Brief Comment on Iraq


Note: This is an old article, but it will have do do as my comment on what is now happening in Iraq. I have another article somewhere in which I predicted the general course of what has since happened, but cannot currently lay hands on it. This will have to do. We destroyed a regime of secular nationalists on the promise that liberal democracy would somehow emerge from its rubble. All we have actually had is an unstoppable resurgence of religious enthusiasm. The best we can hope for is that our rulers will cut off aid to the rebels in Syria, and then do nothing while the Iranians restore as much order as they can – presumably also turning the stabilised areas into a protectorate.

Even so, there is little chance that, in the next few years, the chaos and bloodshed that began in 2003 will come to an end. In European societies, there is a spontaneous tendency to peace and reasonable prosperity. In most other societies, the only choice is between despotism and chaos. No doubt, Saddam Hussein was a bad man. He was certainly incompetent in his foreign policy. Back in the 1980s, though, you could go about Iraq in safety. You could smoke and drink in the restaurants. You could go to the church or mosque of your choice. You could make money. So long as you kept out of dissident politics, you would never see the inside of one of his torture chambers. If you had to bribe someone, he usually stayed bought. Now Saddam and his system are gone, Iraq has reverted to its normal state of chaos. Since our rulers still have no understanding of what they did in 1990 and 2003, we must let the Iranians sort things out. Sooner or later, enough of the excitable young men will have been killed, and another strong man will restore a brittle jollity to places like Basra and Baghdad.

I feel sorry for the Iraqis. If their country has become a slagheap reeking with human blood, it has been made that entirely by the elected politicians in London and Washington. I wish I could do more about this than cheer on defence cuts in London and the gathering collapse of dollar hegemony throughout the world. But what little I can do I will. SIG

Middle East

The War: Won but not Over
by Sean Gabb
14th April 2003

Though the pacification is as yet incomplete, Baghdad has fallen and the war seems in the conventional sense to be over. I am glad that the Allies have won, and that they have won so quickly. I did not think they would. I really did expect the Iraqis to use their advantages of defence to greater effect. I expected them to blow up all the bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates, and to spread rubble over all the roads into Baghdad—thereby preventing the Allies from driving straight in—and to use snipers to hold up attempts at clearing the rubble. Above all, I expected the Iraqis to defend the city from behind a large and shifting mass of civilians. I do not know why they failed to do any of this, deciding instead on strategies that an idiot child—let alone the Americans—might have countered. As said, I am glad that they failed. But it has made me wrong so far in my gloomy predictions. I was wrong and my more bellicose friends and opponents were right.

This being said, it does not affect my belief that the war was unnecessary and therefore should not have been fought by this country. Success does justify many risks—and this was a risk. But no degree of success can justify a risk that was unnecessary, that has brought human, financial and diplomatic costs, and where the longer term consequences of success may involve still greater costs. Such was this war.

I know that I am repeating myself. Then again, repetition is a valid form of argument where new or forgotten propositions are concerned. But I regard the proper duty of the British Government to be the protection of British life and property. The duty may occasionally require interventions abroad, but will mostly require action only within the borders of the United Kingdom. I believe this for two reasons.

First, a government is a trustee of its people, not a master, and so must take care to spend lives and money on ventures that relate directly to its duty.

Second, when governments set their foreign policies according to known and predictable interests, the chances of war are much reduced. Even when wars do happen, they are for obvious and limited ends, and do not require people to be lied into states of hysteria that are far easier to excite than to abate and that may complicate efforts to make peace.

Against this proposition, three arguments have been raised. Once again, I know that I have disputed these on many occasions. But I have not so far been successful in winning my case. I will therefore risk the impatience of my readers in repeating myself here as well.

First, we were told that Iraq had weapons that it was willing and able to use against this country, or that it was willing to give to others for use against us. Day after day, the media poured out claims to chill the blood. To these were added claims from within my own circle. One person told me —he promised me he had inside knowledge—that there were tunnels under the presidential palaces in Baghdad up to a mile long, filled with chemical and biological weapons. Someone else assured me that there was a secret nuclear programme, but that Tony Blair was unable to reveal its details to us. Someone else told me in a semi-closed meeting about the “verified links” between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Iraq was cried up endlessly as a clear and present danger.

If true, this would have justified war on the principles given above. But I doubted if it was true. Iraq is a poor and barbarous country. It lost a war with the more civilised countries in 1991, and after that was continually monitored and blockaded. That it could, even so, develop weapons for use against us struck me as absurd—and that was without considering the evidence. But just look at the evidence given. Assertions and plain forgeries aside, not even an opportunistic connection was shown between al Qaeda and the Government of Iraq.

