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The wrong war: a response to Philip Bobbitt

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Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

In this note I want to respond directly to those who make the case for an American attack on Iraq. I do not mean the hawkish, bellicose pronouncements of the might-makes-right crowd, but the careful, clear case made by such thinkers as Philip Bobbitt.

Their arguments are further proof of the vitality and seriousness of American political culture, whatever the caricatures of the anti-war movement.

Such strong, rhetoric-free arguments must be listened to, and, depending on your point of view, answered. This is my attempt to respond to Bobbitt in particular. It has made me clarify my own thinking. I still disagree with American policy, but I do so differently now.

Bobbitt addresses the question, usually avoided, of ‘why now?’. He accepts that Saddam Hussein should have been removed years ago, it was wrong that he wasn’t.

He says that the reason the US is acting now is 9/11. Nothing changed with respect to Iraq except the all-important ‘resolve’ to do something about Saddam. There is no direct connection between Baghdad and al-Qaida or bin Laden. What 11 September did was to give the political class the will to take the necessary action.

In fact the dangers of terrorism, on the one hand, and megalomaniac leaders developing weapons of mass destruction, on the other, are separate. Both had been long recognised. Policy towards each had been complacent. The events of 11 September 2001 changed the complacency. But the two issues remain distinct.

Two questions which Bobbitt doesn’t address in a short piece:

If 9/11 provided the will finally to do something about Saddam, why doesn't it provide a similar will to ensure a just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

And even if action against Saddam is distinct from countering terrorism, surely the way it is conducted should take account of the impact on the forces that have led to the rise of fundamentalist terrorism?

However the obvious yet rarely stated point that follows from Bobbitt’s core argument is that the weapons inspections are irrelevant. The danger is not what Saddam may have but what he intends to get if he can. In effect the argument for action claims we are up against Saddam Hussein’s will, now well-documented, to arm himself with ultra-dangerous, indiscriminate weaponry. This won’t change. However long the inspectors crawl around Iraq, he will remain a lethal danger for the future. Now that, finally, the US has the determination to stop this, the argument goes, military action is essential on the grounds of ‘better late than never’.

I can agree with this - which surprised me because previously I thought that the only justification for invasion was the humanitarian one(I have long held Saddam is a Pol Pot who should be overthrown for that reason).

Nonetheless I still don't back America on this one.

Why? The strength of the Bobbitt position is its precision: the aim is the man. Because the combination of his intent, his record and his access to oil riches he has to go. Now that the public can be persuaded to back this, go he must.

Let's agree to this. Let's take this as a shared aim, and ask: what is the best way to achieve it? Surely the answer is not that offered us by George W. Bush. In contrast to the precise discrimination of Bobbitt’s argument, US policy towards Saddam is indiscriminate. The stated strategy is a war on an ‘axis of evil’ between three states, of which Iraq is only the first. It wavers between WMD, regime change, links to bin Laden, and oil and the need to get leverage over Saudi Arabia (openly discussed by Donald Rumsfeld). Above all it is unilateralist.

Surely the proper next step is that if Saddam has to go and there is the resolve to make it happen, then it must be done by forming a regional coalition against him. This can only be achieved by making alliances with his neighbours – not hard as he has threatened or attacked most of them. Above all Iran, which has played a co-operative role in Afghanistan. A determined Washington could have brought Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and, if necessary, Syria together to assemble a combined ground force with US air-support, from Muslim-majority states; such an alliance would be unbeatable. The deal could include elections in Iraq within three years, which might scare Saudi Arabia and Syria but not Iran or Turkey. Iraqi oil would pay for the costs.

If the UN were able to provide the backing for this, well and good. If not, not. But what is needed is surely an intrinsically international, not a US nationalist response of the kind we are now witnessing. The war on offer is not concentrated on Saddam in the precise and limited terms Bobbitt outlines. It is being used to legitimate a war-creating role for the world’s greatest power which is bound to provoke further violence and (that other track) to intensify the attitudes that feed terrorism.

I dislike the way that the growing anti-war movement ignores the pitiless realities on the ground in Iraq. I’m proud that in the debate on openDemocracy, Iraqi voices and the Iraqi experience have been strongly represented. But the reason why opposition to the war is surprisingly popular, is not that anyone supports Saddam but the widespread sense that it is NOT about Saddam, that its aims and objectives are not the elegant, restricted and well focused goals outlined by writers such as Philip Bobbitt.

Anthony Barnett


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