Category Archives: Iraq

TCM 9 – The company he keeps

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
– Bob Dylan

I think a lot of the sound and fury about the Corbyn campaign can be understood better – not that this will make it go away – if we think about what it means to have political allies.

To take an easy case, what does it say about you if you’re involved in politics and you don’t have any allies at all – if you have your own political programme, which is yours and belongs to you, and you never make common cause with anyone? Does it mean you’re a person of principle, an inspiration to the young and a light to the nations? Or does it mean you’re scrupulously avoiding having any practical effect on the world and making sure your political career will be consigned to a footnote? I’m thinking here of every politician who gets too big for their own party, from Kilroy-Silk to Galloway, but also of those politicians who get so attached to the sound of one particular bell that they ring it in the morning and ring it in the evening, till their name and their pet cause become synonymous. The late Willie Hamilton, a Scottish Labour MP, was a good example of this approach. Willie Hamilton was a republican; he believed that the royal family were a waste of public money, and he said so whenever he was asked. He certainly kept republicanism alive as an idea, but for most people the idea in question was “that thing Willie Hamilton’s always banging on about”. Less extreme examples would be Tam Dalyell and the West Lothian Question, or Frank Field and the undeserving poor.

So let’s assume that you’re a politician and that you’re right about everything – I mean, I know I am – but that you want to get things done from time to time. You’re going to have to make alliances, with people who don’t agree with you about everything. Which means they’re wrong about some things – maybe a lot of things. You’re going to have to make alliances with people who believe wrong things. It’s either that or be Willie Hamilton, or Frank Field at a pinch. Sorry – no one ever said politics was easy.

Of course, there are red lines; there are people you’ll never want to ally with for any reason – aren’t there? There are people who will make you take your name off a letter if they sign it, who will make you walk out of a public meeting if they walk in, who will make you reconsider your support for a policy if you find out they support it. And we all know who they are… don’t we?

Well, maybe.

It seems to me that this assumption, in different forms, has given the Left an enormous amount of trouble over the years. I’ll be honest, I read Homage to Catalonia at a formative age, and I used to be a staunch anti-Communist (it’s one of the few things you can be staunch about). I had absolutely no truck with any apologetics for Stalinism, post-Stalinism or neo-Stalinism, and I wasn’t particularly keen on Leninism (a.k.a. proto-Stalinism). The fact that, at the time I was striking these attitudes, the actually existing Communist Party was made up of equal parts of Scargillites and SDP sympathisers – while the ‘Leninist’ parties were, almost without exception, made up of utter tossers – made it a lot easier to stay truck-free and congratulate myself on being both Socialist and Principled. But you’ve got to ally with somebody, if you’re going to get anything done; the group I was in duly aligned with the Labour left on one hand and carefully selected Leninist tossers on the other. And of course blind eyes were turned; we tended to cough and change the subject when anyone started talking about the class nature of the USSR or which side to support in imperialist wars, or mentioned Ireland. (They all sounded the same…)

When I was wearing my It’s 1940 And I Am Victor Serge hat, I used to think there was a place for a really principled left somewhere to the… well, how to put this… not exactly to the right as such… OK, OK, somewhere a bit to the right of the ‘hard left’; I used to look wistfully at the likes of Chartist and Independent Labour Publications and Tribune and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. The people involved might not get into the Guardian any more often than the hard Left, but at least they weren’t ridiculed when they did – and at least they weren’t asking us to do six impossible things before breakfast (“support the IRA”, “read the Morning Star“). What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was hankering after a position that was itself impossible – not on the hard Left, but not actually against it either. I was aware that, when I talked to contacts at ILP or Tribune, they didn’t observe these niceties, but were quite happy to bang on about Trots, tankies and assorted Labour Left headbangers in a way that seemed quite genuinely hostile – you could almost call it sectarian. But maybe that could be our goal – to be on the soft Left but not against the hard Left, leading by example, sort of thing. Maybe.

As a group we had the luxury of having been established as a cross between a discussion group and a go-between; our goal was to promote debate and co-operation, and ultimately set much larger forces than ourselves in motion. We weren’t a party, in other words, and as such didn’t feel we had to take a position on absolutely everything. So at the time of the Gulf War we were agin it, but didn’t take a definite position between the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf (mostly Labour Left, anti-war) and the Campaign Against War in the Gulf (mostly Trot, anti-imperialist); indeed, with our ‘left unity’ hat on we could argue that it was our job not to take a position between them. (We didn’t have any trouble taking a position with regard to the third anti-war campaign, on the other hand – the Ad Hoc Hands Off the Middle East Committee could sod right off.) Then, a couple of years later, the rest of the Left started to take notice of a region I’d been following for a few years – the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia – and promptly got it completely wrong. This wasn’t discernibly a soft Left / hard Left thing, though – unless you counted Tony Benn as ‘hard Left’ – so much as an “almost everyone who knows about the area already”/”almost everybody else” thing. There was a ‘soft Left’ tune to be played – the “critique of kneejerk anti-imperialism” one – but at the time it seemed less urgent than “do you actually know what they’re doing out there, who’s doing it and why?”

A few years after that, there was Kosovo – a nation whose cause I’d supported for even longer than that of a united multi-ethnic Bosnia; a conflict which seemed utterly unambiguous in terms of right and wrong; and a conflict where, once again, the Left promptly lined up with the wrong side. Or so I thought. This was the turning-point for me: as the NATO bombing campaign wore on I realised that what I supported was a war of liberation, fought by the Kosovars themselves against the Serbian armed forces – or, ideally, not having to be fought at all, the Kosovars having sufficient armament and support to induce the Serbs to back off. (The ideal outcome in Bosnia would have been similar.) What was happening, on the other hand, was high-level bombing of civilian targets, as part of a war of aggression, fought by a military alliance from outside the region, seeking to impose its own terms on Serbia – terms that included, among other things, the establishment of a free-market economy. In short, it was an illegal war being fought by illegal means by illegitimate combatants in order to dictate unjust terms; the only thing it had in common with the war I thought I was supporting was that Serbia was involved. And this war – the war that was actually taking place – was wrong and, when it came down to it, needed to stop. Ultimately my only disagreement with the “stop the war” crowd – the “anti-NATO” crowd, the “kneejerk anti-imperialist” crowd, the “solidarity with Serbia” crowd – was that I thought the Serbian government had to be defeated and/or overthrown after this was over. I wasn’t alone in finding my way to this position. The group I’d been in had dissolved by this time, but I remember a friend being involved with another small group which had the double slogan STOP THE BOMBING – ARM THE KOSOVARS.

The anti-Communism that I’d grown up with, the anti-Leninism that I’d lived by, the opposition to “kneejerk anti-imperialism” that had made me dislike Chomsky so much – I was starting to wonder what it was worth, really. I could still see the point of being against the people I’d always been against, but I was starting to wonder whether it was really a principled position – and about who I was lining up with. Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? came out in 1999, and a passage in Francis Mulhern’s Red Pepper review stuck with me:

[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. The IRD financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.

Then all of a sudden our world was no longer post-Wall but post-9/11, and everything was changed, changed utterly – except that the same hard Left was attacking our own government and going easy on their enemies (however vile they might be), and the same soft Left was denouncing them for it. Rather more of us were occupying ‘hard Left’ positions now – apart from anything else I seemed to have become hard Left myself, somewhere along the line. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, as the price of admission to the soft Left now seemed to include actually supporting an actual alliance of imperialist powers conducting an actual illegal war of aggression. (Just reporting how it looked from the outside.)

I think there’s a division on the Left which is at once very deep and very impermanent, like a crevasse in sand; there’s a chasm between the two sides, but where that chasm actually is – and how much space there is on each side – changes over the years. (There’s also a real and permanent fault-line, which doesn’t always coincide with the impermanent one; I’ll come back to that.) Which side you’re on will determine where you look for allies – what kind of wrongness you can tolerate in order to get things done: if you’re on the ‘soft Left’ side, attitudes to the EU may be negotiable, but having the wrong position on the former USSR won’t be permitted. The wrongness of our allies is something we can turn a blind eye to – it’s called practical politics. The wrongness of our opponents’ allies, on the other hand, is a glaring and inexcusable fault: in fact, the very fact that they can have allies who are so wrong demonstrates how wrong they are. This – never particularly productive – approach has surely reached its nadir now, with people being accused of having allies who sympathise with IS, by people whose allies include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There’s something cultural – almost temperamental – about the ‘soft Left’/’hard Left’ division: a preference one way or the other (thinking that the Morning Star is a well-produced, informative paper, or that the SWP are disruptive headbangers) doesn’t automatically give you beliefs to match (opposing British troops being used anywhere or thinking the Iraq war was a good idea, respectively). Those preferences do mean that you’re more likely to meet people who do have the ‘matching’ beliefs – but not that you’ll only meet people with those beliefs, or that your own beliefs will have to be moulded to fit. Back in the 90s, Chartist and Briefing may have squared off against each other as soft- and hard-Left respectively, but they were both genuinely pluralistic groups with a lot of overlap between them. (Chartist – which is still around, with some of the same people involved – has come out for Corbyn.)