As for the alleged threat posed by the Government of Iraq in its own right, we can now see the quality of that evidence. Doubt has been justified by events. If I was wrong in my military predictions, it was only so far as I believed the Iraqis to be more effective than they were. Their inability to defend their own country showed the nature of their threat to ours. They used throughout nothing better than old conventional weapons. Many of these they had trouble making to work. If Saddam Hussein had been the lunatic he was claimed to be, he ought surely to have used his chemical and biological weapons on the first day of the war. If he was the scheming tyrant he was also claimed to be, he ought surely to have used them on the last. He did not use them because he did not have them.

Until Saturday, I was willing to believe that such weapons would be “found” by the Americans. They had the means, motive and opportunity for planting them. But the surrender of Amir Humudi al-Sadi has complicated any such plan. He was the chief weapons adviser to the Iraqi Government. Before the war, he had repeatedly denied that his country had any of the weapons it was alleged to have. He helped reveal the report on Iraqi weapons published by the British Government as a mass of lies—and often of plagiarised and obsolete lies. For his own safety, it was in his interest, once the war was over, to confess that he had been lying, and to validate all American claims. In fact, he called a news conference before surrendering and repeated his earlier denials: “I was knowledgeable about these programmes” he said. “I never told anything but the truth and time will bear me out”. Bearing in mind how little shame the present Government of America has about torturing prisoners of war, it will be interesting to see how long Mr al-Sudi maintains this insistence. But no amount of retraction will now be believed. There were no “weapons of mass destruction”. There was no danger to this country. We were lied into this war.

And so this first claim has been dropped for the moment. The war is now justified on thesecond grounds of “régime change”. Some of my friends have always supported the war on these grounds, and, while I do not agree with them, I do not accuse them of discreditable motives. But I am shocked by the sudden change of excuse in Washington and London. Interference in Iraqi internal affairs was expressly and continually disclaimed before the war started. The talk then was all about disarmament of Mr Hussein. He had only to comply with the weapons inspectors, we were assured, and his country would then be left alone. To see the politicians now changing their story reminds me of the Victory Square parade in George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

But let us set aside the manner of its advancement, and consider instead the substance of the claim—that we have a right or obligation to overthrow tyranny throughout the world. Of course, I deny the claim. So long as it does not endanger us, I do not see what happens in other countries as any business of ours. I know there has always been a strain of liberal imperialism in the libertarian movement. But this is misguided. It is no more the business of our government to liberate foreigners from oppression than it is to feed them if they are hungry. If we oppose foreign aid, why support humanitarian invasions? They both involve spending the taxpayers’ money. Why the inconsistency?

I suppose the alleged answer is that foreign aid does not work, but that liberation does. But what reason have we to suppose that it does work? If the Americans were to conquer Iraq and its neighbours, as we conquered India, it might work. We had not only the will to put down widow burning and sacrificial murder, but the means to enforce our will. We stayed there long enough to remake Indian civilisation. Will the Americans now rule Iraq for two centuries? I think not. The intention seems to be to set up a new government there and then withdraw.

Now, liberal democracy requires more than a written constitution and a few bribes. Though all human beings may want to be free, I doubt if all have an equal capacity for freedom. Free institutions are not the same as satellite television dishes and motor cars. They cannot be exported to and established in countries that have not previously had them. Instead, they proceed from the cultural values of a nation. They can be gradually transplanted. They can even spontaneously evolve. But they cannot be unpacked as if from a box.

Unless they can be taken apart and remade, the various civilisations of the Arab world all require strong authoritarian government. The looting and communal violence we have seen in Iraq since the collapse of its government may be in part a reaction against tyranny. But it is also what happens when order is destroyed in a deeply corrupt society. It will be ended when order is restored, but this order will not be liberal or democratic. To set up a constituent assembly that is any more than a fraud will mean reproducing indoors the hatred now running wild in the streets. This is a truth that liberal imperialists need to learn in every generation. Because of this war, we are now due for another lesson in true sociology.

There is worse. By conquering Iraq, we may have destabilised the country and the entire region. The Arab mind of the past hundred years has been divided between secular nationalism and radical Islam. The first of these now looks to have been comprehensively defeated. The resulting void will not, I think, be filled by liberal democracy. Instead, millions of young men can be expected to grow their beards and pay attention to the usual texts. They will probably make everyone around them unhappy. And I am reasonably sure they will contrive to make us unhappy before the fiends who direct foreign policy in Washington move on from preventive war to preventive genocide.

