Without fanfare and with precious little attention from seemingly any of the core Eustonistas, it would appear that Norman Geras has quietly and self-effacingly recanted his once open support for the war in Iraq.
Still, there have been too many deaths; there has been too much other suffering. It has lately become clear to me - and this predates publication of the second Lancet report - that, whatever should now happen in Iraq, the war that I’ve supported has failed according to one benchmark of which I’m in a position to be completely certain.
That is, had I been able to foresee, in January and February 2003, that the war would have the results it has actually had in the numbers of Iraqis killed and the numbers now daily dying, with the country (more than three years down the line) on the very threshold of civil war if not already across that threshold, I would not have felt able to support the war and I would not have supported it. Measured, in other words, against the hopes of what it might lead to and the likelihoods as I assessed them, the war has failed. Had I foreseen a failure of this magnitude, I would have withheld my support. Even then, I would not have been able to bring myself to oppose the war. As I have said two or three times before, nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime. But I would have stood aside.
Quite a revelation, one might think, although not one it would seem that (m)any of the more vocal supporters of the Euston Manifesto has thought worth commenting on – a quick and far from exhaustive scan through several of blogs most closely (and vocally) associated with the ‘Credo Eustonista’ (Harry’s Place, Oliver Kamm, Pootergeek, Shuggy, Paulie, etc.) reveals not a solitary musing on the subject of Norm’s muted volte-face, Nothing. Nada. Not a flicker of recognition, embarrassed or otherwise.
Which rather, to my mind, does Norm a major disservice.
Update/Correction: It seems I do Oliver Kamm a minor disservice that I am happy to correct in as much as it transpires that he has commented on Norm’s article, if only to indicate his disagreement with Norm’s conclusions and intention of responding fully in due course…
I respect but do not share the judgement that Norman expresses in this post. I believe our difference may be due, in part at least, to the fact that our grounds for supporting the Iraq War in 2003, while associated, were not identical. I will endeavour to explain why, in light of Norman’s reasoning, I do not agree with his conclusions.
Whatever one might have thought of Norm’s often unswerving support for the moral ‘rightness’ of the Iraq war, even as matters ran what were, to the war’s opponents on the rational left, their inevitable course; there remains a significant element of personal courage in any admission of error for which, on this occasion, Norm deserves full credit.
It is not easy to admit that one has got something badly wrong and in qualifying his repudiation of the war and the course its has followed since Bush prematurely declared himself and America the victor in 2003, Norm has said nothing that one could consider to be unreasonable mitigation for his views.
It is not wrong to express the hope that it may be possible to salvage something from the current shambles that is Iraq, nor to take the view that an immediate and unilateral withdrawal of Western forces would amount to no more than throwing the Iraqi people to the wolves, albeit that many of those wolves are of our own invention. Nor is it wrong to express principled opposition to the former Ba’athist regime in Iraq nor even the view that…
Sometimes there is a justification for opposing tyranny and barbarism whatever the cost. Had I been of mature years during that time, I hope I would have supported the war against Nazism come what may, and not been one of the others, the nay-sayers.
Norm’s error, such as it is, has been one of naivety. He has been that bit too concerned with ideals, principles and with the morality of situation in Iraq to the exclusion of considering its realities; but as faults go it is one that I can personally view with a measure of indulgence. There is always a need for someone to speak up for ideals, for principles and for moral values, but that need must be balanced by an understanding of their limitations along with their value. Such is the essential difference between spiritual/intellectual leadership and secular leadership and by his error in the matter of the Iraq war, Norm identifies himself as being more suited to the former than to the latter.
One has to wonder why it is that Norm’s rescission of his support for the Iraq war has received so little open attention is ‘decent’ circles.
Could this be a sign of embarrassment, perhaps? Or maybe it is anxiety that prompts the more belligerently vocal Eustonistas to look the other way while Norm executes his act of mild contrition; the fear that this might somehow serve to undermine the Euston ‘project’ as a whole.
If such is true, and who knows it may well be the case, then such fears and anxieties as may reside amongst supporters of the Euston ‘project’ are entirely miscast and predicated on a misreading of the real significance of Norm’s comments.
