Iraq and after?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 October 2002

If US forces attack Iraq, will Iraqis be freed from a horrible dictatorship? They don’t need to dance in the streets of Baghdad to express appreciation. Whatever may go wrong in Afghanistan, for example, many of its people are now returning to Kabul from exile and asylum. We begin a long, wonderfully written five-part account of Kabul’s Spring by Wendell Steavenson. She builds a picture of a city coming back to life - with all its charlatans and entrepreneurs. I am reminded of Phnom Penh, where a year after the Vietnamese invasion which swept Pol Pot from power (to near universal opprobrium in the West and much talk of imperialism, including on the left) I witnessed Cambodians returning to town to make the best of it. They were not grateful to the Vietnamese, but they certainly found them well preferable.

A lively and anxious debate is taking place in openDemocracy - not least within the office – around the question of whether one can separate the question of what should happen within Iraq from America’s larger strategy against the ‘axis of evil’.

The latter is addressed by Todd Gitlin. Our North American Editor reviews the US National Security Strategy which the Bush administration has just published. He pays attention to the prose. You would have thought that a document which outlines how our new masters intend to rule the world would be frightening, even electrifying. It is when you think about it (and Todd helps). But when I read it, I found my head drooping. Perhaps soporific clichés will prove to be America’s latest device to achieve what used to be known as influence, and is now called ‘soft power’. Hegemony by means of mental anaesthesia.

Todd summons up his energy and scorn to assess the dangers. He singles out the absence of humility in Bush’s worldview - essential to any legal, humanitarian and democratic world.

Rajeev Bhargava shows that India’s corrupt Hindu ruling party also threatens democracy with its similar lack of respect for others. Starting a new monthly column from South Asia he helps us see how the conflict between a constitutional global order (which would certain claim the power to remove Saddam) and a violent, illegal one, now takes many forms. Thanks to its huge size and world wide influence, India may be second only to America in deciding what kind of world we will live in over the next two decades.

Which brings us back to legality and intervention. A huge anti-war mobilisation took place in London last Saturday. Many called on Blair to be ‘fair’, as Rosemary Bechler describes. Yet violent sentiments lurked behind the largely amiable gathering. It suggests to me that whatever the rights and wrongs within Iraq, ugly direct action is likely to be unleashed across the world if the US doctrine Todd diagnoses is imposed. Without a swift and happy resolution in Iraq, unilateral use of force by America may be taken as a license for illegality everywhere.

Naturally, openDemocracy does not simply debate the issues, we also clash over the forms and processes that frame and shape them. In a gathering argument over the nature and role of demonstrations (that will continue next week) our external editor Roger Scruton takes on Adam Lent over the nature of popular protest. Genuine popular movements, Roger contends, are naturally conservative. They should also leave open room for doubt. A helpful warning for everyone who wants peace?

Anthony Barnett

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