September 2, 2002

Let's Go To War With Iraq

In response, no doubt, to my instruction in this place last week to shape up, the advocates of starting a war with Iraq have been busy. In Britain, the charge was led by Sir John Keegan, who (to the point of parody) perorated with the conclusion that, were Churchill alive, he'd strike. It's the season for that sort of thing in the Telegraph, for a week earlier Bill Deedes was asking, what would Diana have done, were she alive? Not about Iraq, obviously, but a nice enough touch of 'what's new in the Necropolis today?' you'll agree. As it happens, we don't need Sir John to put himself in Sir Winston's place, for we already know what Churchill as Air, then Colonial secretary did do when it comes to policing Iraq – and the exact phrase we're looking for is, 'gas bombs'. Still, we're above that sort of thing today, what with us having nuclear weapons. But now we face the problem that the desperately unoriginal Mr Hussein is yet again, tediously on the brink of acquiring his own Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD], and what are we going to do about that? The answer, inexpertly made, is, from the vast majority of our brethren on the right: War! So, let's see why we should go to war, what that's supposed to achieve, and – for personal perversity as much as anything else – let's also consider why the easy to make case for intervention has been so lousily presented to date.

There are probably few more difficult beats on any British newspaper than having to be the poor sod who presents America to Conrad Black, which is to say, you've got to be jolly careful what you write when you're the Telegraph's North America correspondent, for you know damn well who's going to be reading back in London. Poor David Rennie currently has to serve up what's happening in Washington, with at least one eye to what Lord Black would like to be happening there. One consequence of this is that the situation in the leading, Let's Go To War With Iraq, state is invariably filtered through the neuroses of its Conservative War Party. The sort of thing that this entails is that we end up hearing about the weighty problems Washington faces, not least, for example, because she is all alone, poor diddums, with not an ally in sight. When, in fact, with the hated French, and those cheerful fellow pre-emptors in the Caucasus, the Russians, topping a list that also includes, India, the dread Chinese, the ranting Anglosphere (it's a line from Spaced, but doesn't Britain ever more resemble 'Jabba's mate, sitting on his shoulder, screeching away'?), and, well, just about everyone, no one's against military action. Seriously, list the countries that are opposed to Weapons Inspection justified war – it's the Middle East, Cuba and North Korea, and that's it.

This reflects easily the most serious stylistic problem with American imperialism, which is the whiny voice in which its conservative ideologues conduct it. Never can a hegemon have been run, justified and accounted for by such self-pitying nonces. For all this wet talk of 'having no allies', the US actually has no credible or sincere enemies worth mentioning. If you're going to be top dog, just get on with it and stop telling us to feel so sorry for you. Anyway, Mr Rennie recently served up to Telegraph readers the wisdom of Eliot Cohen, which is to say, the wisdom, again of Winston. Now we've been there and done that – though some day soon you and me are going to have to have a good, long chat about Appeasement – and will not be surprised to learn that the familiar exhortation was, war's too important to be left to the generals. In right wing circles, this argument is seldom held when left wing parties are in power, but never mind. The point here is that we should ignore our timid fighting men and their pathetic evasions, and concentrate instead on the positive reasons proffered for war by our civilian friends, both in print and in office.

One such who combines both functions, to a point, is the Leader of the Official Opposition, who's written on the 'clear and growing danger' Saddam's Iraq presents to Britain ­ and that indeed, this, rather than any of the demands made upon us by alliance with the Americans, is why we should act too. It's in our national interest you see. The two direct questions to ask of Iain Duncan Smith then are, is Saddam really a threat to us, and even if so, do we have to deal with it? As the Tory leader doesn't set out quite how Iraq is about to overwhelm us, nor how it's incumbent upon us in particular to deal with him (as, after all, plenty of other states, affected to whatever marginal degree we are won't get involved in his overthrow, yet will still presumably benefit from it to whatever extent we do), still less, how our participation will make any useful difference to that campaign, we'll ignore him in our attempt to answer those two questions.

That's not to say there is nothing of interest in his Sunday Times article – part of a barmy ongoing campaign by the opposition to 'embarrass' the government by showing that, er, they're even more attached to a massively unpopular policy than the Blairite regime is – but most of it's inadvertently revealing. The sentence, 'those who genuinely seek evidence in support of potential military action in Iraq will find there is plenty of it; those who oppose intervention at all costs will never find enough' is perhaps more than simply badly written. Certainly what the author meant to say was, 'those who, at all costs, oppose intervention' will find reason to, but there's a certain truth to the notion that some folk are standing up for 'intervention at all costs'. Then there's minor gems like, 'at the time of the Gulf war, the allied coalition was surprised by the sophistication of Iraq's missile technology'. Which is accurate enough if you pause to admire technological ingenuity that basically amounted to loading Trabants onto slingshots and firing them 'wherever dude, wherever'. And of course, no discussion about international relations in Britain is complete without a mewling reference to how we should 'all have a nice debate', in Parliament, even though it has diddily squat to do with the execution of foreign policy. What's especially egregious in this instance is that, the Leader of the Opposition, rather than say, opposing, intends instead to be more Blairite than Blair.

The conclusive argument Mr Duncan Smith presents is that:

Those who believe we can do nothing must say how we would counter Saddam when he has nuclear and biological weapons. Ultimately, the question is not whether we deal with Saddam, but when and how.

