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The axis of ambivalence

President Bush has rallied his troops for what he calls “The first warof the 21st century”. What is your view of this crisis, where, briefly, do you stand? This is the question we are putting to people around the world, especially those with their own public reputation and following. Our aim, to help create a truly global debate all can identify with.
Timothy Garton Ash
6 February 2003

I can’t remember an issue on which I’ve been more torn. The Iraqi desert runs through my living room. I hear friends I love and respect speaking passionately on opposite sides. I find compelling arguments on both sides. And I see motives that I distrust on both sides. Do the Bushies want to intervene because they really care for democracy in Iraq? Hardly. But then, do most of those who demonstrate for peace care about democracy in Iraq? For both, this is mainly about America. America and hopelessly divided old Europe.

‘No to war, no to Saddam’? Listening to the radio with an equally disaffected friend the other day, I heard Chancellor Schröder say: ‘We can disarm Saddam without war.’ Six bold words. But can we? Saddam wouldn’t have let the inspectors back in without the American threat of war. He’s clearly not going to lead Hans Blix to his remaining stocks of anthrax. What self-respecting dictator would? So a Saddam who ‘cooperated fully’ with the inspectors, as Bush and Blair demand, would not be a Saddam. The logic says: to disarm him you must topple him.

But is the danger from Saddam so great that it justifies war? Must we kill innocent people so that innocent people may not be killed? Won’t an American-led war increase the very danger of terrorism it claims to avert? Who, among the warmongers or the peacemongers, is saying: ‘Freedom for Iraq and Freedom for Palestine?’

I know what I wish had happened last September, when the Bush White House, for its own very mixed reasons, pushed Iraq to the top of the world’s to-do list. I wish that all of old Europe, from London to Moscow and from Helsinki to Athens, had got together and said to Washington: ‘We agree that we face a terrible threat, both from international terrorism and from dictators with weapons of mass destruction. We agree that if we want peace we must prepare for war. We agree that after twelve years the resolutions of the United Nations must be enforced on Iraq. But so must they be on Israel! Let’s now work together for the disarmament of Saddam, reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The democratisation of the Middle East is our great common interest. Let this be the new transatlantic project.’

I blame Europeans and Americans equally for the fact this did not happen. I wish we could still get back to it. I fear that it’s too late.

Meanwhile, I take small comfort from the realisation that there are a lot of people out there – necessarily unnoticed in all the media tallies of ‘for and against’ – who feel as divided as I do.

Welcome to the axis of ambivalence.

© Timothy Garton Ash 2003

Originally published as part of a debate on 6th February 2003 Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War: Pt. II

See also Writers, artists and civic leaders on the War: Pt. 1.

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