Ambivalence on the brink of war

It is 12 January 2003 and US president Bush has rallied his troops for what he calls “The first war of the 21st century”. What is your view of this crisis, where, briefly, do you stand? This is the question we are putting to people around the world, especially those with their own public reputation and following. Our aim, to help create a truly global debate all can identify with.

Ian McEwan
12 January 2003

Ambivalence is not a useful sentiment on the brink of war, but my misgivings about military action have been tempered, or complicated, by the writing of various Iraqi exiles as well as the testimonies of those persecuted by the regime. Nor does it seem outlandish, the possibility of Saddam Hussein passing on weapons of mass destruction to the enemy of his enemies. In the right context, with the right ambitions, it could be a moral act to remove Saddam and his hideous entourage by force and restore Iraq to its people. By the right context, I refer to an attempt to begin the process of a focussed, creative and inclusive settlement to the Palestinian problem.

Naturally, it would require deep American involvement, if not leadership, and at present this is a remote prospect. But without such an initiative, and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the whole area is too unstable; it seethes with hatred. Mutual incomprehension between the Arab world and the West is at a new peak. Only last month, the mainstream Cairo press was repeating the story that the US itself destroyed the Twin Towers in order to have a pretext to attack Islam.

Meanwhile, the US Administration is vague about its post-invasion plans. There has been no forthright commitment to a democratic Iraq. This invites suspicion. Military action in the Middle East now could prompt any number of very undesirable, if not tragic, consequences. No one, no ‘expert’, can know what is going to happen. But I think it is safe to assume, given the present pandemic of irrationality, that this is not the best time to be going to war against an Arab nation.

For all that, I can’t say I’ve been much impressed by the integrity of the anti-war movement in Britain. Peace movements are of their nature incapable of choosing lesser evils. The failure to take an interest in, or engage with, Iraqi exiles, or the Iraqi National Congress meeting in London recently, was a moral evasion. All the more shameful when a large part of the INC embraces the liberal or libertarian and secular values that much of the anti-war movement professes. I keep hearing the raised voices of those very same people who preferred to leave the Taliban in power, and who were prepared to let the Kosovars rot in their camps on the borders of their homeland, and to let Serbian genocidal nationalism have its way. Why should we trust those voices now? Tony Blair, vilified at the time, played a tough hand in both those campaigns, and he was proven right. Far more would have suffered if nothing had been done. The “Bush’s poodle” charge this time round is lazy. It was the Blair-Powell axis of compromise that brought the US to the UN. Another empty argument I keep hearing is that it is inconsistent to attack Iraq because we are not attacking North Korea, Saudi Arabia and China. To which I say, three dictatorships are better than four.

To the waverer, some of the reasoning from the doves seems to emerge from a warm fug of illogic: that the US has been friendly to dictators before, that it cynically supported Saddam in his war against Iran, that there are vast oil reserves in the region - none of this helps us decide what specifically we are to do about Saddam now. The peace movement needs to come up with concrete proposals for containing him if he is not to be forcefully disarmed. He has obsessively produced chemical and biological weapons on an industrial scale, and has a history of bloody territorial ambition. What to do?

No one seriously disagrees about his record of genocide - perhaps a quarter of a million Kurds slaughtered, thousands of their villages destroyed, the ruthless persecution of the Shi’ites in the south, the cruel suppression of dissent, the widespread use of torture and summary imprisonment and execution, with the ubiquitous security services penetrating every level of Iraqi society. It is an insult to those who have suffered to suggest, as some do, that the US administration is the greater evil.

Nor does it advance the cause of peace to ignore the opportunity as well as the responsibility Saddam has, even at this late stage, to avoid a war. Those in the peace camp who argue for a complete military withdrawal from the area ignore the fact that the Kurds would face further genocide without the current protection of the no-fly zones. The peace movement does not have a monopoly of the humanitarian arguments.

As for the hawks, they have evasions of their own. There is a simple piece of arithmetic that they cannot bring themselves to do in public: given the vile nature of the regime and the threat it presents to the region, how many Iraqi civilians should we allow ourselves to kill to be rid of him? What is the unacceptable level?

The best argument for a pre-emptive invasion would be evidence of a recent nuclear weapons programme. So far, nothing has been found. Other questions do not dissolve because they are unanswerable: if nation building is too lowly a task for this US administration, what might follow from the break-up of the nation state of Iraq, an artifice devised and imposed last century by the British? What if a missile attack draws in the efficient and the bellicose Israelis? Will an invasion be al-Qaida’s recruiting sergeant? And might Saddam, the ‘serial miscalculator’ in Kenneth Pollack’s memorable phrase, take everyone down with him in a final frenzy of psychosis? To choose war is to choose unknown terrifying futures. Containment by perpetual inspection might be the duller, safer option.

Still, the hawks have my head, the doves my heart. At a push, I count myself - just - in the camp of the latter. And yet my ambivalence remains. I defend it by reference to the fact that nothing any of us say will make any difference: ambivalence is no less effective than passionate conviction.

At present, following the Blix and Powell reports to the UN Security Council, a war looks inevitable. One can only hope now for the best outcome: that the regime, like all dictatorships, rootless in the affections of its people, will crumble like a rotten tooth: that the federal, democratic Iraq that the INC committed itself to at its conference can be helped into existence by the UN, and that the US, in the flush of victory, will find in its oilman’s heart the energy and optimism to begin to address the Palestinian issue. These are fragile hopes. As things stand, it is easier to conceive of innumerable darker possibilities.

Originally published as part of a debate on 12 January 2003 Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War: Pt. 1.



See also Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War: Pt. II


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