Why the left cannot cheer this liberation

On the letters page of this issue (page 36), a reader implores "those on the left to ask themselves why they are waking up every morning to find themselves on the wrong side of liberation struggles across the world". This question, also posed by Tony Blair, demands an answer, on an emotional level if nothing else. How satisfying, even thrilling, it would be to share unreservedly in the celebrations of Baghdad and, before that, of Pristina and Kabul. The overthrow of tyrants and murderers and the release of prisoners from torture chambers ought indeed to be an occasion for joy.

It is, moreover, a miserable thing always to be on the losing side. In its present stance, the left is condemned, probably for a generation, to watch glumly as the US clocks up one comprehensive victory after another, and to raise a feeble cheer when a third world army resists for a couple of days. The left has no great cause to rally behind as it had (even if it proved the wrong cause) in the 1930s; no plausible alternative heroes or ideologies to offer the Iraqis or the Afghans; no vision of progress to counter that of the US neoconservatives; and, like the Pope, no divisions at its command. It is denied even a convincingly evil enemy: the US may, in some technical sense, be veering towards fascism (in which the corporate sector and the state merge), but it is in no sense Nazi or Stalinist. For the first time in history, a democracy is indisputably the most powerful country on earth, with no immediate rival. Should we not be thankful that the goodies are winning at last?

To all this, there are two answers. First, a true liberation struggle comes from within a country, not from invasion; and unless it does come from within, "liberation" is unlikely to do more than substitute one tyrant for another or, perhaps worse, lead to anarchy, as seems all too likely in Iraq. The western left happily joined the euphoria over eastern Europe's bloodless revolutions in 1989 and after, even though it was a decrepit leftist god that had finally failed, because their impetus came from within. As did the impetus for the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. The whole of South America, once full of nasty little dictatorships, has converted to democracy in one form or another with hardly a shot fired. Iran, though far from western standards, is more open, liberal and democratic than it was a decade ago. These examples suggest that largely non-violent struggle, mounted from within a country but with outside sympathy, has better results than violent outside intervention; the people, duly mobilised, have achieved more than soldiers ever have, and it is too early to say that this is disproved by Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

But the equally important argument is that it is none of our business. The old anti-colonial principle holds: that people prefer incompetent, corrupt, tyrannical, even murderous rule by their own kind to occupation by a foreign power. This applies particularly to Arabs, who see the west's belief that it has a right to determine the political shape of their region as a humiliation. It may be patronising to think that Arabs are incapable of democracy; but it is equally patronising to think they are incapable of determining their own future, and still more patronising to argue that they are anti-American merely because they are the dupes of propaganda.

Second, any programme of "liberation" should proceed within a consistent and coherent context of international law and humanitarian principle. The law may be imperfect and inadequately applied, but that does not entitle aggrieved countries to take it into their own hands, any more than a domestic authority's failure to catch and convict a burglar allows a householder to pursue the culprit and exact summary justice. A mission to strengthen and improve the law would be one that the left could cheer - but the US has shown little appetite for it in recent years, not even paying its full UN dues until after 11 September 2001. US objections to being lectured on human rights at the UN by vicious dictatorial regimes would carry more weight if the US did not lecture others on free trade while subsidising its farmers, protecting its steel industry with tariffs and giving tax breaks to its exporters - all in defiance of World Trade Organisation rulings.

As for the humanitarian issue, the left's position is (or ought to be) clear: the roughly £50bn spent on the war could have been spent in poor countries on primary schooling, clean water, basic sanitation, adequate food and disease prevention. For example, it would cost just £2bn to feed all the world's starving for a year, and £1bn to provide clean water for 500,000 people. No doubt this would not be as simple a mission as blowing Baghdad to smithereens - and, as a result, disrupting food, water and medical supplies - but it would need none of the casuistical justifications advanced for war in Iraq and the results would be more certain and tangible.

Once, it was the left (or a large section of it) that believed in Utopian solutions. Build the workers' paradise, and everything would come right. The piecemeal improvement of existing conditions was mere tinkering and persuaded people to accept a flawed social and economic order; while the deliberate infliction of suffering and death was a small price to pay for a better world. Now, the right takes the same view in reverse. Everybody in the world will prosper if only they will embrace market economies and liberal democracy; humanitarian aid just scratches the surface, propping up discredited regimes that should not survive. The right is as wrong-headed as the left once was.

From the storming of the Winter Palace onwards, the 20th century echoed to the cries of liberation; the left, grown older and wiser, has learned to value pragmatic improvement over the false promises of progress.