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Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Democracy and war

First, let me say this. That the democratic polis of one nation decides, or acquiesces, to the instigation of a war does not, in itself, give that war the barest of justification when people outside that polis are considered. Consider the analogy; an internally democratic revolutionary party agrees after several debates and a series of votes to begin a programme of terrorism to bring about its political goals. This process is entirely democratic – in so far as consideration of the members of the parties goes. It is not democratic externally, as indeed no decisions can be. For people outside the polis (of the party, or the nation) any programme of action (whether war or not) need be justified by reference to features of the action other than the democratic nature of the decision making of the instigators.

Now, let me move on the idea that democracy produces a pacific world. Norman Geras, the resident academic of the ‘decent left’, asks:

“Is it now the case that the Western democracies cannot fight wars unless these are short and very sparing of the lives of their own soldiers? That any war that becomes too long and too costly in these terms will quickly lose support within an electorate whose impulses become more self-centred (in the national sense) the more badly the war goes?”

As I understood it, this was the very principle on which the idea of democratisation as security policy stood; the democratic nations do not go to war easily. If Norm seriously laments this feature of democracies, then is he abandoning this part, this plank central to the ‘project’ of liberal bombing? Or is the idea of democracy bringing peace based on unelucidated mythic thinking?

Norm, it seems, would like to see more bloodthirsty democracies, and in this he hopes to see democracies that would shatter the very principle for which, in public at least, Iraqi lives and bodies have been smashed, splintered and shattered.

In the post from Norm that I have linked to above he argues that there can be no exit from Iraq. I have already pointed out how much of the discourse on this subject is a reheating of the rhetoric of the dog days of colonialism. Even Ann Clwyd – a woman who cries for victims of torture, so long at they were the victims of Saddam, while taking tea with the butchers of Central America – has resorted to this; we must teach Iraqis about human rights. We are, it seems, bringing civilisation to ‘the darkies’ by the force of the gun. All over again.

“Getting behind it - in the sense of actively debating how that battle can now best be fought, previous errors best be corrected and remedied, the expertise and resources of other members of the community of nations most effectively be drawn on, and so forth. A common discourse, in other words, across those who supported and those who opposed the war, and for the sake of common liberal and democratic objectives in Iraq. That would be quite something, no?”

It would, yes. But how can we correct the errors when the errors are inherent in the project. First, we have the problems inherent in the notion of an invasion for democracy. But more, what fool liberal or leftist thought that he or she could unproblematically harness the power of the American state, a state in the hands of people who murdered their way through the Cold War in the name of American power, and put it to work on a humanitarian project? The leftists and liberals held no power but the power of anointment; to legitimate whatever project these right-wing thugs decided upon. The track record of the men the ‘decent left’ ran ‘humanitarian’ cover for should have disbarred them from heading any mission for human rights, much less one operating on the basis of overwhelming firepower. But lo! and behold, one of the worst of a bad lot is appointed to run Iraq, the ‘Salvador Option’ is touted as a solution and imprisonment and torture are facts of life. Couple this with bans of Iraqi trade unions and the privatisation of the wealth of Iraq, and the pressing problem of a people resisting military governance by a pair of foreign powers and I ask, what did a ‘decent leftist’ imagine would happen.

So what previous errors need be corrected, Norm? Well, given that we have launched a multi-billion dollar war that has damaged democracies at home and shattered lives by the hundred thousand in Iraq, all in the name of the crimes of Saddam Hussein, the first thing that we could do is arrange for a squad car to pull up outside the houses of Rumsfeld, Cheney and Negroponte (at the very least) and put these men on trial for their crimes against humanity. No need for war, just a squad car. But that will not happen, will it? This is why Norm’s call for unity is nothing more than another smokescreen cast to cover the crimes of those he supported and the mistakes he made in legitimating them.

Finally, a little more on democracy and war; while the democracy involved in a decision to prosecute war cannot legitimate that action beyond the boundaries of the polis, the lack of democracy in the decision can certainly make such an action illegitimate from the perspective of those within the polis.

