A briefing against war on Iraq

First published on an earlier blog on 18 November 2002, months before the actual invasion of Iraq. I think the only assertion I made that is in retrospect dodgy was the claim, made in passing, that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, which we now (30 April 2013) know to be a propaganda claim, much like the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Interlocutor: So you think war on Iraq is a bad idea? Why?

Peacenik: Yes. Because war is wrong.

The great London march of over a million people against the Iraq war, 15 February 2003. My own pic.
The great London march of over a million people against the Iraq war, 15 February 2003. My own pic.

I: Cute notion, but neither fashionable nor persuasive. Try again.

P: There are many arguments, and many who argue, against war on Iraq. There are a very few courageous souls who do so on the basis that war might actually be An Inherently Very Bad Thing, or even Wrong. Are they correct? Confusion on this point has beset humanity for too long. But let us (copping-out perhaps) stick to practical arguments against war — there are more than enough of them.

All wars are messy and brutal, cause death and great suffering and have nasty unforeseen consequences. A war on Iraq will be no exception.

I: Surely the consequences of allowing Saddam Hussein to continue as World’s Nastiest Dictator will be great suffering if he is allowed to continue amassing, and uses, weapons of mass destruction?

P: If he attempted war, he would face overwhelming military force from the US and allies. He leads a moderately-sized country with a devastated economy, and armed forces stuck, for the most part, with ageing military technology. He cannot possibly hope to gain anything from going to war.

The CIA considers the risks of an unprovoked attack by Iraq on the US “low”, but suggests he might lash out with WMDs in advance of an imminent US attack (thus preempting the preempters). (32)

I: Saddam went to war with Iran in the 1980s, and invaded Kuwait in 1990. He’s waged brutal war internally against the Kurds and marsh Arabs. What’s to stop him doing it all over again?

P: He has shown no signs of external aggression since the Gulf War. His means of waging war are smaller than during the Gulf War; the US has spent another 10 years developing ever more sophisticated weapons. He can have no doubt that any external attack would end in overwhelming defeat. His regime, morally bankrupt as it is, is a state. States tend to behave far more rationally, particularly with respect to self-preservation, than the likes of al Quaeda. They can be, and are, deterred by the threat of force. His motives for hanging onto weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), if he is, are now probably the same as US motives for having such weapons: he wants to deter attack (being none too popular with the neighbours).

It has been argued that Saddam only invaded Kuwait on the nod from then US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. In other words, that the US is directly responsible for one of his major acts of past aggression. But the argument cannot be proved to hold much water. (N1)

The consequences of war on Iraq

I: What could go wrong, what could be the nasty consequences, of the US deciding to invade Iraq?

P: You mean, apart from US troops having to pull stuck British tanks out of sand dunes, and cover for British troops with jammed SA-80 assault rifles? (1)

I: …

P: This will take a while. The risks fall into several simple categories. The first is large numbers of civilian and military deaths. The second, the use or proliferation of WMDs.

I: But I thought…?

P: (Yes, use of WMDs is what this war is supposed to prevent.) The third, further radicalisation of Islamic populations, creating greater hatred for the US and doing an excellent recruiting job for al Quaeda. The fourth, creating a precedent for other ‘pre-emptive’ wars even more dubious than this one, and damaging the international system of relations between nation states. The fifth, that Israel will be drawn into the conflict. The sixth, damage to the global economy.

1. Deaths of civilians and soldiers

The US has been at pains to tell the Iraqi people that they are not considered to be an ‘enemy’ of the United States; it is the regime of Saddam Hussein that is considered the enemy.

Nonetheless, the probability is that ‘regime change’ will necessitate rooting out the regime from Baghdad. That will mean, even when precisely targeted munitions are used, many ‘collateral’ civilian deaths. But since they’re Iraqis, their deaths won’t count for very much. This has been described as ‘prejudice of distance’ by The Guardian’s Ian Mayes; innocent people dying far away is always far more acceptable to us than innocent deaths on one’s back doorstep where they cannot be so easily ignored. (For those doing the actual dying, the experience is much the same.)

Unfortunately, military service is compulsory in Iraq. This means that many people who would prefer to be civilians, and to avoid fighting, will be killed in the course of battle. Their deaths will probably number in the tens of thousands, and the notion that the US is ‘not their enemy’ will be of little comfort to them.

