Six problems with Sarah Ditum’s article about Iraq and the left

Sarah Ditum misrepresents the left and the case against the Iraq war.

David Wearing
2 September 2015
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A US soldier and a burning oil well - Iraq, 2003. Wikimedia.

The general airing of differences within the left over the past month has probably been a healthy (if sometimes fraught) experience overall. In that spirit, I wanted to engage with Sarah Ditum’s recent New Statesman article about Iraq and the British left. In summary, her argument is that a sense of being vindicated over Iraq led parts of the left to be satisfied with the superiority of being right, however powerless and impotent, and that this manifests itself now in support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership bid. Here are the six problems that I perceive in her piece.

War is the absolute last resort, not a proactive policy tool

Ditum says that “....the case for war was bad, and rushed. But there was a case for war – maybe a sufficient one, maybe not, but a better one than 45 minutes. Saddam Hussein was monstrous. He killed and killed and killed”.

A case for war for regime change would not have a legal basis, and would set a very dangerous precedent. One of the most alarming aspects of the George W. Bush administration was its willingness to discard international norms, treaties and institutions, and to use war not as a last defensive resort but a proactive policy tool. If it had been able to pursue this approach as far as it wanted, the resulting global arms race alone would have sharply increased the risk of major conflicts, not to mention the destructive effects of the wars-of-choice themselves (Syria and Iran were lined up as the next targets).

What the specific experience of Iraq demonstrated is that war is not something that can be deployed in a controlled way. It is a force of nature which, once released, will burn ahead according to its own remorseless logic. The conquest of Iraq prompted armed resistance (quite predictably) from both Sunni and Shia groups, which then mutated into a sectarian bloodbath as those groups turned on each other to fight for control of the country. That conflict has continued in various configurations up to the present day.

Bush and Tony Blair thought that a war-of-choice could remake Iraq according to their wishes. They succeeded only in replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime with an even more deadly state of affairs. Thirteen years on, the conflict they triggered continues to consume the country and destabilise the region. Bottom line: the consequences of the war could never be boiled down simply to whether Saddam remained or was overthrown. They were far more complex and wide-ranging.

The occupiers were not a benign force that merely made mistakes

The suggestion that the American and British states were potential humanitarian liberators of Iraq is a highly problematic one. London and Washington opportunistically supported Saddam through the Iran-Iraq War and the Kurdish genocide, only turning on him when he made the miscalculation of invading Kuwait. The sanctions regime they maintained after the 1991 Gulf War caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, disproportionately children (a price that was “worth it”, according to Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State). Aside from Iraq, the UK and US have a consistent record of backing monstrous regimes engaged in mass killing across the Middle East (see Yemen today). They are, to say the least, implausible candidates for saviours of the Iraqi people.

This was borne out in the conduct of the occupation itself, not just in the nightmarish abuses uncovered in Abu Ghraib prison, but in the savage counter-insurgency war that laid waste to the city of Fallujah and did so much to fuel the post-Saddam conflict. One unnamed senior officer in the British army told the Telegraph in 2004 that US troops basically regarded the Iraqis as “untermenschen”. This shouldn’t surprise us – chauvinism and dehumanisation are normal aspects of imperial wars.

The occupation’s aims were incompatible with a democratic, peaceful Iraq

Ditum says “....what was done was done badly is bloodily, horribly obvious that the plan for post-invasion Iraq was barely thought out….It would have been better… to divert political energies from stopping the war (or being right that the war should never have started) and into building a plan for Iraq after Saddam.”

The plan for post-Saddam Iraq was a weak new government subordinate to Washington, willing to host permanent American military bases and re-open the Iraqi oil industry to Western firms. There was no way the Iraqi people could be taken down such a route on a truly consensual and democratic basis, the alternative to which was coercion, which begat resistance, which unleashed conflict. I’ve written previously for openDemocracy on the various ways in which the occupiers sought to subvert Iraqi sovereignty and defy the popular will in pursuit of their strategic goals. However carefully planned, that was never going to end well.

Ditum is certainly right to say that lack of competence and preparation played their part. But the principle destructive factors – military conquest, counter-insurgency, subversion of sovereignty, and neo-liberal shock therapy – were deliberate, intrinsic parts of the Anglo-American project. This was not a liberation gone wrong, but a failed conquest. And the reasons for the failure were inherent to the nature of conquest itself: violence, domination, and disregard for human life.

