Friday, March 23, 2007

Iraq: another war, another day, in someone else’s name

Alternative ways of dealing with Saddam were proposed. Some of these amounted to ‘let’s not worry about it’, or ‘carry on with the sanctions that I’d been opposing until you started talking war’, or ‘do nothing without Chirac and Putin’s permission’, or even ‘if we’re nice to him he’ll see that he can benefit from being nice back’.

Other anti-war views were more serious, and made no attempt to evade the fact of Saddam’s awfulness. They simply judged that a war led by Bush and Blair would turn out badly. For instance, Peter Tatchell argued in February 2003 that:

“there is a credible alternative to a western-engineered invasion. It is an uprising by the Iraqi people…
“Compared with invasion, this home-grown insurrection would be far more popular with the people of Iraq. Fiercely nationalistic, they rightly dislike the idea of a US-imposed regime. Saddam's troops are also more likely to defect to an internal revolt than to western forces.
“…we should help train and arm a Free Iraq army inside the safe havens of the northern and southern no-fly zones…
“This civilian and military rebellion may take longer than a US-led war to effect regime change, but it would avoid the accusation of neo-imperialism and is likely to ensure a more stable and enduring democracy. It would, moreover, lessen the likelihood of Arab states feeling obliged to rush to Saddam's defence, as well as minimise the provocation of a global Islamic jihad against western ‘infidels’.”

I’m unconvinced. Tatchell seems woefully wrong in his belief that Saddam’s army would have defected to an armed uprising dominated by vengeful Shias (perhaps with Muqtada al-Sadr at the head, carrying US-supplied guns). His fear that Arab states would rush to defend Saddam was unfounded, and his prime concern seems to be not to oppose war – his proposal is for war – but to avoid the West getting the blame for it.

The civil war that he proposes would have been far more evenly matched than the US-led rout that actually happened. It would have been much longer and bloodier. Far from being “likely to ensure a more stable and enduring democracy”, such a war would have turned Sunni, Shia and Kurd against one another, poisoning inter-community relations more quickly and deeply than US bungling and al-Qaeda attacks have. And the absence of the US military throughout the country would have made it far more likely that neighbouring states would have sent troops in – as well as that the balance of power within Iraq’s communities would have favoured theocratic extremists over more peaceful moderates.

That would have been a catastrophe to dwarf anything we’ve seen in reality. If, in the absence of an invasion, the eventual end of Saddam’s regime (following perhaps years more tyranny) was likely to be violent – and I strongly suspect it would have been – then for the West to stand back from that would have saved Western consciences rather than Iraqi lives.

Mary Kaldor made (in 2005) a less militaristic proposal – but one that I suspect would have ended up having much the same effect. She believes that “there was a real possibility of ‘opening up’ the regime rather in the way that happened in east-central Europe in the 1980s”. She suggests that religious opponents of Saddam had been “leveraging Saddam’s new emphasis on religion to create more open space within the mosques” and to develop a strategy of “slow strangulation”.

This could have been aided from the outside, Kaldor argues, by diplomatic pressure on human rights and by replacing the broad sanctions with a more targeted set. This would have been a gentler means of supporting the opposition than Tatchell’s plan – aiming to weaken the regime rather than to strengthen dissidents directly by arming them – but the effect on the relative balance of power would have been the same.

Both proposals would have moved that balance towards a more even match – breaking the state monopoly of power – thus making a direct confrontation likelier. And Kaldor’s suggestion would also have favoured as opposition leaders those religious figures best able to radicalise their followers to the use of force. I think my criticisms above – that this would have led to an unrestrained civil war, perhaps drawing in neighbouring states and itinerant fanatics – apply here.

But I also suspect that Kaldor’s plan would have been less likely to get off the ground.

The trouble with a “slow strangulation” is that the intended victim has plenty of time to notice what’s going on and fight back. The Baathist secret police were ever eager to spot, torture and kill potential troublemakers. Amnesty International’s reports covering 2001 and 2002, for instance, both recount scores of executions: “The victims included army officers suspected of plotting to overthrow the government or of having contacts with opposition groups abroad, and suspected political opponents, particularly Shi'a Muslims suspected of anti-government activities.” There were doubtless others that AI wasn’t able to uncover.

So there’s a good chance that any such underground movement would have been crushed before it became a serious threat.

Winding up
It’d be nice if I could end this series of posts with a conclusion and a clear recommendation on what should be done next. But I don’t have either of those things. I’ve never really liked any of the options over Iraq, and I glumly, sceptically, nervously, hopefully tolerated the war in 2003 as the surest and quickest way of getting rid of Saddam.

And now, four years on, here we are. The options for Iraq today seem an even less palatable menu than back then, and there’s no ‘conclusion’ in sight.

(This is the last in a series of posts. See also the first, second, third, fourth and fifth.)

1 comment:

Incitatus4Congress said...

I think it's all over as far as the US is concerned. They have no clear mission in Iraq anymore, and in the pitiful numbers that US military personnel are currently present in Iraq (laughable troop 'surge' included), they are in no real position to do anything beyond maintaining the status quo (i.e baby-sitting a completely useless Iraqi army).

Alas, the Rumsfeldian doctrine's uncompromising belief in running a cheap war has ended up being incredibly costly to America, Iraq and the idea of intervention on the basis of humanitarian ideals.