Arguing Iraq

Anthony Barnett
9 June 2004

openDemocracy sends a free weekly newsletter to all our members. On 3 June it led with a roundtable discussion where six Iraqis debated the future of their country. Our email said:

Make sure openDemocracy keeps publishing Iraqi Voices by subscribing today for £2/€3/$3 per month. This is why we need your support.

“Their views are diverse, but they are unified by an avoidance of simplistic platitudes (no calls for immediate US withdrawal)...”

This brought sharp protests and an objection in the forums and in emails to our London office, accusing us of not carrying the voices of “real Iraqis”. As if those who met in our office were unreal. I was struck by the way that this passionate “anti-imperialist” criticism reproduced what is, alas, a classically imperialist attitude – granting recognition only to those natives willing to agree with its own, western, point of view.

Another reader suggested our coverage was biased in a different way and sent a message saying:

“I notice you haven’t listed Iraqi blogs that are more favorable to the occupation. This creates an unbalanced impression. Here are some blogs you should list: healingiraq.com, iraqthemodel.com, messopotamian.com, iraq-iraqis.com, hammorabi.com and the news site: iraq-today.com.

Each of these sites lists many more. Their voices deserve to be heard also.

Thank you! Judith”

Let’s hear those voices, and others too!

Among the messages critical of our announcement, Paul told us:

“You write that of the views at your Iraqi roundtable there are no ‘calls for immediate US withdrawal’: ‘simplistic platitudes’ (sic – try looking this word up in a dictionary), you say. Is this condescending attitude toward a widespread and popular Iraqi viewpoint consistent with your site’s proclaimed mission, and with its very name?

I might have considered donating before. No longer. Thanks for making your true filters clear, or a little more visibly coloured.

Sincerely, Paul”

Well, hold on: all the Iraqis at the roundtable wanted full US withdrawal eventually. A lot hangs on the word “immediate”. Joshua too appeared not to notice this word, even after quoting it; he seems to assume that not to demand that the US leaves “now” is like saying it should not leave Iraq at all. He wrote:

“You claim to be independent, free and open. You claim to ‘widen the community of influence’ for people without access. But this isn’t what you are and it’s not what you do.

What you do is limit the range of possibilities for your audience. For example, I received the following statement about the Iraqis you met with in an email from you on 4 June:

‘Their views are diverse, but they are unified by an avoidance of simplistic platitudes (no calls for immediate US withdrawal).’

So you’re saying that it’s unsophisticated to demand that the occupiers of Iraq leave. By using the term platitude, you’re also saying that this demand is dull (at best) or unintelligent (at worst).

The demand for US withdrawal is simple...SO WHAT?! The demand for an end to slavery in the United States was simple, too.

This demand is not dull or unintelligent, as you say it is. You seem to indicate that you prefer more ‘fashionable’ and ‘high-brow’ arguments.

My suggestion to you is don’t front!

You shouldn’t claim to represent all opinions while marginalizing the ones that you don’t agree with. Maybe you think that you’ll get more subscribers by using the rhetoric of openness and pluralism.

What is your reaction to my criticism? I hope you’ll take the time to respond and open a dialogue with me. I think that your project has great potential and I’d like to support it if it heads in the right direction.

Sincerely, Joshua”

Here is my reaction to Joshua’s criticism. We have not marginalised the arguments for immediate withdrawal. Two weeks before the roundtable we ran strong pieces from Charles Peña and Marcus Raskin, each calling for rapid, unilateral withdrawal, from the point of view of the interests of the United States.

But from the point of view of the interest of Iraq, to say “US out now” is indeed simplistic. What will replace American power? This is a question Iraqis are probing in the roundtable and in their country. Could there be a civil war between Arabs and Kurds? Would Iran feel forced to defend the interests of its fellow Shi’a? An immediate US withdrawal would be an inspiring victory for Osama bin Laden. Would his fellow Saudi militants use the sanctuary of the vast borderlands between Saudi Arabia and Iraq to group for further attacks?

Speaking personally, I opposed the invasion of Iraq despite my hatred for Saddam Hussein. I was willing in principle to support outside force to overthrow his extremely violent dictatorship. But I was convinced that the Bush strategy was misconceived and that the “war” against the “Axis of Evil” was a dangerous expression of unbalanced American nationalism.

That was then: the critical months of 2002-03. The argument was about the consequences of the use of force. My attitude to the threat of American invasion was indeed “simplistic”, if not “platitudinous”. It was “no” and I marched against that threat on 15 February 2003 and analysed the issues it raised.

This is now: the middle of 2004. What happens next, it seems to me, is not so simple.

Except, perhaps, in this sense. The United States government says that it wants democracy. But led by a president who stole his election I have my doubts. I think the key reason why the US occupation has been so costly for Bush militarily and politically, is that – as Paul Rogers has tracked in his quietly devastating openDemocracy column – his administration fears Iraqi democracy and wants to stay in control and build a pliant Iraqi regime. I would like to support Iraqis who want a democratic Iraq, with the rule of law and elections. If Iraq can gain its freedom it will exercise its freedom, and I doubt very much that it will do so in a way that will (for example) endorse the actions of an Ariel Sharon.

The key point is one of perspective. Iraq is part of America’s reality. But America is also part of Iraqi reality. If the roundtable is read through an Iraqi as well as a western filter, the vulnerability of Iraqi democrats is striking: at once threatened by the behaviour of the United States yet seeking to create a political process that allows their country to emerge intact and democratic.

That they should, then, prefer a phased to an immediate withdrawal of the US occupiers is not surprising. Of course, such a process runs the risk that America will “win” and create a puppet regime, whereas if it is forced to pull out now it will clearly and decisively lose. No doubt, this is what many self-styled “anti-imperialists” prefer. But won’t Iraq, Iraqi democrats and the Iraqi people also lose?

This is the debate that I hope Paul, Joshua and Justin will enter. They should at least consider the idea that backing democracy in Iraq is an essential requirement to oppose the influence of George Bush’s neo-con policies there and elsewhere.

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