When the Kosovo conflict began and the SWP leapt to express solidarity with Milosevic – at least, to express a solidarity with the Serbian people which didn’t seem to exclude endorsement of their government – I remember feeling that this was something different: a real line was being drawn, and people we had thought to be allies were turning out to have a very different project of their own. I think now I was wrong twice over – in overstating the permanence of the line being drawn and in the side I put myself on. I also think that an enduring line was drawn a few years later – over Iraq and over the reaction to the 7/7 bombings. Or rather, the hard/soft line was drawn so as to coincide with the underlying, permanent fault-line I referred to earlier: the fault-line between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Think of it in terms of the difference between rivalry and opposition. As between two rivals, one can’t succeed without the other one failing; when one rival does defeat the other, anything the first rival has achieved is likely to be rolled back. Nevertheless, both have a shared cause, even if they understand it differently; either one would be glad to have the other as a collaborator, if only they would abandon their rivalry. Between two opponents, for one to succeed is to make the other fail: the two have opposed causes, and it’s unimaginable that one could collaborate with the other. The hard Left and the soft Left are rivals for the Labour Party; imperialism and anti-imperialism are opponents.

Essentially, the old soft Left has ended up positively committed to supporting aggressive wars conducted by imperialist powers. Positive support for imperialism has never been universally popular on the Left, if only because it goes against both left-wing and liberal principles, it’s supported by the Right and there’s nothing left-wing about it. If the soft Left – which has never been pro-imperialist by definition – had had a look round after Iraq and backed quietly out of the corner it had talked itself into, the damage might have been rectified. Instead, many of them now seem to be determined to talk themselves further in. The clearer this becomes, the less popular the soft Left gets – and the less of a stumbling-block the hard Left’s choice of allies starts to appear. I think over the summer a lot of people have started to feel that, firstly, there are more important things in politics than who a person’s allies are, particularly given that an ally is (by definition) somebody you don’t agree with on everything; and, secondly, that on some of those important things, the hard Left may actually be more right than wrong, and the soft Left (at least in its current form) a lot more wrong than right.

All this, as may have become apparent, is by way of a response to ‘Bob from Brockley’ and his ‘vague sense of worry and depression’ (my words) about some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies and connections. On mature consideration – and speaking as somebody for whom, at one time, the wrong kind of anti-imperialist allies would have been an instant deal-breaker – I’m disposed to be a bit firm with regard to this one. On the hard Left/soft Left level, as far as I’m concerned the whole question of allies is fluff. Everyone has allies; we don’t agree with them about everything; we turn a blind eye to our allies’ shortcomings and make a big deal of those of our enemies’ allies. My friend and colleague voted in support of General Jaruzelski’s restoration of order in Poland? A perfectly legitimate opinion in historical retrospect! (Thinks: tankie bastard, I knew he’d be trouble.) Your ally was wined and dined by a private healthcare provider? An all-too-typical example of the corruption which is destroying democracy! (Thinks: what an idiot, he didn’t even need to declare that.) And so on. If a dodgy friend or contact is influencing our man’s opinions or judgments, show us the opinions or judgments which have been affected and we’ll talk about them. Otherwise, it’s fluff.

To the extent that it runs deeper than that – to the extent that a political opponent has allies that you can’t imagine associating with under any circumstances whatsoever – I suspect that what’s really going on is an opposition that runs deeper than that: that is, a case of true opposition rather than rivalry. This, of course, is why the old Cold War rivalries on the Left were sometimes so bitter: somebody who wanted to defend ‘actually existing socialism’ and somebody who wanted to undermine it may have been rivals within the British Left, but on the broader stage they were opponents. We don’t tend to turn a blind eye to our rivals’ defects at the best of times; we certainly aren’t going to be that charitable if we’re positively opposed to what our rivals want to achieve. But here again the actual question of allies is, ultimately, fluff. If, at the end of the day, you’re opposed to Jeremy Corbyn because he’s a consistent anti-imperialist, it won’t matter whether he’s been hanging out with Gerry Adams, Vinnie Jones or the Pope – just as, for his supporters, it doesn’t matter whether Tony Blair hangs out with Islam Karimov, Khaled Meshaal or George W. Bush.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins this election, he’ll be the first genuinely anti-imperialist leader of the Labour Party for a long time – possibly the first ever. Many people, unfortunately, will oppose him for that reason. I just wish they’d acknowledge that they do oppose him for that reason, rather than maintaining that they’re ‘raising concerns’ about his ‘judgment’ and so on. Maybe the reason that these ‘concerns’ are having so little impact on Corbyn’s support is that this isn’t just another case of rivalry within the Left. Maybe we’re not actually on the same side here.

TCM 4 – This statement is unreliable

Apologies to anyone waiting for the Scottish post, but this came up on Twitter last night and I wanted to write it up properly.

Peter Jukes in the Indie:

Jeremy Corbyn was wrong to even suggest on Tuesday that Tony Blair could face war crimes trials for [Iraq] … Many argue, quite cogently, the Iraq invasion was “illegitimate” without a second UN Security Council vote. But to my knowledge this is not the same as being “illegal” in accordance with any war crimes convention in international law. (Kofi Annan indicated in 2004 it “it was not in conformity with the UN charter” but that is a very different thing.)

There’s a certain amount of double-talk going on here. Here’s Corbyn suggesting that Blair could face war crimes trials:

Asked on BBC Newsnight whether Blair should stand trial on war crimes charges, Corbyn said: “If he has committed a war crime, yes. Everybody who has committed a war crime should be.” … He said: “It was an illegal war. I am confident about that. Indeed Kofi Annan confirmed it was an illegal war and therefore [Tony Blair] has to explain to that. Is he going to be tried for it? I don’t know. Could he be tried for it? Possibly.”

And here’s Annan on illegality and non-conformity with the UN Charter:

In an interview … he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: “Yes, if you wish.” He then added unequivocally: “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

It seems to me that the distinction between “illegitimacy” and illegality is a bit of a red herring, as is the insistence on talking in terms of “war crimes”. The jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court formally covers both jus in bello (under the heading of crimes against humanity) and jus ad bellum (the crime of aggression); however, the crime of aggression remains undefined and consequently can’t as yet be referred to the Court. Blair could conceivably be referred to the ICC for illegalities in the conduct of the Iraq invasion, although this seems highly unlikely for several reasons. What can’t happen, pending amendments to the Rome Charter, is an international prosecution for initiating the invasion. And this is what’s chiefly at issue when we’re talking about Corbyn’s position on Iraq: the legality of the invasion in international law is the question on which Corbyn is clearly and unequivocally on the other side of the argument from Tony Blair, Peter Goldsmith, Burnham, Cooper, Kendall et al.

In discussion on Twitter sparked by the Jukes article, Carl Gardner cited this 2010 post in which he came down on the side of the invasion being legal. It’s detailed, closely-argued and well worth reading (as Carl’s posts generally are), although I don’t agree with its conclusions (as I generally don’t). For the purposes of this post I want to focus on a minor point made in the course of Carl’s conclusion:

I agree with Lord Goldsmith’s advice of 7 March 2003, first that the safer course would be to seek a second resolution authorising force; the UK did that, of course, and failed; and second, that the “revival” argument, that further material breach by Iraq would revive the authorisation of force in UNSCR 678, is a reasonable one. I’d go further, in fact: I agree with what Lord Goldsmith seems to have concluded a few days later – that the “revival” theory is the better view, to be preferred to the alternative put forward by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, that resolution 1441 clearly required a further decision by the Security Council. She told the Chilcot Inquiry that the wording of resolution 1441 had this effect … that was what made the position different from 1998 [when the US and Britain bombed Iraq], when as I’ve said she had agreed with the revival theory (though she now thinks it was “strained” even then).

In any event, the fact that Elizabeth Wilmshurst’s change of approach since 1998 turns on a detailed construction of 1441 shows the question is not an easy or obviously one-sided one. The fact that two views are possible is enough, in my view, to reject wild, overblown and rhetorical claims that Tony Blair is a “war criminal”, for example.

Carl’s 2010 argument – the minor one at the end of this quote – and Peter Jukes’s argument about what Corbyn should and shouldn’t have said have something in common. As we can see, Corbyn didn’t claim that Blair should be seen as a war criminal – he didn’t take any position on that question at all. What he didn’t do, however, was rule it out: he included Blair among those people who could, in some imaginable real-world circumstances, be prosecuted for war crimes. I don’t think it’s over-reading to say that this – the non-dismissal or failure to exclude – is the ‘suggestion’ which Jukes and others find objectionable. Conversely, Carl in 2010 pointed out – correctly – that there is more than one view on the relationship between UN 678 and UN 1441, and between the pair of them and the Iraq invasion itself; he then argued that this plurality of views was sufficient to rule out the possibility of claiming that Blair was a war criminal. But surely this doesn’t follow: if there are multiple ways in which reasonable people can read the materials that determine whether the invasion was legal, presumably one of those views may be that it was illegal and should be prosecuted as soon as amendments to the Rome Charter make it possible. (At which point claims that Blair was a war criminal would be improper, but only because the matter was sub judice.)