Andrew: you evil man: you made me spend time on Geras's blog. Eurgh. I'm sorry, but I think you over-analyse in this case. Geras strikes me as just another of the "pro-war Left" who signed up to the war for idealistic reasons (though, as you say, terribly myopic ones) and now feel the need to defend the war, and indeed the wider conduct of Bush+Blair. It's interesting from a pyschological viewpoint I guess, but also hugely annoying. One finds oneself getting pulled into discussions about, well, in this case "Democracies and War" and you suddenly realise you're arguing against someone who thinks, by definition, what we're doing in Iraq is correct. It just debases rational argument, as Geras et al twist and turn, despirately trying to justify conclusions they have already come to.

A good example is also via Crooked Timber.

On the point in question: I thought the latest news was that the "democratic" current government of Iraq was calling for troops to be withdrawn soon. It seems that Geras will argue that this government isn't quite democratic enough to ask our troops to leave...
Heh, there's a lot to agree with here (fucking Negroponte for starters), and you're bang on that our democratic anointment of the war makes sod all contribution to understanding whether it's a just war or not. But you're not really answering the question. Well, you are: in the sense of "how do you get to Charing X, mate", "well, I wouldn't start from here..." etc.

The leftists and liberals held no power but the power of anointment

Sure, but the anti-war left did nothing to challenge the stereotype of blind oppositionalism and knee-jerk anti-Americanism, wrapped up in a dusty old discourse of anti-imperialism. We can all chuck insults around. In truth, it matters not a jot what you or I think about the war. Or the whole of the SWP. Or even the whole nation of Moldova. This isn't relevant to the debate — except in some people's heads.

Certainly I'd be interested in hearing your considered opinion on this: what should be done next? There are plenty of preening fools among pro-war liberals (like me). But I reckon most of us just thought it was a straight choice between a very bad and a very, very bad option. Most of the anti-war lefties I know think roughly the same, but in a different order. And let's be honest, we're not going to know who was right for quite a while.
This should read:

But you're not really answering the question you set yourself.
"Certainly I'd be interested in hearing your considered opinion on this: what should be done next?"

I agree that I haven't answered this question. But you provide me with my excuse: "In truth, it matters not a jot what you or I think about the war. Or the whole of the SWP. Or even the whole nation of Moldova."

And this was, or at least ended up being, the point of my post. I can call for a UN command structure (or some body to act as 'regent') to remove charges, and any reality, of US colonialism. I can call for an end to the ludicrously simple - and misleading - pronouncements on both the nature of the insurgency and the locus of power in Iraq. I can call for the arrest of Negroponte and his chums. But none of this is going to happen for the same reason that the war was and is not conducted according to the wishes of the pro-war left.

I refused to lend the project my voice - which is no big thing as I am hardly influential. But there are left-wingers who do legitimate the behaviour of US forces in Iraq. Now, even if I DID legitimate the behaviour of the insugency, that matters not a jot (in practical terms) as the insurgency is not a democratic state and more I am not a member of their polis. My voice of support, or otherwise, is unlikely to have any effect on their behaviour. But if I am a left-wing voice and I legitimate the behaviour of the US then I do bolster the political hinterland of the project - a project whose aims and methods are determined by peole most definately not left or liberal.

Anti-war leftists, with no legitimacy to strip from the project and therefore no subtle influence, are left arguing more and more vehemently for the removal of troops from Iraq. Pro-war activists can use their only power - that of anointment - to start to specifically denounce the actions of the US (and UK) that do not fit with their left-liberal hopes for the project.

Unfortunately, all to often, these voices see their (democratic)opponents as being the anti-war left (who have no power) rather than the prosecutors of the war itself, who hold all the material power.
Eloquent as ever, Andrew, but I think you're a little harsh on pro-war lefties with your (deliberate?) jumbling up of supporting the invasion and legitimating the behaviour of US forces in Iraq.

Otherwise, fair enough. I certainly wouldn't disagree with any of your prescriptions for Iraq's future, short of pulling troops out. Just one quibble. It isn't quite a free lunch for anti-war lefties, as you imply. Those who DO support the insurgents (and there are some, we both know that) do affect perceptions of the left overall, which does make it the business of the rest of us.

Anyway, I don't usually get into the Iraq thing, but I have something half-written I might stick up this morning.
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