War etc

The Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons?

George Monbiot is back on the Iraq issue in the Guardian today and arguing about the ‘moral case for war’.

Monbiot is right to point out the opportunistic way in which leaders have started to talk as if this was the only reason they went to war when of course they presented the case as being one of national security, WMD etc.

But where I depart with Monbiot is when he says:

I do believe that there was a moral case for deposing Saddam – who was one of the world’s most revolting tyrants – by violent means. I also believe that there was a moral case for not doing so, and that this case was the stronger. That Saddam is no longer president of Iraq is, without question, a good thing. But against this we must weigh the killing or mutilation of thousands of people; the possibility of civil war in Iraq; the anger and resentment the invasion has generated throughout the Muslim world and the creation, as a result, of a more hospitable environment in which terrorists can operate; the reassertion of imperial power; and the vitiation of international law. It seems to me that these costs outweigh the undoubted benefit.

Let us test this cost/benefit analysis by looking at things another way – the only other route that might have been possible for liberation in Iraq to be carried out.

Let us imagine that the opposition to Saddam had been in a position to launch a revolution aimed at overthrowing the dictator, which sadly was not the case. As Monbiot says there was a moral case to use violence to achieve the “good thing” that was the removal of the dictatorship. Given that there was little sign of a reform-Ba’athist tendency there can be no doubt about the necessity of violence.

With an armed uprising by a united Iraqi opposition would there have been the killing and mutilation of thousands of people?

I strongly suspect there would have been. Certainly the past attempts to remove Saddam internally ended in mass bloodshed and almost exclusively it was the blood of the opponents of Saddam. To even get into the position of taking up arms against Saddam the opposition would have had to be armed by outside powers turning them into something close to an army and so in effect any revolution would have consisted of a civil war. This is speculation but I suspect that such a war would have lasted much longer than the initial intensive phase of combat when the Americans invaded and it is hard to imagine an ending which would be much different from the current resistance situation.

Presuming that the Iraqi opposition would not have been able to call on all of the hi-tech weaponry avaliable to US and British forces (how do you create a clandestine revolutionary air force for starters?) I think it is fair to presume that a revolutionary army, however well provided with weaponry for ground use, would have been involved in a much longer, tougher ground war which would have carried the risk of even higher amounts of civilian deaths.

One thing we can be absolutely certain about is that the arming the insurgents option would have avoided only one negative result of war. There would have been no British or American casualties. More Iraqis dead but none of our own. Factor that into the moral equation.

Would an armed revolution, which would by necessity have had to be backed by outside powers, have created anger and resentment…..throughout the Muslim world ?

Monbiot’s case presumes that the ‘Muslim world’, however one is supposed to define that, is actually united in opposition to the liberation of Iraq. In fact there are differences of opinion among Muslims about the war. But if we presume that it would have been mainly western powers who armed the opposition for their revolution (a fair presumption given that Arab rulers had plenty of time to act in solidarity with the Iraqi masses and rejected such a move and that Iranian involvement would have been politically difficult to justify) no doubt those who oppose western invasion would still have opposed what would certainly have been labelled western interference.

As for the terrorists. Would their position have been so different? A western backed uprising, involving secular democratic forces, would have hardly been more palatable to them or to those who give them passive or active support. And is there any reason to presume that in a civil war against Iraqis Saddam would not have called upon Jihadists to join him in the counter-revolution against the ‘infidel-backed rebels’? I think not.

What about international law? Well I am no expert in this area but I presume Monbiot is referring here to the negative impact that war has had on the United Nations and the rules by which UN states operate. We can only guess as to how the UN would have reacted to western powers arming insurgents in Iraq but it is unlikely they would have passes a resolution in support of such an idea. Indeed I can imagine that such an action would have been criticised by some as setting the dangerous precedent of western powers arming oppositions of their choice and formenting civil war.

Would such a route of action have led to the ‘re-asserting of imperial power’? Well, if it had been the US who had been the major supporter of the armed revolution and I suspect it would have been, by providing the Iraqi opposition with weapons, would they not have been continuing the same imperialist policy they followed in the cold war in places like Nicaragua? The entire American strategy during the post-Vietnam period was based on backing their side through weapons and other forms of clandestine support (CIA operatives etc)

I would conclude then that a strategy of supporting an armed uprising against Saddam, without direct outside military intervention, would have carried all the negative consequences that Monbiot objects to. Indeed given that the balance of forces would have been much more even, the dictatorship would have had a much better chance of winning and inflicting thousands of more deaths to the toll of their decades long rule – quite a big risk to factor into the equation.

The alternative to war or armed revolution, was to continue with a strategy of ‘containment’ which carried the price of the Iraqi people’s liberty and which would have certainly have continued to result in torture and death. This was morally indefensible.

Interestingly, Monbiot wrote back in November that there was a case for a just war if it met certain conditions:

It is not difficult to conceive of a just war against Iraq. We know that it is governed by one of the world’s most bestial regimes, and that the lives of its people would be immeasurably improved if that regime was replaced by a democratic government. If this was indeed the purpose of an attack, if less violent means of achieving the same result had been exhausted, if it was legal and if the attacker was a nation with no recent record of expansionism and foreign aggression, which had no special interest in Iraq’s resources, and whose political class was not talking of creating a “new imperium”, we should support it. But none of these conditions has been met.

In other word – a war to remove Saddam could have been just if it did not involve the United States. Monbiot’s objection to the US had two elements. Firstly the US was an imperial power and it would be wrong to support its imperial ambitions. Secondly the US was not interested in democracy for Iraq.

In November he wrote: For the past six months, the US government has been questioning the legitimacy of the Iraqi opposition movement and hinting that it might replace Saddam Hussein with another military leader.

We should not, of course, ignore the possibility that the US may change its mind about the future governance of Iraq, or that a democratic revolution might be an accidental outcome of an invasion of that country. Nor should we forget that some of Iraq’s oppressed peoples would welcome a war against Saddam, whoever waged it and for whatever purpose. But against their understandable enthusiasm must be weighed the global consequences of this war.

As we know the US did reject the option of another military leader and chose the path of an attempt at democracy instead. It has formed a broad based governing council and has a timetable for handing power over to that body with a view to full and free elections. But Monbiot has noticable ignored that reality.

So we have found the core of Monbiot’s opposition to war – it is the fact that the US carried out the act of liberation. This is the major problem for many in the anti-war movement who have actually spent any time considering other ways of liberating the Iraqi people.

As he puts it in today’s article: Of course, it is possible for empires to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and upon this possibility the hawks may hang their last best hopes of justification. But the wrong reasons, consistently applied, lead at the global level to the wrong results. Let us argue about the moral case for war by all means; but let us do so in the knowledge that it had nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq.

Of course I think to understand the actions of the US it is worth looking at the whole neo-conservative strategy for the Middle East, in which democratisation is a key element. But let’s put that aside for the moment and look at Monbiot’s point that the US can do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

This is precisely the point that so many on the pro-war left have been making. It may be the case that the US is acting out of self-interest in Iraq, indeed it would be a surprise if it were not.

So the fact is that Monbiot and those who share his world view have gone on the streets to oppose the right thing (the liberation of a people from a fascist dictatorship) because it was done for the wrong reason.

Now, what is the moral case for that?

(Update: Norman Geras has taken a look at the same Monbiot piece)