The US military has recently been conducting intensive urban warfare exercises, clearly in preparation for the likelihood that conquering Iraq will demand house-to-house, street-to-street fighting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. This kind of fighting — avoided in the recent campaign in Afghanistan where the Northern Alliance was employed to do the dying — is likely to lead to many civilian and military deaths.

I: How many people would die?

After the Gulf War, Unicef reported there were 47 000 deaths among children under five in the first eight months of 1991 alone that seemed to be the indirect result of the conflict.

One study, compiled by Medact, an organisation of British health professionals, suggests up to 260 000 people might die in a new war, with many more at risk from disease and hunger in its aftermath. (18)

And then there are the longer-term effects of war.

Cancers caused by depleted uranium munitions (now officially categorised as WMDs) used in the Gulf War have caused extraordinary suffering already. A second war would multiply this suffering. The chances are that many people, if they grasped only the scale of this suffering caused by the wreckage of modern warfare, would be revolted by the prospect of this war.(26)

The Gulf War was very short, yet it killed a great number of people in that short time. A new war will take longer — perhaps far longer if US strategies are not improved (29) — and so even more are likely to die this time around.

Of course, US soldiers are likely to die in the war as well, no less tragically, though probably in far smaller numbers.

These deaths are the primary reason for arguing against war. No-one gives them enough weight. Few have the imagination to translate the abstractions of counter-balancing geo-political imperatives into the realities of human life and death on a scale that should leave us reeling. If US voters actually had to stand out in the desert among the dead, would they vote for this war?

2. Use or proliferation of WMDs

It is possible the Iraqis have supplies of VX nerve gas (the very, very nasty stuff in the little green glass globes in the Sean Connery/Nicholas Cage movie, The Rock). Large amounts of sarin and anthrax were destroyed by UN arms inspectors in the 1990s, but secret reserves may still exist, as with botulinum toxin (the Cosmetic of Mass Destruction).

In the early stages of a war, the Iraqis may shrink from using these weapons in warfare on their own territory. Biochemical weapons can be treacherous, blowing back on their deployers. Rather than using such weapons on the battlefield, Saddam might choose to lob them at Israel, which came under attack in the Gulf War, or Turkey, should it allow the US to launch attacks from its territory. (Though such attacks would probably not get past anti-missile defense systems.)

In the confusion or aftermath of war, it has been suggested rogue commanders with little to lose may attempt to sell off WMDs (19); al Quaeda would be a logical client.

In the absence of an immediate threat to his own regime, it is highly unlikely that Saddam would himself sell WMDs to al Quaeda — even governments that find it useful on occasion to sponsor terrorism see that passing WMDs to unpredictable, unaccountable homicidal maniacs can backfire.

But being a regime in the process of being forcibly ‘changed’ can be stressful, and rational cost-benefit analyses about the use of WMDs seem unlikely to preoccupy Saddam in his final days and hours. He may, in other words, go crackers and use them liberally. (27)

3. Spawning terrorists like orcs

I: Ah, this is the argument that attacks on Iraq will further upset an Arab world already upset by Israeli actions in the Middle East, the ‘occupation’ of Saudi Arabia by ‘infidels’, and the nasty spectacle of daily death caused by the sanctions on Iraq?

P: It’s not just my argument. “I fear the current wave of radical Islamism is going to be a continuing problem as long as poverty and discontent exist in that part of the world,” said former US secretary of state James Baker in 1994. (7) He seems to have been proved correct. But is the US actually doing much to change these problems of poverty and discontent?

The CIA (damn pinko liberals) has also expressed a view on the subject of terrorist genesis. “Regions, countries, and groups feeling left behind will face deepening economic stagnation, political instability, and cultural alienation. They will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it.” (13)

Henry Kissinger has warned that ‘”ideological radicalism” breeds in “a two-tiered system of globalised elites living behind security gates… while the populations at large are tempted by nationalism, ethnicity and a variety of movements to free themselves”‘. (14)

How could war on Iraq do anything but deepen this existing suspicion and hatred for the US?

I: Just how many potential terrorists are out there?

P: No shortage, really. There are 1,2 billion Muslims in the world. Huge numbers of them, of course, are perfectly peaceful. But many others, it seems, are a tad pissed off. In a recent poll (3) conducted in 44 countries, Muslim respondents were asked if they approved of suicide bombing in defence of Islam. The answer: yes, from 27% of Indonesian Muslims, 33% in Pakistan, 43% in Jordan, 44% in Bangladesh, 47% in Nigeria, 73% in Lebanon.

