Don't whitewash the old regime

Submitted by Anon on 23 October, 2003 - 4:53

Oppose the US/UK occupation of Iraq, but face the facts candidly

Clive Bradley argues that the left only compromises and discredits itself if it argues against the US/UK occupation of Iraq by claiming that it is worse than Saddam.

"In invading Iraq [Tony Blair] has done nothing to stop ëthe murky trade in [weapons of mass destruction]'... It is Britain and the US who are the murky traders. In invading Iraq he has replaced the brutality of Saddam with the brutality of an uncomprehending invading army. He has replaced the repression of Saddam Hussein with lawlessness and chaos." The Observer, 5 October 2003

There's a Monty Python sketch in which a victim of Doug and Dinsdale Piranha, comedy doppelgangers of the Kray Twins, describes the gangsters' use of terror. "They knew all the tricks", he recalls, one of which is hyperbole, or "hyperbowl", as he pronounces it. Terry Jones plays the policeman who tracked the Piranhas across South America "by reading the colour supplements". And it is the same Terry Jones, Python, children's author and film maker, now a regular columnist, whose words I quote above.

He is describing the results of what he calls "an unpopular and widely-opposed invasion of another sovereign state." Saddam's Iraq was a country that was no conceivable threat to Britain. Like, sadly, so many others who opposed the war, Jones is no stranger to hyperbole. (One recently published book, for example, its cover decorated with recommendations from John Pilger and co, is entitled, preposterously, "Regime Unchanged"...)

With Blair's popularity at an all-time low, and the transparent fact that we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction; with the occupation increasingly unpopular in the United States, too; and with the continued chaos and death in Iraq itself, the anti-war movement sounds a note of triumphalism. As the Stop the War Coalition puts it: "Everything that the anti-war movement said about this war has proved to be true."

This is from the leaflet used to mobilise for the demonstration on 28 September. Supporters of Solidarity, including this writer, were on that demonstration, and helped to build it. The demonstration itself was called around the slogan "end the occupation of Iraq" (and "freedom for Palestine"); but the majority of SWP-issued placards had the "harder" slogan: "US/UK troops out now!" Now! I don't know if Terry Jones would march with such a placard. But the views he expresses are of a piece with what seem to be the general sentiments of the anti-war left, which now has transformed into a movement - though a very much smaller one - against the occupation.

I write in every issue of Solidarity detailing the chaos, corruption and lack of democracy entailed by the occupation. But much of the argument put by other opponents of it, from Terry Jones leftwards, seems to me ridiculous, if not contemptible.

The rational and democratic case against war was not that Iraq is or was a "sovereign state". It is one thing to say, as I would, that the forces promising to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime could not be trusted to do so without vast numbers of deaths, and in any case have an agenda - an aim - which is nothing to do with democracy and freedom; it is quite another to suggest that in principle no external agency can come to the assistance of people suffering under a terrible, fascistic dictatorship because their torturers and murderers are "sovereign". Perhaps the mass murderers in Rwanda, too, were "sovereign", which justifies the failure of any external agency to prevent the deaths of perhaps a million people. Perhaps war against Nazi Germany was wrong on the principle that Germany was a "sovereign state". (There is an aargument against support for either side even in World War Two - but this is not it.)

It is one thing to condemn the arms trade, and the record of western governments selling weapons to vile regimes (including Saddam's). It is another to pass over, or forget, that the regime which has been toppled did indeed formerly possess weapons of mass destruction, and used them against the Kurdish people in 1988, killing somewhere between 60,000 and over 100,000 people. That Saddam seems not to have had operational WMD when Iraq was invaded should not lead us to conclude that the thought never crossed his mind; no honest person with a smidgeon of knowledge about the Ba'th regime could deny the plausibility of the claim Saddam wished to restore his capacity for WMD.

Against a direct comparison with Nazi Germany, to say Iraq was "no conceivable threat to Britain", has weight - Hitler posed a threat to the whole world in a way that Saddam did not. But as a more general argument it is morally repulsive: that as long as our own lives are unaffected, dictatorships around the world can feel free to slaughter, torture, abduct and terrorise their people (being, after all, "sovereign"), without fear of external restraint.

And what does it mean to say the war has "replaced the brutality of Saddam with the brutality of an... invading army..."? Jones, like others, is making a simple equivalence here: the occupation is as bad as Saddam. Indeed, since this argument is put to justify opposition to the war which deposed Saddam, the logical conclusion is that the occupation is worse - it would be better if Saddam were still in power.

Before March of this year, Iraq was a country without the barest shred of democracy, rightly called by its critics a "republic of fear". Thousands of people disappeared never to be seen again, their remains perhaps now being discovered in mass graves. One of Saddam's sons, running a ministry supposedly devoted to sport, had a torture chamber in his building. There were places in Saddam's Iraq known as "rape rooms". In addition to the Kurdish slaughter just mentioned, one might remember the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, in which - under the nose of Bush senior, who had encouraged the revolt - insurgent Shi'a, and then Kurds, were exterminated in their tens of thousands. Anyone criticising the regime could face, minimally, horrific punishment if they were lucky enough to live.

Today, that dictatorship has gone. There is a plethora of political parties, newspapers, etc. Working class organisation is beginning - for the first time since the first Ba'thist coup in 1963 - to re-emerge. There is scope for independent democratic organisation for the first time in forty years. Parties calling themselves communist, for instance, are legal, and publish newspapers.

