Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why I was wrong about Iraq

I protested against the war. While I obviously didn’t approve of Saddam, I had a strong dislike of war and wanted a diplomatic solution. I was well aware of the vast oil riches that George Bush surely had his eye on and I instinctively distrusted the motives of militaristic right-wing governments – including the UK, so predictably yapping at the superpower’s heels.

The plight of the Kuwaitis, and whether Saddam could seriously be peacefully talked into withdrawing, hadn’t really entered my calculations.

So, in January 1991, aged 13, I went to a local anti-war demo. We held candles, waved placards supplied by the CND organisers, and we – my little sister, a couple of friends and me – were pictured in the local paper the next day. It pains me to admit that I was wearing a bobble hat. (NB this is not the most embarrassing thing I’m going to confess to here.)

My placard said ‘Choose Peace’, which I thought was pretty sound. There were others, though: some were ‘No War For Oil’, which seemed a shrewd analysis of what was really going on.

But there were some that made me inwardly frown. They read: ‘Arab Problems, Arab Solutions’.

It hadn’t occurred to me that political issues should be bracketed off into ethnic categories by anyone other than a dirty stinking right-wing racist. Seeing it put that starkly did make me wonder precisely what the anti-war case was all about.

My suspicion and distrust was primarily of the Bloody Tories – not of Britain itself, or the US or the West. So for the anti-war case to be put in ethnic terms was a bit of a jolt to my system. I didn’t like the idea that some bunch of foreigners should be safely bracketed off and left alone to sort themselves out as they saw fit – or rather, as the more powerful among them (i.e. Saddam and his army) saw fit.

I was an internationalist and an egalitarian (and still am, but in a less naive hippyish way), and I didn’t see why solidarity should stop at certain national or racial or cultural borders. I thought the state of the Gulf was a ‘Human Problem’, and I wasn’t against war simply because it would be our war, and we were the wrong sort of people to be involved.

My principled objection was to aggressive force, which I’d somehow judged a Tory (and Republican) war would embody more than had Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. What I didn’t oppose per se – at least, once I thought about it properly – was the use of force by Western governments, even right-wing ones that I hated for any number of reasons.

I grew up in a Labour family, but not, thankfully, one of the more stridently hard left variety. I was never encouraged to think Soviet communism was a good thing (or even a nice idea that had just had a few operational difficulties). And, as I say, I developed a pretty strong Toryphobia – but not any knee-jerk anti-West attitudes.

Example: I distinctly recall, at some point in the mid-1980s, watching a John Craven’s Newsround item about Reagan’s Star Wars programme, and there was a (doubtless impressive to me at the time) graphic simulation of missiles flying through orbits and hitting each other. The presenter was talking about whether it would work, and mentioned the possibility that the USSR might be able to send out a large number of small missiles to overwhelm it and get past. My reaction–

Are you ready to cringe on my behalf?

My reaction was to think that maybe I should phone up Ronald Reagan and warn him what they were planning to do.

Yes, yes, I know. In any event, what I actually did was to go off and play with my Lego or something like that.

So, maybe, despite my lefty pedigree, I was actually a neocon warmongering bastard deep down all along. But either way, I didn’t assume that Western imperialism was the root of all evil.

And I didn’t believe that the best thing to do about the troubles of these faraway dark-skinned types, with their religions and cultures of which we knew little, was to turn our backs and wash our hands. That was the philosophy of the ‘Arab Problems, Arab Solutions’ slogan, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

The reason that was wrong was the same reason Saddam – not Bush or Major – was the real villain of the piece. I could see that some of these ‘Arabs’ were powerful aggressors and some were defenceless innocents. The sort of ‘solution’ that would result was not hard to guess.

The change of heart wasn’t an instant epiphany when I saw the placard, but that did plant a seed. Within a couple of years I was aghast that we weren’t being tougher to stop the carnage in the former Yugoslavia.

All of this meander down memory lane is brought to mind by Nick Cohen’s telling of a similar sort of story:

“The [left’s] apparently sincere commitment to help Iraqis vanished the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and became America's enemy. At the time, I didn't think about where the left was going. I could denounce the hypocrisy of a West which made excuses for Saddam one minute and called him a 'new Hitler' the next, but I didn't dwell on the equal and opposite hypocrisy of a left which called Saddam a 'new Hitler' one minute and excused him the next. All liberals and leftists remained good people in my mind. Asking hard questions about any of them risked giving aid and comfort to the Conservative enemy and disturbing my own certainties. I would have gone on anti-war demonstrations when the fighting began in 1991, but the sight of Arabs walking around London with badges saying 'Free Kuwait' stopped me. When they asked why it was right to allow Saddam to keep Kuwaitis as his subjects, a part of me conceded that they had a point.”


Harry Barnes said...

It is possible to have opposed both the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq without falling in with (say) Respect, Islamic Extremism, Anti-semitism or pacifism. There was, however, a need to have been able to answer the question "how would you have got rid of Saddam Hussein then?". Although it is after the events, Mary Kaldor has a good answer in the penultimate section of this -

It is headed "Was there an alternative?". Some of us attempted to argue this type of case before these events. Once the invasion took place those of us who opposed it were faced with a new situation and needed to be on the side of those Iraqis who were immediately pressing for a democratic and civic society with a social conscience. My blog has links to "Labour Friends of Iraq" (uniting those who were pro and anti-war and given support by Nick Cohen at the recent Fabian Conference) and to the "Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions". My item of October 22, 2006 "Iraq: the Third Big Issue" is relevant to the above.

Sorry if you are into all this already.

Tom Freeman said...

Thanks for the comment Harry, and for the links (I think I dimly remember the Kaldor piece).

I quite agree that there are perfectly honourable cases to be made against the 2003 war (about which I have very mixed feelings) and indeed the 1991 war, even though I'm now sure that one was justified.

But I do sometimes find that shifts in my opinions come about not just when somebody convinces me a certain way, but when I see an argument (or in this case a slogan) that strikes me as quite wrong - and I react against it and see why a contrary view is right.