Montreal, February 7, 2004  /  No 137  
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Sean Gabb is a British libertarian writer. This article was first published as a Free Life Commentary.
by Sean Gabb
          Last year, I found myself in strong disagreement – not only with my usual opponents, but also with close friends – over the wisdom and morality of our war with Iraq. I do not wish to restart the controversy with this article. Instead, now that the invasion is over, and now that there is more evidence of its effects, I want to examine more calmly than perhaps I did at the time whether the main arguments in favour of the war were valid. There are, I think, four arguments in favour of the war.
No weapons of mass destruction 
          The first is that Saddam Hussein had weapons that he was able and willing to use against us directly or against our legitimate interests in the Middle East. This argument falls. Though I could not of course know for sure at the time, I doubted if such weapons existed, or if there was the will to use them. Iraq was a poor and barbarous country, and I was unable to believe that it could threaten us in any conventional sense. With full control of the ground, British and American inspectors have now been looking for such weapons since last April. They have found none. There was much excitement last month when it seemed that mustard gas shells had been found. But these turned out, on inspection, to be something else. Even otherwise, they would not have been the sort of weapon to justify a defensive war. Perhaps something will eventually be found. But the fact that nothing was used to repel the invasion is strong enough evidence for me against the more lurid claims. 
          That Mr. Hussein was some kind of lunatic willing to involve himself in utter destruction is answered by the additional fact that he did not and by the manner of his discovery last month. The German National Socialists apparently said "When we depart, let the earth tremble." He was discovered cowering in a hole with an empty gun and enough cash to buy a small house on the south coast of England and a small annuity. This is the sort of end to a career that Plutarch would have enjoyed describing, but is anything but proof of self-destructive lunacy. 
          A more reasonable claim is that he was financing Islamic terrorism against us. I found this unlikely as well. He was a secular nationalist, Osama bin Laden a fundamentalist Moslem. Until quite recently, they hated each other more than they hated us. Again, no clear evidence has been found of any connection – and what evidence has been found may be of connections weaker than those between Mr. bin Laden and the American Government. Indeed, documents found with Mr. Hussein indicate that he remained suspicious enough of the fundamentalists to warn his followers against too close an involvement with their strand of the resistance. That claim also must fall. 
          To be fair, none of my friends really believed in these claims, and they have now mostly joined in the chorus against Mr. Blair. One of their preferred arguments was that Mr. Hussein was a tyrant, and that it was our duty, since we were able, to step in and save the Iraqi people from his rule. 
          Now, I am not sure about some of his alleged crimes. There is a general tendency among people to make up or to believe stories that are out of common experience. I doubt the story about how people were fed alive into plastic shredders, and I do not know if those Kurds were gassed on his orders or were incidental victims in some battle with the Iranians – or even if the shells were fired by the Iraqis or by the Iranians. But while questioning individual claims, it does seem that he was a tyrant, so far as he ruled Iraq with a beastliness beyond the normal experience of his people. This granted, however, I do not accept that we had any duty to intervene. 
          If private individuals in this country were to come together and plan some act of tyrannicide, there might be a reason on the grounds of national interest to stop them, but I see no objection in principle to their actions. Governments, though, are not private individuals. They do not spend their own money, and they do not risk their own lives. Their primary duty is to their own people. Unless he presents a clear and present danger to their own people, there is no case for them to intervene against a foreign tyrant. 
          For any libertarian to say otherwise is to endorse in foreign policy what is rejected in domestic policy. If we desire the government of this country to save foreigners from a tyrant, how can we deny the legitimacy of its trying to secure our own people from poverty and ignorance? An interventionist foreign policy is the equivalent abroad of a welfare state at home. As it happens, I do accept on practical grounds the need for some kind of welfare state at home. I do not think it desirable, but since nearly everyone else thinks it is, and it need not be as expensive and morally corrupting as it is in its present form, I see no benefit in strenuously arguing against the principle. But my more interventionist friends do not on the whole agree with me, and would try to abolish all welfare provision if ever they came into government. There seems to be an inconsistency here, and I would ask them to think about this. 
