24 March 2003: The emotional gluttons against the war

No invasion can be worse for the Iraqis than what they now suffer.

Iraq.
The scene of attack on US army Humvees in the al-Waziriyah quarter of Baghdad, April 2004. Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos, April 2004. Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos.

There was one false note in Robin Cook's resignation speech. He was right to say the government deluded itself when ministers asserted that international hostility to the Iraq war was all the fault of President Chirac. Equally undeniable was his declaration that British interests were best protected by "multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules", rather than by sticking with a US that "can afford to go it alone". The dissonance was heard only when he made the most glancing of references to the decades of mass murder in Iraq. "The legal basis for our action in Kosovo," he said, "was the need to respond to an urgent and compelling humanitarian crisis. Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq."

It was an oddly guarded remark in an otherwise admirably clear speech. Although the war in Kosovo stopped a genocidal national socialist, it was not approved by the UN, and was therefore an "illegal" war to those who believed legal arguments that overthrowing genocidal national socialists was a shocking breach of civilised jurisprudence. As strange was Cook's formulation that "neither the international community nor the British public" was "persuaded" about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. International and domestic opinion may well not be convinced. Censorship in Iraq is strict and the regime is smart enough not to repeat Milosevic's blunders and allow pictures of mass graves and executions to reach the outside world. Cook's assessment of global opinion was probably fair, but it begged the question: did he believe there was "an urgent and compelling humanitarian crisis" Iraq?

Surely he must. Reports of the ethnic cleansing of Kurds are coming out daily. As a foreign secretary of four years' standing, and a politician with an honourable career of fighting oppression, it would be impossible for him not to know about a Ba'athist body count that runs into hundreds of thousands of murdered Kurds, Shia Arabs and political opponents, and passes one million without breaking into sweat if the dead in the wars against Iran and Kuwait are included.

I suspect Cook didn't take the slaughter head-on because the first concern of those who oppose a war against Iraq is not Iraq. It is America's dominance or Blair's monarchical government or the balance of power or the dangers of the doctrine of pre- emptive action or the collapse of independent British foreign policy or the need to concentrate on al-Qaeda. All serious concerns, to be sure, but if Iraq were at the front of their minds, the questions "why now?" or "why not carry on with weapons inspections and sanctions?" raised by Cook would be countered with: "Does anyone seriously believe that more people will be killed if Saddam is forced out by war than if he is allowed to stay?"

Perhaps there are opponents of war who do. But if they are making utilitarian estimates about the consequences of prosecuting a war or maintaining the brutal status quo, they are, like Cook, keeping their conclusions to themselves.

Calculations of comparative advantage are inevitably messy and complicated. The ubiquitous sense of self-righteousness on the liberal left depends above all on not wondering whether it is immoral, or at least morally ambiguous, to take to the streets to demand that other people continue to live in a prison state. Although I have heard hundreds bellow that Tony Blair will have blood on his hands if Saddam is overthrown by force, I've yet to hear anti-war protesters admit that they will have blood on their hands if he isn't.

After Di died, the atmosphere in Britain was somewhat hyperbolically described as one of "emotional fascism". Shopkeepers who wouldn't close out of "respect" were abused and Private Eye was banned from some newsagents for mocking the hypocrisy of pundits who damned the princess as a randy Sloane when she was alive and mourned her as a martyr when she was dead. This time around, the conformity is greater. Not even Rory Bremner or the Eye will mock an anti-war movement in which the Pope, the Socialist Workers Party, several generations of the Redgrave family, the entire Muslim world - with the small exception of the voiceless Muslims (and Christians and atheists) of Iraq - the bishops of the Church of England, Ms Dynamite, Nelson Mandela, al-Qaeda, the Liberal Democrats, the liberal press, Katherine Hamnett, Tony Benn, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Martin Sheen and Kenneth Clarke join together to chant: "Iraq can't be freed from tyranny! No! Never! Not in my name!"

The spectacle of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament campaigning against disarming a regime with proven nuclear ambitions, and Amnesty International complaining that the British government is encouraging the public to read its reports on how torture is the core principle of Iraqi home affairs policy, has not raised an eyebrow.

Only a wilful refusal to attend to the absence of options for Iraqis can explain the following contributions to "the debate". On 10 March, Roy Cox from London said in a letter to the Guardian: "Saddam Hussein must come to disarmament through small steps that allow him to comply without losing face - or too much face. Jack Straw is requiring him to become a reasonable, co-operative person within ten days. How could this possibly be a realistic expectation? Pressure is needed, not to force him into a corner but to allow him gradually to comply, while giving the impression to himself and to his people that he has not been defeated. He is not suicidal but is being forced to take a route that is murderous and suicidal."

I don't know him, but I'm sure Cox is a kind and compassionate man who would not usually condone the smallest restriction on human freedom. But the conformism of the times has forced him not only to reject the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but also to be outraged by the thought that Saddam should "lose face". The briefest acquaintance with modern Iraqi history might have taught him that Saddam has demoralised his opponents by cultivating the image of omnipotence. Despite many attempts, an Iraqi revolution has proved impossible, because enough people cannot conceive that it is possible to shift him. Jack Straw's suggestion that Saddam admit in Arabic that he had been lying was a small attempt to diminish the tyrannical mystique.

I will pass over the repeated cries from everyone from Ken Livingstone downwards that we need regime change in Britain rather than Iraq - a moment's thought on the contrasting means of bringing about regime change available to the British and Iraqis should tell you why they are beneath contempt - and look at the genuine anger that requests for moral and intellectual responsibility have raised.

The novelist Julian Barnes gave the best reply. When asked what his alternative to war was, he replied: "Those who are anti-war have not somehow been cornered by the question, 'So, peaceniks, what would you do now?' It's quite legitimate to answer, 'Well, we wouldn't be here now, because we wouldn't have started from there then.' Instead, a question in return. Saddam disarms voluntarily: do we then invade on humanitarian grounds?"

In normal circumstances, this would be a fair and robust response. It is a familiar trick of the powerful to contrive a fait accompli and then ask you for an alternative. Except in the case of Iraq, the fait accompli is not only the work of Bush and Blair. There have been four uprisings in Iraq since 1975 and countless attempted coups and assassinations. Every tactic except invasion has been tried. They all failed because terror works; because if you have enough poison gas and secret policemen and execute all potential rivals, then you will - like Stalin - die in your bed. In these circumstances, intervention on "humanitarian grounds" is no more self-evidently immoral in Iraq than it was in Kosovo, East Timor or Sierra Leone.

To be fair to the anti-war movement, not all its members are refusing to engage with Iraq. A representative of the Socialist Workers Party, the dominant force in the Stop the War Coalition, and the Labour MP George Galloway went to a conference in Cairo in December where the global anti-war movement was launched. An address by the Iraqi ambassador to Egypt in which he boasted of Saddam's commitment to democracy caused a German delegate to storm out in disgust, but didn't bother the SWP or Galloway.

The shameless far left is, however, a minority. Most opponents of the war aren't complicit with the regime: rather they evade what the regime has done. They are, as Cook's speech showed, more concerned with thinking globally than acting locally.

The government and, I trust, all decent people, hope that the war will be short and with a minimum of casualties. There are credible reports that Iraqi soldiers do not want to do what so many Iraqis have already done and die for Saddam Hussein. If they refuse to fight, it could be over in weeks. Blair loyalists believe that the Prime Minister's standing will be enhanced if a brief campaign is followed by grateful Iraqis welcoming the liberators.

If, however, opposition to war isn't really about Iraq, then not even this happy scenario will restore Blair's support.