thought that - almost unbelievably, though one should not, I suppose, ignore the terrible psychological cost for those who thought they had seen and lived the bottom of the abyss under Saddam to say now that it is worse without him, the darkness of the vision of their future this requires them to accept, to enunciate - some polls do seem to have indicated that many Iraqis, perhaps a majority, were still glad of the invasion for it's having brought down Saddam's regime, for all that has followed.

Well, even if that were true, even if that were still true, and even if one disregarded the impact of the war on non-Iraqi interests (for, while I would maintain that the interests of Iraqis ought to have been overwhelmingly the most morally decisive factor regarding the war, other factors - the death and injuries to non-Iraqis, including coalition troops, the damage to American and British democracy and security, the general filip to Bin Ladenist ideology and any number of other such matters - must also carry some weight), even then - we cannot anoint those Iraqis who have survived the murder-wave that has swept their country with the right to deem the deaths of those who have died to have been an acceptable price. For they have not paid that price, though there can be few who have not now paid something, even if it is only the fear of losing everything. Somone might point out that if the price had been lower and the reward greater this seeming anti-utilitarian/consquentialist principle would have seemed more doubtful. Well, yes, indeed it would have.

Marc Mulholland's repeated focus on this anti-consequentialist point (or perhaps he was focusing more on the illegitimacy of excessively long-term, or wide-lens, framing of the relevant consequential calculus) helped me focus my thought slightly on this. Like me, Marc seems almost relieved that Norman Geras has acknowledged what seems clear enough - i.e. nobody, but nobody, would have supported the war if they had known how it would turn out, or at least that anybody who did propose such a course of action while promising such an outcome would have been considered rather odd.

Yet Marc also comments:

I think that Norm was unwise to (a) recognise a catastrophe and then (b) say that his hatred of [S]addam was such that he would have stood aside had he anticipated.

This refers to Norm's saying that

...nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime.

and that he would therefore

have withheld support for the war without giving my voice to the opposition to it.

if he had anticipated a failure on the scale of that which the invasion and occupation of Iraq has become.

Marc compares this to

...those who refused to defend Austria or Poland against Hitler because they were bloody dictatorships.

I have always approved of Norm's highlighting of the possibility of some kind of neutrality as to the decision to invade Iraq, since despite the fact that I did just about come down on the pro-war side I didn't do so with great weight, so to speak. For most of the pre-war period I, cowardly perhaps, classified myself as neither pro-war nor anti-war. Nevertheless I don't, as Norm appears to, think it was in any way illegitmate or morally suspect for those who did decide that the war was wrong to actively campaign against it (though of course there were many shameful ways of opposing it, involving betrayal of victims of oppression). After all, this was a high stakes decision. Even people who acknowledged the terrible evil that led people, inside and outside Iraq, to favour regime change by force might have feared catastrophic results of one kind or another and felt a duty to do what they could to prevent evils that might outweigh whatever good would reliably be achieved with Saddam's overthrow.

While I think it is possible that, given what we knew (or should have judged to be the case) at the time, some kind of critical neutrality was the appropriate stance, I think it is odd to say that even knowing the evils that would descend upon Iraq due (in some admittedly restrictive or indirect sense of "due") to the invasion, knowing that these evils were such as to prohibit support for a war that would topple even so heinous a regime as Saddam's, that one would not deem it appropriate, so to speak, to lift a finger to prevent these evils because this would be in some sense to help perpetuate other lesser (by definition in the hypothesis) evils.

Nor do I believe this is a coherent stance given that Norm also tells us that

Had I been of mature years during that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers.

To adopt what I think is a better analogy than Marc's: support - support come what may and with no nay-saying - for the war against Nazism, surely constituted, among other more worthy things, support for a course of action that would help save - that did in fact save - the Stalinist regime in Moscow.

So also, by the way, would have support for any campaign opposing, say, a nuclear first strike during the Cold War. Will anybody say it would have been wrong, in that circumstance, "to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the [Stalinist] regime"? Me, well, funnily enough it would be precisely the prospect of "nothing on earth" that would have induced me to do just that.

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