What Carl’s post expresses here, it seems to me, is something similar to Jukes’s objection to Corbyn. The argument (on this point) is not that labelling Blair as a war criminal is incorrect, but that this view should not be held by anyone: this position should not be denied but excluded, dismissed, ruled out of consideration. And it should be excluded because it’s “wild” and “overblown”; it doesn’t have a place on the spectrum of valid and reasonably-held beliefs. Even Corbyn’s mild and measured comments, for Jukes, were a dangerous diversion from how politics should be conducted. It’s as if the expression of some beliefs is, in itself, hostile to all other beliefs – as if some beliefs could not be expressed within a debate but only by heckling.

What’s going on here? Let’s take a quick detour into the philosophy of language. (Don’t ask why I’ve been reading philosophy of language.)

In ordinary usage we tend to think that there’s no difference between making a statement S and making the quotative meta-statement “S is true”: the same information is conveyed by the two statements “There is snow on the ground.” and “If somebody says ‘there’s snow on the ground,’ they’re telling the truth.” But this leads us into some difficulties. Say that your friend Jo asks about your mutual friend Harry’s dog: is it well? You’d heard that Harry was getting a dog but don’t know anything about it; you want to change the subject, so you give what seems the most acceptable answer: “It’s fine, Harry’s dog is fine.” Later you discover that Harry had planned to get a dog but thought better of it and got a cat instead. So there is no dog.

Question: were you telling a lie when you asserted, on no evidence, that Harry’s dog was in good health? Logically speaking, you weren’t. Your assertion wasn’t true, but neither was it false: “Harry’s dog” doesn’t refer to anything in the world, so statements about it can’t be either true or false (since they can never be either proved true or falsified). (Compare “Noah’s Ark was painted in bright colours”.) “Harry’s dog is fine” is neither true nor false. But what if you’d thought Jo looked suspicious and added “I’m telling you the truth, Harry’s dog is fine”? That statement (or meta-statement) would have been false, because the original statement isn’t true (neither is it false). On the third hand, if instead of asserting truth you’d denied falsehood – “I’m not lying, Harry’s dog is fine” – that statement would have been true, for much the same reason.

We seem to have a paradox: we started from the position that (1) “Harry’s dog is fine”,  (2) “It’s true that Harry’s dog is fine” and (3) “It’s not false that Harry’s dog is fine” were logically identical, but we’ve identified conditions in which (3) is true and (2) false while – or because – (1) is neither true nor false.

One way to resolve it would be to look a bit more deeply into our ordinary-language understanding of the meanings involved. Why, after all, would anyone actually say “I’m telling you the truth, Harry’s dog is fine”? Perhaps, rather than being a meta-statement referring to the statement following it, the first clause is doing a separate job, asserting the trustworthiness of the speaker and the speech-act rather than the truthfulness of the statement: perhaps what this speaker is actually saying is “you can trust me to be telling the truth when I make the following statement”. In this case the paradox dissolves: under conditions where (1) is neither true nor false, the distinct statement (2) is false (because it’s asserting that the speaker is stating the truth when asserting (1)), while (3) is, rather sneakily and pedantically, true (because it’s asserting that the speaker isn’t stating a falsehood when asserting (1) – as indeed (s)he isn’t & can’t be, given that Harry’s dog doesn’t exist).

What’s all this got to do with Corbyn, Jukes, Gardner and Iraq? Carl’s post is a good starting-point. On the main point at issue – the legality of the invasion – he made four key assertions: that

  1. whether or not the invasion was legal depends on the text of two UN resolutions, the relationship between them and how these things are interpreted;
  2. there is room for different and conflicting interpretations;
  3. he personally endorsed an interpretation which concluded that the invasion was legal (“I agree with what Lord Goldsmith said was the legal justification for war”)
  4. “The invasion of Iraq was lawful”

To put it more schematically:

  1. There is an agreed set of facts on the basis of which statements can be made
  2. Both statement S and its negation not-S can be argued on the basis of those facts
  3. On the basis of those facts, I believe that S is preferable to not-S
  4. S.

I’m not criticising 2010-Carl for making the leap from the meta-statement at 3 to the statement at 4 – quite the reverse: I think this is an exemplary piece of unpacking. It’s reminiscent of what we do when we read a Supreme Court judgment: we see an uncontentious stock of facts and precedents construed in two or three different ways and an authoritative reading established partly by consensus and partly by majority vote. Once the decision is made, after multiple more or less plausible readings have been set out, the state of the law is what the SC majority concluded it to be: we proceed from “S and not-S are both arguable” to “S is preferred” and thence directly to S. And similarly with Carl’s assessment of the rival arguments about Iraq, his statement of his preferred alternative and his factual assertion that the invasion was lawful.

The question then is whether this is a game that only lawyers can play – or whether everyone, having made a factual assertion, is capable of clambering back down the ladder from 4 to 3 and back to 2. I think there’s a danger of a lack of charity in the assumption that we hold our beliefs lightly and on the basis of a preferred interpretation of agreed facts, whereas our opponents have positions that they maintain to the exclusion of all others. There’s also, perhaps, a danger of vanity in the assumption that we hold all our beliefs lightly. Related to this last point, I wonder if ‘unpacking’ is the right metaphor. If “S is true” is a different statement from S, presumably the same can be said of “I believe that S is true on grounds which I am prepared to justify logically”. However we arrive at our beliefs, “belief that S” once established is a distinct mental attitude – not an epiphenomenal aspect of a more fundamental “preference for the justificatory grounds for a belief that S“.

So I can’t agree with Carl: to say that Blair is a war criminal is not, in and of itself, to say that no other readings of the facts are possible or to deny that one has reached that opinion by selecting a preferred interpretation of the facts. A fortiori, Peter Jukes’s indignation at Corbyn’s mere failure to rebut the suggestion that Blair might be considered a war criminal is misplaced. (For what it’s worth, I think Corbyn handled the questioning rather well. If the Rome Charter is revised, Blair could be prosecuted by the ICC for waging aggressive war. I doubt we’ll ever see it, and if we do I would expect him to be found not guilty. But ‘possibly’ is about right.)

I think all this relates to a broader point about the Corbyn campaign. Let’s say that the spectrum of acceptable debate runs from position -3 (left of centre) to +3 (right of centre); if I assert position -5, those who hold +1 or +2 (or even -1 or -2) are less likely to argue with me than they are to dismiss my position and demand that I dismiss it too. And if, meanwhile, the centre has been shifting – so that today’s -5s are the -1s or +1s of twenty or thirty years ago – a calm and reasoned statement of -5 is liable to evoke a lot of suppressed demand in some quarters and rattle a lot of cages elsewhere. I think it’s largely because Corbyn’s campaign puts back into circulation positions that have simply been excluded – rather than being controverted or even challenged – that it’s causing such consternation on the Right and showing such power to mobilise on the Left.




Something in the air

Apparently Mosul has fallen to ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-ShamsAl-Sham (Damascus); Al-Shams (literally ‘the sun’) translates here as ‘the Levant’ (thanks to Ankaralı Jan on Twitter for the correction)). This is not good news; ISIS is an al-Qaida affiliate, rumoured to be funded by Saudi Arabia, rumoured to have had any Saudi funding emphatically withdrawn, rumoured to be seen as ‘too extreme’ by al-Qaida. As for Mosul, it’s in the North. Iraq is the shape of a truncated triangle; it has six land borders, three long and three relatively short. In the south it borders Jordan (SW), Saudi Arabia (S, long) and Kuwait (SE); carrying on round, you get to Iran (NE, long), Turkey (N) and Syria (NW, long). (Historic Kurdistan straddles northern Iraq, southern Turkey, north-east Syria and north-west Iran; this is one reason why the Kurds have never got anywhere (or been allowed to get anywhere) with state-building.) Mosul, in the North, is more or less midway between the north-eastern regions, bordering Iran, which are held by the Kurdish Regional Government and the regions bordering Syria which are already effectively held by ISIS. (Another correction: got the geography completely scrambled in the first draft. Confession: I tend to get East and West confused on maps if I can’t see Wales or Russia.)

Meanwhile in Cheetham Hill:

I know this is basically anecdotal taxi driver journalism stuff but the shawarma joints run by Syrian Kurds on our part of Cheetham Hill Road were buzzing tonight. These are a fairly recent phenomenon here, and seem to have in large part replaced a wave of vaguely Iranian cafes that suddenly appeared around 2008.  Whatever. The thing is, a while back I noticed that one of these places had a collection box for medical aid for Rojava on the counter and when I asked about it I ended up having an interesting chat with the man behind the counter slinging the fatteyah dough, a job for which he seemed to be considerably overqualified.

Anyway, the idea was that Syrian Kurdistan – Rojava – would take the opportunity of the anti-Assad uprising to establish de facto autonomy, then come to terms with Iraqi Kurdistan and then, when the time was right, there would be a Kurdish state. We didn’t get into the PKK-Turkey situation.

