Iraqi crisis: childish stunts that are deadly serious
The build-up to war has all the hallmarks of silly, pointless student politics - with very high stakes.
All sides of the debate yelling abuse at each other. No serious discussion of issues or reference to reality. People proposing ridiculously far-fetched motions, while branding their enemies as ‘Nazis’ and their critics as ‘appeasers’. A lot of stomping off in a huff when you don’t get your way.
It has all the hallmarks of silly, pointless student politics. Except that this display of posturing and harrumphing has been taking place not on campus, but in the United Nations Security Council, between the great powers, over the very serious issue of attacking Iraq. The stakes are just a little higher than the average student bunfight. The outcome is set to be a destructive war in the real world rather than a drunken row in the union bar.
The build-up to the new Gulf War has been characterised by student-style empty gestures, from last week’s British proposal for Saddam Hussein to confess live on TV (why not demand that he wore a red nose too?), to this week’s melodramatic American demand that the Iraqi president get out of town within 48 hours. President George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair have been trying to project an image of strength and resolution. But, as usual with adolescent gestures and stunts, the effect has been the opposite.
The almost childish conduct (‘If you don’t give me what I want right now, I’m going home and taking my second resolution with me’) that has led to the Iraqi debacle reflects the fractures in all the traditions of diplomacy and solidarity among the Western powers.
One of the most telling TV moments of the past few days was the appearance of Sir Crispin Tickell, former UK ambassador to the UN, looking bewildered by the breakdown in relations between the US-UK alliance and the French government. The old school diplomat complained that he did not recognise the undiplomatic language being used, that this was not the way civilised nations do things, that diplomacy was about negotiation, not ‘shouting at one another from the sidelines’.
It is against this background of student politics on the international stage that the resigning British minister Robin Cook won so many plaudits – for at least managing to sound like a grown-up politician.
Cook is certainly no hero of the anti-war cause, having been foreign secretary and frontline government spokesman during the 1999 US-UK war against the Serbs – a bombing campaign, we might recall, carried out without scruple or UN endorsement. But the point Cook made in his resignation statement (1), about the absurdity of simultaneously claiming that Saddam is a powerful threat while picking on Iraq because it is weak, was a masterpiece of mature reflection compared to the shrill ‘Saddam is Hitler with a bigger moustache’ stuff emanating from the Bush camp.
Even the plans for a military attack on Iraq seem to have been shaped by the politics of image and gesture. It will begin with a ferocious aerial bombing campaign around Baghdad, designed to make the maximum impact with the minimum risk. Meanwhile there are plans for a joint British-American ‘soft’ invasion of southern Iraq, where Saddam is militarily and politically weak. The discussion behind this proposed assault gives an insight into the degraded level of strategic thinking.
The hope, say US officials, is for an occupation of the key southern city of Basra ‘that results in flag-waving crowds hugging British and American soldiers – all of which would create an immediate positive image of American and British war goals’. While troops are instructed to hand out food parcels to Iraqi children, military officials discuss ‘flying in television correspondents by helicopter to record any scenes of jubilation’. A spokesman for the US Marine Corps summed up the PR motive behind this supposed military strategy: ‘The first image of this war will define the conflict.’ (2)
But if the political conduct of the Iraqi crisis seems closer to a student debate or an electoral stunt, the consequences will be far more serious. The Iraqi people are set to suffer most directly, but there will be far wider ramifications for the future of the Gulf region, the rest of the Middle East, the Western alliance and the world. As we have argued before on spiked, although a US invasion of the ruined state of Iraq is a military non-contest, in the longer term this is a war from which there will be no real winners (3).
What, then has become of the massive anti-war movement that we were promised could not only prevent conflict over Iraq but change the face of British politics? It turns out that the protests were just gestures, too. ‘Not in My Name’ was never the slogan of a political anti-war movement. It was more the cry of disengaged individuals, concerned to make a personal statement of unhappiness about a war that they felt powerless to do anything about in practice.
Having made that statement on the big February march, they return home to watch the real drama unfold on their TV screens. Thus the demonstration called for this Saturday, by when the war is expected to have started, will be much smaller than the one held a month before the bombing began. It is a strange anti-war movement that becomes more passive and less visible once the shooting has started.
Clare Short embodies the empty gesture mentality of many leading critics of war against Iraq. Having sat in Blair’s cabinet as international development secretary through the build-up to the conflict, she publicly threatens to resign if war starts without a second UN resolution, then decides not to when the ‘moment of truth’ arrives (for the good of the Iraqi people, of course). Short’s display of cowardice and self-preservation dressed up in the language of principle transports the low politics of the student coffee bar on to the top table of international affairs.
And then there are the celebrity anti-war poseurs, who know a quick PR opportunity when they see one. The latest is Robbie Williams, who has written his first protest song, called ‘Happy Easter (War is Coming)’, due for release in mid-April (his timing is apparently as bad as his lyrics). Having declared that this is the first big event he has been ‘grown-up enough to have a view about’, Robbie says ‘I’m really scared, to tell you the truth. It’s a really serious thing for me. I don’t understand it. I’m scared because I don’t know who to trust.’ With grown-up opposition like this, the American and British governments can carry on up the Gulf.
War in the Gulf is too serious a matter to be left to the practitioners of gesture politics on all sides. To challenge what looks like an infantilised imperialism will require an adult debate about the abc of political principles today.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) See the full text of Robin Cook’s speech on CNN
(2) Allies Hope to Move Quickly to Seize City in Iraq’s South, New York Times, 18 March 2003
(3) A war in which there will be no winners, by Mick Hume
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