From Vietnam to Iraq

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 December 2002

As we approach the New Year, every thinking person will be coming to a view as to whether it would be right for the United States to invade Iraq.

No one should do so without first considering the views of Iraqis themselves.

Violence stalks the opening of the 21st century. It calls for intense and frank debate. Will the best arguments win? I believe they can. One precondition for this is that they are made well and published in a context that does not lock them away to keep them pure. This is a key role for openDemocracy.

Another is to ensure that such arguments are international so that no one, on left or right, appropriates the views of others.

We open the Edition with an exchange between Faleh Jabar and Yasser Alaskary.

Throughout the decade-long Vietnam war, I do not recall any public debate or published discussion between two Vietnamese about what would be the best thing to happen to their country.

There were many such conversations, of course – in Vietnam. But not, it seems (correct me if I am wrong) between the Vietnamese themselves, designed for a world audience.

Each side in the West had ‘its’ Vietnamese to reinforce its point of view. But just as, today, there is more than one American point of view, so there are rich and varied viewpoints everywhere. To take account of what Iraqis themselves think, a forum with integrity is needed in which they can disagree.

That is why we think that a genuinely global space must be one that is open to the full range of positions and disagreements. openDemocracy’s commitment to publishing arguments across the whole spectrum is not motivated by a desire to seek a consensus where none exists. It is moved by a desire to clarify different positions and help ensure they engage with others.

Humanity is a realm of diversity. If we want it to stay this way, then people everywhere need to make up their minds for themselves by taking into account the perspectives of others. Otherwise, human society will be in deep trouble and might not even survive the century.

Anyone who supports American intervention in Iraq, therefore, should meditate on Faleh Jabar’s warning: “remember, whatever the scenario, the Americans are not doing it for us, the Iraqi people” – and think about his call for a really well-funded political campaign against Saddam that will be “more powerful, less costly and very fruitful”.

Likewise, anyone opposing US military action needs to take account of Yasser Alaskary’s undeniable retort that many Iraqis themselves are saying, “Where are the Americans? Why are they taking so long?” – and his own view that any US imposed government in Baghdad, “compared to the situation we are in right now, would be far better”.

Our Iraqi exchange remains traditional in one respect: its focus is about what the West does to the rest. All too often America’s critics blame the big, bad boys of Washington, D.C. for all of the world’s violence, either directly or indirectly.

The world is round, people are equal

In his profound and moving report from Gujarat, our New Delhi columnist Rajeev Bhargava squashes this perception.

Here too is a voice from what used to be called the ‘Third World’. We have asked Rajeev to use his column to address world issues as part of a global debate – he is no more ‘outside the west’ than those of us in London, Berlin or Washington are ‘outside’ the world’s largest democracy. Or rather, we are all in this together – in our different ways.

What is different at the moment in south Asia is Gujarat. One of the wealthier states of India, a terrible massacre of Muslims took place there officially inspired by the ruling Hindu party. Rajeev went to look for himself. He met reasonably well-off Hindu families who clearly supported what can only be described as mass terrorism. Instead of denouncing them with the easy rhetoric of evil – itself, of course, the language of religious extremism – Rajeev seeks to understand the process whereby this behaviour is human.

Rajeev confronts the rise of religious terrorism. He sees the way it is connected to globalisation – but has nothing whatever to do with the particular influence of American policy.

Be in no doubt. While the threat of war on Iraq presents the most acute crisis, the risk that the whole of India and Pakistan will be consumed by sectarianism presents a much graver one. Thanks to nuclear weapons, the destruction of secularism and the rule of law in south Asia (and already it barely exists in Pakistan) could ensure mayhem that will leave few corners untouched.

We are not saying that the truth only resides with the poor, the oppressed and the outsiders. Such a view is as much a tribal romanticism as the belief among the glamorous that only the rich and powerful know the score. Truth resides in the relationships between people: rich and poor, powerful and powerless.

American supremacism and Iraq

To return to the immediate question of Iraq, we have just added articles for and against intervention from influential, pro- and anti-Bush think tanks in Washington: John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation and John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Having said that each of us will be deciding what we think, here is my personal view.

