Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Fanatically opposed to fanatics

12 April 2004

The coalition is just as inflexible as its opponents about the political outcome it is willing to allow in Iraq. But, if it wants peace, it is going to have to learn to let go.

When something goes horribly wrong there is only a limited satisfaction to be gained from saying "I told you so." That is why people who opposed the war in Iraq a year ago do not now advocate unilateral withdrawal by the coalition forces. Governments such as the French and German, and the Liberal Democrats in Britain, all now embrace continued engagement in Iraq to complete a process that they believed ought not to have been started. As always where events are concerned, it is necessary to make one's decisions in circumstances as they are, not as one would like them to be.

For all that, there is an aspect to "I told you so" from which historical reassurance can legitimately be drawn. When a prediction is born out by events the satisfaction lies not in the smugness of the predictor but in the testing of the methodology from which the prediction was drawn. In other words, "I told you so" is not shorthand for "I was right and you were wrong" but a way of pointing out that there are reliable historical methods of weighing the consequences of certain actions. If politicians ignore the warnings of these methods they are likely to come unstuck.

The article posted here on 14 July last year concluded as follows:

"There can be only two outcomes. If Blair didn't tell Bush this then he should have done.

"Either: the American display of military force continues, suffers casualties and becomes entrenched in a lengthy stalemate against mounting, disparate opposition united only in its antipathy to the allied occupation

"or: the house of cards stays up long enough for the Americans and their allies to make a dignified departure. In which case what happens next may remain within American influence but is beyond American control.

"It may nor be a palatable choice, but it is a choice of sorts. With a presidential election coming up one would have thought the or was preferable to the either. But whether the backroom geo-strategists of the White House will so readily abandon their ambitions is uncertain. And Mr Blair's army is tied to the tails of their coats."

Events of the past fortnight demonstrate that the house of cards has not stayed up long enough; or, more accurately, that the coalition did not make its exit is time. By default the United States has chosen the either outcome, its declared hand-over of power in June merely a fig leaf intended to cover up a continued occupation. This decision has been forced upon it because its actions so far in Iraq have not matched a coherent strategy.

The lack of coherence was there from the start. Coalition war aims were variously the removal of Iraqi WMD, or "regime change" requiring the removal of Saddam Hussein, or the creation in Iraq of a western-friendly secular democracy. In this last instance the question of how to go about it was not gone into. Removal of WMD has proved a redundant task, while Saddam Hussein was deposed some months ago and has now been arrested. Now 150,000 foreign troops are stuck in Iraq trying to contain a situation that their presence and behaviour has created. They stay because they fear a bloodbath if they leave; meanwhile the violence stimulated by their presence increases.

Tony Blair, in an article for the Observer, writes of a heroic struggle between freedom and fanaticism being played out in Iraq. He blames the violence on former Saddam sympathisers, terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda and followers of the Shia cleric, Muqtada-al-Sadr while forgetting that these groups are the militant expression of the widespread detestation of the American-led occupation of Iraq. Doubtless the majority of Iraqis deplore the violence, but that does not mean that they deplore its objective of bringing the occupation to an end. Nor do they see the violence as one-sided. They experience the fire power of the occupying force and remember how many of their own people have been killed since this war started. Tony Blair probably cannot see that from an Iraqi perspective "freedom" could mean freedom from the occupation and "fanaticism" could mean the western obsession with secular democracy. It takes two to struggle and the perception of heroism may exist on both sides.

Is Blair a fanatic? Writing about "the terrorists" he says: "They know it is a historic struggle. They know their victory would do far more than defeat America or Britain. It would defeat civilisation and democracy everywhere." That is strong stuff, and any truth it may have resides in the fact that the Bush-Blair rhetoric has made it so. If you tell terrorists that their outrages will "defeat civilisation and democracy everywhere" you encourage them to do their worst. But Blair remains a fundamentalist on this issue and will brook no countervailing view: "The truth is, faced with this struggle, on which our own fate hangs, a significant part of Western opinion is sitting back, if not half-hoping we fail, certainly replete with schadenfreude at the difficulty we find."

Logically there is good reason for hoping that the coalition project in Iraq fails. The reason is that it will discourage similar, ill-conceived adventures in the future and may, just may, provoke a necessary re-evaluation of how problems of global security should be addressed. Part of the answer to this may prove not un-related to what Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor is reported to have said on GMTV's Sunday programme, namely that 'if the Western world were to devote itself in a very real and sacrificial way to helping ... those parts of the world that live in gross poverty, and did it in a way that actually denied themselves, then I think we'd have a more peaceful world.'

This is a large question. In the meantime, and in relation to Iraq, it is reasonable to hope for the failure of the aspect of the coalition adventure that is harmful to the prospects for a more peaceful world while not wishing the situation in the country to collapse in chaos. But merely hoping and wishing is not enough. A viable alternative strategy is needed that satisfies the objections to the Iraq adventure while addressing the reality of what has happened.

It is never easy for an occupying power to leave a country in which it has not been welcome. The British approach as the sun was setting on its empire was to set up the house of cards and get out quick. Implicit in this was the understanding that you could not control what happened after you left.

The Americans do not like this. They want to go on controlling after they've "left", because they want to control what sort of government emerges in Iraq. If they don't, the whole point of the "regime change" is lost. This is precisely the part of the project they now need to abandon if anything is to be salvaged from the rapidly deteriorating situation. The coalition needs to recast itself as liberators" from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein unfreighted with any baggage concerning what replaces it. It may be uncertain whether Iraq can sort out a free democracy for itself, but it is quite certain that it will not accept having one imposed upon it by neo-colonialist diktat.

 ©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004