"Despite the billions being spent on the war and occupation," says the STWC, "the Iraqis are suffering shortages of water and electricity, and face total disruption to their everyday rights. After years of dictatorship, they are denied any democratic voice or say in the running of their country." This is, on one level, a mere statement of fact: "after years of dictatorship... denied any democratic voice." But without acknowledging that those years of dictatorship have - well, ended - the argument is hollow. There have been protests and demonstrations against the occupation; it is not to become an admirer or apologist of George Bush to notice that no such things occurred under Saddam. "Disruption to their everyday rights": for sure. But to write as if, hitherto, they faced less such disruption, or none, is to replace real
judgement, moral or otherwise, with empty phrases.

Of course what exists now is not democracy. I wrote, recently, an article for this paper describing "democracy, American style" - the phrase was an Iraqi's - meaning the promise of local democracy, in this case, which was then betrayed. The US-appointed Governing Council is surreally disconnected from the people it is supposed to represent. The organisations referred to have faced repression from the occupying forces - the Union of Unemployed in Iraq had many of its leaders arrested. Civilian demonstrations have been fired on, and demonstrators killed. Many Iraqis protest at the daily arrogance and heavy-handedness of British, American, and other foreign troops. As Baghdad Blogger Salam Pax put it: "It is like listening to your parents discuss how they should bring you up; it is your life, but you are not making the
decisions."

It is possible that the US forces, increasingly unpopular, will retreat to propping up i9n Iraq a dictatorship of the same sort that they used to support and use in Central America.

But I am arguing for a sense of proportion and honest accounting. You don't have to support either the war or the occupation to register the obvious difference between what existed before and what exists now. The occupation is unpopular with Iraqis, and increasingly so. But to talk, as much of the liberal left does, as if the removal of one of the world's most savage dictatorships is a matter of no consequence because the electricity doesn't work, articulates a moral emptiness of astonishing, and disturbing, proportions.

Everything the anti-war movement said has been proven true? Everything?

We warned there could be vast numbers of civilian casualties - running into the tens of thousands. Recent estimates of the total number of deaths since the outbreak of war put it at around 10,000 (Iraq Body Count, a volunteer group of British and US academics and researchers, said that 7798 Iraqis were killed during the war, and 20,000 injured).

Obviously these numbers are unconscionable, and those who believe them "low" enough to justify war have searching questions to ask themselves. And we were right to give no blank cheques to the British and American military. But an honest assessment would have to set them against the thousands upon thousands killed by the regime, including for instance those who died in its adventure against Iran from 1980 to 1988, certainly more than 300,000 people, Iraqis and Iranians. It is not my place, sitting at my computer in England, to tell the Iraqi people that therefore what they have suffered from war was worth it, or recommend an optimum number of casualties they should be happy with. But nor do I demonstrate much integrity if I pretend these other facts count for nothing.

"If this was victory" headlines the STWC leaflet, "what would defeat look like?" But it's not so very hard to visualise. In the first place, the defeat of Bush and Blair would not, contrary to the assumptions of those carrying placards reading "victory to the resistance" during the war itself, have been a swift butt-kick in the desert followed by a wave of global anti-imperialism; it would have been a long drawn out and ferociously bloody affair. And if Saddam had won, it would have been catastrophic for the people of Iraq, for the Kurds, and perhaps for others, too. Some on the left argued to the effect that even so, butt-kicking the Yanks would do the oppressed peoples of the world a power of good. But even if the invading armies had been routed by the Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam, the chance that the US wosimply retreat to lick its wounds for a couple of decades is nil. The knives would simply be further drawn, with more terrible things to follow. If the Republican Guard and so forth represented some progressive, or liberating force, even on the level that, say, the Vietnamese Stalinists did in 1965-75, all well and good. But they did not.

And it has to be confronted by all of us demonstrating against occupation that an immediate - that is, tomorrow - withdrawal would lead either to the return of the Ba'th, the coming to power of some Islamist faction, or more probably simply descent into civil war and far worse chaos and violence than currently exists. Those who call for the United Nations to replace the Americans, British, etc, have a profoundly misplaced faith in the UN; but they are at least facing a truth. There is nothing "revolutionary" about demanding "troops out now" if the result sets back the development of a democratic working class movement in Iraq. A revolutionary policy can say "end the occupation" only if focuses on helping to build, in the first place by solidarity, those forces who can replace the occupation with something better.

The Anglo-American victory in Iraq is not something socialists or democrats can support, or take responsibility for, or (worse) prettify. The forces of a future independent, secular and democratic Iraq will for sure find themselves, sooner rather than later (or, indeed, now), confronting the occupiers as an enemy, whose fundamental job is to protect the interests of American or British capitalism. Independence from those occupying forces is a basic requirement for the life of any such democratic and working class forces.

But we do not help their emergence by dishonest argument, still less through a kind of moral vacuity which condemns us as unthinking and demagogic fools. We should march and organise in solidarity with the Iraqi people, and especially the embryonic workers' movement, against the undemocratic, chaotic and corrupt occupation of their country. But there is little point pretending we simply "won" the argument about the war. The facile triumphalism and hyperbole of Terry Jones, the Stop the War Coalition, and the rest, is no help in the job which needs to be done.

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