Well, as of a couple of hours back there was a buzz all the way up the road, from Bakery and Company to the Cheetham Star, and there were bills and posters up with the red-yellow-green tricolour, also the Kurdish ‘sun’ flag. I didn’t have a conversation with anyone. It was obviously ‘our thing’, people huddled around some guy talking on a cellphone and repeating what he was hearing to the group. But I did get the impression that the schedule had moved forward.

Like I say, strictly anecdotal stuff, the view of a viewer of interested parties from faraway Manchester 8. But I’ve also seen pictures ISIS grubbing out the border posts between Syria and Iraq and it seems to me that no-one is in a position to put them back.  That has implications all over the region. Sykes-Picot, he dead.

Following up Jamie’s post, I read this article from yesterday (11th June) on the BBC Web site. The title is “Battle for Mosul: Critical test ahead for Iraq” – which says it all, unfortunately. Some extracts and comments:

Governor Atheel Nujaifi made a desperate appeal on the night of 9 June for citizens to use their personal weapons to form self-defence militias in their neighbourhoods in an effort to limit ISIS gains. The next step will be the regrouping of the disintegrated units, including those where policemen and soldiers stripped off their uniforms and abandoned vehicles, weapons and outposts.

Not sure what the thinking is here – people have taken off their uniforms, dropped their guns and run away, but now they’re going to be regrouped?

New armoured, artillery and aerial forces will be brought up to Mosul for the operation,

(“The operation” appears to refer to “regrouping”, above.)

though scraping together such forces is getting increasingly difficult due to the growing number of major ISIS assaults in the Baghdad suburbs and cities like Ramadi, Samarra, Tuz Khurmatu, Sharqat and Mosul. The only source of fresh forces available in Iraq is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga, an infantry force with some artillery and light armoured vehicles.

“See? We’ve got plenty of people in the region! No problem!

Peshmerga forces have recently moved forwards along the line of disputed territories claimed by both the federal government and the KRG, including securing the areas of Mosul city east of the Tigris River. Gaining the KRG’s active support to take part in the clearance of western Mosul may only be possible if Baghdad is willing to make concessions to the Kurds on issues such as the international marketing of KRG oil and revenue-sharing between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

And we’re back indoors (“Mr Al-Maliki? Your ten o’clock’s here…”) Not to make a virtue of the creation of ‘facts on the ground’ stuff or anything, but I think the way things are going, the making of concessions might be a bit more definite – & might be a done deal before ‘Baghdad’ has much to say about it.

For the Baghdad government of caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the recovery of Mosul is a test of leadership at a critical moment when he is seeking reappointment.

Could we lay off the “who’s up, who’s down” just for a moment? I mean, there’s this war…

Iraq’s Kurds need stability in Mosul, which is just one hour’s drive from the KRG capital of Irbil. Many Kurds live in or around eastern Mosul and ISIS control of the city could pose a grave security threat to the Iraqi Kurdish region, which prides itself on providing a safe environment for investors.

Unless either (a) KRG talk to ISIS and ISIS say “we’ll take this bit, you can have that bit and we’ll leave you to it”; (b) KRG don’t trust ISIS an inch but decide to capitalise on the partial power-vacuum created by the collapse of central government control anyway; or (c) both of the above. The KRG could take the view that they can look after the security of the Iraqi Kurdish region on their own more effectively than the Iraqi government – and that they can do the job better if they’re not also trying to fight the Iraqi government’s battles for it. Apart from anything else, they’re on the spot, and the Iraqi government is a long way away. (That ‘hour’s drive’ to Irbil is 60 miles, incidentally, so an hour may be optimistic – but Baghdad to Mosul is 250 miles by road. It is a major road, but I imagine there are a few hold-ups at the moment.)

Iraq’s Sunni political, tribal and religious leaders have the most to lose from ISIS’s growth … Taking an optimistic view, these overlapping interests could create the potential for political dialogue and speedier government formation, potentially lessening tensions between Baghdad and the KRG. Alternatively, ongoing discord between the Maliki government and its Kurdish and Arab opponents could disrupt the government’s counter-offensive, allowing ISIS to consolidate its hold on western Mosul.

Ooh, speedier government formation. Call me an incorrigible optimist, but I do like to take a few minutes out of a busy day to think about political dialogue and speedier government formation. They may say I’m a dreamer… Again, there’s this weird urge to turn the actual civil war into a sand-table exercise whose success or failure will have implications for real politics.

It strikes me that the ‘optimistic view’ isn’t looking very good at the moment – or even very realistic. More to the point, it only is the optimistic view if we put the interests of the al-Maliki government at the top of the list, rather than (say) the interests of all the people who live in Iraq. (Which might coincide, but I don’t think it’s been demonstrated.) For the KRG, in particular – and their sympathisers up Cheetham Hill Road – standing the Peshmerga down, and getting dragged back into endless horse-trading with an Iraqi government they don’t respect, might not be the ‘optimistic’ outcome at all.

Fighting again

Andy draws our attention to this statement by Alex Callinicos (‘for the SWP Central Committee’):

as we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’, ‘if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic. Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.

There are three propositions here. Firstly, US imperialism essentially rules the world and will quash any development in the direction of socialism or self-rule, unless it can be challenged by military force. For the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America to develop, they needed political space – and a decisive contribution to creating the space was made by the resistance to the invasion of Iraq, specifically by its success in tying down the Pentagon’s military machine. It follows (secondly) that setbacks to US imperialism – and, specifically, military setbacks – are more important and more worthy of support than any developments in the direction of socialism, since these are only possible on the condition that US imperialism is defeated (or at least tied down). Hence the resistance in Iraq matters more than the anti-capitalist movements of Latin America; they may be more advanced politically, but Iraq is the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism. It follows that building the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’ is more important than solidarity work with Venezuela (or Bolivia, or anywhere else not currently in a state of war with the US). Thirdly, for us in the advanced capitalist world the anti-imperialist struggle of the Iraqi resistance is especially relevant, since the countries of the advanced capitalist world are, not to put too fine a point on it, doing the damage. This is therefore a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than mere ‘cheerleading’.

My problem with this analysis starts at the end. To start with, I’m not at all clear what the ‘task’ being proposed actually is. I don’t believe the SWP is advocating the formation of an International Brigade to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi resistance, or calling for the disruption of the British war effort; I don’t even believe they go so far as to cheerlead for the Iraqi resistance, at least not in material intended for public consumption. If revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world have any role in the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’, it seems to consist of a demonstrative withdrawal of support from that war – and we hardly need a revolutionary cadre to do that.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that expressing opposition to the war in Iraq is in fact a contribution to the struggle against US imperialism. Even if this were the case, I’d struggle to see how this would take priority over more positive developments towards socialism. This point relates to Callinicos’s other assertion, that mobilising against the war is a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies. For that to be the case, this would surely have to be a campaign that resonated with broader social issues and found points of leverage within existing divisions in society. (If you remember the miners’ strike, think how that single issue ramified into areas from gender roles to welfare spending to nuclear power – all of them deeply contentious and all offering a terrain for further mobilisation.) By contrast, almost nobody outside Westminster actually supports the war; this is not in any obvious way a divisive issue, which severely limits its potential for broader mobilisation. (The SWP’s sotto voce endorsement of the Iraqi resistance has the opposite problem, as hardly anyone outside the party agrees with it.)

The point, for the depleted forces of the Left in the advanced capitalist world, has to be what we can actually achieve. The implicit assumption underlying Callinicos’s analysis seems to be that, in ourselves and for ourselves, we can achieve nothing. Globally, the precondition for any advance towards socialism is the military defeat of our own nation and its allies; in the absence of that, every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism will be doomed. This is politics reimagined as a game of Risk: a nation can only be available for Socialism if it’s not occupied by Imperialism, or if Imperialism has had to send its armies elsewhere. The message for socialists in nations of the Imperialist heartland (such as this one) is simple: don’t you know there’s a war on? Any other demands can and should be suspended for the duration.

I find this a bleak and, effectively, anti-political world view; I find it hard to imagine it being held seriously by anyone who’d recently been involved in a political campaign in this country. Because there is still class conflict in advanced capitalist nations; we may be aristocrats of labour on a world scale, but there are still divisions for socialists to open up, contradictions to exacerbate – and gains to be made. I don’t pretend to know the best or most fruitful approach to doing so, but I am pretty sure it won’t begin with a demand that’s embarrassingly uncontroversial (“Troops out of Iraq”) – or one that’s just plain embarrassing (“Victory to the Iraqi resistance!”).

And start again

From the ‘found while looking for something else’ file.

In May 2003 the Iraq invasion had just been declared complete; nobody knew quite how bad things were going to get. So the chances are that Danish academic Per Mouritsen wasn’t thinking about Iraq when he wrote this:

Peasants of Piemonte or Bretagne did not begin to accept their taxes or respect laws emanating from Rome or Paris before they could see themselves as belonging to a community stretching beyond the nearest villages and as a people with a state of their own. They would only do this when patriotic subjectivities were created by churches and armies – and when given material reasons for citizenship in the shape of schools, hospitals and the opportunity to channel grievances towards a recognisable political centre. The point was recently demonstrated in Eastern Europe. Civil society did not just need liberation from totalitarian states, but also something else and better instead. There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state – difficult as this is. In the absence of such a state or the relatively recent memory of one, instead of citizens there will be alienated individuals, fending for themselves, instead of market capitalism there will be mafia economies, and instead of velvet revolutions there will be more stolen ones

There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state. In other words, you can’t just blow the ‘totalitarian’ lid off a society and assume that peace and democracy will develop of their own accord. To be a citizen is to be a part of social institutions – and if those institutions aren’t there, calling yourself a citizen will mean about as much as calling yourself a constitutional monarchist in China, or a Communist in Cheltenham.

