Prior to the invasion of Iraq, noted humanitarian Rupert Murdoch suggested that one fantastic result of the war would be oil at $20 a barrel. Quite aside from being about as bare-knuckled an expression possible of the deep immorality of the war — an absence of hypocrisy usually held to be ‘refreshing’ by those not in its cross-hairs — it is also as prime an example of the cackhandedness of those who counted on a ‘nice little war’. Oil is currently standing at $46 a barrel and it isn’t coming down anytime soon. The continued occupation has called out insurgents of a wide variety of motives from both the Iraqis themselves and from surrounding countries. The US- sponsored Government has, in the past weeks, reintroduced the death penalty for ‘crimes threatening national security’; banned Al-Jazeera; issued arrest warrants for former US-favoured leader Ahmed Chalibai (on real or spurious charges — who knows?); attacked — with unknown civilian casualties — its own cities and people; and is possibly using torture. The US is devoid of an exit strategy, its low personnel, hi-tech army is overstretched by the commitment, and Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib has not only taken the US to its lowest level of trust in the Islamic world, but has put permanent distance between itself and its allies. Inquiries in the UK and Australia have established that politicised and compliant intelligence services fed the Bush, Blair and Howard Governments what they wanted to hear. This has, incredibly, let these Governments off the hook since it is now clear that they ignored evidence to the contrary — such as that of former UN inspector Scott Ritter — that there were no WMD.
It is a political failure of the first order, but that would not of itself be a condemnation if the cause had been just. More crucially, it was a crime and a moral disaster. But of what does that moral disaster consist?
The most serious argument — for those on the Left — in favour of the Iraq invasion has been put by old anti-war activists (and current and ex-Maoists) Albert Langer and Barry York, who argue that, whatever the mix of motives and however much past US administrations have been complicit in the rule of Saddam Hussein, the net effect of the invasion and occupation will be to give history a nudge forward. The Iraq assembly may well be a US-dominated puppet, but it will have a parliamentary form and the apparatus of bourgeois democracy missing from Saddam’s dictatorship. The proponents of such an argument cheerfully acknowledge that it is opportunistic, and is no template for a general philosophy of America’s role in the world — they would not presumably support a similar action against the increasingly repressive regime of Cuba, for example — but point out that the revolutionary Left has never been overly concerned about abstract principles of action. Where exactly does the objection to that lie?
It is in this context that the question of means and ends can be brought into a less abstract consideration. If what is to be the subject of military intervention is the destruction of a whole society, or a group within it, then the capacity for life is being removed. If the end is saving the lives, and ways of life, of the population in question then one can assume they would overwhelmingly consent to people ‘doing what had to be done’ to achieve such an end. Genocide has been one possible demarcation of such a state, but the whole concept of ‘genocide’ is both so wide-ranging and yet also exclusionary — it does not cover what is now known as politicide: the mass killing of groups which do not have a distinctive ethnic communality — that it risks becoming an arbitrarily deployed label.
The Iraq pro-war parties have made much of endlessly recirculated and steadily boosted figures of those murdered by the Baathist regime. There is no doubt that throughout the 1980s and after the failed Kurdish/Shiite uprising of 1991 (failed because the Americans broke their promise of support to the insurgents) Saddam’s regime engaged in high-level murder. But that had long since ceased, simply because of the imposition of no-fly zones, the enforced shrinkage of Saddam’s army and the latter’s desire to tow the line. It was a grisly regime — Amnesty suggests that hundreds were executed annually and thousands tortured — but the level of violence simply did not warrant the tremendous violence unleashed by the rapid war that transpired. Attempts to paint it as a 1984-style totalitarian state are off the mark. It was not, as one could justly say North Korea is, a ‘totally totalitarian’ state that reaches into social life and transforms it into an empty power-cult. If it was totalitarian, it was so in the manner of Mussolini’s Italy — one in which an overlay of political dominance through violence and political kitsch did not disrupt the capacity of many people to live relatively meaningful lives. The principle source of misery for the Iraqi people in the 1990s was the unnecessary suffering caused by the imposition of sanctions on goods that should never be embargoed, such as essential medicines and foodstuffs. That does not mean the regime should be approved of, or that resistance should not be supported, but it does mean that the very serious act of going to war against a people, and justifying it as being in their own best interests, is not even close to being legitimite.
Such reflections do not have the charismatic power of a cry of ‘send in the marines’. Paradoxically, although they are directed at the principle of doing least harm, it is those who are genuinely trying to establish a reliable and practical ethic of military intervention who seem the most ghoulish — the accountants of death etc. — while it is those who are relatively cavalier about the mass-bombing of civilians whose hands seem cleanest. One of the most powerful effects of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was to actually show what few TV networks in either the US or here have shown: the consequences of Coalition bombing of civilians. Their absence from our screens has been as effective a censorship of the consequences of war as was the absence of film technology from the trenches of World War I.
In the case where intervention is planned to save a whole community and/or a way of life, it is right to regard the absence of preventive action as in the same zone as that of the commission of an act. Such omissions then correspond to the concept known in American law as homicide by ‘depraved indifference’ — the refusal to prevent a readily preventable act. In such a case, one can have more confidence in the staging of a violent intervention because — even if the intervention were to become more protracted and bloody than had originally been anticipated — the consequences remain clearly less damaging than the large-scale mass murder and destruction of the capacity for life than would otherwise occur. That does not follow for ‘regime change’ of low-level murderous regimes, since the open-ended and uncontrollable nature of war can rapidly take one into a situations far worse than that which was to be remedied. We do not really know (and may not for some time) what happened in Fallujah and Najaf — how many were killed; how many of those killed were simply fighting a force occupying their country; and how many were uninvolved civilians. Whatever their status, death enrolls them in the ranks of fundamentalist militias — to be killed by US or interim Iraqi forces is the act by which one becomes defined as a ‘terrorist’ or a ‘militiaman’. The degree to which the pro-war party has been willing to deny any suggestion that one should take greater responsibility for one’s own actions than for those done by others has been mirrored by their willingness to disown the degree to which the US has been complicit in Saddam’s crimes. Quite aside from the ‘turkey shoot’ on the Basra road — a war crime of exactly the same character as Guernica or the Dresden bombing, with casualties in the tens of thousands — the US must bear a measure of responsibility for the deaths of tens of thousands, perhaps more, of Kurds and Shiites in the wake of the failed 1991 uprising. The US did not kill them, but it made a promise to protect them from reprisals whose ferocity could be known in advance. This is important not only to set the record straight, but also as an indication of the morally and politically disastrous nature of individuals and non-state organisations supporting or advocating intervention ‘piggy-backing’ on strategic interests. Had the promise of assistance not been made, the uprising would not have occurred. Had the promise been kept, Saddam would have quite possibly been deposed by Iraqis themselves. The current Iraq invasion and occupation is exactly in that spirit. By failing to adopt a clear and reflective line on the question of intervention, the pro-war Left and Left-liberals not only acted with wanton disregard for what actual Iraqis might reasonably be supposed to have wanted — to not be bombed — but also pushed the global political public sphere away from a genuine and workable moral position and towards a strategic and ultimately cynical conception of political action as a great unfolding Story. No wonder that the war finds the old hard Right, military humanitarian liberals and old Stalinists together. They are those who have not yet learnt from the previous century that the future may not be a blank page, but it is certainly not a blank cheque.