By George Monbiot
27 November, 2003
It is no use telling the hawks that bombing a
country in which al-Qaida was not operating was unlikely to rid the
world of al-Qaida. It is no use arguing that had the billions spent
on the war with Iraq been used instead for intelligence and security,
atrocities such as last week's attacks in Istanbul may have been prevented.
As soon as one argument for the invasion and occupation of Iraq collapses,
they switch to another. Over the past month, almost all the warriors
- Bush, Blair and the belligerents in both the conservative and the
liberal press - have fallen back on the last line of defence, the argument
we know as "the moral case for war".
Challenged in the
Commons by Scottish Nationalist MP Pete Wishart last Wednesday over
those devilishly uncooperative weapons of mass destruction, for example,
Tony Blair dodged the question. "What everyone should realise is
that if people like the honourable gentleman had had their way, Saddam
Hussein, his sons and his henchmen would still be terrorising people
in Iraq. I find it quite extraordinary that he thinks that that would
be a preferable state of affairs."
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.
But the key point,
overlooked by all those who have made the moral case for war, is this:
that a moral case is not the same as a moral reason. Whatever the argument
for toppling Saddam on humanitarian grounds may have been, this is not
why Bush and Blair went to war.
A superpower does
not have moral imperatives. It has strategic imperatives. Its purpose
is not to sustain the lives of other people, but to sustain itself.
Concern for the rights and feelings of others is an impediment to the
pursuit of its objectives. It can make the moral case, but that doesn't
mean that it is motivated by the moral case.
Writing in the Observer
recently, David Aaronovitch argued in favour of US intervention, while
suggesting that it could be improved by means of some policy changes.
"Sure, I want them to change. I want more consistency. I want Bush
to stop tolerating the nastystans of Central Asia, to tell Ariel where
to get off, to treat allies with more respect, to dump the hubristic
neo-cons..." So say we all. But the White House is not a branch
of Amnesty International. When it suits its purposes to append a moral
justification to its actions, it will do so. When it is better served
by supporting dictatorships like Uzbekistan's, expansionist governments
like Ariel Sharon's and organisations which torture and mutilate and
murder, like the Colombian army and (through it) the paramilitary AUC,
it will do so.
It armed and funded
Saddam when it needed to; it knocked him down when it needed to. In
neither case did it act because it cared about the people of his country.
It acted because it cared about its own interests. The US, like all
superpowers, does have a consistent approach to international affairs.
But it is not morally consistent; it is strategically consistent.
It is hard to see
why we should expect anything else. All empires work according to the
rules of practical advantage, rather than those of kindness and moral
decency. In Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Rubashov, the fallen
hero of the revolution, condemns himself for "having followed sentimental
impulses, and in so doing to have been led into contradiction with historical
necessity. I have lent my ear to the laments of the sacrificed, and
thus became deaf to the arguments which proved the necessity to sacrifice
them." "Sympathy, conscience, disgust, despair, repentance
and atonement", his interrogator reminds him, "are for us
Koestler, of course,
was describing a different superpower, but these considerations have
always held true. During the cold war, the two empires supported whichever
indigenous leaders advanced their interests. They helped them to seize
and retain power by massacring their own people, then flung them into
conflicts in which millions were killed. One of the reasons why the
US triumphed was that it possessed the resources to pursue that strategy
with more consistency than the Soviet Union could. Today the necessity
for mass murder has diminished. But those who imagine that the strategic
calculus has somehow been overturned are deceiving themselves.
There were plenty
of hard-headed reasons for the United States to go to war with Iraq.
As Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, has admitted, the occupation
of that country permits the US to retain its presence in the Middle
East while removing "almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia".
The presence of "crusader forces on the holy land" was, he
revealed, becoming ever less sustainable. (Their removal, of course,
was Osama bin Laden's first demand: whoever said that terrorism does
not work?) Retaining troops in the Middle East permits the US to continue
to exercise control over its oil supplies, and thus to hold China, its
new economic and political rival, to ransom. The bombing of Iraq was
used by Bush to show that his war on terror had not lost momentum. And
power, as anyone who possesses it appreciates, is something you use
or lose. Unless you flex your muscles, they wither away.
We can't say which
of these motives was dominant, but we can say that they are realistic
reasons for war. The same cannot be said of a concern for the human
rights of foreigners. This is merely the cover under which one has to
act in a nominal democracy.
But in debating
the war, those of us who opposed it find ourselves drawn into this fairytale.
We are obliged to argue about the relative moral merits of leaving Saddam
in place or deposing him, while we know, though we are seldom brave
enough to say it, that the moral issue is a distraction. The genius
of the hawks has been to oblige us to accept a fiction as the reference
point for debate.
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.