In admitting to an error of judgment on the Iraq war, Norm has opened the door to a possible rapprochement on the left between the Eustonistas and those left-wing rationalists who opposition to the war has gone unabated throughout but whose views have never tipped over into the anti-Imperialist dogma and naked communalism of RESPECT and the Socialist Worker’s Party.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong or at fault in the underlying ideals and principles upon which the Euston Manifesto is founded, indeed as an aspirational document for the left it contains much that is to be commended. That it has not commanded wider support amongst left-wing rationalists has stemmed in part from the, at times, rigid refusal of the vocal self-identified decents to concede the fact that the political and ideological basis upon which the Iraq War was entered into in reality in no way substantively reflects the values of the Manifesto, or even the core values of ‘the left’, if one can adequately describe ‘the left’ in terms of a single entity.
Put simply, if there is to be a template for a new left-wing internationalism then Iraq is not it, nor indeed is to be found within an alliance, however loose, with the doctrine of neo-conservatism that provided the actual political and ideological impetus for that war.
If one is to enter the struggle against totalitarism and remain true to one’s left-wing instincts then one cannot fall into the same trap that has engulfed the SWP and its supporters, that of believing that the enemy of our enemy must automatically become our friend. America is not the enemy, nor should it become so for as long it holds true to those values that are expressed in its declaration of independence and in its constitution, but nor is the present regime of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bolton Wolfowitz et al, our friend. Its agenda in professing to seek to ‘export’ democracy to those who suffer under the yoke of tyranny and oppression is not our agenda nor its preferred form of democracy, one that is supine in its gratitude to the military and economic power of the United States military-industrial complex, our democracy.
It has been said on numerous occasions that in opposing the war in Iraq ‘the left’ lost its ‘moral compass’. That may be true of those whose opposition takes the form of unthinking and uncritical support for the former Ba’athist regime in Iraq and for its monstrous former President, but it would also be true to say that the left’s moral compass is at least distorted, if not lost, on those occasions that it ceases to think for itself and view the world with a critical eye; and as it would appear that Norm has discovered with the benefit of hindsight, the Iraq war was one such occasion, much as the pacifism of the 1930s in face of the rise of Fascism in Europe was another.
Does this then mean that I have substantively changed my view of the Euston Manifesto?
No. Not as yet.
Much as Norm could rightly be considered the ‘conscience’ of the Eustonistas his admission of error in the matter of the Iraq war is but that of one man and it has yet to be seen whether others amongst the manifesto’s most vocal and strident supporters are equally prepared to avail themselves of the wisdom that hindsight brings. One swallow, after all, does not make a summer.
There is much that the Eustonistas must yet do to win over the left-wing rationalists who formed the real core of opposition to the Iraq war; open recognition of our very existence would assist matters greatly as would an end to the blanket use of the archaic rhetoric of the 1930s, i.e. ‘apologist’ and ‘fellow travellers’ as an ideological slur on the rationalist camp. The ‘rational’ left, that which opposed the war in Iraq with the benefit of foresight as to the disastrous situation in which one now finds the country, has never once swallowed the dogma and demagoguery that has been the hallmark of those, like RESPECT, who opposed the war for entirely ideological reasons, and, as would have been entirely apparent had the pro-war left even been minded to listen, both rejects and thoroughly resents such accusations.
The next step, for those Eustonistas who might be minded to take up the opportunity for rapprochement afforded, perhaps unwittingly, by Norm, must therefore come in the form of a clear acceptance both that the broad debate on Iraq amongst the left has never been about a mere two opposing ideological positions; the ‘decents’ and the ‘stoppers’ but that a third position, one that opposed the Iraq war and yet is by turns rationalist and realist in perspective, has existed throughout and still exists without it ever having due reference to the ideological-driven opposition of those ‘Trotskyists’ who have, since the demise of the Soviet Union, successfully transferred their own brand of negative and oppositional ‘nationalism’ to the United States – and if anyone is unsure of what I mean here or of my usage of the term ‘nationalism’ in this context, then check the side bar for a link to Orwell’s essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’, which will explain the background to these comments.
Beyond those first tentative steps, who can say how things might develop – all one can be sure of is that there would be scope for constructive dialogue and therefore a more realistic prospect of forging the kind of ‘fresh political alliance’ that the preamble to the manifesto proposes than could be realised by the Eustonistas going it alone.
Before signing off there are two substantive and interlinked points in Norm’s article that I believe deserve an explicit response, both of which raise the question of foresight amongst those who opposed the war:
It is noticeable, in this regard, that opponents of the war who were always confident its costs would be too high don’t avoid the difficulty; at any rate I’ve not seen judgements from their side of what costs they would have found acceptable, nor estimates of what the costs of leaving Saddam in power would have been - something which nobody really knows.
