What ‘anti-war’ movement?
The opposition to invading Iraq has little in common with anti-war politics of the past.
Since I was opposed to the previous US-UK invasion of Iraq, in the 1991 Gulf War, I am certainly opposed to the one now being planned by President George W Bush.
This time around, however, there seem to be many more voices speaking out against a war with Iraq. In Britain, a strange looking anti-war coalition has begun to form, involving Labour backbenchers, media pundits, senior churchmen, former government ministers and military top brass.
That ought to be good news. Yet the sudden swing against war with Iraq raises questions about the basis of their newfound concern, and whether they can offer effective opposition to Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair.
Why is there such a reaction against the idea of invading Iraq now? After all, in content the planned invasion is not very different to the last one.
As many have pointed out, we have been shown no evidence that the despotic but much-weakened Saddam Hussein has any weapons of mass destruction or plans to attack America. The Bush administration’s rhetoric about the global threat from Saddam thus looks like a pretext for a war that it wants to launch for its own political purposes. By contrast, in 1991, many accepted Saddam’s invasion of neighbouring Kuwait as a legitimate cause for Western military action.
Yet the Kuwaiti issue was arguably as much of a fig leaf for US war aims then as the weapons of mass destruction issue appears to be today. On the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US ambassador told Saddam that the White House (then occupied by President George Bush senior) had no interest in his border dispute with the Kuwaiti royals.
Once Iraq invaded, Washington turned Iraqi aggression and repression into the major issue of world affairs – while recruiting the repressive Saudi regime and Assad’s Syria (which was waging a bloody war of aggression in Lebanon) into its anti-Saddam alliance. Some of the most notorious atrocity stories that were circulated to justify the US-UK invasion – like the tale of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators – turned out to be fabrications.
You do not need to have any illusions in Saddam to see both the 1991 Gulf War and the invasion currently being planned more as a product of America’s foreign and domestic policies than as a product of events in Iraq. So why the different reaction from people in high places over here? It certainly is not because our societies have become more anti-imperialist in the intervening years. Indeed there is now an unprecedented consensus supporting the moral right of Western powers to intervene around the world.
The turning point in the construction of this consensus came at the end of the Gulf War, when many who had opposed the Allied intervention changed tack and demanded that the West use military force to protect the Iraqi Kurds against Saddam. Many of those now raising doubts about an invasion of Iraq are the same people demanding more Western intervention in the Middle East or Africa.
The new current of opinion opposed to plans for invading Iraq has little in common with the kind of anti-war or anti-imperialist politics that might have existed in the past. Instead, it reflects a peculiar cultural mood of our times. It rests upon a combination of fear, excessive caution and mistrust. It is uncomfortable with the idea not just of invading Iraq, but of taking any firm action that could have unforeseen consequences.
‘Before we take any action [against Iraq]’, says the Bishop of Guildford, ‘we need to know that the outcome will lead to greater justice than we have at present’ (1). Many other critics have echoed this demand for guarantees that the outcome of any invasion will be positive. This is, of course, a ridiculous demand.
In the real world nobody can guarantee the precise outcome of taking action involving others, least of all when it comes to war. Those demanding to know the outcome of the war before it starts are not making a specific objection to an invasion of Iraq. Rather, they are expressing a general anxiety about taking any decisive action anywhere.
It is as if the Precautionary Principle has now extended its influence from the world of science into political and social affairs. This fashionable principle, beloved of environmentalists, states that no action should be taken, however positive the potential outcome, unless we can be certain that there will not be negative side-effects. If we cannot be certain (and of course, we never can), it is deemed better to do nothing than to experiment or take any chances.
In this sense the precautionary opposition to invading Iraq today has much in common with the UK reaction against, say, GM foods or the MMR triple vaccination. And as on those issues, the pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and conspiracy-mongering means that, the more the government tries to reassure its critics, the more people become convinced that we are not being told the whole truth (it must be about oil, or Israel, or the US elections). On the Iraq issue, the precautionary principle is further strengthened by a powerful strain of anti-Americanism now found among many influential Brits.
The irrational air of panic among some critics of the planned invasion is reflected in their projection of fantastic fears into a post-war future. One Labour MP declared himself ‘dreadfully worried that this time retaliation will take the form of a bio-suicide bomber, someone strapping something to their body. Why are people not in Trafalgar Square night after night? We seem to be sleepwalking’ (2). Some of us certainly seem to be having nightmares.
Politics and society today are in an unprecedented state of stasis, almost paralysed by the idea of taking any decisive action with uncertain outcomes. This helps to explain the sudden spread of newfound concerns about invading Iraq among many who would have supported similar actions in the past. Much of this ‘anti-war’ movement is not anti-war at all.
It might be argued that, while applying the precautionary principle to GM foods or MMR has had negative consequences for humanity, applying the same principle to war could help prevent an invasion of Iraq. In reality, however, the precautionary doctrine of do-nothing powerlessness is no way to oppose the exercise of American military power. Nobody ever prevented war by throwing their hands in the air and asking for the world to be stopped so that they could get off.
The irony is that even the US and UK governments are not immune to this cultural mood of anxiety. As we have argued before on spiked, it has influenced their uncertain handling of the Afghan war and incoherent planning for an invasion of Iraq. It also makes somebody like Blair excessively sensitive to criticism from a few churchmen or newspapers, at a time when the wider public remains largely indifferent.
The internally generated insecurity of the Western political elite offers a more considerable barrier to the successful prosecution of a war against Iraq than does the opposition of any archbishop.
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