Of course, only a tiny, tiny minority of Muslims will ever become terrorists. But effectively fighting terrorism is complicated enough when civilian populations broadly oppose the terrorists. It is going to be well nigh impossible as long as so many sympathise with it. If a state like Israel, with the enormous resources it possesses, cannot restrain terrorism in a geographically minute area, how on earth can a purely military strategy succeed when played out across the entire globe?

Sooner or later, the US will have to win hearts and minds. War on Iraq is not the logical first step in that process.

4. Damage to the international system and international law

Over the last 300 years, argue historians and international law experts, the world has evolved a system of international relations between states which now broadly respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We take this completely for granted, forgetting that it exists through very hard-won treaties, law and custom. It is an order many believe is threatened by a preemptive war on Iraq.

This case has been laid out compellingly by a US conservative, Paul Shroeder. He argues that preemptive war on Iraq would be “illegitimate, because it cannot be justified on any of the grounds by which preemptive wars are and should be judged and would represent and promote dangerous, lawless international behavior”. Those grounds, are he says, the existence of a threat, “concrete, specific, and directed against the United States or any American ally”. The existing evidence of threats is far too vague.

Preemptive war, Shroeder continues, would also be “incompatible with the purpose, spirit, and aims of the worldwide military and political alliances which the United States leads, and therefore harmful both to these alliances and to American leadership; Incompatible also with the two central principles by which the international system has evolved over centuries, namely, the right of all states to be recognized and treated as independent, and the simultaneous and corresponding need and requirement for states to become part of associations for common purposes and to follow the rules.”

A precedent for preemptive war might happily be taken up, he argues, by the likes of India/Pakistan, China/Taiwan or North Korea/South Korea.

Finally, Schroeder points out that during the Cold War, when there was no alternative, the US tolerated far greater risks than those currently posed by Iraq. “Terrorism, like nuclear war, is an evil we must of course combat, but cannot hope to extirpate and must learn to endure and outlive.” (30)

There is another strong argument that war on Iraq would be aggresive and illegal.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Telford Taylor was an assistant to the chief American prosecutor. The prosecution of the Nazi leaders was based, principally, not on the crime of genocide or other gross human rights abuses, but on a novel legal concept — that it is a crime to plan and launch an aggressive war.

According to Taylor, writing at the time: “It is important the trial not become an inquiry into the causes of the war. It cannot be established that Hitlerism was the sole cause of the war, and there should be no effort to do this. Nor, I believe, should there be any effort or time spent on apportioning out responsibility for causing the war among the many nations and individuals concerned. The question of causation is important and will be discussed for many years, but it has no place in this trial, which must stick rigorously to the doctrine that planning and launching an aggressive war is illegal, whatever may be the factors that caused the defendants to plan and to launch. Contributing causes may be pleaded by the defendants before the bar of history, but not before this Tribunal.” (9)

World War II is often cited as one of the most unequivocally just wars ever fought (even if many take issue with how it was fought). If that war gave birth to a concept in international jurisprudence intended to forestall future wars, would it not be a tragic betrayal of those who fought and died in that war, to jettison summarily the good eked out of such evil?

5. Attack on Israel

A Gulf war could become even more of a nightmare should Israel be attacked by Iraq and respond in kind, as it has said it would. During the first Gulf War, Israel deliberately refrained from responding to Scud missile attacks. But Israel has specifically said it will respond to Iraqi attacks, and received the blessing of President George Bush. (17) Israel is arguably entitled to respond to direct attack, but to put it mildly, that response will not be a calming influence in the region.

6. Damage to the global economy

Large sections of the global economy are in recession, or threatened by recession. The spike in oil prices that will be a guaranteed effect of war in the Gulf could further depress the US and others. The economic effects are likely to be greater or smaller, depending on how a war turns out. A nasty war could be very bad for the global economy; a short, ‘successful’ war, far less so. According to the US Federal Reserve, in November 2002, just the prospect of war was already reducing investment and consumer spending. (2) Developing countries, as usual, would suffer the most. A very small minority of voices argue that war could be a useful economic stimulus; they should be ignored or put on terrorist watch lists.