Israel-Palestine can’t be dealt with in parenthesis

Ditum says, “(An aside: over ten years later, I am very sure that if you "question" the existence of Israel, a state that has given refuge to a universally persecuted people, you are in fact an anti-Semite)”.

The case for a refuge for the Jewish people hardly needs to be made. History does that for us. The problem is that the land earmarked for that refuge was already home to a people who rejected what they saw as their usurpation. Bringing Israel into existence then involved the violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, creating a stateless population that stands at seven million today.

To question whether Jewish security and self-determination should have come at this horrific price is simply to acknowledge the equal humanity of the Palestinians, and to think about how both peoples’ rights might otherwise have been honoured. To advocate today, as many on the left do, a single, bi-national state for Jews and Arabs, with security and democracy for all, is a respectable and legitimate position to take (though not one I hold myself). Clearly such a state would neither be called Israel, nor be Israel as we know it. But it would, crucially, recognise and protect the equal rights and needs of both Jewish and Palestinian populations.

Ditum is right to warn against anti-semitism rearing its head in these debates, but wrong to seemingly overlook the fact that there are two peoples involved in this issue, and to preclude legitimate questions over how their competing claims can be reconciled so that both are treated fairly.

To be on the left is to fight against the odds

Ditum says that “my being right helped no one, ameliorated no violence, saved no lives. Or rather, it helped one person, meaning me – helped by giving my world a gleaming sense of right and wrong”.

Anti-war protests, tragically, did not prevent the invasion. But they did play their part, along with other factors, in considerably raising the costs to Western politicians of waging aggressive wars in the future. In this sense, they may well have helped to save lives. Barack Obama is currently rallying support for diplomacy with Iran by contrasting it with the discredited warmongering of his predecessor. Blair’s trashed reputation stands as a warning to any future Prime Minister considering following in his footsteps. All this contributes in some degree to making the world a safer place. It’s not enough, but it matters.

Questions of effectiveness also arise in the debate around the Corbyn campaign. To be on the left is by definition to challenge power (military, state, class, racist, patriarchal…), which is by definition to fight battles we’re likely to use. The reason we fight those battles irrespective of the odds is not because we don’t care about losing. We fight them, focusing on the small chance we might prevail, because to do otherwise would be unconscionable.

Ditum’s picture of the left doesn’t match my experience

Ditum’s comments are aimed at “the part of the left that felt generally alienated by New Labour”, which in fairness is quite a broad category. Aside from her general point about people who enjoy being right, she doesn’t give any more specific references, other than to “rape apologist Assange supporters”, anti-semites, those who tolerate anti-semitism, and a group called Media Lens. She highlights several real problems here, but she also tars a lot of people with a very broad brush.

When George Galloway made his wretched remarks about the Assange case he was immediately condemned by people such as Salma Yaqoob and former CND chief Kate Hudson. Owen Jones has written forcefully about the evident need to redouble our efforts to confront anti-semites whenever they try to latch on to the pro-Palestinian cause. Media Lens have a vocal, dedicated following, and also a long record of alienating potential allies with their purity tests and aggressive oversimplifications. I personally know hardly anyone on the anti-war left who takes them seriously.

I’m not here to exonerate my section of the left. It certainly has its idiots, and worse. But I do have to point out that they are vastly outnumbered by people who could not be more different to what Ditum describes. The overwhelming majority of those I’ve encountered and worked with over many years of activism have been amongst the kindest, most thoughtful and conscientious people that it’s been my privilege to know. They are driven, not by a self-indulgent desire to be right, but by empathy for their fellow human beings, even those they may never meet face-to-face. They work hard, intelligently and creatively, year after year, making many personal sacrifices on the way – all with a determination to make as much difference as they can, no matter how formidable the odds stacked against them.

Next week, Campaign Against Arms Trade – an organisation I’ve been lucky enough to become involved with recently – is demonstrating against one of the world’s largest arms fairs, in London’s docklands. The aim is to challenge those whose business it is to create the Iraqs of the future, and Sarah – you are very welcome to come along and join in. I think you’ll find an anti-militarist left quite different from the one you describe, and maybe even one that you’d like to become a part of.

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