This case is what the British pro-war right wing boils down to; it was amplified, for instance, by Michael Gove in The Times. His article was predicated on the alarming notion that, far from it being Late Afternoon in the Garden of the West, it's actually High Noon, and that, 'Western democracy's future depends on democracy taking root in Iraq'. You'll understand that in this case 'take root' translates more directly as 'bomb', but it's a case of crikey nonetheless.

Afforded more space than Mr Duncan Smith, there's more to consider in Mr Gove's prose, thus here we'll delve if we want to get to the bottom of why some crypto-neocon Brits want so very much to bomb, invade and reorder Iraq. Some of it boils down – though not, I believe, in this particular case – to simple cultural cringe. It cannot be overestimated how much that single sociological phenomena is responsible for nine tenths of the silliness in contemporary British political life, but that's a theme for another day. Today we're staring straight in the face the awful prospect of a nuclear (or chemical, or biological) equipped Saddam, and just what are we to do? To begin with, let's notice that our neo-con chums are a bit vague about the exact threat. While Mr Gove has it as imminent, coves like Mr Cheney have it already to hand. This proves something of a theological difficulty (and if you take this talk seriously, one would have thought, a military one too). For, if Saddam already has WMD we can hardly go to war to stop him from getting them, unless the DoD has budgeted for time travel, which, for all I know, it may have already done.

I'm holding off from the fun bit – what we should think about Mr Hussein actually getting his paws on some serious kit – chiefly because this is such a simple state of affairs to consider, we may as well stop and smell the roses along the way. Here's a good one:

Possessed of suitable weaponry, Saddam would threaten Western democracies as no murderous tyrant has done since the Thirties. He could directly threaten the security of the Jewish people as no one has done since Hitler.

That's not, as some of you might imagine, a 'let's-not-put-all-our-eggs-in-one-basket' argument against the existence of the state of Israel. Rather, it's an unfortunate and complete equation between worldwide Jewry and Israel per se, which just ain't so (as many of your Jewish friends will be the first to point out to you). Since Saddam, nuclear powered or otherwise, probably isn't going to set off round the world after every last Jew he can find, the danger alluded to here is that Saddam might lob some WMD action at Israel. Ah, you say, but surely they're rough and tough enough to look after themselves? Uh, sure, of course they are, and good luck to them, but don't ask me to explain how an improbable threat to Israel is a threat to us. A more pertinent observation about Saddam would be that he's the greatest threat to the security of the Kurdish people (who don't have, among other things, either statehood or nuclear weapons) since our friends the Turks were last in that line of work, but then we don't like to talk about that.

To hesitate just a moment or two longer before we come to the WMD seriousness, neo-cons like to amuse us with – all other threats being incredible to varying degrees – big-T Terrorism. The standard 'axis of evil' tosh sees Saddam posited as the leader of every sub-state group we dislike currently active in the Middle East. You know, he's giving money to radical Islamicists – they're all at it together, they're One Big Problem (with one common cure). Yet sponsorship of a group does not mean that they will cleave closely to their patron. Between the Christian West and Israel, we've, at one time or another, funded just about every significant Islamic or ethno-nationalist Arab terrorist outfit going, but that, surely, has affected neither sponsor nor terrorist overly much in terms of their aims and values, has it?

In order to justify the desired aim – war on Iraq – neo-cons are more than willing to slough off as much ideological skin as it takes. Their previously loudly affected reverence for principles like 'national sovereignty' heads binwards. This is meant to be a breast-beating display aimed at their paleo peers, but as ever, it only illustrates how little they've come to understand the host they've infected for so long. For what Conservative, or Tory, or realist ever has subscribed to wishful nonsense like the right of states, as opposed to the natural order of smaller states having the right to do what they're told by larger ones? Sneering at UN resolutions might be heady talk for long time internationalist, multi-lateralists, but for us, pshaw. Who ever believed all that baby talk about the UN anyway?

Another neo-con fantasy (to be totally clinical, projection) is the false progression from an act of terrorism to world conquest. Not, in this sense, the meaningless gibber about that being what Islamic terrorists are aiming at, but that that's what the US should aim at in response to any acts of terror committed against it, even those as large as last September's atrocity. Again, this reaction is part of the inability of neo-cons to suck up what imperialism requires – simply put, if you're going to insist upon playing at being number one nation, anywhere and everywhere, this is the sort of thing you're going to have lump. It comes with the territory, and there comes a line when dealing with it, which to cross is to bring down on your head more trouble than the original step was taken for. Diplomacy is the act of making that calculation; imperialism is the size of sum you'll have to compute.

But I've strayed from the scene I should have been describing – the rain of death that will fall on London, the blue skies I see as look through my window over Westminster blacked out by Saddam's deadly hand, etc, etc. So he gets nuclear weapons, and so he get's an effective means of delivering them, so what? What's he going to do, use them? Why, when, against whom? The implied threat that one might use WMD simply doesn't work – the members of the Security Council know this better than anyone as otherwise no one would ever have taken up arms against them in the post war period. Saddam has nukes – when is he going to use them? Forget why, just answer this: when? Is he going to launch an unprovoked attack on Tel Aviv, or London, or poor, suffering New York? He might, but it's not that likely, really, when you think on it, is it? For if he did do it, what would happen to him? That's an easy one to answer, something impressively unpleasant. Does he know this? Yes. Does he want something impressively unpleasant to happen to him? I'm guessing No. There is only one circumstance in which a dictator like Saddam Hussein is going to use whatever terrible weapons he has available to him, and that's if there is no way out. Let's just hope therefore, as war is certain, that it is truly unjustified.

Text-only printable version of this article

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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