It is 1941. You are a wartime activist in the British Labour Party who has long opposed your country's imperial policies. There is news of a coup in Baghdad led by one Rashid Ali. The takeover is welcomed by Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the exiled Palestinian leader. Its supporters denounce imperialism, extol the Palestinian cause and…seek an alliance with Germany.
Your prime minister, a conservative, is the same Winston Churchill who - as colonial secretary, two decades earlier - helped to fashion Iraq's monarchy. Now he wants to dispatch troops to Iraq.
You decide to support this action. Why? Because you are anti-fascist before you are anti-imperialist. The 1930s taught you that there is a left that learns and a left that doesn't. You belong to the former, and refuse to respond to difficult conditions by easy resort to catchwords like "imperialism".
You are, then, relieved when British troops impose a regime change. But before order is restored, there is a pogrom against Baghdad's Jews. You are disgusted when Arab nationalists say that "Zionism" was really to blame, and unsurprised that Rashid Ali and Hajj Amin flee to Berlin.
I don't evoke this episode to propose its precise correspondence to today's crisis. But if an American social democrat, which is what I am, has anything to learn from the earlier judgment of his British colleague it is this: it is perilous to invent politically comfortable choices and then define the world according to them. That is what today's "antiwar" movements are doing. I, too, opposed Washington on Kyoto and the ICC, but I find absurd the attempts to make everything Saddam Hussein does the fault of George Bush. I applaud Tony Blair for resisting these undertows.
Why, Noam Chomsky and friends, was Baghdad willing to forgo an estimated $150 billion in oil earnings rather than disarm? There is indeed a smoking gun: Saddam's dictatorship itself, a pathological regime combining extraordinary brutality and relentless deceit. It breaks every major accord it reaches - with Iran, Kuwait, Iraqi Communists, Iraqi Shi'a, Iraqi Kurds, and finally, the UN. No weapons inspection process dependent on this regime's cooperation can succeed.
My miserable conclusion is clear: unless there is a coup, the options are not "war or peace", but the use of force "sooner or later". Of course, every sensible effort ought always to be made to thwart war. But the pacifists and Leninists of the 1930s who saw the contest between western democracies and Nazi Germany as an imperial one of the pre-1914 type were not "sensible". Nor, today, are those who would, in effect, allow Baghdad to sequester its toxic capacities for later use - when the human costs of stopping Saddam will be far greater. I am wary of "pre-emptive" wars, but they are legitimate in abnormal cases. I want Security Council sanction of action against Saddam, but it is time for frankness about the UN's failures - no inspectors would have returned to Iraq without the threat of American force - and to begin to think about how the UN can be made into an effective institution with real integrity.
I support Iraqi democrats, however difficult their prospects. Any war over Iraq must, in its aftermath, return the country to its own people. In this, I am "antiwar" in a deeper meaning, one that my 1941 predecessor would have understood: I am against the wars Saddam wages against Iraqis, has waged against his neighbours, and will wage in the future.
© Mitchell Cohen 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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