The left shrugs as Baghdad burns

Iraq one year on - Iraq faces a fascist uprising and liberals here should back that country's democr

Sami al-Jundi, one of the militants who founded the Ba'ath Party in Syria in 1943, described its inspiration thus: "We were racists, admiring Nazism, reading its books and the source of its thoughts." A year ago, when British and US troops rolled into Ba'athist Iraq, they found no reason to contradict him.

The unmistakable outlines of a fascist state were all around. There were the thousands of heroic statues, murals and paintings of the great leader; there were the palaces where the great leader lived while his people went hungry or to their deaths; there were the textbooks that instructed the young on the kindness and wisdom of their great leader; there were the mass graves filled with the hundreds of thousands of bodies of the racially inferior Kurds and of the Arabs who had betrayed their race by revolting against their great leader; there were the torture chambers; there were the millions of files which showed that a diligent bureaucracy had demanded that even hairdressers inform on women who gossiped about the great leader under the dryers. And miraculously, there among the ruins were men and women who shared the left's values: democrats, liberals and socialists; Kurdish survivors; the Iraqi Communist Party, which had learned from chastening experience that capitalism was preferable to fascism and allied itself with the occupying authorities.

Against them were the forces of a right so extreme it was off the graph. The remnants of the Ba'ath terror apparatus and the supporters of Osama Bin Laden bombed the Americans and the Iraqis who dared to begin building a better country. The bombers' calculation was simple. If enough soldiers, UN officials, Red Cross workers and Iraqi police officers were murdered, the Americans and British would cut and run and either Saddam Hussein or Sunni fundamentalists would fill the power vacuum.

Most of the world's liberal left looked at the conflict between men and women who upheld their ideals and the torturers and the theocrats and the homophobes and the misogynists, and made a gesture so shocking that a year on, they cannot admit to themselves what they have done. They shrugged.

There were half a dozen good reasons for being against the Iraq war; there wasn't one for the left turning its back on its comrades in the war's aftermath. Tony Blair's opponents might have demanded every type of public inquiry imaginable as they sought to drive him from office for ignoring the United Nations or inflicting civilian casualties - or whatever other reason they had for opposing war - and still allied themselves with the democrats in Iraq. This was the attitude of the UN officials who opposed war but were prepared to risk their lives for the cause of building a new country. The British left had and still has a particular responsibility. British troops are occupying one-third of the country and Blair is the only European leader who can negotiate with George W Bush. Pressure might have been applied on any one of a score of issues, from the incredible failure of the coalition forces to know what to do once the war was over to the recognition of free trade unions.

God knows, the left covered up enough crimes in the 20th century, but with the exception of the communists during the Hitler-Stalin pact, the left was always solidly anti-fascist. Anyone who knew the better moments of the western left's history would have expected it to have helped its comrades. But whatever else he's had to cope with, the Prime Minister has not had to face mass demonstrations demanding democracy for Iraq or autonomy for the Kurds. Instead of offering fraternal support to Saddam's victims, the left has turned right with a sharpness not seen since the days of Hitler and Stalin.

I know that every time I mention the Stop the War Coalition, readers write in to moan that it's nothing to do with them and just because they went on its marches doesn't mean they support the Socialist Workers Party and George Galloway and the rest. None the less, the way the far left has gone is symptomatic of the wider malaise. When Bush visited Blair last autumn, it was extraordinary that 150,000 people could be persuaded to carry banners calling for the immediate withdrawal of Anglo-American forces. Saddam was still at large and the Ba'ath Party was the only organised political force outside Kurdistan. Ending the occupation meant accepting that the fascists might return to power. It was a risk that the marchers were prepared to allow other people to take.

