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Iraq after 10 years

It is the marriage of the intimate knowledge of the particular - the only knowledge the particular is susceptible to, by definition - with a moral compass, that should have guided policy towards Iraq. openDemocracy's debates were my re-schooling.

10 years ago, I was of the party of the invasion. With Roger Scruton, I believed that American interventions would be truly liberal. With Philip Bobbitt, I thought that the geopolitics of the Middle East would be transformed - including the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - after the successful implant of plural democracy in a onetime murderously threatening tyranny. And with David Hayes, I could only look forward eagerly and joyfully to the Iraqi people taking control of their own destiny.

The facts just didn't turn out that way, and all of us who mistakenly imagined these sunny uplands should now ask, if we haven't asked it before, whether our mis-forecast was accidental or fundamental. My conclusion is that it was pretty fundamental, and it is a conclusion that in many ways I owe to openDemocracy's 10 years of debate around this and related questions.

I was living in San Francisco in 2003, and openDemocracy was the way that I kept in touch with the debate that - despite my set views - I knew needed to be had. My neo-connery of the time was met with blank disbelief in the uber-liberal Bay area, not with deliberative engagement. When Christopher Hitchens argued for the war at a meeting in Berkeley, there was only deep division, not conversation. A year after the invasion I remember reading Roger Scruton's piece on the Kantian justification for war. I still basically agreed - though raised a philosophical objection: his retelling of the categorical imperative seemed very contingent and consequentialist to me. And I wondered whether war had not better be seen as a problem of "dirty hands", of moral risk, than of Kantian certainty.

I was already, maybe, feeling that the contingencies on which the case for the invasion was made were looking shaky. By 2005, my sense was not only that this was so, but also that the militarism of the country I was still a guest in was much more sinister than I had imagined possible - that in a whole society, deeply illiberal attitudes to foreigners, to the threat within and without, to might and the right that attends it were taking root - that something had gone very wrong in our response to 9/11. The assumptions on which I had based my initial faith in liberal intervention were not only undermined by the reality in Iraq - they were being undermined by the reality of the supposedly liberal intervener. It was as if the attacker was taking on the shadow of the charactersitics of the attacked.

Around this time I started reading Fred Halliday attentively. Fred's writing, little by little, taught me the importance of understanding politics from the perspective of those whom it most directly touches.  From this flows the need to really understand a context before forming a judgement of it. It is the marriage of the intimate knowledge of the particular - the only knowledge the particular is susceptible to, by definition - with a moral compass, that should have guided policy towards Iraq. 

I had arrived in Silicon Valley just before 9/11 with the Fukuyamian sense that, at the end of history, one might as well be a technology entrepreneur. I left Silicon Valley 4 years later with a sense that history was alive and very much kicking me awake from an agreeable Californian dream. But my a-particular liberalism was shaken, and I didn't know how to piece back together an understanding of the social and political world. openDemocracy's debates - which I now threw myself into - were my re-schooling.

So where does that leave me now, on that turning point of Iraq? Maybe the easiest way for me to think about this is by reading and reflecting on Nick Cohen, someone who has stuck to his guns and not felt the need to re-appraise. For him, Saddam's tyranny put the free world back into the position of confronting Nazism, and appeasement is the position of isolationist egoists or cowardly so-called liberals.

The emotional pull of this argument is undeniable.

But to get from emotion to policy, Nick Cohen needs to make the dreadful aftermath of the invasion - the hundreds of thousands of deaths, many civilian, the insecurity, which Iraqis still live with, the resurgent sectarianism and Islamism ... etc. - he needs to make all of this an accident. It was over-zealous de-Baathification; mismanagement of the lower ranks of Saddam's army; or a general lack of understanding of social and anthropological realities. Nothing intrinsic to the project of imposing pluralism at the barrel of a gun. Something that with a bit more practice, we can get right.

I'm sure he's right that invasions and occupations could be done "better". But I've come to believe that there is one difficulty in the doctrine of liberal intervention that is fundamental and not accidental. Resistance - whichever of its myriad forms it takes, be it sectarian or nationalist or ethnic, be it justified or unjustified, for the good of freedom and humanity or for its ill - takes root wherever people feel violated in the place they call home.  That sense of violation is an inescapable consequence of violence, and is amplified if the perpetrator is an outsider. The hatred and fury engendered by that particular violation is almost impossible to contain. It will last generations. To perpetrate this sort of violation on a large scale is to create social trauma that will have repercussions that are both momentous and incalculable. 

That has to be counted in the consequences of an occupation, however brilliantly executed, however much the Washington wonks have scrubbed up their local anthropology.

That's not an argument to never occupy on liberal-interventionist grounds. But it does mean that a liberal occupation is almost an oxymoronic notion. Occupation will unleash that particularly potent reaction, and it is bound to take the form of a reaction against the notions that first justified the occupation. An advance for freedom it is unlikely to be.

The path to freedom and pluralism is more complicated - and much harder to find - than the easy-interventionist allows for. Today, I would much sooner see the kind of deposition of despots that came from Tahrir Square - with all the dangers democrats in Egypt still face - than from operation Desert Storm. Think of it this way, if you want: desert storm denied Iraqi democrats their own Tahrir Square. And that, I think, will be a glaring chasm in history's twisted paths to liberty.

Nick Cohen is right to keep pointing to the genocidal crime of Saddam against the Kurds at Halabja. And that crime in 1988 might have been a very good reason to support the first Gulf War. And to keep Saddam on the kind of watch that the sanctions and inspectorate regime may have achieved - though one should remember the huge suffering the sanctions caused entirely innocent Iraqis. His tyranny was an excellent reason to support all those who bravely opposed him from within. Even sometimes militarily. When Gadaffi mentioned cockroaches, it was quite properly time to offer protection from the air for Benghazi.

But invasion and occupation is a risky business. As every good risk-taker knows, when a position goes sour, it's better to learn from mistakes than deny and repeat the error.

Even if the desire to oppose national socialism and its appeasement should properly always be with us, so should the dangers of seeing every historical opportunity to invade as a 1939.

 

Here and here - have a look at a selection from our 2003 debate: Iraq war or not?

 

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com


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