Shocked but not Awed – openDemocracy and Iraq


Soon after it started openDemocracy was plunged into the war on terror and the preparations for the Iraq war. They defined its editorial approach. oD's founding editor looks back to argue that so much more remains to be done.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 March 2013

What matters is less knowing what you think than being able to think well. openDemocracy started to learn how to do this when 9/11 happened leading into the Iraq war. They became our baptismal waters, less than four months after we launched. Unprepared and underfunded we should have drowned in them. Instead, we lived through these extreme events with passion, fury, commitment and many differences, but without prejudice. Perhaps because we shared a sense of tragedy and suspicion of triumphalism we got it right, in the way that Tony Curzon Price, reading us in San Francisco recognises in a powerful, personal memoir, how he got it wrong.

What we created was an editorial space rather than a line. Today, there is a new fight to keep it open. I’d like you to give 50 or 100 dollars, pounds or euros to the new generation taking up openDemocracy, please give it now, if you have not done so already. There is nothing else like openDemocracy and no one else has covered the invasion of Iraq in the way we did. Alas, the journey we took then stretches ahead of us still and I have been asked to take you on a few of those steps as an encouragement – let’s keep it going!

We saw the invasion coming clearly and very early, especially Paul Rogers.

“Given the hard-line nature of President Bush’s international security community... it is highly likely that more attention will now be given to the possibility of taking action against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad”.

That was November 2001, as the US began to gain the upper hand in Afghanistan – with cool irony the piece was headlined Breakthrough – to a broader war?

I won’t go through the extraordinary international coverage of 9/11 but less than a month later we had to respond to the conquest of Afghanistan. Paul Rogers realised it was doomed to fail. Others of us felt that the international coalition was justified in taking action. Susan Richards and I published Being Open to Surprise on 8 October 2001 noting,

"Just as essential as victory over the Taliban and bin Laden… is the need for atonement for the actions which allowed them to flourish. The successes which ended the Cold War were accompanied by a triumphalist hubris. Afghanistan is the price of all this."

Susan and I convinced ourselves that the Bush administration was capable of being intelligent, despite all of the stupidities we listed. Looking back I can see we projected our desire that we at least should be intelligent and that this involves emotional intelligence as well, hence the call for “atonement”. The openDemocracy approach: be honest, engaged, welcome argument and come to a judgment based on a process of passion and reason, was set then. Three years later I tried to live up to it when Saddam Hussein was captured and I argued that he should not be executed Inside Saddam’s mouth

Saddam's mouth.png









Our approach meant that we really debated the war. Above all we hosted Iraqis arguing over whether or not to support an invasion. In an Editor’s note, From Vietnam to Iraq, I observed that in the 1960s there had never been any such debate between Vietnamese hosted in the West. We carried John Hulsman, an American then at Washington’s Heritage Foundation, in support of the war, denouncing the German Chancellor Schroeder and John Cavanagh of Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies, calmly setting out the case against. Later we ran my friend Reinhard Hesse’s call for a European peace policy towards the Middle East: he was Schroeder’s speech writer. oD Co-Founder Paul Hilder, now with Change.org, spelt out the debate with painful clarity, “To liberate,” we ask, “or to conquer?”. Paul Hirst took on Philip Bobbit, the most fluent advocate of US intervention, while Todd Gitlin wrote a devastating analysis of the Bush administration’s manifesto of 17 September, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America

“This sweeping declaration of defence and offence, martial intent and free trade, ideas of war and ‘a war of ideas’, is ill–argued, empty, hypocritical and dangerous – but that’s not all that’s wrong with it.”

Important for me was running a strong piece by Christopher Hitchens ‘Wake Up Peaceniks’, that I edited with his agreement for a world audience: 

“The United States is now at war with the forces of reaction. Nobody is entitled to view this battle as a spectator”

he insisted. A masterly response to him by Steven Lukes asked,

“Why does Hitchens persist in identifying the growing anti-war movement with the small sectarian left?”

