How we patronise the Iraqi people

Iraq indeed turns out to be a faraway country of which we know little. Its people have failed to perform the role allotted to them by Washington and London. No doubt their initial reaction to the invasion can be at least partly explained by fear that Saddam Hussein's regime may yet survive, and that the Americans and British, as in 1991, will lose their nerve and leave them to face the dictator's vengeance again. No doubt also, in the coming days and weeks, western troops will sometimes meet cheering crowds, bearing garlands of flowers, if only because some Iraqis will be happy to be relieved of hunger and thirst and children will smile at anybody handing out sweets.

But why do we assume that Iraqi public opinion is a fixed and immutable thing, anxiously awaiting western "liberation" and hanging on Tony Blair's every word? It is likely to be just as volatile as opinion in Britain, where support for war has surged from 38 per cent to 54 per cent in a week, and where even a prominent minister can't make her mind up. With troops now at the battlefront, many previously anti-war Britons have rallied to the flag; and, all along, some people here and in America have supported the Bush administration in this particular enterprise, although they detest almost everything else it does and regard some of its neoconservative members as dangerously unhinged. By the same token, it was always likely that a large number of Iraqis would swallow their hatred of Saddam and resist a foreign invasion, at least initially. Yet despite reliable reports from, for example, Jordan and Syria, that exiles are returning to defend their homeland, we shall be told that failure to embrace the liberators is evidence of fear among the population or that it betrays some kind of false consciousness.

Hatred of tyranny against hatred of foreign invasion; patriotism against liberty; the safety of your family against the safety of your conscience - the British and Americans have rarely had to make such profound choices. Yet they arrogantly presumed to know how the Iraqis would choose. The chattering classes of Islington and Georgetown, the liberal scribblers of the Observer and Vanity Fair, were quite confident that they had gauged the mood of the Iraqi people: liberation by us was what the Iraqis wanted, and they wouldn't mind a few bombs, missiles and mortars and were quite prepared to sacrifice husbands, wives, parents and children. Those who disagreed were accused of patronising the inhabitants of a third world country. But it is the supporters of war who do the patronising. Perhaps we shall one day allow Iraqis and other third world peoples to make their own political weather and (where it is explicitly requested) offer a helping hand to their home-grown uprisings.

Some of those who support the war argue that the intervention is not wrong, merely the execution. For example, the commentator Michael Gove helpfully explains in the Times that military effectiveness is being subordinated to political correctness. Neatly shifting the blame for anything that goes wrong to the anti-war movement, he argues that, to satisfy its sensibilities, the US and Britain are trying too hard to avoid disruption to Baghdad and are spending too much time and energy on attempts to secure humanitarian supplies. In the US, too, some commentators point out that it is not much use sparing civilians in air raids if the alternative is urban street fighting in which casualties and disruption to civilian life may well be greater. All this may be true, but it simply demonstrates how the war was misconceived from the start. A humanitarian war is a contradiction in terms, and the sooner the concept is decently buried, the better. Mr Blair's endeavour to turn an idea dreamt up by Republican hawks into a sort of VSO scheme was foolish and self-deluding; far better to have accepted it solely as a defence and possibly extension of US power (partly prompted by post-11 September fear), and to have let the world judge it as such.

The longer the war goes on, the less humanitarian it will seem. Yet, paradoxically, the longer it goes on, the weaker the argument for stopping it. The prospect of Saddam as an Arab hero (see James Buchan, page 21), celebrated as a conqueror of infidels, hardly bears thinking about. If he were to survive, the repression of Iraqis who did support western invasion - or who did not oppose it enough - would be savage. In other words, Britain and America, in trying to weaken the monster, have made him potentially more dangerous, both to his own people and to the rest of the world. This is the quagmire into which President Bush and Mr Blair have led us.

Politicians and modish commentators in western countries are poor judges of what third world people want, which is mostly peace, security, food and water. Yes, they will want to keep out of torture chambers, but in countries ruled by tyrants, large sections of the population become skilled at keeping out of trouble; it is harder to dodge a cruise missile. In Iraq and elsewhere, all we can safely assume is that public opinion would like us not to sell military or police equipment to unelected rulers and their henchmen, not to make deals with dictators even when it suits us to do so, and not to impose sanctions that lead to disease and starvation among millions of children. If British and American (and, for that matter, French and Russian) governments were to follow these rules consistently, people could do more to overthrow their own rulers, where they deem it necessary, without violent outside intervention. Western countries themselves would then be safer from external threat and, if they ever wanted to fight a "war for liberty", they might have the moral legitimacy to do so. In the meantime, let them conduct themselves more modestly lest they be accused of barbarism and murder.