Recently I was talking about this blog with a friend who doesn’t read the site much and he made an interesting observation which roughly summarised was this: “What you are doing is easy. If the left is supposed to be about internationalism and solidarity then the arguments of the anti-war left can be pulled to pieces in five minutes. What would be much harder would be to take on the arguments of the anti-war right – the national interest argument.”
My defence of this blog’s preoccupation with opponents on the left was my usual one – the anti-war left argument is far more influential on public debate in the UK and is rarely challenged in the mainstream media – ripping into their arguments and mocking them may appear to be a cruel sport but someone has to do it.
But his comment did make me wonder why we hear such little from the conservative anti-war position. I’m not talking about the far right (the likes of Haider, Le Pen, Griffin and David Dukes have been united in opposition to the Iraq war and the subsequent struggles) but the fairly mainstream conservative view that overthrowing Saddam was not Britain’s job and we should not have got involved in some far away country.
Sure there are a few conservative newspaper columnists (Matthew Parris, Simon Jenkins and Peter Hitchens spring to mind) who have reflected this view and the odd Tory politician (Douglas Hurd, Ken Clarke) but generally people on the right, including the Conservative Party leadership, supported the overthrow of Saddam and have been broadly sympathetic to Blair’s broader policies in the struggle against Islamist terrorism.
There is no doubt that it would have been much tougher for the government had the Tories taken an anti-war position and if they were now taking a ‘blowback’ line on terrorism because an opposition which simply stated that Britain has no need to ‘meddle’ in the Middle East and should let the Arabs sort out for themselves whether they want to live under secular or theocratic dictatorship would resonate with the public far more than the anti-war left’s rhetoric about imperialism.
The progressive and anti-fascist position rests upon a core principle of the left – international solidarity. Let’s be honest – this is a notion which has always been much harder to ‘sell’ to the public than national interest. While there have been great movements built on this principle – the anti-apartheid movement being one good example – they were never able to get a million people on the streets. The general indifference to the slaughters in Rwanda and Sudan show that there is no huge constituency of opinion determined to ensure that democracies act to defend the weak, the oppressed and the victims of tyranny. Even when it was Europeans who lived under oppressive dictatorships – the political debate during the cold war was usually framed in terms of national interest, defence, treaties, the nuclear deterrent etc, rather than any focused attempt to best help the victims of dictatorships. The organisations of solidarity with, for example, Polish and Czech intellectuals, were tiny and had little impact on mainstream political debate.
The honourable exception to this broad picture of indifference is the trade union movement. During the cold war there were progressive trade unionists in western democracies who made sure that the plight of their brothers in sisters living under tyrannies (whether of the Stalinist or pro-US variant) remained in the public eye and who did their utmost to help their fellow workers. It is therefore no surprise that it is within the British trade union movement that we have seen the best traditions survive during the past few years. When the warped politics of the Stop the War Coalition led them to supporting the murderers of Iraqi labour leaders it was a leading left-wing trade unionist Mick Rix who pointed out the treachery of their position. The TUC and individual unions have been involved in solidarity work with Iraqi workers’ organisations. For many in the trade unions the old slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ remains alive.
But on much of the rest of the left – internationalism is out of fashion.
As Christopher Hitchens noted this week: How can so many people watch this as if they were spectators, handicapping and rating the successes and failures from some imagined position of neutrality? Do they suppose that a defeat in Iraq would be a defeat only for the Bush administration? The United States is awash in human rights groups, feminist organizations, ecological foundations, and committees for the rights of minorities. How come there is not a huge voluntary effort to help and to publicize the efforts to find the hundreds of thousands of “missing” Iraqis, to support Iraqi women’s battle against fundamentalists, to assist in the recuperation of the marsh Arab wetlands, and to underwrite the struggle of the Kurds, the largest stateless people in the Middle East? Is Abu Ghraib really the only subject that interests our humanitarians?
Given this weakness of internationalism we should be thankful that the right has not come forward with a coherently argued national-interest argument against Iraq and the broader war on terror. We should be thankful because such a position carries none of the contradictions and weaknesses of the anti-war left’s view – a conservative argument against humanitarian intervention has the advantage of internal logic.
If you were only interested in looking after the citizens of the British Isles then there was no need to worry about the victims of Saddam’s dictatorship so long as it didn’t directly threaten UK interests. There is no need now to agonise over the fate of Iraqi trade unionists, women, ethnic minorities and so on because they are, well, just Iraqis. If you don’t care about democratic rights for all citizens of the world then why bother about whether Sharia law is enforced on the people of Iraq or any other country– its their problem and why should we want to get involved?
Terrorism is of course clearly a matter of national interest when the fanatics are killing people on the London tube (not however when they are killing Iraqi schoolkids or Israeli housewifes) but while willing to talk tough about the terrorists an isolationist could still take an oppositional stance today by arguing that we have brought such troubles on ourselves by our meddling ways in the world – by an ‘unnecessary war’, by opening a ‘Pandora’s Box’, by not leaving well alone and through our arrogance in assuming that Iraqis, Afghans and Arabs deserve the same rights as the rest of us.
Hold on a minute – don’t these arguments sound familiar?
This is the curious thing about the past few years – a large part of the anti-war left has effectively substituted for the isolationist right. People who would proudly describe themselves as ‘internationalists’ have found themselves muttering about meddling and puffing indignantly about the rights of ‘sovereign states’.
The best example of this came when Gore Vidal was asked about how else the Iraqi people could be freed from Saddam’s terror state and replied: “Don’t you think that’s their problem? That’s not your problem and that’s not my problem.”
So, I shouldn’t really have been surprised when I was canvassing in Bethnal Green and a man who declared himself a “lifelong Tory” and who was voting Conservative told me that he had been on his first demonstration of his life on February 15, 2003 when he marched behind the banners of the SWP and listened to the speeches of Tariq Ali and George Galloway. When I suggested that Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam his reply was “They may well be but it was none of our business was it?”
So when my critical friend asked as to why on this blog we don’t deal with right-wing arguments against the Iraq war and the broader issues perhaps I should have replied: “But we do”.