The hollow argument for war

I: So what are the motivations of those arguing in favour of war?

P: One needs to distinguish between the public declarations, and the more veiled motives.

I: The public declarations are that the world needs to ensure that Iraq doesn’t further develop, procure or use WMDs.

P: Exactly.

I: And the veiled motives? Roll on the conspiracy theories.

P: Well, firstly, let’s look more closely at this idea that the US and Britain really want to protect us from terrorism and WMDs.

I: How can you possibly suggest otherwise?

P: There are several things the west should be doing to fight terrorism that it is not. A comparatively minor example (unless you happen to actually live in Northern Ireland) would be the fact that the US has not bothered to add the IRA, Provisional or Real, to its list of Awful Terrorist Organisations And Their Funders. (12) This is probably because it would be embarassing politically to then have to add to that list those pillars of US politics who have long funded IRA terrorism. (11) Given the support the Bush administration has received from the UK, the omission is at the very least, a demonstration of staggering ingratitude. It suggests strongly that terrorism is only a problem for the US, when counter to the US ‘national interest’.

I: And major examples of neglect in the war against terror …?

P: Those arguing for war are dead right to suggest that WMDs are a huge and terrifying threat. But they over-estimate the threat of WMDs held by Iraq, and practically ignore the threat posed by WMDs in other hands.

Though the US has committed huge resources to securing and dismantling nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, an enormous amount still needs to be done. Were it doing more itself, the US would be entitled to be irritated by the fact that Europe, with this threat at its backdoor, is doing very little to mitigate this threat. Were there an incident of WMD terrorism in Europe, the scandal over the inaction it would reveal would see governments tumbling overnight.

According to Senator Sam Nunn of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), of the enormous amounts of nuclear weapons material in Russia, “less than half is adequately safeguarded.” Nunn argues that Russian bureaucrats and many in the US Congress are holding up efforts to properly deal with this threat. “Working with Russia at our current pace, we will not secure all of its nuclear materials for years to come.”

The US still does not have a budget for securing dangerous nuclear materials outside of the former Soviet Union, and was forced in August to rely on a donation from the NTI in order secure weapons-grade uranium in Yugoslavia.

I: So much for efforts to stop WMDs falling into the hands of terrorists. But what about stopping WMDs outright?

Bush administration policies are widely considered to be undermining the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1970. Total elimination of nuclear weapons has been a dream of many, not least Ronald Reagan (or so he said). In May 2000, the US, at the review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed to “accomplish the total elimination” of its nuclear arsenal. But it has now abandoned this undertaking in favour of refining its nuclear arsenal, creating ‘usable’ or ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons, and reducing the threshold for their use. (22)

These actions pushed even The New York Times to suggest that the US was becoming ‘a rogue nuclear state’.

When Bush identified an ‘axis of evil’ at work in the world, he named Iraq, Iran and North Korea. North Korea recently revealed that it has, contrary to a 1994 agreement, developed nuclear weapons. Strangely, no-one has suggested invading North Korea to dismantle its weapons programme and secure the human rights of its citizens, even though North Korea is also a dangerous proliferator of missile technology. This is because war with North Korea has now become too risky.

The message this sends to the paranoid can only be that if you wish to secure your survival in a world inhabited by a Bush-led US, you HAVE to have nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein’s great misfortune appears to be that he does not. Iran is frantically trying to procure them.

The pattern, to the suspiciously minded, might be that Bush is very keen on those measures for US security which require large amounts of military spending — such as anti-ballistic missile systems — and not so keen on those that don’t, such as assisting Russian disarmament.

I: Okay, so we distrust public declarations about war countering the threat of WMDs, because WMD threats are being ignored and non-proliferation undermined. So what are the real motives for war?

P: There would seem to be a complex of shifting but fairly consistent motivations on the part of those in Washington lobbying for war. What is probably most under-estimated by those trying to understand these motives, is quite simply the pure psychology of leading the world’s most powerful nation, as influential in itself as any particular strategic imperative.

There’s the old ploy, of course, of distracting the electorate from trying domestic issues by concentrating on external threats. Whether or not it was a ploy, judging from the unprecedented success of the GOP in the mid-term congressional elections, it worked.

