I’ve pondered for some time on putting forward a more considered and comprehensive response to the publication of the Euston Manifesto, which, as you might expect, I won’t be signing, but its taken this piece from Rob Newman to finally stir me of the general sense of torpor that accompanied its publication.
Tempting as it is to barrel heading into an exercise in picking holes in the manifesto itself, which I found to be rather bromidic exercise in intellectual prolixity, I think it much more interesting to look at some of the commentary put forward by its supporters, since publication, as much of this serve to crystalise my reasons for steering clear of the manifesto and some of those who profess to be its most enthuiastic supporters.
Perhaps it’s best to start by tackling on of the central and most misleading contentions put forward by some of the ‘Eustonites’, most notably here by John Lloyd:
The war in Iraq dramatised, but did not of itself cause, a split in the left - one which is becoming more pronounced with every passing day. Much of the left took the view that the American-British invasion of Iraq was wrong; a significant part of that saw the reason for the war as stemming from, or containing, one or more of the following elements: A rampant American imperialism; a move to control Middle East oil supplies; a strategy dictated by US support for Israel - or dictated by the "Jewish lobby" and/or by Israel itself; Islamophobia; and (on the part of the UK) a poodle-like dependence on the US.
Opposition to some or all of these has increasingly defined much of the left, especially the further left. In the centre-left and in political, intellectual and media opinion generally, a diluted version of that view is popular, one that implicitly or explicitly sees the Iraqi events as at best a series of blinders.
This is perhaps the single greatest fallacy promulgated by some of the manifesto’s supporter, the idea that ‘the left’ can be neatly divided up and packaged into two contending ideological camps - ‘the decents’ and ‘the stoppers’ - with all other divergent left-wing opinions being either, at best, irrelevant or, at worst, a shallow reflection of the position adopted by the stoppers.
Such a markedly oversimplistic view of left-wing atttitudes to the invasion of Iraq is simply breathtaking in its intellectual conceit - it seems that to be considered part of the left these days, one must absolutely have an adjective or one is entirely unworthy of consideration.
In reality, the real situation is very different to that suggested by some of the core Eustonites - both they, the self-styled ‘decents’ and their mortal enemies, the Respect/SWP-led ’stoppers’, are mere vocal minorities within a broad canon of left-wing thought in which the mainstream is increasingly turnign away from blind adherence to ideology and adopting a rationalist worldview under which events, such as the invasion of Iraq, are considered and evaluated in terms of the actuality of the situation at hand and not merely on matters of abstract principle.
The Iraq war has not dramatised the ideological schism between the ‘decents’ and the ’stoppers’ - that schism, in various guises, happened long ago, certainly as far back as the 1930s and 40s - hence the rather quaint if all-too-often trritating over-depedence on the rhetoric of that era exhibited by some of the more prominant ‘decents’ when mounting a typically polemical attack on their mortal intellectual enemies.
Someone has to say this, so I guess it might as well be me - Stalin’s been dead for near 50 years, Mao Zedong’s been pushing up daisies for 30 and outside of the realms of the ‘decents’ and the ’stoppers’ most people simply swtich off at the point that each camp starts berating the other for being ‘apologists’ of some variety or other, except, maybe, for those few hardy souls who are sufficient well-versed in Orwell’s political essays - particularly ‘Notes on Nationalism’ - to observe that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
Both the ‘decents’ and the ’stoppers’ display all the core characteristics that Orwell identified in his essay as belonging to ‘Nationalism’ - using, of course, Orwell’s extended defintition of the term. Indeed, if read (or perhaps re-reads) this essay and takes particular note of Orwell commentary on the Trotskyists of his day, one is hard pressed not to arrive at the conclusion that there is some curious quantum theory of left-wing politics at work in the relationship between the decents and the stoppers, so closely does each provide a mirror image of the other - for ’stoppers’ and ‘decents’, read ‘Trots’ and ‘Anti-Trots’, which turns out to be a rather unsurprising inversion of the Communist/Trotkyist schism of the 1930s when one notes that amongst the leading lights of the ‘decent’ camp one finds a fair old number of ex-Communists and recanting Marxists.
That being said, it may well be the case that a schism does emerge from the aftermath of the Iraq war, not between the ‘decents’ and the ’stoppers’ but between an overtly ideological/utopian minority, which encompasses both, and a mainstream ‘rational’ left which, quite frankly, is getting sick and tired of being lectured about principles it well understands and labelled as lackies and ‘useful idiots’ by the ideologues for simply daring to think things through for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions on the many rights and wrongs of a complex situation like Iraq.
As I mentioned at the start of this piece, it was a number of comments made by Rob Newman that finally shook me out of my previously torpid state on this subject, not least of which the comment given below:
I find that the manifesto is about a reaction to two things: hypocrisy, and betrayal. Those are both strong terms, but I think they are justified. The hypocrisy is that practiced by those who, for instance, supported the first Gulf War to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — in identical language to that latterly used by Tony Blair to justify the 2003 invasion — but switched position to condemn the second Gulf conflict, and to call Blair a liar. This is tied in with the general feeling of anti-Americanism that has infected a great deal of the liberal Left. Diane Abbott was at the meeting last night and rejected the notion that opposition to the war equated to anti-Americanism; but the commentary which has been bandied around about the war and about Euston gives the lie to that. (For instance, consider the familiar argument: "We should go to war in Iraq." "No we shouldn’t — and Donald Rumsfeld met Saddam Hussein twice! The US supported Saddam against Iran!" etc.)