Lukes showed how he had carefully come to the view that the war would be wrong. Hitchens boasted that he always responded to criticism, but in this case and despite my requests he could not find the time to do so. I always believed that he could not in fact find the arguments to do so when deprived of ad-hominem ammunition.

By then I had come to my own 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… the present incumbents of the White House..  neither represent nor do they seek, justice.”

And I was happy to organise a huge number of well known writers and artists to contribute to a forum that opened with John le Carré’s A Predatory and Dishonest War

In March, on the eve of the invasion, I had to go to New York. En route I gave the go ahead to two articles we had prepared but held back until it took place, by leading advocates of cosmopolitanism and humanitarian intervention, Mary Kaldor 

“The war in Iraq serves the interests of a US power elite rather than democracy and global justice.”

And David Held,

"Wrong war. Wrong reasoning. Wrong priorities. Wrong timing. The war against Iraq is worse than reaching a dead end in geopolitical affairs; it is in danger of dragging us back to a pre-legal order and a deeply uncivil international society."

When I got to New York I joined Todd on a demonstration. My daughter Tamara was already on the streets of London and sent a text from the throng:

Best banner: ‘Shocked but not Awed’.

I felt it caught my thinking exactly. By then Paul Rogers had come into his own, defining a cool tone of justified alarm and steady military and strategic analysis of an invasion - one he had long predicted would spread jihadist fundamentalism.

We had not taken much notice of claims about WMD, regarding them as contrived, but I was astonished to learn in a passing remark of José Bustani, then Brazil’s ambassador to London, who came to speak to us, of Ron Manley. Manley, he said, had worked for him at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which Bustani headed until the Americans forced him out. He said that Manley has overseen the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons in Iraq after 1991 and knew more about the situation there in terms of their chemical weapon capacity than anyone else in the world including Iraqis. This led to the long interview with Ron Manley Caspar Henderson and I did with him in July 2003. With the careful exactness of a Cornishman he told us,

"My view has been all along that they didn’t retain any militarily significant quantities of chemical weapons."

He explains why. The most revealing thing for me (apart from the dangers of handling toxic weaponry) was that although he was still attached to the Ministry of Defence no one asked him for his intelligence. It only needed Blair to say, “Who do we British have who knows about the capacity of Saddam’s weapon builders?” for Manley to have been identified. The cynicism of such wilful ignorance became shocking when it is so vividly confirmed.

There was much else. I’ll just mention three more ways we covered the war after it began, concluding with the most important and dramatic. We looked at the ideas behind it, and Danny Postel with typical intellectual generosity even asked if there was a philosophy behind Bushism, as well as tracking Fukuyama’s split from neo-liberalism.

From Iraq itself where we sought first hand accounts, Jo Wilding sent us Inside the Fire as she witnessed the US assault on Fallujah in April 2004.

But the most terrible moment came in August 2003. Gil Loescher and Arthur Helton had been writing a column for us on refugees and displaced people and they were deeply concerned with the likely human consequences of invading Iraq. They went to conduct on-the-spot interviews. After seeing Paul Bremer, whom Bush had put in charge of Iraq and who assured them that the security situation “is under control now”, they went to visit their friend Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy at his Baghdad headquarters. As they sat down with him it was blown up in a massive suicide attack that heralded the start of the insurgency. Sergio and Arthur were killed along with 22 others while Gil survived, losing both his legs. I was not going to die in the rubble was his immediate account of the disaster, followed by a further reflection one year later. We also showed an incredibly good film of Gil’s battle to recuperate and the impact on his family by his daughter Margaret Loescher Pulled from the Rubble.

The last words then can go to Arthur and Gil in the final column they wrote together as they were setting out for Bagdad

Is the Coalition winning the peace in Iraq? This question, on the minds of many American and British officials and citizens, as well as others around the world, has been the subject of numerous commentaries and recent studies by think-tanks and advocacy groups. To begin to answer this question, the next few issues of our openDemocracy humanitarian monitor will be based on our visit to Iraq in late August 2003.

Their humanitarian monitor was never written again. In a way this is what openDemocracy itself has become. Support it, you will never know when you are going to need it.

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