It’s no real reason

Let us just take this issue of Iraq and expose it for a moment – frankly, the obscenity of these people saying it is concern for Iraq that drives them to terrorism. If it is concern for Iraq, why are they driving a car bomb into the middle of a group of children and killing them? Why are they every day in Iraq trying to kill people whose only desire is for their country to become a democracy? Why are they trying to kill people in Afghanistan? Why are they trying, every time Israel and Palestine look as if they could come together in some sort of settlement, they go and wreck it. … They will always have a reason and I am not saying that any of these things don’t affect their warped reasoning and warped logic as to what they do, or that they don’t use these things to try and recruit people. But I do say we shouldn’t compromise with it. I am not saying anyone says any of these things justify it, but we shouldn’t even allow them the vestige of an excuse for what they do.

What is happening in Iraq is that ordinary, decent Iraqis are being butchered by these people with the same terrorist ideology that is killing people in different parts of the world. … there is all the difference in the world in us taking action against these terrorists and as will happen when military action is taken innocent civilians get killed. We deeply regret every one of those lives. They don’t regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose. And all the instability in Iraq would stop tomorrow if these terrorists and insurgents stopped. … Until we get rid of this frankly complete nonsense in trying to build some equivalence between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it, until we eliminate that we are not going to confront this ideology in the way it needs to be confronted and my point to you is this, it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but we kind of see something in their ideas or maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.

we will start to beat this when we stand up and confront the ideology of this evil. Not just the methods but the ideas. When we actually have people going into the communities here in this country and elsewhere and saying I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense about it is to do with what the British are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan, or support for Israel, or support for America, or any of the rest of it. It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.- Blair, 26th July 2005.

If nothing else, Blair is commendably clear. The terrorist threat to Britain – “this evil” – is the work of a single identifiable group, operating in Palestine as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Their programme is unclear and may be incomprehensible (“warped reasoning and warped logic”). Their “terrorist ideology” leads them to kill at random and “rejoice” in “the loss of innocent, civilian life”. Their claim of solidarity with the people of Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Palestine) is contradicted by their own actions, as they repeatedly undermine democratic progress in those countries; by implication, progress will now only be possible after they have been defeated. What they do has no justification: “it is time we stopped saying OK we abhor their methods, but … maybe they have got a sliver of excuse or justification. They have got no justification for it.” The Iraq war, in particular, is not a justification, because the war is right and what they are doing is wrong: there is no comparison “between what we are doing helping Iraqis and Afghans get their democracy and these people going in deliberately killing wholly innocent people for the sake of it”. In fact, the suggestion that the Iraq war is a justification is itself part of “the ideology of this evil”, and must be rejected if the terrorists are to be defeated: “It is nonsense, and we have got to confront it as that. And when we confront it as that, then we will start to beat it.”

In order to make sense of this stuff, I think we need some definitions. First of all, it would be correct to say that the Iraq war didn’t cause the London bombings, if only because actions don’t have causes: they aren’t precipitated by facts about the world. Actions have agents: people who make decisions and carry them out. Behind every action there’s a choice – and people who are responsible for making that choice and acting on it.

What actions do have is motives, which are closely related to beliefs: how you want the world to change cannot be divorced from how you believe the world currently is. Political actions, in particular, are generally capable of being justified (if not necessarily in ways you or I would accept). That is, their motive is a desire to change the world – to change the distribution of resources, of power over resources, of power wielded by some humans over others – and to change it in the direction of greater justice, as the agent sees it. In this sense, the motive of a political action is also the basis of its justification. It should perhaps be emphasised that saying that an action can be justified is not the same as saying that it can be justified in terms that I would accept. A justification which is framed in terms of beliefs and motives I don’t share won’t get my endorsement – but I can, and should, still recognise that it is a justification. You can learn why somebody thinks something is a good idea without being persuaded that it is a good idea.

Of course, actions also have intrinsic qualities; some actions, in particular, are intrinsically repugnant. Indeed, some actions – such as, for instance, the murder of random passers-by – are corrosive of any imaginable society; our sense of repugnance in these cases has a fairly good claim to universality. That said, we know that there are – and always have been – people willing to carry out repugnant actions; if this were not the case there would be no need for laws against them. Nor is it the case that any identifiable social group or political cause has a monopoly of ethically repugnant tactics; again, if this were the case we could simply legislate against the repugnant minority and dispense with the law among ourselves. As I argued back here, repugnance is not political; it only becomes a political stance when it is brought into dialogue with our own beliefs, our assessment of how the world is and how the world needs to be changed.

we have always to ask (we cannot help asking), unforgivable and… what? Was that particular act unforgivable and irredeemably vile, unforgivable and contemptibly cynical, or unforgivable and horribly mistaken? Might it even, in some circumstances, be unforgivable but tragically constructive?

(Am I saying I don’t oppose every imaginable suicide bombing? Yes, I am. More to the point, I’m saying that actual suicide bombings – repugnant as they unquestionably are – don’t invariably revolt me in exactly the same way and to exactly the same degree. I expect that this is also true of you.)

Actions, in any case, don’t have causes: every action is the product of a free choice, taken within the context of a framework of beliefs and motives. It is not precipitated by the facts of the situation within which it is taken. It is bound up with those facts, however, in two ways. Firstly, some choices are freer than others: for some agents, the effective range of choices for which they can take responsibility is very narrow indeed. If we were to watch a hundred vagrants in temporary accommodation and a hundred Eton schoolchildren for a month, it’s a safe bet that more thefts would be committed by the vagrants than the toffs, despite the fact that each individual had free will throughout the period. Nor is this a question of justification or extenuation. I’m more likely to steal if my family is starving; I’m also more likely to steal if I don’t know where my next fix is coming from, or if I’ve committed murder and gone on the run. In any of these cases, the facts of the situation constrain my exercise of free choice. The situation – and the chain of causality which brought it about – does not produce my behaviour, but it does make certain choices more likely than others. As somebody once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (It’s since been established that women do something similar.)

Secondly, if freely-chosen actions do not have causes, they do have consequences: typically, consequences which ramify in multiple directions, not all of which can be identified beforehand. If agents are responsible for their actions, they must surely also be responsible for the consequences of those actions – including the constraints which are placed, as a result, on other individuals’ freedom to choose. We might make an exception for consequences which, in principle, could not be foreseen by the agent, however well-informed and reflective they were – but it is difficult to imagine how the consequences of an action could meet this criterion and still be identifiable as consequences.

Circumstances do not cause actions – but they can make certain actions more likely, by validating some beliefs and motives (e.g. “you’ve got to be hard if you’re going to survive”) while undercutting others (e.g. “it’s wrong to steal”). By extension, every action also makes other actions more and less likely. And, of course, circumstances – and hence the consequences of actions – can also affect beliefs and motives more directly, by appearing to demonstrate what the world is like and how it needs to be changed. The changed balance of opportunities and constraints which an action produces, as well as the sets of beliefs which it is likely to confirm or challenge, must play into how we perceive that action.

In the case of the Iraq war, the invasion clearly created opportunities for terrorist activity and removed constraints against it. It also tended to confirm beliefs according to which Western nations – the US and Britain in particular – are engaged in a lawless and predatory ‘crusade’ against the Islamic world. Regardless of whether these beliefs are sustainable or fallacious, they are widely held. The perception that the Iraq war bore out these beliefs – irrespective of whether that is sustainable – is also widespread. As such, it seems beyond question that the foreseeable consequences of the war – as well as the deposition of Saddam Hussein – include an aggravated sense of grievance among Muslims against the British and US governments, and the exposure of Britain to a higher risk of terrorism.

There are three main answers to this line of argument. The first and weakest appears in Geras’s polemic against ‘apologists’:

If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house.

This simply begs the question. Retaliatory violence cannot be justified because it is disproportionate – but it is disproportionate because that’s how the example has been set up. Assuming that we’re still talking about Iraq, compare London and Falluja, or the career prospects of a Republican Guard with those of a British intelligence officer: it’s not immediately clear to me that we are the ones whose house has been burned down. In any case, if Mabel were a friend of mine, I’d tell her to be careful not to cross Zack again and ask her what the hell she was doing stealing the bike in the first place.