Rob’s comments here are fairly typical of the kind of gross oversimplifications and distortions that have been, and still are, in all too common usage in ‘decent’ circles and which serve primarily to support their mischaracterisation of what is the mainstream oppositional view of the Iraq War.
Rob’s charge of hypocrisy stands up only is one presumes that overall situation in relation to Iraq remained largely static between the Gulf War of 1990 and the 2003 invasion - this is neither my view nor the view prevalent amongst the majority of those who opposed the latter war. The 1990 war was predicated on Iraq’s violation of one of the clearest principles in international law, the sovereignty of an independent nation state. This entirely justified both the action taken to expel Iraq forces from Kuwait and, under international law, would have also justified the prosecution of that war to its logical end, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in order that he be brought before a war crimes tribunal - it seems to have been rather forgotten that the Nuremburg Tribunals, upon whose judgements are founded many of the core principles of modern international law, held, even in the face of dealing with the atrocities of the holocaust, that the single most heinous of all crimes against humanity was the unjustified and unlawful prosecution of war, itself.
Of course, the coalition of the day stopped short of removing Saddam from power, a decision primarily predicated on wider foreign policy considerations of which probably the most significant was the understanding that inevitable consequence removing the Ba’athist regime at that time - and maybe even now - would be an Iraq dominated by its Shi’a majority and directly aligned with Iran. This also explains why the US, in particular, deigned to support the Shi’a uprising in the south of Iraq that followed the first Gulf War, the irony of this being that the crimes for which Saddam is currently standing trial occurred during this very period and as direct consequence of his being permitted to put down the Shi’a revolt without intervention from the US-led coalition of the time.
I’m getting a little off the point here, so to pull things back it is enought to repeat that a charge of hypocrisy stands up only if one views the two wars as being fundamentally interconnected and predicated on a single sequence of events. If, on the contrary, one sees marked and very obvious difference between the situation as it existed in 1990 and that which existed in the run-in to the 2003 invasion, then one is no way hypocritical in having supported the Gulf War only then to oppose the more recent invasion as one see each as being very different events which took place for very different reasons. More than that, I would certainly contend that only if one subscribes to vastly oversimplified and static view of the strategic and political situation in the region during the period between 1990/91 and 2003 or if one disregards such things and places near eclusive emphasis on a single factor - as many ‘decents’ are wont to do in claiming that the 2003 invasion was justified solely on the need to remove Saddam to the exclusion of all other considerations - is it then possible to view both wars as part of single and uniform sequence of events.
What ideologues would consider hypocrisy, rationalists would consider to be merely a reflection of a complex and volatile situation that has changed markedly in the twelve years between the two wars.
Beyond this, Rob’s comments on ‘anti-Americanism’ are to say the least, glib, tendentious and an all too obvious straw-man, one that follows much the same pattern that has been all too evident in relation to Israel, where valid criticism of government policy and actions undertaken by the state have been deliberately conflated into what has then been presented as invalid and generic attack on the nation as a whole. Just as when one criticises the Israeli government for its actions one all too often runs the risk of being labelled ‘anti-Semitic’, so it seems one now faces the same risk if one criticises the present US adminsitration or even a single member of that administration - although, curiously enough, this same notion of ‘attack one, attack all’ which denies the possibility of making a clear distinction between America (or indeed, Israel) as a whole and incumbent administration at a particular moment in time seems not to apply on occasions where the ‘decents’ are talking about Islamic terrorism Islam, where it seems the distinction between Islam and Islamism is so clear-cut and obvious as to be immediately obvious to all.
Now that, I think, could more justifiably and accurately be considered hypocrisy, unless it is merely intellecual snobbery in which its a assumed that only those on the ‘decent’ left are capable of making, understanding and adequately expressing distinctions of this kind.
I have to say that I know of no one, certainly amongst 150-200 bloggers who’s work I regularly read, whose judgement of the rights and wrongs of the 2003 invasion is based on anything so crude and simplistic as Donald Rumsfeld having once shaken Saddam’s hand or the role adopted by the US in supporting Iraq’s war on Iran with arms sales. Such matters have certainly been cited as evidence of the US administrations hypocrisy in its stance towards Iraq, givng rise to understandable moral opprobrium, but not as conclusive grounds for opposing the war. Logically, if one opposed the war solely on the grounds that Iraq and the US once found common cause in their mutual opposition to Iran then one must take the view that the US should not have invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein because one believes that nothing has changed in the intervening years and that the US should still considered Iraq an ally - this is patently absurd and not a position I have seen expressed anywhere.
I’ll leave things there for now with the general observation that it is difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe any real credibility to the manifesto and, in particular its supporters, in circumstances in which the view they present of ‘the left’ amounts to a gross distortion of the truth about the real nature of the majority of left-wing opposition to the Iraq war, which for me, is one of the primary reasons why I cannot sign the manifesto - after all whether I agree with any of its its principles is immaterial as within the overall view of left-wing political thought being promoted by some of its supporters I don’t seem to have an adjective and therefore don’t exist.
I will return to the manifesto in due course, not least as someone, perhaps perversely, enjoys unravelling the complexities of foreign policy, in addition to having been well schooled in understand the principles of realpolitik, I want to look in more detail at the viability of the concept of humanitarian intervention and the Eustonites notion of a ‘new internationalism’, not least in the context of holding a commitment to the ‘historical truth’.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales License.
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