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12 May 2003

Why Nick Cohen is wrong

The left opposed war in Iraq because it wished to stop the international order being trashed, argues

By Mark Seddon

Tony Blair’s Baghdad bounce lasted all of a fortnight. White van man didn’t vote in the local elections and Labour’s hitherto loyal Muslim voters stayed away from the polls. There has been no postwar euphoria because a majority of people remained utterly unconvinced of any need to go to war against Iraq in the first place. And the pro-war lobby should not be fooled by the sudden switch of opinion as war broke out: that largely reflected an instinctive support for the British armed forces, and not for the political class sheltering behind them. The pro-war party should just feel relieved that the war was quickly won – but temper its triumphalism by noting that the official reason for the attack was to seize weapons of mass destruction, and that these are still missing, as is the Ba’athist pimpernel, Saddam Hussein.

But the pro-war lobby was as eclectic as the anti-war camp. It included, as well as armchair generals and hack bombardiers, consistent campaigners for Iraqi human rights, such as the Labour MP Ann Clwyd and the New Statesman‘s Nick Cohen. In last week’s NS, Cohen argued that left-wing opponents of the war “appear shameless or stupid”: they abandoned their comrades in Iraq and muted their long-standing and withering critique of the Ba’athist regime, simply because the US neo-cons swivelled their barrels in the direction of Baghdad.

This argument carries weight. But Cohen and that bizarre convert to the new imperium, Christopher Hitchens, should recognise that it also carries a certain logic: that American and British cruise missiles should now go on to Harare, Tripoli, Pyongyang and Rangoon. Unless, that is, there is a new system of grading dictators according to mass torture and kleptocracy that might allow the Burmese junta or the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, off the hook.

The small, left-wing, pro-war camp wanted to go to the aid of the suffering Kurds, the crushed Shia and the displaced Marsh Arabs. And it may be true that those who suffered under a dictatorship long supported by the west will be the unintended beneficiaries of a new order in Iraq. But Cohen’s faith in the shambolic Iraqi National Congress, presided over by a convicted fraudster, Ahmad Chalabi, is horribly misplaced. Iraq could stabilise under a moderate Shia theocracy – if that is not a contradiction in terms – or it could just as easily fracture, this time with the Sunni minority on the receiving end. Iraq, a British creation, apparently has to be invaded or violated every half-century or so to maintain “balance” and the flow of oil. By what right do we now presume to interfere again?

Along with Cohen and some others on the left, I supported Tony Blair over Kosovo. I believed he and Bill Clinton were acting primarily on humanitarian grounds. The terrible failure of the United Nations in Srebrenica suggested that there was no alternative but intervention to prevent a pogrom of the Kosovar Muslims. Bombing from on high – the trusted American response – was no answer, but the violent breaking of the Yugoslav jigsaw seemed to presage a possible new world order in which war criminals would face an international tribunal and in which a powerful new UN humanitarian intervention force could halt the worst human rights excesses. That template was on offer in East Timor. It worked. It might have had a chance in Iraq, had Hans Blix and his inspectors been allowed to get on with their job. But Blix called for more time, and so threatened long-laid plans for invasion. Now, without any sense of irony, the unilateral US and British inspectors also call for “more time”.

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More time was needed for a nascent international order based on the UN and international law. But as most of the left understood, much of this was being blown away by the Washington neo-cons and their British understudy, Tony Blair. The war against Iraq was launched in defiance of the UN Security Council, in contravention of the UN Charter, and in the face of worldwide hostility. This war was not only illegal, it trashed a post-Second World War order based on conflict avoidance and resolution, and replaced it with the notion of pre-emptive defence. The best minds at the UN headquarters in New York are even now trying to fathom what can be rescued from the wreckage.

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The Project for the New American Century is not the invention of fevered left-wing conspiracists. It is a reality of more censorship, more attacks on civil liberties and an American reach that will straddle the globe. Blair, almost alone in Europe, has signed Britain up as America’s sepoy. But all he can do is second-guess where Donald Rumsfeld and chums may choose to roam next. A pretext can always be found for any invasion or occupation.

Diplomacy, negotiation, threats and the odd bribe – all these time-honoured methods can bring results, as they did in South Africa. In opting for the neoconservatives’ permanent counter-revolution, the left’s pro-war lobby sups with the devil.

Mark Seddon is a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. Letters, page 34