A war of guerilla resistance 
          A third argument in favour of the war was that, while Iraq was no threat to us, it was in our interests to keep in with the Americans. This is a stronger argument than the first two. The main present threat to our independence is continued membership of the European Union. The maintenance of close links with America is a strong counterweight to this threat. It gives us the option, should we leave the European Union, of joining NAFTA – and knowledge of the option may increase the desire. I do not think an independent Britain needs membership of any trading alliance that might compromise our legislative independence. But America would be better than Europe. In the event, the strong opposition of France and Germany to the invasion has turned the Americans against the European Union; and the recent collapse of talks over the European Constitution may be evidence of some benefit to us from the alliance – though this collapse could just as easily be for other reasons unconnected with the Americans. 
          This being said, it could only be in our long-term interests to join with the Americans in a war that was likely to work to American advantage. A war with Iraq did not seem to me at the time likely to do this, and it has not so far done this. There was no strategy beyond achieving a military victory; and the occupation has been mishandled. The Allies find themselves in a war of guerilla resistance to which they have no answer. They have lost more men in the occupation than they did in the invasion. I notice that the Americans have now lost 500 men, which is as many as they lost in the first four years of their adventure in Vietnam. Hopes that the capture of Mr. Hussein would end the resistance were unrealistic. He was not directing the resistance as a whole; nor was it conducted in his name. Indeed, his remaining at large until last month may have done much to limit Iraqi support for the resistance. Now that he is safely out of the way, the Iraqis can start arguing in earnest over a future that does not involve him – or the Americans. 
     “If we desire the government of this country to save foreigners from a tyrant, how can we deny the legitimacy of its trying to secure our own people from poverty and ignorance? An interventionist foreign policy is the equivalent abroad of a welfare state at home.”
          Moreover, the invasion and occupation have revealed the limits of American power. One of the reasons that made nuclear war so terrifying after 1945 was that no one really knew what one would be like. Would it be mutually assured destruction? Or could it be limited to the use of battlefield weapons? No one knew, and no one ever felt sufficient provocation to find out. So it was before last year with the threat of American conventional power. It has now been tried; and the results are an incomplete victory and an overstretch that is reducing America to impotence elsewhere in the world. I did say a couple of years ago that a conquest of Iraq would be so cheap and easy, given modern weapons, that Britain alone could do it: my objection then was to its more general wisdom. I was wrong. The conquest has been immensely expensive. It has cost the Americans at least $30 thousand million directly. It seems in part to have caused the present collapse of the Dollar, and may prompt the main suppliers of oil to switch to dual pricing in Euros as well as in Dollars – a switch that may constrain American monetary policy in ways that it has not been within living memory. 
          A better strategy for us would have been to do our best to dissuade the Americans from war last year – if necessary by refusing to join in – and then to use our diplomatic abilities to help secure the stated American objectives by negotiation. In the short term, that would not have been appreciated so much as the offer of military support. In the longer term, it might. Sooner or later, the Americans will leave Iraq. They will not leave it voluntarily, but after the resistance has worn down the willingness of domestic opinion to pay the human and financial costs of the occupation. And they will not leave it with liberal democratic institutions. Either they will leave it in the same chaos as they left in Vietnam and Cambodia and Lebanon and Somalia, or they will leave it in the control of a rather less tyrannical but no less dictatorial man than Saddam Hussein. When this happens, the recriminations will start, and there will be a compelling motive for American politicians to shift some of the blame onto an ally that appears to have encouraged them at every step. So far as they can, they will blame us for their own folly. 
          In passing, I might, had I been Prime Minister last year, also have demanded present benefits for joining in the war, rather than hope for future good will. Any claim that the Americans are so powerful that they can demand of their allies without offering anything definite in return cannot be justified. Power is always limited by the niceties of diplomacy. There are plain limits to what the Americans could do even to an entirely uncooperative Britain. In Mr. Blair's place, I should have demanded hard assurances of a welcome into NAFTA, an end to official toleration of Fenian terrorism, a rebuke to the Spaniards for their Gibraltar policy, and the same preferential access to military technology as the Israelis enjoy. So far as I can tell, none of this was demanded. Certainly, none was granted. 
A conflict between Islam and the West 
          The fourth argument for war is that there is an inevitable conflict between Islam and the West, and that it is in our interest to win this before the balance of demography has turned any further against us. This is the only argument that I do not flatly reject. I hope that any conflict can be avoided, but I am not sure that one can. It may be that Islamic enmity is wholly the product of American support for Israel. But it might not be. Perhaps if Israel were to disappear tomorrow, the search might simply begin for a fresh set of grievances. I do not know. 
