Iraq: a war like no other

Mary Kaldor
27 March 2003

The war in Iraq serves the interests of a US power elite rather than democracy and global justice. In the midst of conflict, it is urgent to retrieve an international humanitarian perspective, one that can bind popular support to the ideal of genuinely humane intervention.

A British journalist at a recent seminar I attended talked approvingly about the alliance between American neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism. He favours the current war in Iraq. Like the British prime minister Tony Blair, and many putative ‘new Europeans’ from the former Soviet bloc, he believes a globalised world can no longer tolerate totalitarian regimes.

In contrast, my fear is that this new alliance of neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism could spell the end of any hopes for a liberal, multilateralist world order. In the current context of Iraq, it will do so by legitimising a war fought in the interests not of human rights and democracy but of an elite at the apex of US power.

A transformative event?

I am against the war in Iraq because I oppose the unrestrained use of American power. The US administration has been hijacked by a messianic group of ideologues who believe that they can reshape the world in American interests, using military force.

These people are composed of four overlapping groups – individuals who took part in the Reagan administration and are nostalgic for the Manichean, good-against-evil struggle of the cold war; representatives of the military-industrial complex who will benefit from the war and have become acculturated to a belief in military power; right-wing Christian fundamentalists; and hardline pro-Israel supporters.

Their stated goal, initially, is to impose order on the Middle East to get rid of undemocratic regimes that may foster terrorism, to provide security for Israel, and to protect the supply of oil. Their longer-term goal is a strategy of pre-emptive war to rid the world of tyrants and terrorists equipped with weapons of mass destruction.

The war in Iraq, I was told by someone from the American Enterprise Institute, one of the neo-conservative think tanks, will be a ‘transformative event’. And this view has been echoed by General Tommy Franks when he says that this war will be a ‘war like no other – characterised by flexibility, surprise and overwhelming force.’

The neo-conservatives believe this war will provide a model to be emulated elsewhere. ‘There are times in history when the world needs a violent upsurge’ a member of the Bush administration said to me ‘You would never have got your democracies in Europe without two world wars.’

Those like Blair and the ‘new Europeans’ who genuinely support this war, do so because they are concerned about Saddam Hussein’s regime. The arguments about the extent to which Saddam represents a threat to the west, because of weapons of mass destruction or support for terrorism, are unconvincing as a justification for the war. But the arguments about responsibility to Iraqi citizens who have suffered so much from Saddam Hussein’s regime as well as from war and sanctions, are harder to answer.

A polarising war

I do believe that human rights matter and that we need a set of global institutions capable of implementing respect for human rights. This is what is meant by liberal interventionism. But means are very important. And there is a profound difference between war as an instrument of regime change and humanitarian intervention, which may or may not involve the use of military means.

War is about striving for victory against a collective enemy, while minimising casualties on one’s own side; in this case it is the United States versus Iraq not, despite all the protestations, the United States versus Saddam Hussein. War is too blunt instrument to make that kind of discrimination.

In a war, it is not possible to avoid civilian casualties, both directly as a result of mistakes or so-called ‘collateral damage’, or indirectly as a result of the humanitarian crisis that results from disruption to supplies of basic necessities. Despite the enormous efforts on the coalition side to avoid civilian casualties, we are already witnessing these consequences of war in Iraq.

The way in which war differentiates between groups of human beings was vividly illustrated when international workers were ordered to leave Iraq while ordinary Iraqis had no choice but to stay even though the Americans and the British insist that this war is being fought for their benefit.

Many commentators are surprised by the extent of the resistance to the western invasion and how low the numbers that are surrendering. Although this can partly be explained by threats from the upper echelons of the Iraqi security forces, a more significant reason may be the polarising effect of war – ‘them’ against ‘us’ even if ‘us’ includes Saddam Hussein. Moreover, this polarising effect encompasses the whole of the Islamic world, giving rise to a global perception that this not just the United States versus Iraq, it is the west versus Islam.

Humanitarian intervention, by contrast, is about protecting individuals from large-scale human rights abuses under the auspices of the international community. It is law enforcement, based on agreed procedures, just as would be the case when preventing crime domestically. A classic example of humanitarian intervention is the safe haven that was created in northern Iraq in 1991 to protect the Kurds from Saddam’s forces.

Making public opinion an ally

One of the most positive developments of recent weeks has been the explosion of anti-war sentiment. A global peace movement has burst into the streets bringing together those who campaign for global social justice, the so-called anti-globalisation activists, the Islamic world, in Europe and America as well as the Middle East and Asia, and hundreds of thousands of newly politicised young people. The new movement represents a potential for greatly strengthening the global human right regime.

The movement did not succeed in preventing the war. But it did succeed in dividing all the major international institutions and demonstrating the United States cannot any longer take multilateral support for granted. The crisis in the United Nations, the European Union and Nato is extremely serious. It could set back the cause of global governance for many years. But it could open up the possibility of a new era of multilateral institutions based not on US hegemony, as in the past, but on much more solid international public support. By siding with the neo-conservatives, the liberal interventionists are polarising the debate between those who support a strong human rights position and those who oppose war. They accuse the anti-war activists of being pro-Saddam Hussein. And, for their part, many peace activists argue that humanitarianism is just a cover for US imperialism. Can we rescue an international humanitarian perspective from this mess?

Already, the influence of public opinion has led to a great effort to minimise civilian casualties and to avoid damaging basic infrastructure. There is talk of publishing a road map to a Palestinian state, which might help to address the charges of double standards. And there are attempts to persuade the Americans to agree to a new Security Council resolution, which would put the United Nations in charge of the reconstruction programme and not an American general. It is very important that the liberal interventionists insist on policies such as these; after all, the British are now in a strong position on the ground. If they fail, there is a real risk that they will have lost what is a historic opportunity to ally with public opinion, instead of neo-conservatism.

In place of a fairer more secure set of global institutions, underpinned by global civil society, we may end up with more American pre-emptive wars and more terrorism.

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