History will damn them
We must not accept our leaders' illegal occupation of a sovereign state
Saturday March 20, 2004
Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario. American and British troops battle their way into Iraqi territory, sprayed with anthrax shells and gas bombs. In Cyprus and Tel Aviv, rockets explode, loaded with biological agents. After a bitter struggle, coalition forces seize control of the country. They find concealed rocket silos with missiles primed for attacks on distant European targets; plans are found for rocket attacks on London. At other sites they find an advanced nuclear bomb project and barrels full of chemical weapons. They flush out an al-Qaida stronghold where they find the battle plan of world terrorism. Saddam and Bin Laden were, after all, in cahoots.
A year ago this was the fanciful vision that pushed Blair to side with Bush and go to war in Iraq. They braced their troops and populations for the worst, and the more gullible believed them (I talked to Londoners planning their evacuation route from the capital). The rest of us saw the arguments for the claptrap they were. The reality from March 20 last year to March 20 this year has been grotesquely different. Two of the world's most sophisticated armed forces brushed aside a tinpot army of soldiers without boots, smashed Iraq's cities to pieces, killed thousands of civilians and captured Iraq's oil more or less intact. There were, as any intelligent observer could have told them, no WMD, no centre of world terrorism, no aggressive intent.
In the past 12 months, deserters from the Bush/Blair cause have revealed piecemeal the reality. War was planned long in advance against a soft Arab target that nobody much liked. The intelligence services knew that they were being asked to endorse fairy tales. The attorney general has come clean on how he was forced to turn an illegal war into a lawful war of defence against the Iraqi threat. The duplicity was systematic, and remains so. Blair has no regrets. He bays defiant nonsense about the terrible menace that has been removed, and the greater terrorist menace still at large. Not once has he expressed regret for what a dozen years of sanctions and war inflicted on the Iraqi people. Enough that his cause is just.
There is no pleasure in saying, a year on, that we told you so. Invasion invited worldwide hostility, divided (and still divides) Europe, weakened the UN and, above all, provoked precisely the confrontation with terror that the war was supposed to alleviate. I have been told to stop carping and let the British and Americans get on with the job of ruling Iraq now they are there. But this is tantamount to endorsing the war. Why are the US and Britain there, in illegal occupation of a sovereign state? Why should we accept this reality and knuckle down to Blair's call to arms? Today's demonstration is a reminder that what was a war of unprovoked aggression a year ago has not been changed by victory.
I have had many arguments, too, about the vexed question of oil. The view that oil is some kind of Marxist red herring is widespread. But in this case there can be no other conclusion. Oil installations and oil lines were captured and guarded first; the oil ministry was protected while priceless art treasures were being ransacked. The second largest oil reserves are now safe once again for the wider world market and the global oil companies. Popular ignorance about the nature of oil politics has played into coalition hands, just as popular indifference to the use of major US companies in rebuilding what the US armed forces knocked down has deflected debate from issues that should shock international opinion.
The most familiar argument in favour of the war, repeated mantra-like in all circles, is that a much-hated dictator has been overthrown. This week's opinion poll purports to show how grateful the Iraqis now are for their liberation. No one would wish Saddam Hussein back. The problem is that the reason for going to war was quite different. If unseating tyrants was the priority, Saddam should have been unseated long ago. War in 2003 was about protecting British and American interests, not liberating Iraq, a posture of self-interest rather than magnanimity. This was the same motive for declaring war on Hitler in 1939. It was not dictators that the west could not stomach, but the threat to their interests and way of life (again).
In this sense, the analogy drawn last year that Saddam had to be confronted like Hitler was truer than might have been supposed. Parliament was bamboozled into accepting that Saddam posed an immediate threat to Britain. There were honourable motives for declaring war on Hitler, as there are for unseating Saddam, but that is not what, a year ago, we were offered. Liberation was the means to dress war up as legitimate. So much so that there must be a large number in Britain and the US who think that unseating Saddam really was the reason that war began.
One more battery turns on the anti-war lobby: look at Madrid, look at the daily attacks in Iraq or Israel. Blair was right. Terrorism is the chief threat we face, and the war against terror must unite us all. This has little to do with Iraq. Attacks against the occupiers were provoked by war. Attacks in Israel are part of a different struggle for Palestinian liberation. The assault in Madrid is part of a longer confrontation between militant Islam and western cultural and economic imperialism. Lumping them all together as evidence that a war against terror is the primary object of our foreign policy is nonsense.
"Terror" is not an organisation or a single force. It is related to a variety of political confrontations, each of which has to be understood in its own terms. "Terror" cannot be fought as if it were a war against a hidden, global and undifferentiated enemy. The threat, such as it is, has been exacerbated by the arrogant display of naked power shown by the US, Britain and its motley coalition. But the real changes to "our way of life" are the consequence of the panicky western response to terrorism, which has eroded civil liberties and the rule of law and threatens to smother us with a security net that will undermine the so-called "democratic" values that the west is pledged to preserve. This is an unnecessary price to pay, but we will all see the surveillance state grow unless democratic non-compliance reasserts itself.
What, then, are the alternatives? Could anything different have been done? Should something different be done now? Of course. War should have been avoided and other ways explored to get Iraq to re-enter the world economy, and to feed and supply its population properly. The west could show that it is serious about tackling the question of a Palestinian state, instead of using it as a figleaf to clothe its ambitions in the region. Blair could show that he values a commitment to a common European defence and foreign policy, which might have avoided war altogether.
Today we could confront terrorism differently. It is a profound irony that Blair has helped to defuse the Ulster crisis and reduce terrorism by the very means that he has abandoned in his crusading zeal against the world enemy. Terrorists do not blow people up just because they are nihilistic thugs. Terrorism is born of fear, resentment and powerlessness in the face of the massive power and cultural expansion of the west; it is about real issues for those who perpetrate its acts of violence. Palestinians die because they want to free Palestine. Understanding those issues on their own terms and adjusting our politics in order to do so does not mean that we endorse violence.
Last year Blair told the British people: "Let history be my judge." The history of the past year has been damning, but there is an opportunity for the people to judge as well. The same message that the Spanish people sent to Josť Aznar can also be sent to Bush and Blair. It will not solve the world's problems, but it might make the world a safer place.
∑ Richard Overy is professor of modern history at King's College London, and author of The Dictators, to be published by Penguin in June