David Aaronovitch's Iraq omission

Why does the pro-war left gloss over the issue of Iraqi civilian deaths?

I like David Aaronovitch. He is one of our country's leading liberal voices, a brilliant, intelligent and passionate writer and a nice man. He and I agree on a lot. (You can watch us here debating together at the Cambridge Union in defence of political correctness -- our side won!) But he is wrong about Iraq. He always has been.

I hesitate before taking a pot shot at Aaronovitch because I did so only a few weeks ago, in a column on torture (and he emailed to point out that he had been the first to flag up the Jack Bauer angle). Nonetheless, in the language of the playground, "he started it", so I'll respond.

In his column in the Times on Tuesday, Aaronovitch ridicules those of us who opposed the war, calls the Iraqi elections a "bloody miracle" and deplores seven years of "goddamned" discussion of WMDs, legality, and so on. Time to move on, says Aaro.

Let me begin by highlighting some points on which he and I agree.

1) It is both miraculous and inspiring that Iraq is able to conduct multiparty parliamentary elections seven years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein.

2) Torture was indeed much, much worse and more widespread under Saddam Hussein than it is in Iraq today.

3) There has never been a proper debate about what would have happened to Iraq if Saddam Hussein had been left in power in 2003. What were the alternatives, if any?

But in Aaronovitch's column, entitled "Iraq has moved forward. It's time we did, too", there is a glaring omission. How many Iraqis died in order to build this new Mesopotamian democracy, what he calls "one of the most hopeful changes in recent times"? Or, to rephrase the question, how many Iraqis were unable to vote in these historic elections because they'd been killed in the period since March 2003?

He does make one passing reference to the death and destruction inflicted by the invaders and the insurgents in Iraq:

In the first place it has made it almost impossible to discuss the Iraqis themselves, to consult them or listen to them. They have become ghosts, invoked as (implausible) casualty figures, or seen on TV briefly lamenting a death or maiming.

"Ghosts" is an interesting choice of word. But I'm confused. Does he think casualty figures are not important, or that they are all "implausible"? Does he, like General Tommy Franks, not "do bodycounts"? Or can he tell us how many Iraqis he thinks have been killed in the violence unleashed by our illegal (yes, David, illegal) invasion in 2003? If not, how can he expect us to "move on"? How can we do a proper audit of the war?

Nobody knows for sure how many Iraqis died, or were killed, as a result of the invasion, but there are several different, credible and respected estimates, ranging from 100,000 to a million-plus.

There's Iraq Body Count:

95,593 to 104,291

There's the calculation by Associated Press:

more than 110,600

There's the Lancet survey:

601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths

There's the ORB survey:

1,033,000

Which one does Aaronovitch agree with? Any of them? None of them?

On a side note, I smiled to see Aaronovitch smear those of us in the "anti-war brigade" as "Shortists". But, of course, Clare Short did not oppose the Iraq war. She voted for it, and stayed in the cabinet, resigning only after the invasion had occurred.

He could have called us "Cookists" or "Denhamists", but he chose not to. Perhaps because it is much more difficult to dismiss Robin Cook and John Denham as naive peaceniks, Islamist appeasers or Saddam apologists than it is to dismiss Clare Short, George Galloway, Tony Benn or the rest of the usual suspects. I'm just wondering . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit