Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Abuse, but in good faith

10 May 2004

Politicians who wring their hands at the abuse practised by their forces in Iraq should remember where the abuse started - with a false prospectus for war created out of spinning and deception.

The English speaking world does not, in general, do guilt. Instead it does apology, and is inclined to think itself magnanimous in that respect. Even the genocidal policies whereby the indigenous societies of North America and Australasia were displaced left few scars on the settler societies that carried them out. Britain, and her colonial daughters, genuinely believed that the civilisation that swept all before them was a good thing. If the process was messy, it wasn't intended to be so. And the result was certainly worth it.

That's one way of looking at it: history on a grand scale that doesn't trouble itself about the details. According to this, fundamental human rights are so deeply rooted in the Anglo-Saxon body politic, which never really bought into the repressive feudal structure of the Norman invaders, that one doesn't have to worry about them. They may, at times, have been slow - painfully slow - to be asserted. In America it wanted a civil war to abolish finally the institution of slavery. But the rights of an Englishman (and his global inheritors) stand higher in the eyes of the state than the collective interest or security of the public in this respect, no matter what excesses individuals may commit.

So that's alright, then. When it comes to torture, killings and abuse of prisoners in Iraq, it is an article of faith that, whereas Saddam's abuses were state-orchestrated, those of American and British forces are individual, out of character, unacceptable, not widespread and definitely not state-sanctioned. Responsibility is kept at the lowest possible level, for fear that contamination might spread to commanders, or even, horror of horrors, to the political executive of whom it is axiomatic that they always act "in good faith". When generals and politicians are asked about these matters they are always "investigating the allegations". They are never being investigated themselves.

"Good faith" covers a multitude of sins. It permitted Tony Blair to overcome powerful political opposition on the way to the invasion of Iraq, and it permits him to escape responsibility for the fact that the premise of the war, (which he believed in good faith) was a false one. When Clare Short revealed the extent of British phone-tapping activities at the U.N. and elsewhere, she was widely condemned for talking about something that, although not acceptable, was acceptable provided nobody talked about it. This sort of institutionalised ignorance is essential to the maintenance of good faith, because the doctrine of acting in good faith extends beyond things that politicians don't know about to things that they do know about but can pretend that they don't.

Senior politicians on both sides of the Atlantic (but not Mr Rumsfeld) have stated that they only found out about the abuses in Iraq when they saw them on television. Iraqis, of course, have known about and have been complaining of them for months, but nobody was interested until they saw the images on prime-time T.V. What is driving this story, therefore, is not the desire to protect the individual human rights of Iraqi prisoners but the (largely commercial) interests of the news machine, the domestic political agenda in both the U.S. and the U.K. and the manoeuvring of people from top to bottom of the chain of responsibility as they try to ensure that the mud sticks to anyone but themselves.

So Messrs. Bush and Blair have been rather unlucky. They have found out the hard way about something they would rather not have heard about. But while busily defending their good faith by (a) saying that they didn't know and (b) apologising to anyone who will listen, they are presiding over governments the actions of which led inevitably to the consequences that they so abhor. Neither man, for example, is likely to have known of the methods of interrogation taught and practised by their own special forces, but The Guardian reported on Saturday that among them are precisely the techniques of sexual humiliation now complained of. It is said that their use or encouragement by non-military contractors is the real cause of the excesses.

It is not difficult to believe that these techniques are taught in U.S. and British training schools; and clearly these details are the last thing that Bush/Blair would want to know. Similarly, the use of non-military contractors in intelligence rôles is probably something the U.S. Commander in Chief prefers not to think about. This particular chain of command breaks down before it starts since these are operators who do not appear to be unaccountable to anyone. It doesn't get near the political stratosphere in which president and prime minister move.

In what sense, therefore, are these leaders accountable for the actions carried out by the states over which they preside? Merely saying, as opposition politicians are wont to, that these men "should have known", carries little credibility in a world where government is so large and complicated. People at the top of any large organisation can only hope to lead by ethos and example. They seek effective change by addressing the culture of their enterprise, ensuring that a clear message about what is wanted permeates down through the strata and influences the actions of the people on the ground. In politics this is particularly so, since the actions and statements of leaders are so public. The ethos cultivated in the government as a whole rapidly infects the tone of its agents as they judge, first, what is required of them and, second, what means they are permitted to employ.

For New Labour, the theoretical underpinning for the Third Way was the concept of "what works" - detached from dogma and even, perhaps, from moral principle in the single-minded pursuit of results. "What works" is a respectable approach intellectually, provided there is prior agreement about the result that is desired. If the desired result is--- a peaceful and democratic Iraq, it is doubtful whether the humiliation and abuse of Iraqi prisoners can be said to be "what works" towards that end. If, on the other hand, the desired result is information (which is reasonable from the point of view of an agent conducting intelligence interviews in a prison), then degrading practices of this sort may well be effective.

The problem for the British government is that it applied the "what works" test to each aspect of its war policy in just this short term way, with direct consequences for the ethos with which the enterprise is surrounded. So while politicians wring their hands at the abuse practised by their forces they should remember where the abuse started: with the massaging of intelligence; with the bludgeoning of a parliamentary majority; with a serious economy of truthfulness and a pretence not to know. From imprisonment without trial for suspected terrorists (under conditions that drove at least one of them to insanity) to the spinning of intelligence to provide a wholly spurious (as it turned out) basis for the invasion of Iraq, the government soiled its hands as often as necessary to achieve its immediate aims. All these things have now led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of coalition troops for an objective that was ill-defined at the outset and is now further than ever from being fulfilled.

If the desired result really was a peaceful and democratic Iraq, then war of any sort was never most likely to achieve it. Now that end is far away, and the notion of "what works" is lost completely since nobody knows any more what was the purpose of the war in the first place. Its sole achievement has been completely destructive - the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein - and with this accomplished there remains a directionless free-for-all in which the distinction between good and bad is increasingly blurred.