But I turn to the third justification

for a specifically British involvement in the war. This takes it as given that the Americans wanted to invade Iraq, and does not ask why. It simply looks at the advantages for Britain of supporting the Americans. The main advantage alleged is that the war may have destroyed all chance of our integration into Europe. There are persistent claims that Tony Blair will use his restored popularity to call a sudden referendum on the Euro. More likely, though, it seems that the French and Germans have just had all their suspicions confirmed that Britain will never be a loyal and contented member of the European Union, and that our leaving it could be more a question of when than whether.

Before the fighting started, I might have been willing to accept this Machiavellian justification of war. Getting out of the European Union, after all, is a first rate British interest. But, having looked at the civilian casualties—small in number as they have so far been—I have changed my mind. I cannot stop thinking about that poor child who last week had his arms blown off and his lower body scorched all over. If the war had been for our immediate defence, I have no doubt I should have hardened my heart and agreed that his suffering was regrettable but necessary. But the war was not for immediate defence. It was at best in pursuit of an interest that involves further contingencies before it can be achieved. His life has been destroyed for nothing. Perhaps worse, it may have been destroyed because we as a nation are too decadent to save ourselves by other means from a wholly political threat. If we cannot use our still formidable constitutional freedoms to save ourselves without that, I do not believe we deserve to be saved. There is a story that Pope Innocent VIII was prescribed human blood to keep him alive. Three boys were chosen and bled. Too much was taken and the boys died. The Pope still died. Perhaps that is now what we have become.

Since that picture of Ali Ismaeel Abbas was published, some of my critics have stopped denouncing me for my cold-hearted nationalism. I am now accused of being soft-hearted—almost a “leftie”. The reason for this is that I have not made myself sufficiently clear. I deny that it is our duty to go out of our way to help foreigners when they are suffering. But I also deny that it is our right to make them suffer when it serves some doubtful interest of our own. What was done to that boy would always have appalled me. But the knowledge that I share in the corporate responsibility for it almost maddens me with shame and horror.

I hear the liberal imperialist argument that he has been destroyed so that others in Iraq might live in peace and freedom. As said, I doubt if they will live in peace and freedom. I am also not concerned. I am suspicious of caring about people whose faces are invisible. I prefer to look at individuals. Perhaps this leads to an imperfect view of suffering. On the other hand, it keeps one from the callous indifference to actual, known lives that has been shown over again these past few centuries by men who killed even as they paraded their universal but abstract love of humanity.

I am told that the American Government has a list of future targets, and that on it are Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Already, it seems, opinion is being softened for war with Syria—it has, we are told, “weapons of mass destruction”. I do not know whether to laugh or cry. How could these psychopathic children have been elected in London and Washington?

I do not yet know how Mr Blair will emerge from this war. My fear is that he will be strengthened in his ability to do evil at home as well as abroad. But perhaps the people of Britain have not joined in the worship of power so fully as the opinion polls now indicate. Perhaps they will turn on him. We cannot unwrite this page of our history, or even blot it out. But perhaps by destroying the career and execrating the memory of its author, we can yet rescue some of our self-respect.

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10 responses to “Brief Comment on Iraq

  1. The problem, Sean is that modern “neoliberals” like the American political Enemy-class, think genuinely, the following thing.

    They really truly think that what they (thought that they) did, was enough. Getting rid of the murdering socialist pig bastard Saddam and then buggering off. he was a pig and a bastard. You cannot, “In the Bowels Of Christ”, possibly have ever, ever justified his remaining on his “THRONE”.

    Remember that he had at least 33 “thrones” – if you count the Gold Toilets, often tiled all around, very nicely and unostentatiously, by _Villeroy and Boch_ …. Multiple palace-building – never mind the toilets – is a very, very bad indicator of concern-levels for “one’s people’s welfare”.

    They’d – by who I mean the neoliberalNazis – not Villeroy and Boch – be truly, sincerely mortified, perplexed, confused, and (even in some cases slightly) offended if you thought them disingenuous here – that “setting up a new government and then f*****g off” was not enough to “sort the bastards out”.

    I of course am among that class of your friends, which you mention benignly (I thank you, old friend) who thought that the Iraq War was just. I did. You know that. We discussed it often. I have no regrets at all in saying that it was, when I said that: I also changed my view later to accord more with yours as you know, for I had later become convinced that you were right. As the fella, Mr-Valiant-For-Truth, said in Pilgrim’s Progress (I think? – for me at the time) “I do not repent me of what I have done”.