I am against an American or US-British invasion of Iraq, even though I think it could prove relatively easy to overthrow Saddam and even though I believe it to be entirely justified to do so given the criminal nature of his regime.

For this is not what it is about. As I have tried to say, if the world is to enjoy a peaceful future we need to respect the judgments of fellow humans everywhere. There is little evidence that such an understanding has reached the present incumbents of the White House. They neither represent nor, it seems to me, do they seek, justice.

Rather, there is something about those around President Bush such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney which make me believe that their attitude towards non-Americans is: ‘pity’. They do not seem to be able to grasp what it is like to be a non-American who does not want to be an American. They do not comprehend the need to respect those who are different from themselves. Now their foreign policy threatens to institutionalise this prejudice on a world scale.

Take the example of Senate majority leader Trent Lott’s endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 call for racial segregation – at the happy occasion of the latter’s 100th birthday party. After a public row, he has apologised. But from the pictures of the event, it seems that the speech took place in the cheerful company of President Bush as well as Cheney. Did they refuse to applaud Lott’s speech? Did they lead the opposition to his callous nostalgia? Did they, hell.

What does this have to do with Iraq? Lott’s remarks drew upon an atmosphere that is not so much narrowly racist as injured triumphalism. US assumptions of supremacy abroad draw succour from the history of supremacism at home – and macho unilateralism with respect to the rest of the world rekindles latent beliefs of indigenous superiority.

This is why I think we would be wise to fear the effect of a US victory in Iraq on the government of the United States.

Planning for the aftermath

In March 1999 the Americans successfully attacked Serbia to prevent the ethnic cleansing and domination of Kosovo. The attack was illegal. Personally, I supported it (although not the way it was carried out) because if the world’s legal system is incapable of preventing a crime against humanity, then it is the legal system which is in the wrong.

Last year when the United States went into Afghanistan to dismantle al-Qaida and topple the Taliban, Susan Richards and I recognised the necessity of such action. We thought it could well prove to be swift and successful – I had followed closely the collapse of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which was a similar kind of regime. But we also explicitly warned against triumphalism. The need to intervene was, we argued, a defeat for western powers that had played such a part in the creation of the Afghan disaster and the fundamentalism it harboured: it had to be seen as such by those who carried it out.

It wasn’t.

Instead, we got a hyper-triumphalist global policy tabbing an ‘Axis of Evil’ that now, we have been told, gives the United States the right to initiate ‘pre-emptive’ wars and initiate a nuclear first strike against any user of chemical weapons. This is a formula for disaster. It is aimed at Iran, from where Wendell Steavenson’s compelling new column provides a vivid picture of why this is not a terror state. It assumes a domination that cannot last more than a generation. Pre-emption as articulated by President Bush will become a permission to others. The doctrine should be strongly opposed and the war on Iraq is its first expression.

Kosovo was triggered by Milosevic. Afghanistan was triggered by bin Laden. Iraq is being triggered by Bush not Saddam. The latter’s remaining weapons of mass destruction present no immediate threat, especially with the inspectors in the country. A war against it will not be a humanitarian intervention, even though a great humanitarian good may come of it in Iraq itself. Nor is it being motivated by a desire to turn the Middle East into a cradle for democracy – as Washington’s ‘Wilsonians of the Right’ (after President Wilson who tried to bring democracy to Europe in 1919) are projecting.

We have the will and the means to crush terrorism. And by ‘we’ I mean the publics who live in democracies with legally constituted governments overseen by elected leaders. The final defeat of terrorism calls for those who now sympathise with it to defect to democracy. How can this be our appeal when the United States holds prisoners in long-term extra-territorial camps with no due process, announces that it is drawing up lists of individuals it will assassinate and debates the use of torture? A war on Iraq, if it comes, will be an expression of this politics, emancipating Iraqis from Saddam at the risk of undermining international democracy for the rest of us.

The ‘Wilsonian’ justification for war may, however, provide a route for opposition to Bush’s strategy, if and when Saddam has been successfully overthrown. This will be the time to call in every possible way for democracy inside and around Iraq. Not least for the Palestinians. Here is the point of agreement between Faleh and Yasser: an American dictatorship must not be allowed to replace Saddam’s.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData