Why I can no longer write for the NS

John Lloyd, a regular contributor for the past seven years, explains why this paper's anti-war stanc

A farewell article for the New Statesman - to which I have been at least a fortnightly contributor for the past seven years as well as being a former editor - is not the place for subtleties, which presuppose a continuing engagement with the readership. It is best for me to say, as clearly as I can, what I think are the central issues for the left to have emerged during this war.

First, a large part of the British left - and the left elsewhere - has made a fundamental and strategic mistake. In opposing the invasion of Iraq, it has shown itself incapable of thinking through not only the nature of the world as it is today, but also its own claims to be the leading force in making the world better. The more vehement sections of the left have succumbed to the comfort of violently rhetorical attacks on the present US administration; they have also led the world in creating an image of Tony Blair and the Labour government as US poodles, spinelessly incapable of articulating a British national interest.

The crimes of Saddam Hussein's regime - its support for terrorism, its aggression towards its neighbours and its endemic brutality against its own people - are dismissed either by referring to the left's own past protests against it, or to reminders that a slew of western, especially American, political and corporate leaders did business with, and supported, that regime.

Even the "moderate" opposition has been couched in tones of aggrieved exasperation that Blair "doesn't get it" - about the Arab world, about the Americans, about his own party's opposition. "Not getting it" has become a euphemism for Blair not doing what a particular commentator says he should do on the particular day of the comment's publication. The view, which often deals with issues in which the commentator is not expert, is usually stated without nuance or doubt, and often aggressively - and rarely more aggressively than in the columns of the New Statesman, increasingly projected as a sort of upmarket version of the Daily Mirror.

The general conclusion of this view is that, although Saddam is a nasty bit of work who may have (or may have tried to acquire) weapons of mass destruction, he can be contained. Relativism is crucial to this argument: others are as bad; others (including western states) have weapons of mass destruction; others have attacked neighbours. Why pick on Iraq? Why pick on anyone? What moral basis can we (in the developed west) possibly claim?

The argument about this war cannot be readily squeezed into left-right categories. It is best conducted on the basis of truths, which should be self-evident and held in common:

- that Saddam Hussein has run a state unparalleled (as far as we know) in sadistic cruelty, perpetrated by a Ba'ath Party and security apparatus licensed, indeed ordered, to slaughter hordes of people, murder individuals, torture suspects and rape women who were suspects' wives, sisters, mothers or daughters;

- that there is good reason for believing he had retained weapons of mass destruction, and was seeking to develop nuclear ones;

- that the realistic (as opposed to ideal) alternative to war was active and aggressive containment, and that this would have exacted continued suffering on the Iraqi population;

- that, before the US-led intent to invade, the UN will to contain the Iraqi regime was weakening, not least because Iraq's main trading partners, France and Russia, argued for its weakening on the UN Security Council;

- that a constant and credible threat of invasion was necessary to keep the weapons inspectors in place.

A few of those who have opposed the war have recognised the force of some of these issues; but few have kept them in mind in developing their arguments. Opponents of the war quote the failings of the present US administration, but few recognise the failings of their own allies in the anti-war camp: Russia's brutally conducted war in Chechnya with its huge violations of international norms; China's vast internal repression, including the torture and execution of dissidents, religious believers, and Tibetan and other nationalists.

France and Germany, the two leading anti-war states in Europe, baulked at acting against murderous tyrannies or collapsed states throughout the 1990s - in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, as well as Iraq (Britain took the same view through much of that period). Where action to overthrow dictatorial regimes has been taken - in Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan and now Iraq - it has been taken either with US prompting, or with the US military in the lead. In the first three cases, the result was a lifting of tyranny and the chance of a better life for the peoples of those countries.