Then there is the Israeli connection. Hugo Young, writing in The Guardian, has described how some of the Pentagon ‘hawks’ are “as much Israeli as American nationalists … The aura of a dirty little secret surrounds the possibility — the perfectly intelligible and even reasonable possibility — that the emotional thrust of the anti-Saddam campaign, from the most hawkish hawks, contemplates the security of one country, Israel, which he really threatens, more than that of another, the US itself, which his weapons of mass destruction have no chance of reaching.” (15)

Certainly, leading Israeli sympathisers seem to occupy positions of extraordinary influence in Washington. Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory group that reports to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, was one of the authors of a 1996 paper called ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the [Israeli] Realm’, which calls on Israel to engineer the downfall of Saddam Hussein. (16) Such ideas are perfectly legitimate in themselves. What is extraordinary is that people whose first loyalty appears to be to Israel, should be the ones allowed to push the US towards war.

As Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon put it to Bush, “We never had such relations with any president of the United States as we have with you.” (17) Indeed.

I: None of this proves conspiracy.

P: Of course; conspiracies aren’t necessary when someone has been elected to do the outrageous in broad daylight. But Iraq is supposedly being confronted to ensure the security of the US and its partners. There are an awful lot of threats to security that deserve as much attention as Iraq, but which are not getting that attention. Therefore, it seems less certain that the primary motivation for pursuing Iraq is security.

I: What about oil?

P: It seems unlikely that the desire for oil alone is what is driving the war lobby, as some have suggested. But perhaps I underestimate the oil lobby. At any rate, these are some of the facts.

Companies from all five permanent member countries of the UN security council have oil interests in Iraq. Of all those countries, the oil lobby in the US is by far the most influential, though the Russians (who have resisted the impetus to war) are also very keen to see their oil interests in Iraq guaranteed. The Washington Post argued that these various interests were one of the levers the US could employ in getting full security council support (27), as indeed it did, for UN resolution 1441 — the resolution which will probably trigger war.

Oil companies, if they are not directly lobbying for war, are at least lining up to enjoy the spoils.

“We have let it be known that the thing we would like to make sure, if Iraq changes regime, is that there should be a level playing field for the selection of oil companies to go in there if they’re needed to do the work there,” said Lord Browne of BP in October. (28)

Lord Browne has been lobbying the UK and US governments over this issue, which suggests he believes those governments, and not, say, a post-war Iraqi government, will be setting out the oil ‘playing field’. The oil does actually belong to Iraq (which would normally be free, for example, to nationalise the oil industry), but since Lord Browne presumably knows his business, it appears we should not expect that after a war, the oil belonging to Iraq will actually be controlled by Iraq. (N2)

The oil price increase which comes with the prospect of war is already helping oil company profits.

Those are the visible motivations. The old chestnut that President Bush wants to get Saddam, because Saddam tried to assassinate his father, is so implausible, there might just be some truth to it.

‘Let’s kill people and secure their human rights’

I: We all agree that Saddam Hussein is a thoroughly unwanted inhabitant of the planet, and that removing him somehow would enormously benefit his people. Surely the US and allies would be doing Iraq a favour by invading? We could set up a new democratic state, invest in their economy (that is, the oil industry!), and make everyone a lot happier than they are now. Surely this is a terribly strong argument for war?

P: It might be, if war wasn’t certain to kill so many people, and if we could be sure that Saddam’s replacement would be nicer to his/its own people.

The British government is among the latest to argue, with its inaccurate dossier of human rights abuses in Iraq, that such abuses are a reason to go to war. Such arguments are profoundly dishonest. The most fundamental of human rights is that to life itself. Even were Saddam Hussein to remain in power for another brutal thirty years, the chances are he would not kill as many people as are likely to die in a war on Iraq.

As for a replacement for Saddam, ensuring that a democracy remains stable and successful will demand a long-term US presence in Iraq. The country has little experience of democracy, and civil society has been shattered by the effects of Saddam’s tyranny, and sanctions. Add to this the ethnic fractures of Iraqi society, and the chances for stability are exceedingly remote.

Nation-building is not much to the taste of the Bush administration, and a US military presence of this nature in an Arab nation is likely to add to regional tensions.

According to Jane’s (24), “The simmering divisions of Iraq’s splintered Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd tribal society may well explode once Saddam is overthrown or killed by the Americans and its [sic] allies.”

Jane’s quotes Rend Rahim Francke, director of the Iraqi Foundation: “The system of law and order will break down, endangering public safety and putting people at risk of personal reprisals. There will be no police force, no justice system, no civil service and no accountability. In this confusion, people will take justice into their own hands.”

