Tom Unterrainer reviews Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, by Oliver Kamm
“Intervention in Iraq was not strictly a ‘humanitarian war’: it was an anti-totalitarian war. It was a war in the cause of liberty.” Oliver Kamm’s work, characterised by this statement, is an energetic and closely argued polemical “left-wing” justification for Bush and Blair’s war on Iraq.
His starting point is the historical precedence of opposition to fascism and the emergence and support for “collective security”. The “left” Kamm supports is the British Labour Party and its social democratic partners in Europe. However the major reference point is of central concern to all of us who are socialists: universal opposition to aggressive and oppressive regimes. The fact is that most of the left rejects this principle.
Kamm’s conclusions are, however, faulty.
Kamm weaves a picture of post-war foreign policy, Labour Party debates, the influence of and the influences on the peace movement and the impact of the Cold War to show that Blair’s decision to back Bush in war on Iraq was no departure from tradition but a continuation. In doing so he reveals both an encyclopaedic knowledge of the debates at hand and an ignorance of imperialism and what international solidarity actually means.
“Almost by its nature, the disarmament movement failed to give sufficient weight to the moral and strategic requirements of undermining totalitarianism.” This statement could easily be rewritten for today’s anti-war movement, a milieu with fanatical regard for the atrocities of western imperialism but with little to say about despicable regimes abroad.
Kamm suggests that the post-war left was torn between a position of support for the idea of collective security whereby the interests of the democratic West would be protected and expanded by containment of the USSR, and cooperation with the Stalinist states. He argues that many of the left gave their implicit support for the totalitarian regimes in the East in arguing that Labour governments should do business with them, a position based on the idea that Stalinism was a compatible progressive force in the face of US domination.
He uses the historical fact of the “hawks” Cold War victory as precedent for the situation today. In Kamm’s view of history the issues around Saddam, Iran and the Middle East meld with those faced during the Cold War — that opposition to totalitarianism implies the drive for regime change. “The essential point of the Blair-Bush policy, which is to change the balance of power in the Middle East — that has already been conclusively vindicated.” (Christopher Hitchens). To secure the collective interests of the West, to head off the threat of terrorist attack and to really deal with despicable regimes, you can and must impose from outside and above a form of “democracy”. For Kamm the Iraq experience vindicates this view, and he sees the Iraqi elections as central.
With almost total disregard for the actually existing conditions in Iraq, the destruction wrought upon its people, the resurgence of terrorism and the near civil war situation we are treated to a story of the past few years that makes one wonder — if it’s good enough for Iraq then why not North Korea, China … Iran already?
When dealing with Iraq’s most glaring problems: “inadequate security”, lack of infrastructure etc, Kamm argues that “Had the regime eventually imploded under — as it were — the weight of its own contradictions, it would have become the happy hunting ground of Islamist terrorists throughout the region.” You could be charitable and excuse Kamm on the basis that his book was written a year ago, but for a supposedly intelligent commentator to ignore the obvious trajectory of events is more worrying.
If just containing Stalinist totalitarianism was good enough during the cold war, why would it not work for Saddam? “ Containment of Saddam, quite apart from being a cruel policy imposing sanctions on exactly the wrong target, was also a tenuous one. Someday, unless we act to prevent it, the terrorists will obtain a weapons capability that can kill far more than the 3000 dead on 9/11. Western governments have the duty to interdict that flow of weapons from their most likely source.”
So here we have it – far from being a war of liberty for the Iraqi people, the real justification for war in Kamm’s eyes is based on the shaky supposition that Saddam may have at some time in the future, possibly supplied some terrorists with weapons.
Despite some messy logic and the poverty of specific arguments Kamm’s book is important for the detailed history it provides of arguments inside the Labour Party over foreign policy and because it raises — as a core argument — the opposition to totalitarian regimes.
For Kamm and some of his co-signatories to the Euston Manifesto, this may mean lending their liberal support to imperialist war. But for those of us who call for consistent democracy and international working-class solidarity, it means exposing the real drive to war — hegemonic positioning and economic interests – and arguing for the anti-war movement to recognise democrats in places like Iran and Iraq and make urgent solidarity with those forces seeking to end totalitarianism from inside and below.
“Secular Baathism and Islamist totalitarianism are the natural enemies of the Left, and the task of uprooting them … is our natural cause” — but not by giving uncritical support to our enemies at home.