European states are far more active and efficient in providing development assistance and peacekeeping forces than is the US. Europe provides roughly 70 per cent of all such assistance, four times more than the US; it provides ten times more peacekeeping troops, who suffer continual undramatic casualties. But there are times when peace must be made before it can be kept; and Europe as a whole has seen such moments as none of its business, relying on the US, and then usually blaming it for carrying the can.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, United Nations leaders have sought to spread the message that their organisation could now enter into its own - as a protector of the downtrodden and repressed who, most often, are trodden on and repressed by their own rulers. This movement culminated, less than two years ago, in a Canadian-sponsored report named A Responsibility to Protect - a brilliant summation of the arguments for stripping tyrants of sovereign inviolability.

At the end of last year, I talked to senior UN officials in New York about the discussions surrounding this report. They were optimistic that the climate had allowed it to be written, tabled and discussed, but pessimistic that it would soon, or even ever, be adopted by a UN majority. One official close to Kofi Annan, the secretary general, told me that he could not see it being adopted by the General Assembly in his lifetime.

A few political figures have tried to build on this report. They include Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Medecins sans Frontieres and the international development minister in the former French socialist government - a rare example of a prominent French figure who supports the invasion of Iraq. Of the major government leaders, only Blair has seen the report as the logical extension of the ethical dimension in foreign policy that Labour promulgated when it came to office in 1997.

When push came to shove, most of the left refused to follow this line. For some, it has been enough to declare all ethical dimensions phoney, since states such as Britain continued to export arms or shake hands with tyrants. For others, state sovereignty seems a necessary protection - no matter what it protects - against what they see as the largest threat in the world: US imperialism.

US imperialism, in the view of a now resurgent part of the left, is composed of a mixture of things: efforts to control energy resources, principally oil; the repression of the Palestinians in order to ensure the future security of the US "client state" Israel; a US refusal to tolerate any power in the world that counterbalances its own; a hatred of all cultures other than its own, and a determination to dilute and destroy such cultures to make the world passively receptive to American values and merchandise.

The strength of this brew ranges from the mild to the toxic. Its present strength comes from a wide receptivity, beyond the left, to the proposition that Americans are vulgar louts - a European theme for well over a century, always well represented in the upper and educated classes - and from the hatred of many in the Islamic world for the west, especially for the US, because of its secular, materialistic culture and its support for Israel.

In this last area, the left risks falling in with the agendas of anti-Semites - not because it is in general anti-Semitic, but because the radical Islamic programme demands an end to Israel and is thus deeply hostile to Israel's main foreign support, diaspora Jewry. Thus, the young leader of Belgium's Muslim community, Diab Abou Jahjah, much feted by the left in that country and beyond, demands an end to "Zionist control of Antwerp". Thus, the NS last year printed a cover that showed a Star of David impaling the Union flag (for which its editor later apologised).

Will the end of the war and the effort to rebuild decent government in Iraq change the view of the left? It would seem unlikely: the anti-US reflex is too ingrained, the dislike of Blair and the resources invested in destabilising him are too great. The left's programme now should be to argue in favour of committing resources to those multilateral agencies that work, and to seek agreement from those forces everywhere in the world which are committed to democratic (or at least more responsive) government and to an observation of human and civil rights. The aim, as the US political scientist Michael Walzer has put it, should be a "strong international system, organised and designed to defeat aggression, to stop massacres and ethnic cleansing, to control weapons of mass destruction and to guarantee the physical security of all the world's peoples".

Can you see the New Statesman backing Tony Blair in his efforts to achieve these goals? No. The NS believes that Blair and the US are the problem, not the solution. It is therefore time to recognise that Blairites like me should not appear regularly in its pages.

But I should add, as a matter of record, that the immediate reason for my resignation - a matter of my own, not the editor's, choosing - was not so much principle as pique. A recent review by the writer Richard Gott referred to me as the "New Statesman's house reactionary". The remark bore no relation to the subject of the review. Yet neither the literary editor who commissioned it nor the editor who read it told me of it before publication, though the editor assented to my request to publish a letter - which I then thought better of.

Gott was fired from the Guardian some years ago for accepting hospitality from the then KGB. It was thus, I suppose, a kind of compliment; but it seemed to me more of an indication of a climate - and one too cold for me.