“I am viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country,” said Kissinger on hearing of possible US plans to install a military governor in Iraq after invasion.

While some of those arguing for war undoubtedly would like to see Iraq become a democracy, there is by no means unanimous support for this idea. Too many would settle for a pro-US dictator. Which, of course, is what Saddam used to be.

Nor does the US have a great track record of supporting nations in whose affairs it has intervened, as Wolfowitz himself has admitted, speaking of earlier US interventions in Afghanistan: “We had to create conditions under which the Soviets pulled out and then I think there’s a general consensus that we made a mistake in kind of forgetting about the place.” (8)

The new Afghanistan teeters precariously. The Karzai government is so weak that it controls little outside of Kabul. The rest of the country is divided up between warlords. Over the next five years, the Afghans will receive a meagre $4.5bn in aid. (25)

Afghanistan has not been abandoned by the West, but it is not getting enough support either. It is too early to judge, from Afghanistan, that the US is now committed to securing peace and democracy in nations in which it has taken military action.

Other arguments

I: Is there anything worth observing about those arguing in favour of war?

P: Yes. They are, for the most part, people without personal experience of war, coming from a nation that aside from 9-11 has no recent civilian experience of anything resembling the horror of war. It is not coincidence that most European countries are opposed to war. For them, the bombing of civilian populations, the brutality of occupation, and the deaths of millions remain vivid memories. Within the US cabinet itself, the one man with direct experience of combat, Colin Powell, appears to be less enthusiastic than others at the prospect of war.

It also appears that their plans for war do not stop at Iraq. Perle has spoken of plans to attack Iran. (31)

On an international level, the ranks of war enthusiasts are much thinner than in 1991, when the forces that pushed Iraq from Kuwait included troops from Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Honduras, Italy, Kuwait, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Korea, Spain, Syria, Turkey, and The United Arab Emirates.

This time, only the UK has signed up to assist the US. Others are prepared to join in a UN-authorised action, but will do so only with the greatest reluctance, and out of respect for the UN far more than from a belief in a war on Iraq.

I: It’s not just the Washington ‘hawks’ who speak in favour of war. What are the arguments of other rationalisers of war?

P: Editor of The Economist Bill Emmott, for example, argues that, “The reasons [for going to war with Iraq] pile on top of one another: human rights, defending multilateralism, ending a resented containment scheme, deterring the spread of deadly weapons, and, in the longer term, starting to spread democracy in the Middle East.” (20)

If we could be sure that those were indeed the goals being pursued by the US, perhaps he would be right. But the US has no track record of defending democracy and human rights anywhere other than in the US and Europe — as recently as April, it was welcoming a military coup in Venezuela — and there is no reason to assume this is about to change. Its record and sincerity in efforts to contain the spread of WMDs is, as pointed out earlier, shaky.

As for defending multilateralism … there is hardly a multilateral bone in the current administration. Its current engagement with the UN is arguably being undertaken with the greatest reluctance, after arm twisting from British prime minister Tony Blair.

Arguments about human rights, as I have pointed out, do not give enough weight to human life.

An alternative to war

I: So with respect to Iraq, we should continue the policy of containment, unsatisfactory as it is, and concentrate our efforts on the war against terrorism?

P: No, Saddam should be offered a deal where he pursues conventional disarmament in exchange for security guarantees from his neighbours and the US, the slow lifting of the embargo in parallel with a step-by-step process leading to democracy, and a personal amnesty for himself. Saddam would be an ideal candidate for prosecution in the new International Criminal Court, but the UN Security Council would have the power to defer prosecution should the ICC indict him. Having him escape justice is hardly desirable, but if it secured peace, it would be worth it. Since the US does not wish to see its own citizens prosecuted by the ICC, presumably it will be the last to complain should Saddam evade the new court.

(No-one has actually tried positive reinforcement with Iraq for some time. Most assume that sanctions are still in place because Iraq has not disarmed. But even before the current crisis, Iraq had no incentive to disarm; it had been told quite unequivocally in 1997 by then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright that sanctions would remain in place even if it did disarm. Ten years of almost constant bombings would induce a siege mentality in even the most rational.)