The second and third arguments, which also appear in Geras’s piece, are fuzzily invoked by Blair. One is that, while the Iraq war may have created grievances, those grievances are wrong (only the enemies of democracy can oppose the new democratic Iraq). The other is that those grievances are irrelevant (even without the war, “this evil” would still have existed and Britain would have been one of its targets). Geras offers handy thought-experiments for these as well. Firstly, the grievance which can be disregarded because it is wrong:

In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

Once again, this is a heavily-loaded example: rape is one of the few crimes which (within the cultural context shared by Geras and myself) cannot be justified under any circumstances whatsoever, so there is no imaginable scenario in which Elaine would be culpable. A better example might be the socially-conservative Muslim areas – such as present-day Basra – where women who walk the streets with their hair uncovered risk abuse or assault. This treatment appals me, and I side unreservedly with the women who suffer it against the evil sexist scumbags who perpetrate it – but, as with my light-fingered friend Mabel, I can easily imagine asking someone who persistently defied the scumbags whether she wasn’t, to some extent, bringing hostile attention down on herself.

Geras’s use of the word ‘blame’ here is both significant and misleading, I think. Elsewhere in the same piece he argues that, if the Iraq war was ‘right’, then

no blame attaches to those who led, prosecuted and supported that war, even if it has entered the causal chain leading to the bombings, by way of the motivating grievances of the ‘militants’ and ‘activists’

This, it seems to me, imposes an artificial distinction between the war and its consequences, assuming that the war is justified whatever its consequences may ultimately be. It seems far more appropriate to assess the consequences of the war and judge its ‘rightness’ or not accordingly. Similarly, if we cause outrage and offence by challenging a world view which we regard as deeply unjust, it is hard not to say that we are in the right – and, by extension, it is hard to say that we can be ‘blamed’ for causing offence. Nevertheless, we might prefer – if only for the sake of a quiet life – not to outrage and offend those people any more than we have to. Of course, we could – and Blair sometimes seems to think that we should – make a virtue of offence and tackle “the ideology of this evil” head-on, wherever it can be found. However, this is a rather more ambitious – not to say open-ended – version of ‘ethical foreign policy’ than we have been accustomed to; never mind Iran, we’d be lucky to escape without declaring war on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The other argument, also invoked by Blair, is that any grievances roused by the war are irrelevant. Geras again:

Me, David and Sam are chatting. I make a remark to David, David gets cross because of the remark and he punches me in the mouth. Sam says ‘You had it coming’. In this story it is uncontroversially true – I can tell you this, being the story’s one and only author – that my remark to David and Sam is the cause of David’s anger. Is Sam, then, right to tell me in effect that I either share the blame for David’s punching me in the mouth or am entirely to blame for it myself? Well, the content of my remark was ‘I love the music of Bob Dylan’. David for his part doesn’t like the music of Bob Dylan. I think most people will recognize without the need of further urging on my part that, contrary to what Sam says, I didn’t have it coming, David is entirely to blame for punching me in the mouth and I, accordingly, am not to blame in any way at all. If, on the other hand, my remark was not about Bob Dylan’s music, but was a deeply offensive comment about David’s mother, then without troubling to weight the respective shares of blame here, I’d say it would have been reasonable for Sam to tell me that I must bear some of it.

What this tells me is, primarily, how difficult it is to construct a really good thought-experiment. I have never been punched in the mouth, I’m happy to say. I did, however, once go to Spain with a friend; after travelling together for a week or so we split up in Madrid one morning, both agreeing it was best, and returned home separately. We hadn’t come to blows, but we parted on very bad terms. The immediate cause of our separation was an acrimonious argument about the lyrics of the songs “Tangled up in blue” and “If you see her, say hello”. (Twenty years later, I’m absurdly gratified to find, courtesy of, that I was right! Ha!)

So it seems to me that, in the right circumstances, “I love the music of Bob Dylan” could be a grossly provocative statement. Moving away from one-line utterances, to think in terms of actions and their consequences, makes it harder to come up with a definitively ‘innocent’ intervention. Confining ourselves to political interventions – attempts to alter the balance of power or the distribution of resources, favouring one group or another – makes it harder still. (And confining ourselves to the category of political interventions known as ‘wars of invasion’… but enough already.) True, jihadist terrorism didn’t start with Iraq; its motivations range from the religious deficiencies of the house of Saud to the existence of Spanish rule over Andalusia. But the war has created – and continues to create – grievances which can be channelled into support for the jihadist world-view.

To borrow a bit of sociological jargon, it’s a question of frame-bridging: gaining adherents to one set of beliefs (or ‘frames’) by stressing how much they have in common with another set. Blair seems to realise that some such process is going on, although he doesn’t seem to realise (or admit) that taking Britain into the Iraq war made it eminently foreseeable. More to the point, he doesn’t show much sign of realising that the best way to counter frame-bridging is to do it yourself. You certainly don’t deal with it by telling everyone responsible to stop it at once (“I am sorry, we are not having any of this nonsense”). If there is anything that people need to be “going into the communities” and saying, it’s more along the lines of “Yeah, sure, Britain needs to get out of Iraq – but restore the Caliphate, are you crazy? And blowing people up – that’s just sick.”

I don’t know if anything like that is happening right now, but I hope it is. I think it’s our best hope for peace and reconciliation. If it’s not happening – if the government and its friends are succeeding in their attempt to equate opposition to the war with support for terrorism, opposition to the jihadists with support for New Labour – then I’m afraid that things can only get even worse.

Just us

The idea of a ‘just war’ has been around for a long time – since the fifth century, in fact, when it was formulated by St Augustine. One of the key criteria in judging whether a particular conflict can be considered ‘just’ is that war is not waged lightly: it has to be a ‘last resort’. It can be tricky to tell when you’ve reached the ‘last resort’, or the last of anything; you could easily jump too soon, or else wait too long and miss it altogether. Think of Father Ted, urging himself to confront the odious Father Fintan Stack and simultaneously rationalising his failure to do so before: “No, this is definitely the last straw. I thought that was the last straw, but obviously I was mistaken. This now, this is positively the last… bit of straw… left… in the thing, what I’m saying is there is no more straw!”

Of course, problems like this are what we have philosophers for. Michael Walzer is an international authority on ‘just war’ theory; a collection of his writings was recently reviewed by Corey Robin in the LRB. Here’s a slice:

Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim that governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is equally dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his scepticism about the ‘last resort’ suggests a double standard. … Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s ‘last resort’ while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.

Here’s Walzer, at greater length, on terrorists and the last resort; the essay, reprinted in the collection Robin reviewed, can also be found in a 2001 issue of the American Prospect.

In parts of the European and American left, there has long existed a political culture of excuses focused defensively on one or another of the older terrorist organizations: the IRA, FLN, PLO, and so on.
The first excuse is that terror is a last resort. The image is of oppressed and embittered people who have run out of options. They have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, until no alternative remains but the evil of terrorism. They must be terrorists or do nothing at all. The easy response is that, given this description, they should do nothing at all. But that doesn’t engage the excuse.It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) – and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of repetition. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options.
“Last resort” has only a notional finality. The resort to terror is not last in an actual series of actions; it is last only for the sake of the excuse. Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort; they are for it from the beginning.

And here’s Walzer on ‘just war’, adopting a very different position – although, oddly, the rhetoric doesn’t change that much. He wrote in 2003:

We say of war that it is the “last resort” because of the unpredictable, unexpected, unintended, and unavoidable horrors that it regularly brings. In fact, war isn’t the last resort, for “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last. The notion of lastness is cautionary – but this is a necessary caution: look hard for alternatives before you “let loose the dogs of war.”

The distortions and elisions in Walzer’s arguments are striking, and sometimes strikingly obvious. Take that (unchallenged) ‘easy response’ in the first paragraph quoted: even if we have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, it is better to do nothing at all than to take up arms. This is an extraordinary failure of imaginative engagement on Walzer’s part, which must put us on our guard relative to the arguments that follows.

Walzer also plays fast and loose with the key word ‘last’. When he’s dealing with terrorists, his argument is rigid and mechanistic: by implication, each individual group must try everything … and not just once before non-violent forms of action can be discarded. This seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Let’s say that we’re in El Salvador in the early 1980s, and a local trade union organiser has just been murdered by a right-wing death squad. What’s our advice to other trade unionists – learn by doing the same thing over and over again?

When Walzer is dealing with regular armies, ‘last’ means something quite different. In fact [sic], war isn’t the last resort … The notion of lastness is cautionary. ‘Last’, in other words, means… what? ‘Worst’? But if starting a war is not merely an undesirable course of action but the worst option (which seems like a reasonable position), the distinction Walzer is trying to make dissolves. To say that something is the worst option is precisely to say – if you’ll excuse the pedantry – that it’s the last course of action one should resort to. Presumably ‘last’ here means no more than ‘quite bad’.

These two opposed redefinitions of ‘last’ meet oddly in a formulation from that 1992 essay:

we can never reach lastness, or we can never know when we have reached it. There is always something else to do: another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting.

One must indeed try everything … and not just once. One must go to the UN Security Council, and not just once; one must sit through yet another meeting. Or rather, one mustn’t: just because it’s called the last resort, that doesn’t mean you’ve actually got to try it last.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Walzer slips all too easily from discussing an argument from principle to challenging the good faith of those who invoke it: Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort. Well, one activist’s lifetime of experience is another’s starting point (unless every one of us needs to try everything … and not just once); it’s not hard to imagine situations in which a ‘last resort’ is the only resort. Besides – ‘most terrorists’? Has Walzer run a survey among veterans of armed struggle groups or analysed the copious literature these groups tend to produce? I suspect that this is a starting point rather than a conclusion: what purports to be a critique of ‘most terrorists’ is actually a statement about how Walzer imagines these groups to be, based on his antipathy to them. (Tellingly, Walzer describes the positions he’s attacking not as arguments but as excuses.)

