Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 71
11th September 2002
Why Britain Should not Join in the War against Iraq
The newspapers—at least, those that I read—and virtually all the politicians, seem agreed on war with Iraq. There is, as ever, much dissent from the Establishment position, not least in the opinion polls. But the only questions outstanding among those who matter in this country are when and with how much force. I am among the dissidents. I believe that war with Iraq would not secure any sufficiently great British interest, and therefore that it would inflict unnecessary suffering. In this article, I will explain the grounds for my belief.
I accept that war is a legitimate instrument of state policy. This being said, it is a terrible instrument. It brings immediate death and maiming to serviceman, and nowadays to much larger numbers of civilians. It also can have longer term and still worse consequences in terms of further commitments and lingering hatreds. And it is commonly used as an excuse for higher taxes and losses of freedom at home. Before going to war, then, we need closely to examine whether the full weight of certain and probable suffering can be justified in terms of the national interest.
This is, I know, a loose concept, and can be twisted by bellicose politicians and journalists in defence of any number of foreign interventions. Even so, it can be given reasonably clear meaning. We can divide the national interest into primary, secondary and tertiary. For Britain, as for other countries, the primary interest is the security of our home territory, so that we can go safely about our everyday business. For us, since we are a trading nation largely dependent on imported food and other resources, primary interest also includes securing the sea approaches to our islands. Our secondary interest includes remaining on friendly terms with our immediate neighbours—and, where convenient, enjoying a loose and benevolent dominion over them. Our tertiary interests are the protection of British lives and property in other countries.
The first of these interests is about as absolute as can be imagined. A credible threat of nuclear annihilation, without hope of retaliating, might justify abandoning it. But short of that, territorial defence justifies any degree of force—always granting it is reasonably unavoidable, and no more than is needed to secure its object. The second and third depend much more on circumstances, and require nice judgements of whether the force needed is worth the desired object.
Of course, even primary interest is not always easy to define in detail, and there is room for disagreement. I do not think, for example, there is any doubt that our first big war with Louis XIV was justified. He had taken in the exiled Stuart King, and was actively working for his restoration. That would, if successful, have entailed the voiding of our constitution and our becoming a satellite of France. But was our second big war with him—over the Spanish succession—equally justified? Perhaps the effective joining of France and Spain would have enabled a more successful attack on us in the future. Perhaps not. Some claimed it was a war of national defence, others that it was an excuse for the Whigs and the moneyed interest to entrench themselves still further. There are similar debates over our two big wars of the last century, and over the Cold War. I take a pacific line on all three, though accept that there are often persuasive arguments on the other side. But, while there is room for debate over its meaning in any given set of circumstances, primary interest usually can be defined, and even defined without controversy.
What makes these arguments over interest so important it that a clear understanding of them is the best means of avoiding or containing wars. When a country’s interests are settled and stated to the rest of the world, they can be taken into account by other countries. Sometimes, they will conflict with those of other countries, and there may be a war. At least as often, though, their statement will provide a stable framework within which other countries can pursue their own interests in the most economic manner. For example, in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Bismarck knew that helping France was not in British interests, and that its reduction would in itself bring no adverse consequences. At the same time, he knew that trying to shorten the war by an attack through Belgium, or a long occupation of France, or a seizure of its colonies, would provoke some level of British response. There are many other cases where wars have been avoided or contained by turning foreign policy into a game of chess.
To be sure, a country can try to widen its primary interest to include more than territorial security. The Romans and British did this in defence of their empires, and the Americans in Indo-China when they announced the containment of Communism to be part of their primary interest. However, unless—as with the British and Romans – the additional territories are seriously regarded as part of the home territory, this will tend to destabilise international relations. Despite all that was said in Washington, the Soviets and local Communists knew that the American commitment to South Vietnam and Cambodia was not absolute, and that enough escalation of the war would get the Americans out.
Nor is it merely prudential for a country to narrow its definition of primary interest to defence of the home territory. A state is nothing more than the agent of the people who live in a country. It is therefore morally obliged to take a narrow—and even selfish – view of the national interest. If a man, acting in his personal capacity, gives money to charity, he is rightly praised for his virtue. If he does the same as a trustee, without taking instructions, or against the clear terms of his trust, he rightly opens himself to action in the courts. It is the same with politicians. It is one thing for a minister to resign from office and sign up for some foreign cause in which he passionately believes. It is something else for him to commit the lives and money of other people to going about the world as a knight errant.
