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Friday, October 08, 2004


Stop the War (withdraw the troops?)

I attended a Stop the War meeting yesterday evening. Unfortunately the film ‘Why War?’ was not shown for what we might charitably describe as technical reasons, but the talks went ahead nevertheless. The effective cancellation of the 53 minute film gave the audience the benefit of a longer discussion. I might not have felt like a benefit in the heated, chaotic points of the debate, but public meetings should be just that - meetings of people. I have to agree with what Tony Benn said when I saw him speak in York just before the start of the War in Iraq, that public meetings are an important part of democracy, that allow people to take an active part in the debate, rather than simply participate as a passive recipient of information.

The speakers were Huw Williams and Ehab Bessaiso.

Huw Williams is a UNISON shop steward and was number two on the RESPECT list during the recent European Elections. He, quite forcefully, lay out the argument that the US and UK forces in Iraq were an occupying force, and, seen in this light the resistance against such forces is justified.

In my mind, the argument against this case, when not couched in national exceptionalism, of which I can have no truck, is that the motives of the resistance, or terrorists, if you will, are malignant. But if we are to subject the use of force to a test of motives, then we must subject our own soldiers and their commanders to the same examination. And I have always found the leaders of this war wanting. It is hard to believe that men such as Rumsfeld (Special Presidential Envoy to the Middle East 1983-1984) and Cheney, (Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee from 1981-1987) are interested in democracy and freedom for Iraqis any more than they were during the years of a US-allied Saddam. Perhaps they can argue that such an alliance was borne out of the realpolitik of the Reagan-heated Cold War. But an excuse of that kind is easier for Saddam to use (as the ruler of a country of strategic importance, with belligerent neighbours and an ethnically diverse population, repression makes for sensible survival politics) than it does for Rumsfeld and Cheney (members of the government of a superpower, given its power, can choose its friends and exert influence over allies of convenience). That Saddam cannot use the excuse of realpolitik, that he is to be held culpable for the crimes of his regime, drags Rumsfeld and Cheney into the sphere of responsibility. Of course as a last resort we might argue that these men have changed, that they are now fit to lead a war for freedom. But then so might Saddam.

I am surprised that there was no mention of the installation of John Negroponte [and here] as US Ambassador to Iraq. Given this man’s record in a previous ambassadorial role, in Honduras, I would argue that this is the ‘smoking gun’ that implicates the US (and the UK) as villains in a war that quite clearly wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction, admittedly wasn’t about terrorism, and now, with Negroponte in charge, certainly is not a war for freedom and democracy, except in the most perverted senses. A lot of breath was expended discussing interim Prime Minister Allawi, who may very well be a former Ba’athist, a CIA-funded international terrorist and a US puppet premier. As the last accusation implies, it is not his qualities that are all that important. It is Negroponte and his record that we should turn our attention, and the eyes of our democratic leaders, to.

Ehab Bessaiso, the second speaker, a writer born in Gaza, attempted to connect the three conflicts, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and Israel-Palestine. When he was speaking about the US-support of Saddam he was interrupted (by ‘the suit’, an incongruous sight at a meeting of lefties) and asked whether a current government is allowed to make a different decision to that of its predecessor. This caused the meeting to descended into a minor spell of chaos, where the questioner continued to ask Ehab Bassaiso questions, while other people tried with increasing frustration to point out that there was a time for questions at the end.

But it was, for reasons that I have pointed out above, a moot question. This is not a different US government from the one that supported Saddam. This is not even simply a government ideologically descended from the one that supported Saddam. This is a government composed of many of the same people who supported Saddam. Even if this were not the case, moral outrage at the actions of Saddam in the 1980s would first have to been turned upon the accomplices and facilitators of these crimes within our own societies before we could consider launching a murderous, destructive war.

The second spell of chaos came when a member of the audience demanded to know what the speakers thought was the alternative to war. He argued that sanctions had been tried, and had not worked. Various people argued that we should have supported the Iraqi people in making democracy themselves. This was pointed out to be a vague suggestion, but some people proposed that sanctions could have been raised. I pointed out that in the vast majority of the dealings the US and UK has with dictatorial regimes the public-facing rationale for dealing (and trading) with such unsavoury governments is that this process makes the people of the country more prosperous, building a strong middle-class that is freed from the day-to-day concerns of survival, able to demand greater civil and social liberties. I pointed out that this was not necessarily my opinion of the effects such policies have on national development, nor did I believe that the public-facing rationale is an accurate indicator of the private rationale behind these strategies. But I did point out that this demonstrates an inconsistency that demands explanation.

On of the people who argued that sanctions could have been lifted was an Iraqi exile who had been in the Army during the 1991 Gulf War. Speaking of another method of deposing Saddam, he told a story of having his gun taken off him by American and French soldiers, who promised him that (1991) Coalition troops were in Baghdad and that Saddam was overthrown. Leaving the soldiers armed would have been the best chance for the Iraqi people to oust Saddam, he argued.

The question, ‘what was the alternative to war?’ returned again. I tried to point out that this question presumed that war was the default option, and that unless an alternative plan, conceived down to the last detail was presented, the tanks would roll and the bombs would drop. But of course, it must be the other way round, and war should be the option of last resort. For war to go ahead, a plan, conceived down to the last detail, must be presented, laying out what will be achieved and at what cost. No such plan was publicly presented, nor privately conceived, as has become apparent. Indeed, the only goals that were stated were vague, nebulous claims of using Iraq to democratise the Middle-East through a domino effect, making suggestions that we should have ‘supported the people of Iraq’ seem like a carefully plotted master-plan.

Ehab Bessaiso was then asked if he supported military intervention in other examples of human rights abuses. He said that he did not understand the question, but the questioner, and several other audience members accused him of dodging the question. I felt that he was wary of falling into a trap – that if he supported intervention in say, Rwanda, he must therefore support military intervention in Iraq. Of course, this does not follow, but I can understand his caution. He began to argue that no war could be justified, when his questioner then argued that in that case the Nazis would not have been resisted. This led to calls from the audience pointing out that Hitler’s justification was the pre-emption of a threat, and that there is a difference between a war of self-defence and a war of aggression. Nevertheless, I felt that the best response to the questioner would have been, yes, I can envisage supporting military intervention, and might have done in the examples cited. But in the case of the War in Iraq, the intervention that I was being asked to support was not being carried out with good (I am not asking for pure) intent, and was not an appropriate response to the current situation. Responding to Halabja cannot be an immediate and sudden cause of war fifteen years after the event, certainly not when the act in question was not condemned (and condemnation was actively obstructed) by the current aggressor nations at the time.

Huw Edwards and Ehab Bessaiso concluded by calling for the withdrawal of the occupying troops. They responded to suggestions that the troops were there to reconstruct Iraq and defend Iraqi civilians by pointing out that the current carnage in Iraq hardly supports the idea that they will be able to do so, and that there presence actively prolongs the misery of the post-Saddam era. I am increasingly drawn to this view, increasingly so now the US has laid its cards on the table and appointed John Negroponte as the man to bring Iraq to heel. I do not go so far as supporting the Iraqi resistance, as some at the meeting did, for the same reason that I did not support the US-led invasion. The only option is not to choose the lesser of two evils. It was not then and it is not now. With regard to the Iraqi resistance I say, ‘not in my name’, but to the occupation I say the same.

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