No to moral imperialism – and moral defeatism
Many of those opposed to the war in Iraq have drawn entirely wrong conclusions from the debacle.
Two stories published in British newspapers on the same day provide a striking contrast in images of the conflict in Iraq.
The first reported that two young British Muslims, Iraqi-born but raised in London, had gone back to Iraq to join the militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fighting US forces in the holy city of Najaf. The London Muslims, aged 23 and 21, declared that they want to fight for al-Sadr because ‘we believe it is the right side’, and the Coalition occupation is ‘evil against the angels’ (1).
The second story reported that another young Londoner, a 20-year-old private in the British Army, had been shot dead in an ambush in the Iraqi city of Basra. The dead soldier’s aunt vented the family’s anger against the British government. ‘He’d gone there thinking it’s not a war zone. We thought it was ridiculous that someone so young who had just come out of basic training was sent there. My message to Tony Blair is: why are we still there? Get the rest of the kids out.’ (2)
On one side, there is a clear commitment to fight for a cause in Iraq. On the other, a deep uncertainty about what the Iraqi war is for. These stories provide a powerful illustration of what we might call the conviction gap between the West and its enemies in the world today.
That conviction gap is often ascribed to the dynamic strength of Islamic fundamentalism. But this is largely illusory. In Iraq, the radical Shiite militias remain rag-tag outfits. Within Britain, young Muslims who claim to support al-Qaeda or al-Sadr often have trouble making a coherent case for their chosen cause. So the video messages left behind by two British Muslims who went off to Palestine to be suicide bombers revealed little more than a vacuous, almost childish, anti-Western nihilism. The apparent potency of radical Islam is largely parasitic on the weakness of Western society, only drawing its appearance of strength from the lack of belief at the heart of Britain and America today.
The US-led occupation of Iraq, as reported on spiked from the start, has been distinguished by its uncertain goals and faltering, defensive character. The recent American assault on Najaf just about sums it up. It has been a desperate attempt to find some sort of symbolic ‘victory’ that can give the appearance of authority to the new phantom Iraqi regime, as when the Americans staged a dramatic assault on al-Sadr’s house – which they knew would be empty – for the benefit of the television cameras. Yet at the same time, the US forces have seemed wary of pressing home their overwhelming military advantage over the militias – bombing and shelling from a safe distance, moving troops forward and then almost immediately pulling them back, promising not to damage Najaf’s holy shrine, and so on.
This is hardly the behaviour of an authoritative occupying power. It is, however, fairly typical of a Coalition leadership that pulled out of Iraq in spirit, if not in body, a long time ago. Today the American leadership in Iraq seems preoccupied with protecting its own people rather than running Iraq, dug in behind massive security in the centre of Baghdad while many Iraqis never see a US soldier. Andrew Gillgan reports that the British military in Basra have similarly been told to ‘hunker down, go out less and take minimum risks’ (3). Meanwhile reporters quote American GIs as saying that they no longer know what they are meant to be in Iraq for (4).
That is hardly surprising. All of the excuses about invading Iraq to save the West from Saddam’s deadly weapons of mass destruction, or to bring peace and democracy to the Iraqi people, have long since fallen flat. That might not matter so much if there was some powerful, broader sense of purpose and mission about the role of America and the West in the world. But there is no sign of any such thing, despite the empty bombast of Washington hawks and the conspiratorial claims of empire-building from their left-wing critics.
However, the lack of conviction behind the war in Iraq is also reflected in the confused expressions of opposition to it within the West. There is little or no coherent criticism of the war and occupation. Instead there seems to be a growing mood of wanting to erase Iraq from the news, to make it all just go away, to – in the words of that dead soldier’s aunt – ‘Get the kids out’.
The problem with this is that many of those now opposed to the war in Iraq appear to be drawing entirely wrong conclusions from the debacle. Instead of a critique of moral imperialism, we have been left with a mood of moral defeatism.
One lesson we should surely and finally learn from Iraq is to oppose Western wars of intervention that are supposed to save the rest of the world from itself. They do not work. You cannot ‘liberate’ other people on their behalf. And internationalising local conflicts tends to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problems. That is why we at spiked have always been resolutely anti-interventionist.
Yet that is not the conclusion many are drawing from events in Iraq. Indeed, amid all of the furore about dodgy WMD dossiers or the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, there has been little debate about the principle of intervention, and even less of an attempt to defend the concepts of sovereignty or self-determination. Those who favour foreign interventions that are said to defend human rights continue to occupy the moral high ground in the West. Thus there have been loud demands for more intervention in Sudan, often from the same quarters where criticism of the Iraq adventure has been loudest.
At the same time, however, after Iraq few in the West appear to have much stomach for a fight – including the pro-intervention lobby. In societies unsure of what they stand for, there is a creeping feeling that perhaps nothing is really worth the sacrifice. It is this defensiveness that has allowed the opponents of the Iraq war to gain ground.
Yet this defeatist state of mind is a problem, even for us at spiked who oppose such wars of intervention. A cynical society that does not seem to believe in anything of substance is unlikely to achieve much that is worthwhile. A passive society that is so unsure what values if any might be worth defending is not going to be persuaded to support a progressive cause. It is far better for our societies to stand and fight for something, even if it is the wrong thing, than to shrug their collective shoulders and give up.
That is why we need to wage a new culture war in Britain and the West, to establish what values and historic gains we believe are worth fighting for in the future. It will be a start if we can take a stand against both moral imperialism and moral defeatism in the political post-mortem on the Iraq war.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: War on Iraq
(1) The Britons fighting for the Mahdi army, The Times (London), 11 August 2004
(2) Dead soldier’s family: Get troops out of Iraq, Scotsman, 11 August 2004
(3) Bloody uprisings that expose self-delusion of British policy, Andrew Gilligan, London Evening Standard, 11 August 2004
(4) GIs in Iraq are asking: Why are we here?, Boston Globe, 12 August 2004