This is just one alternative possibility. There are many others. (21) No-one really talks about them, because they’re not as sexy as war. If they fail absolutely, then containment should be continued, and we should wait for Saddam’s regime to burn itself out, while trying to carve out a better way of administering sanctions.

As for the war on terror, what no-one wants to tell you about that, is that no-one wins wars against terror. But we’ll consider that another day.

Arguing for war is, by its very nature, easier than arguing against

I: I’m not saying I buy your arguments, but why don’t people listen to you peaceniks?

P: In large part, it’s a failure of imagination. People, not least the media, find it difficult to give credence to peace efforts. Making peace is damn hard work. It demands uncomfortable compromises and profound soul searching. This is why even liberal papers, when selecting front page stories, will ignore half a million people marching for peace in Florence in favour of the latest antics of the British royal family.

Those who desire peace have to work harder than those we disagree with, and have to struggle never to forget their humanity. The moment we forget the humanity of the warmongers, we tumble headlong into the same abyss that they inhabit and find ourselves fighting for floorspace in a snake pit.

Many people don’t fully grasp the nature of ‘peace’. It requires constant effort. The word suggests passivity; but passivity is in fact more far likely to be a cause of war than of peace. It is not just an absence of war, but a constant work of construction. Like a fragile dyke being constantly eroded by the sea and in need of daily repairs, when peace maintenance lapses, the potential for conflict floods in.

The psychology of the war party

War is, compared to trying to forge and maintain a peace, dead simple. This is why the Bush administration appears so resolute and efficient. The tasks it has set itself are no-brainers.

War is largely an exercise in physics. It ignores complex human realities, and fragilities. Its logic is, if something stands in your way, you can either negotiate with it, or destroy it. Destruction will always be a much easier option. If you are enormously strong compared to the obstacle, destroying it becomes an almost irresistible compulsion. In a world in which there are no challenges to the strength of the US, that strength, it seems, is easily corrupted.

I: How much danger is there for me personally in all this?

P: It depends who you are.

If you happen to be an Iraqi, the dangers are considerable.

But if you’re in the west, it’s highly likely your endorsement of war, explicit or tacit, won’t lead to you suffering any immediate personal discomfort, besides paying more to fill up your car, and being rather shorter on safe places to go on holiday overseas for the next half-century. You will probably be fueling whatever flames burn in the hearts of al Quaeda, but you’re most unlikely ever to be killed by terrorists yourself.

If Baghdad did have missiles that could reach London or Washington, the US wouldn’t begin to contemplate war. The risks of domestic political backlash would be too great. Yet we are told that this war is intended to protect us.

If you happen to see on TV scenes of wailing women in Baghdad, of collaterally dead and mutilated children, of battlefields strewn with corpses, you will probably not be thinking to yourself, “I voted for that”. Or if you do, you’re unlikely to lose much sleep over it. Your government prefers you to be fairly comfortable morally as well as economically, and will do its best to provide comforting messages about how it was all terribly sad, but also terribly unavoidable. After all, we are the good guys. We’re sure of that, aren’t we? Evidence of WMD caches, and megalomaniacal plans to use them, will probably turn up, one way or another, to bolster such governments’ cases.

I: That’s a very emotional argument.

P: Yes.


N1. Glaspie refutes having told Saddam the US would ignore an invasion of Kuwait. (5) The transcripts of the Glaspie/Saddam meeting that suggest she did tell him this were of dubious provenance, being based on a secret Iraqi taping.”I didn’t think … the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait,” she apparently said later. (6) Reduced, most recently, to being a mere consul in South Africa, whatever she actually did say appears not to have been a great career move in the eyes of the US state department.

N2. Or to summarise: We sell arms and the technology needed to develop WMDs to your brutal dictator for many years, even after we’ve seen him using poison gas on you. After getting away with murder for years, he decides to invade Kuwait. We counter-attack, killing your sons and brothers in their thousands, and spreading depleted uranium, a WMD itself, over your land. Famine stalks the country, and children are born with hideous cancers, and often without the things children are normally born with. We impose sanctions. For every irrational action taken by your dictator, we compete to come up with new items we can deprive you of. We bomb you regularly for ten years. We take every possible action to ensure that your mad dictator turns your country into a siege society, because he knows we’re out to get him. Then we tell you we’re going to wage war on you. But don’t worry, we’re not your enemy. Yes, you’ll die in your thousands, your tens, probably hundreds of thousands, but we’re not your enemy. Oh, and, by the way, once we’ve done all this, we’re going to tell you what’s good for you, and take your oil. Now say thank you.