Were we therefore wrong to support the war, those of us who did? In terms of what we hoped and what we thought likely, we obviously were - given how things have actually turned out. But on the basis of what could have been reliably foreseen, I think it’s harder to say that. Only if the disaster was always foreseeable as the most likely outcome would I be convinced of it. I’m aware, of course, that there are opponents of the war who claim it always was foreseeable, but there are other impulses at work there than a detached estimate of probabilities, and amongst these has been a desire not to dwell too closely on how bad things had been in Iraq over some three decades.
To which I can only respond in terms of my own personal judgment of the situation in Iraq leading into and since the 2003 invasion and how that, in turn, coloured my thinking on the war itself.
I make no great claim to predictive ability or prophecy in such matters. My opposition to the war was founded on no more than a weighing of different factors leading to a personal conclusion as to the most likely outcome of the invasion. It was a judgment call, no more and no less than would have be than which led Norm to support the invasion.
As regards what I would have considered an acceptable price in human life and human suffering for the successful excision of Iraq’s ruling Ba’athist regime, the only answer I have is that I genuinely don’t know. In my personal calculations, I never did arrive at such a figure for no better reason than the fact that long before I even came to consider the human cost of the invasion I came to conclusion that the most likely outcome of such an invasion would be failure; not in military terms of course, but in terms of the long-term objective of constructing a free and democratic Iraq out of the aftermath of war, or to be more exact my conclusion was that the chance of success was so small as to afford no real prospect of such a future for the Iraqi people.
Does that sound clinical and a little inhuman, perhaps?
In truth, my sympathies lie closer to Norm’s than one might expect in this matter.
Seeing no prospect of a successful outcome, the question of what price in human life and suffering could be justified became entirely moot. Had I ever perceived the to be a chance of success, my thinking would have been very different, the ‘acceptable’ costs would have been quite high, in my own personal estimation, for the undoubted benefits of a safe and secure future for the Iraqi people within a free, independent, and democratic nation state of their own; although I have to say that only the Iraqi people, themselves, can truly judge precisely the price they would be prepared to pay for such a future.
As to why I concluded that failure would be not only the likely outcome but the only conceivable one, I could easily write a dissertation on that subject and still not cover all the factors that influenced my thinking.
If one factor in particular stands out, however it would be that expressed most clearly and succinctly by Gandhi…
The spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within.
Nowhere in my consideration of the many factors that I perceived as mediating against a successful outcome to the 2003 invasion; the many barriers that Iraq’s history of division on geographical, ethnic, religious, economic would put in the way of a successful exercise in ‘nation-building’, and all the deep-seated animosities that spring from those forces, did I ever see there to be the existence of a genuine democratic will amongst the Iraqi people of sufficient strength and scope to overcome those barriers.
The will to democracy was not, and is not, strong enough at present to provide the platform necessary for a free and democratic Iraq, in my estimation, and if that ‘spirit’ is lacking in the Iraqi people in sufficiebnt quantity to make such a future possible then it certainly cannot be imposed upon them by an external force, even one so overwhelming in economic and military terms as the United States.
In truth, I could see from the outset only two possible conclusions to this war.
One was the balkanisation of Iraq on ethnic and religious lines leading to a failed state, civil war and regional destabilisation, not least as the influence of neighbouring states, Iran, Syria and even Turkey (who wish to avoid the creation of independent Kurdistan at all costs in order preclude demands for secession for its own, heavily oppressed Kurdish minority) would inevitably be far from benign. This, in broad terms, is the developing situation in Iraq today.
The other was either a clerically-inspired coup d’etat or the emergence of a new ‘strong man’ leader, in either case coming from and initiated by the majority Shi’a population, with the result either a quasi-democratic/theocratic state after the fashion of post-revolutionary Iran or a new dictator and totalitarian regime, much after the fashion of the ‘big man’ politics of some African states, in which the occasional foray into democracy has amounted to little more than a convenient mechanism by which one chooses one’s next absolute ruler. The real test of democracy is never what happens when one votes someone into power, but what happens when one attempts to vote someone out of office, as several African nations, not least Zimbabwe, have so ably demonstrated over the post-colonial era.
There, for what its worth, is the basis of my own ‘powers’ of foresight – nothing more than logic, rational thought and appreciation of history and of the various social and political forces that tend to work against democracy if left unchecked.