Walzer detects bad faith in peaceniks as well as terrorists – always with another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution… He made the point more bluntly in 2004, in his contribution to a Radio 4 discussion programme:

Last resort is a metaphysical term. You never reach lastness, there’s always something you could do. If there is a massacre going on in Rwanda, the crucial thing is to stop it. As we saw, there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do — in the face of the Rwandan massacre, but the use of force was, I think, the just response; and just because if we were interested in stopping the murders, there was no alternative.

there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do. Terrorists lie – they talk about principle, but they just want to be violent. Peaceniks lie – they talk about principle, but they just want governments to be non-violent. The fact of it is, Walzer says – the philosophical fact of it is – that governments can cut ethical corners and may use violence, whereas citizens must act ethically and must not use violence. Because… because that’s how it is.

Comments made on the same Radio 4 programme by Vaughan Lowe, a professor of international law, show just how dangerous this idea is.

I think the general population is quite rightly concerned not simply with the question whether it’s lawful or not, but whether it’s right. And it’s certainly not the case that every lawful action is morally defensible. And I think that’s what they’re trying to get at when they talk about just war. They’re saying more than that it’s technically lawful. They’re saying it’s a good idea. And I think that people think that answering the legal question excuses them from answering the moral question and that they think it’s enough to concentrate on that. And I absolutely agree—the ultimately critical issue is the moral one: is it justified to use force or not?

Both Walzer’s readings of ‘just war’ theory are concerned with this three-way connection between legality, justice and violence, but they articulate it in very different ways. For Walzer I – Walzer on terrorism – a course of action can only be just if it is also legal, which necessarily precludes violence. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options. If armed struggle is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, armed struggle can never realistically be just. (Even if activists do run out of options for legal activity, they should react to this setback by doing nothing at all.)

For Walzer II – Walzer on war – “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life. If war is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, war can never realistically be just; in a 1992 essay Walzer wrote that the upshot of the ‘last resort’ argument was to make war “morally impossible”. But Walzer is convinced that ‘just war’ is possible, which means that war cannot literally be the ‘last resort’. The circle is squared by divorcing justice from legality (which, in the case of international law, can only finally be determined by doing the same thing over and over again up at the UN). For Walzer II, the justice of a just war is an intrinsic property – and if there is a conflict between justice and the procedural minutiae of legality, justice takes precedence, in principle just as it does in practice.

As Lowe hints, Goldsmith’s legal advice on the Iraq war was, in effect, “It may not be a just war but it’s technically legal.” Under criticism, Blair has opted decisively for the opposite position – “It may not be technically legal, but it’s a just war.” Walzer I wouldn’t tolerate this type of argument for a second; Walzer II endorses it wholeheartedly. The result is that his arguments cease to be intolerable to the advocates of actually existing ‘just war’, at the cost of becoming dispensable. As David Gordon comments: “Walzer mocked overly rigid just-war thinkers: if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen. … But the upshot of Walzer’s slippery standards is that policymakers will pay him no heed either.”

The yawning inconsistency between Walzer I and Walzer II – and, I would argue, the equal and opposite dodginess of both positions – highlights the limitations of the terms involved (what does last mean, after all?) A more nuanced – and hopefully more consistent – position might start from one of Roy Bhaskar’s more lucid observations. We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

Which brings us, indirectly, back to the ‘last resort’. Suppose that people and nations determine one another’s actions; suppose that some of these ‘determinations’ are acceptable and others not. The ‘last resort’ is then the point at which ‘unneeded, unwanted and oppressive’ determinations cannot be removed or alleviated, other than by force or the threat of force.

Where individuals are concerned, the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

In the semi-imaginary land of international relations, on the other hand, it is not clear to me that the last resort is ever reached, unless the offending nation is either initiating a war or attempting to provoke the other into doing so. This suggests that the ‘last resort’ is always a defence against aggression – for otherwise it would always [be] possible to do something else, or to do it again – and hence that there is no such thing as a just war of aggression.

But in that case the Iraq war would not have been a just war. And we know in advance that that conclusion is intolerable (if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen). And if Iraq was right, the model must be wrong. Simple.

Concerned with decisiveness

I’d hate to disappoint Ros Taylor, so here are some thoughts about Peter Goldsmith and Iraq.

Following Brian Barder, I think we should drop the idea that Goldsmith changed his mind between the 7th and the 17th of March 2003. What Blair wanted from Goldsmith was never his own opinion about the legality of the invasion, but an authoritative judgment of the soundness of the case that could be made for its legality. The 7th March judgment was, essentially, “there is a legal argument in favour of an invasion without a second UN resolution, albeit with strictly defined and limited objectives; this argument is strong enough for the government to act on if it chooses, but may not be strong enough to protect it from every foreseeable legal challenge”. Take the first fifteen words of that summary and delete the other 35, and you’ve essentially got the 17th March opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if Goldsmith was leant on in the mean time (the dialogue writes itself – “So you’re saying it is legal? Yes or no?”) but what resulted wasn’t a U-turn or a cave-in; you could even call it a clarification.

Thus far I’m with Paul Anderson, slightly to my surprise –

“Government lawyer points out possible problems with war then backs it when push comes to shove” is a lousy headline – except insofar as it’s a completely accurate summary of the story.

But there’s a bit more to it than that. For one thing, obviously, the government’s refusal to publicise Goldsmith’s caveats is a story in itself, and a highly discreditable story at that. More importantly, Goldsmith’s 7th March opinion doesn’t just “point out possible problems”. The opinion repeatedly stresses the differences in interpretation between the US and other governments, particularly on the question of whether UN member states could take action against Iraq without waiting for a Security Council resolution (or even a Security Council discussion). It also notes:

Force may be used in self-defence if there is an actual or imminent threat of an armed attack; the use of force must be necessary, ie the only means of averting an attack; and the force used must be a proportionate response. […] in my opinion there must be some degree of imminence. I am aware that the USA has been arguing for recognition of a broad doctrine of a right to use force to pre-empt danger in the future. If this means more than a right to respond proportionately to an imminent attack (and I understand that the doctrine is intended to carry that connotation) this is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognised in international law.

If it were recognised as legal, the doctrine of ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ – essentially a dolled-up version of the Clausewitzian dictum “the best form of defence is attack” – would enable states to take action in their own right, bypassing the whole rigmarole of collective security. It would also bypass the UN and render most of the international law of war moot. Goldsmith duly notes that the doctrine has no standing in international law – but he also notes that the US has been pushing for it.

The significance of this is, of course, that the British government didn’t launch the Iraq invasion, even if it sometimes appears that Blair thinks it did (“I took the decision to remove him”, indeed). Thanks to another well-timed leak, we now know that, as early as July 2002, the British government – Blair, Straw, Goldsmith and all – recognised that Bush intended to depose Saddam Hussein by military means, and intended to “work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action”. In this light, Goldsmith’s March 2003 legal opinion takes on the character of a face-saving (or hand-washing) operation, designed to enable the British government to commit itself to the invasion while dissociating itself from some of the underlying lunacy.

Firstly, the weird and implausible compromise position which the Security Council eventually endorsed is explored at length, in some of the most impenetrable passages of the document. (The US government held, predictably enough, that the Security Council didn’t need to rule on whether Iraq had breached its ceasefire obligations; Goldsmith points out that UN resolutions required the Security Council to consider the issue, but argues that this doesn’t necessarily involve actually reaching an agreed position, let alone passing a second resolution.) The effect is to present the British government as at least a half-hearted friend of the UN, dissociating it from the increasingly unapologetic unilateralism of the Bush government.

Secondly – and, I think, crucially – Goldsmith emphatically rules out military action against Iraq except to enforce UN resolutions: “regime change cannot be the objective of military action”. However, in doing so he tosses Blair a legal figleaf. The relevant paragraph – the last one in the advice – reads, in full:

Finally, I must stress that the lawfulness of military action depends not only on the existence of a legal basis, but also on the question of proportionality. Any force used pursuant to the authorisation in resolution 678 (whether or not there is a second resolution):

— must have as its objective the enforcement the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 (1990) and subsequent relevant resolutions;

— [must] be limited to what is necessary to achieve that objective; and

— must be a proportionate response to that objective, ie securing compliance with Iraq’s disarmament obligations.

That is not to say that action may not be taken to remove Saddam Hussein from power if it can be demonstrated that such action is a necessary and proportionate measure to secure the disarmament of Iraq. But regime change cannot be the objective of military action. This should be borne in mind in considering the list of military targets and in making public statements about any campaign.

The really important sentence here is the last but two. Goldsmith is advising Blair that a military campaign to depose Saddam Hussein – which both Blair and Goldsmith already know to be the objective under consideration – could, given certain tightly-defined circumstances and some ingenious legal arguments, be construed as legal. But this advantage would be forfeited if the true objective of the war – and its genesis in the ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ of the War on Terror – was openly acknowledged.