1. Oliver, Mark.
“MoD disasters: from Apache to Nimrod”
The Guardian, 31 October 2002

2. “War in Iraq and the economy”
Schifferes, Steve
BBC News Online, 8 November 2002

For thoughts on the possible economic effects of war, see also:

Krugman, Paul
“Stocks and bombs”
The New York Times, September 13 2002

Halbert, Gary D
“Economic Impact of the War with Iraq”
Forecasts and Trends, September 24 2002

3. Survey: “What the world thinks in 2002” (subtitled ‘Global Gloom and growing anti-Americanism’)
The Pew Research Center for the people and the press

5. Curtiss, Richard H
“The 100-Hour Ground War Viewed From the US and the Gulf”
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1991

6. O’Malley, Martin and Wood, Owen
“Bombs over Baghdad: 10 years after Desert Storm”
CBC News Online, January 2001

7. Pipes, Daniel and Clawson, Patrick
Interview with James Baker
Middle East Quarterly, September 1994 (Volume I, Number 3)

8. Banfield, Ashley
Interview with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
MSNBC, 9 May 2002

9. Taylor, Telford
The Anatomy of the Nuremburg Trials, A Personal Memoir
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992

10. Straw, Jack
“Be cautious over Iraq’s somersault”
The Guardian, 14 November 2002

11. Duffy, Jonathan
“Rich friends in New York
BBC News Online, 26 September 2001

12. Fact sheet: Comprehensive List of Terrorists and Groups Identified Under Executive Order 13224
Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, October 11, 2002

13. “Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future With Nongovernment Experts”
National Foreign Intelligence Board under the authority of the Director of Central Intelligence, December 2000

14. Bunting, Madeleine
“No retreat in Doha”
The Guardian, 5 November 2001

15. Young, Hugo
“Blair has not been a poodle, but poodleism still beckons”
The Guardian, 14 November 2002

16. Perle, Richard; Colbert, James; Fairbanks, Charles Jr; Feith, Douglas; Loewenberg, Robert; Torop, Jonathan; Wurmser, David; Wurmser, Meyrav
“A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”
The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies’ “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000”, 1996

17. “Bush: Israel would respond to an Iraqi attack”
CNN.com, 16 October 2002

18. Edwards, Rob
“Iraq war ‘could kill 500,000′”
NewScientist.com news service, 12 November 2002

19. MacKenzie, Debora
“Iraq invasion could ‘worsen terrorist threat'”
New Scientist, 18 September 2002

20. Emmott, Bill
“If Saddam steps out of line we must go straight to war”
The Guardian, 25 November 2002

21. Friends Committee on National Legislation
Webpage: “Alternatives to war with Iraq” (viewed 11/26/02)

22. Hartung, William D, with Reingold, Jonathan
“About Face: The Role of the Arms Lobby In the Bush Administration’s Radical Reversal of Two Decades of U.S. Nuclear Policy”
World Policy Institute Special Report, May 2002

23. Nunn, Sam
“Remarks at the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C, October 22, 2002”
Nuclear Threat Initiative
< http://www.nti.org/c_press/c_index.html>

24. “Iraq after Saddam: what next?”
Jane’s.com, 04 October 2002

25. Toynbee, Polly
“Was it worth it?”
The Guardian, 13 November 2002

26. Arbuthnot, Felicity
“Poisoned legacy”
new internationalist, issue 316, September 1999

27. Borger, Julian
“Saddam, tell me about your mum”
The Guardian, November 14 2002

27. “U.S. Drillers Eye Huge Petroleum Pool”
Morgan, Dan and Ottaway, David B
Washington Post, 15 September 2002

28. “BP chief fears US will carve up Iraqi oil riches”
Macalister, Terry
The Guardian, 30 October 2002

29. Borger, Julian
“War game was fixed to ensure American victory, claims general”
The Guardian, 21 August 2002

30. Schroeder, Paul W
“Iraq: The Case Against Preemptive War”
The American Conservative, 21 October 2002

31. Margolis, Eric
“After Iraq, Bush Will Attack His Real Target”
The Toronto Sun, 10 November 2002

32. “Iraq attack likely only if provoked”
BBC News Online, 9 October 2002

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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

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