Extraordinary, too, was the refusal of the vast bulk of liberal opinion as represented in the Independent, the Guardian and on the classier BBC talk shows to condemn and disassociate. Liberal opinion has refused to take sides in a struggle between the principles it professes to hold and a fascist insurgency. It is indifferent. It has to be indifferent, because if it faces up to what Ba'athism was, the moral certainty of the anti-war position crumbles. Last year, it was at best morally ambiguous to oppose the only means of removing a totalitarian dictatorship, but most of the war's opponents were uncomfortable with anything other than absolute righteousness.

Alan Bennett, the sentimental playwright, was a classic case. He showed liberal indifference at its most wilful when he wrote in his diary on the day of Saddam Hussein's capture: "It ought to matter, and maybe does in Iraq, it certainly does in America. But here? Whatever is said it does not affect the issue. We should not have gone to war."

Like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, liberal opinion has to stay absolutely focused on the reasons why Britain went to war. Anything else undermines its certainty. If you doubt me, ask yourself: where are the support groups for people struggling to build democracy in Iraq, the invitations to Iraqi democrats to address left-wing meetings and write for left-wing journals, the petitions and the fundraising campaigns? Then notice the way John Humphrys shouts down guests on the Today programme who try to describe Saddam's Iraq. "That's not the reason we went to war! There are other evil dictatorships!" Notice, too, that uniquely among modern resistance movements, the leaders of the anti-fascist resistance to Saddam are either denigrated or, more usually, ignored, by everyone from the African National Congress to Sir David Hare.

Maintaining this level of denial has a price: the dark currents swirling in the left have to be evaded. The open support for fascistic insurgents from the likes of Tariq Ali, who has taken the standard left-to-right trajectory of the 1960s generation a little too far, is ignored, as are the excuses made for religious fundamentalism.

It would take a book to explain how the liberal left got into this state. In a sense, the back issues of the New Statesman from the past year provide an unintentional answer. There is the fear of American power, the loathing of Bush, the parochial obsession with new Labour's rather useless spinning techniques, the old cold war double standard of opposing only dictatorships the west supports and the building up of Israel into a demon so great, it blots out all sight of the monsters of the Muslim world.

Writing about the collapse in solidarity in the current issue of the American socialist magazine Dissent, Paul Berman noticed something else: a grimly comic inversion.

"A lot of people, in their good-hearted effort to respect cultural differences, have concluded that Arabs must for inscrutable reasons of their own like to live under grotesque dictatorships and are not really capable of anything else, or won't be ready to do so for another 500 years, and Arab liberals should be regarded as somehow inauthentic. Which is to say, a lot of people, swept along by their own high-minded principles of cultural tolerance, have ended up clinging to attitudes that can only be regarded as racist against Arabs.

"The old-fashioned left used to be universalist - used to think that everyone, all over the world, would some day want to live according to the same fundamental values, and ought to be helped to do so . . . Today, people say, out of a spirit of egalitarian tolerance: social democracy for Swedes! Tyranny for Arabs! And this is supposed to be a left-wing attitude?"

There is a real betrayal here, not least because the leaders of the opposition in Iraq included men who received their political education from the British left. Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq, found asylum in Britain in the 1980s. It was natural then for the victims of Saddam to look to the left for support and take the left's values as their own. The left was anti-fascist. The left assured Iraqis that it cared about them and deplored their governments' alliances with Saddam. Salih immersed himself in the radical culture of the 1980s. He taught himself English by reading the Guardian - not necessarily the best guide to usage at the time - and applauded as Tony Benn and George Galloway pledged their support to the opponents of Saddam, only to renege when he invaded Kuwait and went from being America's ally to America's enemy.

I spoke to Salih in Kurdistan and the phrase he kept using to describe his former comrades was "moral and intellectual failure". He sounded as close to bitterness as a man who has learned to live with crimes against humanity can allow himself to be, and I asked if there was anyone on the British left he still admired.

"Oh yes," he replied. "Tony Blair. He's very popular here. People buy British flags and his picture. The day Saddam was captured, crowds were waving his picture in the streets."

If the Prime Minister is forced to resign over Iraq, he can console himself with the thought that there are worse epitaphs for a political career than that.