    In my view, in the beginning, it was just for the reason that we were out-throwing a fascist StaliNazi socialist scumbag palace-building dictator who mass-murdered 2 million people (or more) – it does not matter who or “what” they were. He killed them as assuredly as if he had pulled the trigger on all the guns himself just as Ernesto “Che” Guevara did in Cuba, all the time, when it suited him.

    I think you are also right that this current spat is of no interest to us, more or less.
    But since we discovered the “oil”, which had been under their feet for 4 billion years and they (who lived and butchered each other there, as per now) had “not discovered it”, nor – worse – even tried to set about getting a society and polity in place that might conceivably have some minimal chance of doing so inside a few hundreds of years – then I do think that we do have “some” interest in the position that’s going on.

  2. Any chance of Tony Blair being made Ambassador to Iraq – or at least being tricked into believing he’ll be paid £1m to give a speech there?

    • Hey that would be funny. I’ll bet his crying wife and children will go on the wireless-yele-vision, pr perhaps the Guardianmediatelly or whatever it’s called, suggesting, tearfully in the way only scousers can, that he not go there. Remember what happened to Ken Bigley in 2004. Bigley was also a scouser and look what happened to him. (I’ll try not to say anything about Hillsborough here, although one day it will have to come out, the bile will.)

      I’m not saying that poor old Ken Bigley’s fate was right or just: clearly it wasn’t for he ended up really quite spectacularly dead and on video too, which would have been embarrassing to say the least, and also – worse – he had nowt to do with the spat. His private tragedy was that he _didn’t even need to have been in that country at that time. He chose to. Silly man, but it does not for a moment excuse anyone who tried to slice off his head. (“A man should be able to walk through my Kingdom with a basinful of gold, all unmolested”. So who said that then, eh?)

      It just goes to show what utter utter scumbags we are up against in our efforts to civilise the planet…
      And, mind out, [ much, much, much, much worse than that] what scumbags we are also up against in the UK, inexcusably, who act as apologists and overseas enforcers for the prime-level-scumbags of “other cultures”. That is to say: the GramscoFabiaNazis. It’s difficult sometimes to de-cifer which lot of scumbags is using which lot, at any given moment.

      Sorry. Well, there you go. Again. I said it.

  3. Liam Pickering

    Dr. Gabb, thanks for re-posting this. (I think the date might be a tad wrong. You seem to have shot several parsecs into the future. Perhaps you meant 2013?) And if you do lay your hands on the other article (with your predictions-that-came-true), I look forward very much to reading it here.

  4. Pingback: Sean Gabb on the Iraq Situation « Attack the System

  5. David McDonagh

    The activity of Islam over the last few decades is like a prolonged swan song, or it is like an extended panic largely motivated by a fear of death, or if not then, at least, of senility. Muslims seem to look at Christianity as an ineffectual half dead, or a zombie-like, demented religion that is ridiculed by films, like The Life of Brian, and they rightly see the same being done by modern society in the near-future to their own religion. Rushdie was the first swallow of this atheist, clearly God forsaken, long hot summer.  So I think Sean gets it wrong in saying that Islam is unstoppable in its revival for what seems unstoppable to me seems to be rather the slow decline of all religion but then religion never was as popular in the past as most today seem to think it once was. In the UK of the 1950s, protestants had given up going to church but the Catholics still attended; but they might have seen their future in the low attendance of the protestant churches and, since then, the slow fall off of weekly attendance at the Catholic churches in the UK has continued. The same looks set for the UK mosques in the UK in the next few decades. Sean seems to be right that the USAS/UK invasion of Iraq introduced chaos in place of dictatorship there and that made things way worse for most of its population. But government can never be a trustee of the people, as Sean seems to say that it is. Politics is intrinsically about government; or about being the master of those it rules over. Locke thought otherwise, but he thereby erred. Hume saw that Locke erred in that. Locke’s  error maybe civilised politics, so improved it no end, but it was an error nonetheless. War is basically an end of politics, not a mere means, as Sean seems to think. Yes, if war was a means to something, or other, then we might never have it at all. Politics is also a crass end in itself and also objectively wasteful. Indeed, politics is cold war. But many cannot credit the fact that war is wasteful let alone that politics are. Sean writes as if democracy is about freedom rather than the use of the state to coerce others in a wasteful way; as well as in an immoral way. All politics is anti-social and wasteful by opportunity cost, including democracy. It is perverse wasteful negative sum activity instead of free trade, that is positive sum.   We are all free in the Hobbesian sense and the state cannot get rid of individual freedom. But in the pristine liberal sense of social liberty, where we respect the liberty of one and all thus cease from scotching their liberty, then we still lack it. To extend it, we need to get rid of the state, as the state has to tax and govern and so both need to scotch social liberty to even exist. But contra Sean, we all very clearly do have an equal capacity for social liberty, as well as Hobbesian natural liberty, but I think Sean means to say that not all societies are ready for political democracy and I certainty agree with him there; if that is what he means.   Democracy does have the means to cut back on the state in a peaceful way, to negate the negation by tax cuts, but the prerequisite pristine liberal demand from a liberal majority needed to use the coercive vote in that almost non-coercive way is a long way off today. Most people still do not realise that politics makes rather than solves social problems; they have yet to realise that the state  is an unmitigated evil. So democracy might one day be a useful means of rolling back, or even getting rid of, the state; but it is not one iota free in itself. But Sean is right that it cannot just be imported anywhere. Maybe the most stupid thing that David Ricardo wrote was this madcap idea that money was like voting for things. Not only did it make a fetish of democracy but it underestimated the market as well as liberty. It also overlooked the crass inefficiency of democracy. It over-estimated its popularity as an ideal as well, for politics never were very popular and nor was democracy; its supposed acme ideal. For a long time people voted despite the boredom of doing it, as they thought it their duty, but that sense of duty seems due to continue to slowly decline in the modern world along with crass religion.       