          This concession being made, however, I still do not agree that the war with Iraq was justified. We won the Cold War not because we defeated Soviet Communism in the field, but because we wore it down until it collapsed. We funded media organisations that broadcast the truth to communist countries and allowed the people there to contrast their own wretched state with our freedom and prosperity. We funded ideological organisations that refuted all the theoretical and practical claims of Marxist-Leninism. We gave moral support to dissidents in the communist world. The heavy spending on armaments that we began at the end of the 1970s only accelerated a collapse that was already inevitable. 
          Unlike with Soviet Communism, a war with Islam could not be expected to end in the collapse of Islam as a religion. That could only be achieved by killing every Moslem in the world – something that I cannot imagine possible, let alone desirable. A more realistic aim would be the discrediting of certain formulations of Islam. I think it lacking in imagination to say that fundamentalist Islam is the only consistent form of Islam. A plain reading of the Koran might support this view. But how often has any doctrine relied for any time on a plain reading of its core documents? From Plato himself, to Pyrrho, to Plotinus, the Platonic school veered from mysticism to scepticism and to mysticism again. Christianity has more than one interpretation. So it has been and is with Islam. The question, then, is how to encourage the rise to ascendency of a form of Islam compatible with our own interests. I really do not think the answer involves military invasion of Arab or Islamic countries. On the few occasions when our side got into a direct military conflict with communism, we tended to lose. The Americans went into Indo-China to contain communism. They found themselves facing a largely nationalist resistance. So it is turning out with the invasion of Iraq. 
          The real answer is to follow broadly the same ideological policy with Islam as we did with communism. In place of the massive armaments programmes, I would suggest encouraging a diversification of our energy needs away from oil. Under normal circumstances, of course, where and how we get our energy would be a matter for the market. But bringing on a large and permanent fall in the price of oil would place more effective pressure on the Arab world than threatening it with military invasion. It would deprive governments there of incomes that are effectively a rent, and force them to liberalise their economies. Wealth would then depend far more on market rationality than on considerations of status and connections. That might raise up a wealthier enemy. More likely, it would create the conditions for a fairly peaceful co-existence. At least, it should be tried. 
          Even if there must be a conflict with Islam, therefore, the war with Iraq was a strategic error. It pleased the armaments companies, a few oil and other business concerns, those Israelis and Zionists whose debt to Prussian philosophy is greater than they might care to admit, and all those who prefer a quick solution to one that might work. 
What is to be done? 
          So, what is to be done? We can admit the war was a mistake, but that does not help us after the event – except, perhaps, to deter us from another military intervention. It would have been easy to avoid the situation in which we find ourselves. Escaping from it is another matter. Robert Henderson's view is that this is an American problem, and that we should simply withdraw all British forces now. Short of massive casualties in Basra, I am not sure if this would be the best solution. We have already incurred the ridicule and contempt of half the world. Pulling out now would put the other half against us. Undoubtedly, it would bring on us the active displeasure of the United States – and that is probably best avoided. At the least, we have shown the world that we still have sharp teeth and the will to use them. Pulling out now would take even that away. All I suppose we can really do is stay in there with the Americans until they decide to pull out, and in the meantime hope for the best. 
          As I hoped and predicted, Tony Blair has emerged from this war fatally wounded. If I hated him less, I might pity the collapse of a premiership that began with so much public affection and with so many more solid advantages. But he did bring all this on himself, and he is stained with the blood of thousands – both in Iraq and in Serbia. He may stagger on another year or so, or he may go before the summer. But I think the verdict of history can already be seen. 
          And so, I think I was right from the beginning. I was wrong when I predicted a strong military defence of Iraq and heavy Allied casualties in the attack on Baghdad. Doubtless, I shall be told I was entirely wrong every time there is a success of detail in the occupation. But I think it is now reasonably clear that the war was a mistake, that it solved no real problem, but only raised others. I am trying – and probably failing – not to sound too pleased with myself. But If I do sound insufferably priggish, I would ask you to bear in mind that I have not been speaking up for any policy likely to result in the violent death of my fellow citizens. That must surely count for something.
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