No to war, no to Saddam

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 February 2003

The wanton, reckless, pre-emptive attitude of the Bush administration has generated the case for the protest movement, but by not calling for the overthrow of Saddam, the peace movement makes him an ally.

On 15 February 2003 millions around the world will protest against the threat of a US war on Iraq. They will participate in some of the biggest gatherings held in their various countries and together are likely to form the largest ever combined demonstration of its kind on a single day in history.

Why should so many humanitarian and fair-minded people (there will be some exceptions) want to prevent the overthrow of what is perhaps the most criminal and vile regime to have scarred the face of the planet since 1945?

This is the question which pro-war supporters such as Tom McLaughlin should ponder. Writing from California, he has taken the time to criticise my opposition to the war, which I appreciate, even though his tone, full of dismissive contempt, saddens me.

I was an opponent of the Hussein regime before the George Bushes. I welcome focused intervention against his regime. Putting a stop to Saddam, to his arms and government should be a priority for the international community. Any peace movement worth its salt will do everything possible to free the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein.

But the war now threatened is something different. I was talking the other day to a not very political 18-year-old. She did not agree with her boyfriend who is a pacifist, nor had she taken interest in the anti-war movement to date. Rather she knew Saddam to be a very bad man. But now she thought she would join the demonstration on the 15th. Why?

Because in her view America’s leaders seem to ‘want a war’ and this is wrong.

This in a sentence is the perception that has fuelled opposition outside and within America. ‘Our’ side are supposed to be the guardians against aggression. It is insupportable that we should be the citizens of states who wilfully make war when all other means have not been exhausted.

The American administration will say it does not ‘want’ a war. It blames Saddam for refusing to shoot himself in the head (rather than other people, as he seems personally to have done quite often). I’ll be delighted if and when he changes his mind.

In the meantime, the question of what is to be done about him is our responsibility not his – and by ‘our’ I mean all those who want to see a just and peaceful world free of terror – including George W. Bush, who in August last year leant forward and told Bob Woodward: ‘I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals, there is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace.’

Woodward was given unique access to write his semi-official account, Bush at War, which tells the story of the inner councils of the administration after 9/11.

At the National Security Council meeting in Washington the day after the massacres at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked, ‘Why shouldn’t we go against Iraq, not just al-Qaida?’ This was not a question about weapons of mass destruction or Iraq giving succour to terrorists, it was about using the opportunity to escalate and get Saddam. Bush decided he would focus on Afghanistan first.

In itself, any opportunity to remove Saddam should be a good opportunity. However, after Afghanistan he became the priority target not because of what he does to his own people, or because of what he threatens to become if he obtains more biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Both the humanitarian realities and the military potential could justify, in my view, a legitimate use of force against him as a last resort. And both are being used to justify the present mobilisation now in its final weeks.

But is either the prime reason for the war that is on offer? The Bush administration has been relatively clear about its overall strategy. The attack on Iraq is intended as the next step in a general war against evil countries, not least Iran. It is a staging-post in a larger escalation to ensure US predominance, as it seeks to inscribe its now vulnerable economic supremacy in a military script the entire world must learn to read and follow. A Roman peace.

Could it also be a Greek democracy? No one, as I have argued, should oppose the war without reading or listening to Iraqis who are desperate for Saddam to go. If US strategy started and stopped at Iraq, I might be convinced to support it (see an earlier article).

But the liberation of Iraq will not be a good end arrived at by bad means. Rather it will itself be the means to a larger end: the projection of America’s self-given right to pre-emptive assault upon any state or society of its choosing unrestrained by law. This cannot be justified by benefits achieved on the way.

A democratic Arabia, then? This is the prospect Richard Perle, chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, holds out as something that will follow from the re-creation of Iraq’s parliament under a temporary American pro-consul.

Let’s not scoff at this. Why should anyone prejudge the skill of the Iraqis as they emerge into the sun? But a strategy for a democratic Middle East must include the West Bank from the start. There has been no American effort to ensure a Palestinian state, equivalent to its determination to change the regime in Iraq. If the United States was indeed engaged in a policy of persuasion (and persuasion is the starting point for democracy), it would acknowledge the need to place Palestine at the centre of the political development of the Middle East (which at least Tony Blair has done).

Woodward ends his account with a description of a ceremony conducted by men from six special force and CIA paramilitary teams in Afghanistan, as they dedicated a memorial to those who died on 11 September 2001. He quotes their words as his conclusion to Bush at War: ‘We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defence of our great nation.’

Thank you for that.

The case for opposition is clear. There is an urge to war by the US administration, regardless of international law and the United Nations. The wanton, reckless, pre-emptive attitude of the Bush administration has generated the case for the protest movement.

But there is also a danger of the peace movement becoming as empty-headed and prejudiced as the Bush administration.

The Stop the War Coalition, at least in the UK, seems to be led by those who would regard a swift overthrow of Saddam Hussein as itself being a defeat. In which case, any peace movement will be silenced just when it will most be needed.

For while the most immediate reason to oppose the war is the possibility of terrible casualties and escalation within and outside Iraq, what if the war goes well and Saddam is swiftly eliminated and his torture chambers exposed for all to see? Would it then be wrong to have opposed action?

I think not, because the likelihood is that the US will use such a success to build further Middle East bases, backing Sharon and targeting Iran and being drawn deeper into an unsustainable exercise in regional supremacy. It is this – the Axis of Evil strategy – which represents true madness, not America’s immediate objective in Iraq. How can a peace movement confront such US ambitions after a successful war if it is not ready beforehand to work with the Iraqi people for their freedom?

The language of peace needs long-term persuasive argument not evasive rhetoric. There has to be a politics of peace that is grounded in realism as well as humanity.

Instead, all too often, the purist tirades of anti-Americanism are the twin of the spin it denounces in professional politicians. Both are exercises in attitudinising. Neither is committed to an honest engagement with realities. In its leaflet calling on everyone to join the demonstration on 15 February, the British Stop the War Coalition headlines DON’T ATTACK IRAQ then adds ‘Freedom for Palestine’. But not ‘Freedom for Iraqis’.

In an article in this update of openDemocracy, Mary Kaldor (along with Edward Thompson the co-founder of END – the movement that worked for European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s) argues the case with all the distinction of her experience. A peace movement for Iraq has to work in alliance with the Iraqi opposition, not just denounce the American state. It has to engage with intelligent Americans who support war from their own perspectives. It has to win an argument as well as embody a protest.

The Bush administration may be a rogue power, as Kaldor claims, but she also sees that the enemy of such an enemy is not an ally. We must choose our own friends and not have them decided for us by the American government.

By not calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the peace movement makes him its ally. This is insupportable. It must oppose – really, actually oppose – Baghdad as well as Washington. Of the two, Hussein is far worse than Bush, even if the latter is far more powerful and is currently on the warpath. Opposition to his war is only worthy of the name of peace if it too works to eliminate Saddam Hussein. This is the condition for a principled and sustainable opposition to the White House strategy.

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