  6. Lost Leonardo

    This is a fascinating comment from David. I am comparatively new to this libertarian lark, so I do not see politics as an absolute evil in quite the same sense, though I can see what he is driving at. It would be really interesting to know if Sean has a rejoinder to any of the points that contradict his original essay.

  7. David D. – a lot of people are now saying (indeed are said at the time) that American forces should never have totally withdrawn from Iraq (after all they are still in Europe and Korea – many decades after the wars that brought them ended). That a residual force should have been left.

    I do not think that would have worked (due to the nature of the situation – the “Islamic factor”), but many of the people who are saying this (and said it when Mr Obama pulled out all American forces – declaring the war won) are quite sincere – and risked their own lives in Iraq.

    David M.

    There is always danger of thinking what one wants to be true actually is true.

    To you religion is nonsense – you are astonished that anyone can believe that people are not just machines (and nothing more).

    But the vast majority of people have historically held a different point of view (“no they have not” – there we must differ).

    I see no evidence what-so-ever that Islam is decline.

    On the contrary Islam is vastly stronger (both in numbers and in the intensity of belief) than it was a century ago.

    If Islam was really weak – just a few fanatics and so on. Then intervention in the Islamic world (to remove said fanatics) might make perfect sense. Remove the “extremists” – free the good majority of “ordinary people”, job done.

    However, it is not a matter of a few “fanatics” or “extremists” – it is widespread system of belief. Both Sunni and Shia.

    One should not treat it lightly or think it will just go away.

    Also you seem to regard even atheist systems of belief (such as Randian Objectivism) as silly.

    I suspect that this is because you associate systems of believe (what used to be called metaphysics) with “romanticism” – and (actually quite reasonably) associate such “romantic visions” with heaps of twitching human corpses.

    You have a point – systems of belief (whether religious or atheist such as Marxism) do not have an unmixed history (to put it mildly).

    Thomas Hobbes and Jeremy Bentham were (so I am told) nice people who never killed or tortured anyone. So if everyone could be like them……..

    However that does not prove that all systems of belief (all “metaphysics” ) are false. Nor does it prove that most people are better off (nicer) without a system of belief in this sense.

    Although, yes, some systems of belief (such as religious Islam and atheist Marxism) the world, most likely, would be better off without.

  8. Julie near Chicago

    Today somewhere I saw posted a clip from 1993 of Dick Cheney explaining why in the first Iraq war Baghdad wasn’t bombed and Saddam was left in place. He said, “Because if the current regime were busted, we would have to leave troops in Iraq, so there wouldn’t be a 3-way war among the Shi’a, the Sunnis, and the Kurds.” The poster wondered “why he seemed to have forgotten this the second time around.” Meaning, We Never Should Have Done That There Evil Thing.

    But I supported the invasion in the first place and still do.

    However, I also thought and still think that post-war occupation or “peace-keeping” would be necessary. Of course that’s supposed to be in the U.N.’s job description, but the U.N. hasn’t earned very good performance reviews on that score.

    It has been pointed out that one factor in successful occupations has been that the occupying soldiers were there for the long haul, they develop a social life with the native people, they marry native women and make the place their home. This happened in Germany and to some extent in Japan.

    But I also think then-Secretary Cheney’s remark might have been discussed more widely in the context of Iraq II: Let the country split into 3 parts. It wasn’t a united country in the first place (neither was Viet Nam, by the way); it became a “nation” by fiat at the end of WW I.