And so, before starting a war with Iraq, it is necessary for our Government to show as clearly as possible what British interests will thereby be secured and at what probable cost. So far, this has not been done.
We are told that Saddam Hussain has, or soon will have, “weapons of mass destruction”, and that he plainly intends to use these against us. If true, this would justify war. However, there is no credible evidence that he has these weapons. His country has been under close blockade since 1990. Nothing enters or leaves without knowledge. For much of this time, it has been subject to close internal inspection by the United Nations. Notoriously, the inspectors have found nothing. Claims that Mr Hussain is “about” to develop such weapons are based on simple assertion: any evidence on which the claims are based remains unpublished. Even if he does or soon will have these weapons, there is no reason to suppose he intends to use them against us. Where are his means of delivery against a modern, well-defended country like ours? What reason have we to believe he would even try? We are told that he might try using them. He might try doing any number of things. He might dye his hair green, or have a sex change operation. But there is no reason to suppose he will do any such thing. Until 1990, his main objectives were to keep himself in power by murdering anyone who got in his way, and to bully his neighbours whenever he thought the Americans would approve. His known character is as black as can be imagined, but does not seem likely to endanger any primary British interest.
There is the oil. Iraq has large reserves, and the invasion of Kuwait would have greatly increased these—as would whatever degree of control over Saudi Arabia Mr Hussain might have contemplated in 1990. But there is a lot of oil in the world outside his reach; and at best, he might simply have increased his own revenues by selling oil at prices set within a larger market. Tertiary British interests might have suffered by his local hegemony—and might still suffer if he were freed from the blockade of his country. But the necessary action in defence of these would not be proportionate to their value.
Even without the Americans to do most of the fighting and spending, we could probably invade Iraq at little immediate cost. But we are not just talking here about immediate cost. Destroying the present Iraqi Government would almost certainly fragment the country, leading to threats of partial annexation by Turkey and Iran and Syria, and to chronic instability in those parts that remained. Conquest must therefore entail indefinite occupation. This in turn must raise hatreds throughout the rest of the Islamic world that we now know cannot be ignored. We cannot know exactly what would be the final costs of war would be, but we have excellent reason to know that they would be heavier than of any previous intervention in that region.
There is another attempted justification—still passing round by word of mouth. This is that the Iraqis were behind the American bombings last 11th September. If they were, this might justify war. As I have granted elsewhere, these bombings were rather like piracy, so far as they could easily be repeated against any other Western country; and therefore, a war of punishment could possibly be justified in terms of primary interest.
The problem here, though, is credibility. We were repeatedly assured that Osama bin Laden had directed those bombings. On the strength of these assurances, we invaded Afghanistan. We are now stuck there, trying to keep order between various gangs of bandits; and the evidence on which we went in has turned out so insubstantial that it is being quietly withdrawn in favour of a new set of accusations. Without firm, published evidence for an Iraqi connection, I for one do not intend to give a moment’s belief to these accusations.
I can think of one other valid reason for war. This is that we have a strong interest in keeping friendly with the Americans. Sooner or later, some mainstream British politician will squeeze together enough courage to argue for withdrawal from the European Union. This argument will be more easily won if there is the alternative open of joining NAFTA. I would prefer withdrawal to be followed by no other connection. To twist the old Socialist Worker slogan, I want neither Brussels nor Washington, but complete national independence. However, domination by the second would be less humiliating and more accountable than by the first. And if we are to keep that option open, perhaps we need to show willing in whatever crusade Mr Bush cares to announce.
The argument against is that there is probably no such need. The Americans encouraged the formation of the European Union back in the days when they wanted a local counterweight to the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Those days have passed, and the Americans are now beginning to see the European Union as at least an annoying competitor for world influence. Weakening it, by pulling Britain out, is in their interests regardless of whether we join or fail to join in their war against Iraq. Indeed, for the British Government to take the European line, of neutrality, might bring the weakening of the European Union closer to the top of the American foreign policy agenda.
And so, for what little it may be worth, my sentence is for peace. If the Americans really want a war with Iraq, let them fight it by themselves, and let them by themselves pay whatever costs it may entail.