What’s really interesting about this word to the wise is the use that Blair made of it: none. In the July 2002 minutes, Goldsmith sets out the arguments he would develop at greater length eight months later. War could only be waged under three conditions: in self-defence; to stave off a humanitarian disaster; or in compliance with UN resolutions. The last of these was the only condition which could be taken to apply, and even that was highly debatable. Blair’s response was:

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. […] If the political context were right, people would support regime change.

Blair slides immediately from using WMD as a pretext for regime change to using WMD to justify regime change – even though Goldsmith has just ruled this out. You almost feel sorry for the guy. (If I can feel sorry for a Dalek…) Goldsmithian weaselling is genuinely repugnant to Blair: he never wanted to present the fall of Saddam Hussein as an unexpected by-product of an operation to enforce international law, knowing as he did that it was the object of the exercise (international law or no international law). But the neo-conservative unilateralism which appeals to him isn’t quite available either, if only because it’s a supremely unrewarding doctrine for anyone but the US (there can be only one Top Nation). So we’re left with a government constitutionally committed to saying one thing and doing another, and with a Prime Minister whose response to criticism is to repeat endlessly that we can disagree with him if we like, but that in his job he has to make decisions (with the implication that he had to make those specific decisions).

And we’re left with an illegal war.

Stupido! Chicken-brain!

I don’t think much of Johann Hari; I doubt that statement will surprise many people, and I’m not going to spend good blogging time on an anti-Hari rant. But I am going to say a few words about Johann’s column in today’s Independent – which you can read over at Hari’s Place – and its conclusion in particular, which is… striking, let’s say.

Johann takes the view – and he’s supported by polling by YouGov, no less – that the people of Iraq, by and large, are quite glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and don’t really give a damn whether he had weapons of mass destruction or not. But he’s aware that the invasion was transparently illegal (you know this one: “Any force used pursuant to the authorisation in resolution 678 (whether or not there is a second resolution) must have as its objective the enforcement of the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 … regime change cannot be the objective of military action.” – Peter Goldsmith, 7/3/03). So he tries to reconcile these two positions. Take it away, Johann:

when it comes to legality, you have to answer a basic question: who is sovereign in Iraq? If you believe the Iraqi people are sovereign, then there was no crime, because Iraqis and now their elected government say they wanted the invasion to proceed. You can’t invade the willing. The problem is that currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign. Incredible though it seems, right up until the moment he was forced from power, international law regarded Saddam Hussein’s government as sovereign.

That cannot be right, and that cannot be a law worth defending. I support the idea of international law; but protecting the sovereignty of tyrants – against the will of their people – is a perversion of the benevolent instincts that lead people to seek lawfare not warfare.

(Incidentally – “lawfare not warfare”? Do what?)

This is nonsense on stilts, and dangerous nonsense at that (“currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign” – somebody should take a look at that…) To quote a comment I left on Hari’s site:

Of course
Saddam Hussein’s government was recognised as sovereign – that’s the meaning of the word ‘sovereignty’. International law works on the basis of a world made up of national governments, each of which is sovereign within its own territory; that sovereignty cannot be challenged without very, very good reason. A moment’s thought will tell you why this is, on balance, a Good Idea. It’s certainly better than the alternative, which is allowing any national government to remove any other national government it takes a dislike to, subject only to having the power to do so.

International law is based on a fiction – the fiction of ‘International Society’, a kind of virtual assembly of nation states, each equal before the bar of international law and each according one another the same rights and the same respect. It’s a crude fiction: as well as the obvious imbalances of power between actually-existing nation states, the model is blind to the existence of non-national agencies exerting power within and across nation states, such as trans-national corporations. Nevertheless, it’s powerful; a huge (and ever-growing) body of conventional forms of interaction between governments has grown up on the basis of that fiction. These conventions now have a real power to influence and constrain individual nation states – or, at least, to give an orderly and acceptable form to collective attempts at constraint by other states. (See the discussion here, particularly in the comments.)

Above all, international law is generalisable: it lays down (or aspires to lay down) how any state can and can’t act towards any other. What Hari’s suggesting (or rather, gesturing vaguely towards) is some kind of New World Moral Order, where powerful democratic nation states are free to overthrow undemocratic states so as to liberate the sovereign “people” – who will then be free to invite their liberators in.

Needless to say, this model isn’t generalisable – or rather, generalising it would rip up international law by the roots. For Bush Republicans – who work on the basis that the US is Number One Nation and thus shouldn’t be bound by the same laws as everyone else – this is a feature, not a bug. What Hari’s doing endorsing this stupid and dangerous line of thinking, I really don’t know.

They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

To whom it may concern:

  1. What the Attorney General said (see also the full documents linked here and Brian Barder’s two prescient commentaries)
  2. “…at the stinking heart of what remains of the British body politic”
  3. A catechism for the unconvinced
  4. Adrian Mitchell told you so

For Tomorrow (V) – Beneath the flag of democracy

[Written Friday, eaten by Blogger and rewritten Saturday, revised Sunday, revised again Monday. Must… stop with… the… revisions already…]

You know, I wasn’t going to post about the war. I was going to post about Howard Dean and what Clay Shirky said about him, and about Richard Neville and his inch, and all sorts of nice stuff. I didn’t think the war was all that relevant to the topic of tactical voting. (We need a new phrase, I think. What I’m talking about is much less cynical than tactical voting. Come to that, it’s less cynical – less hold-your-nose-and-do-it-anyway – than voting according to party loyalty. We could call it ‘principled voting’, maybe.)

But I was wrong about the war not being relevant. I was also… well, kind of wrong-ish… about Backing Blair. I still think they’re idiots to suggest voting Tory, but this… now, this is a breath of fresh air. If you haven’t read this, please do. It’s excellent.

I started thinking seriously about the war and the election when I read this thing by Jonathan Freedland. The war has Freedland puzzled; he can’t see what it has to do with the election, which is after all a contest between Labour and the Tories:

Neither the government nor the opposition talk about it much. In contrast with recent elections in Spain and the United States, the two main parties were on the same side over Iraq.

And yet, people keep talking about the war. Well, some people do. Muslims, obviously:

For Mr Raza, Iraq is just one part of a process that began on September 11 2001 and saw him feel newly uncomfortable, even rejected, in a country he had grown to love.

Racism’s bad, m’kay? Better do something about that. Muslims, check. And then there’s That Bloody Man, of course:

In Bethnal Green and Bow in east London, where Respect’s George Galloway is challenging Labour’s Oona King, who backed the war, Iraq is the decisive issue.

And students.

Student towns report high interest too.

I mean, students – what are you going to do? But apart from the Muslims and the students (and That Bloody Man, obviously) it’s really just an issue for the Italian Bread-Eating Classes:

Others draw a distinction between traditional Labour seats, especially in the north, where Iraq is hardly mentioned, and “Guardian reading” constituencies, where it can dominate. Hornsey and Wood Green in north London, where former minister Barbara Roche faces a stiff Lib Dem challenge, is the prime example of the latter.

In the former, said one Labour candidate, the issue surfaces in a less direct form – cited as proof that Mr Blair is out of touch, off pursuing “a baseless diversion” when he should have been sorting out problems at home.

There you are, you see. In proper Labour seats up North, where men are men and nobody’s voted Tory since Albert Tatlock was a lad, they don’t talk about the war. Or rather they do, but not because it was a bad thing as such – just because it’s one of Mr Blair’s “baseless diversions” (bit of a Guardian-reading turn of phrase, that, but let it pass).

Hardly anyone else cares, either. Apart from the Conservative voters:

Tory Nicholas Boles, trying to overturn a Labour majority in Hove, has been struck by the number of elderly, “culturally conservative” voters who raise Iraq.

“It’s mentioned to me much more than I expected,” he said. “They talk of Blair’s lies and Blair’s deceit. Women say ‘it could have been my son.’ There’s definitely real anger there.”

And the Labour activists:

Mr Boles’s Labour opponent, Celia Barlow, is opposed to the war: if she wasn’t, Mr Boles speculates that Hove’s Labour activists would not be stretching too many sinews to get her elected.

Hardly anyone, really. Freedland sums up:

Labour is feeling it most keenly – among its activists, but also among what party tacticians call its “intelligentsia” vote, among students and among Muslims.

(But apart from that, when did the Romans mention the war?)

Elsewhere it is symbolic of a much larger theme: trust in the prime minister.

Finally, we reach the crux of the biscuit. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never trusted the blighters, but it’s taken me a while to understand this. The point is, war is the ultimate trust issue. What a war boils down to, in terms of our relationship with our government, is simple: They declare a war, and We go out and get killed. It’s hardly surprising if We insist on Them telling us exactly why it’s a good idea.

And that’s just what hasn’t happened. Instead, we’ve had a war whose justification actually changed while it was being fought. We’ve had an invasion which has killed… well, nobody actually knows how many people, but a lot; really rather a lot. And we’ve had a plan for regime change which seems to have been designed as a kind of macabre homage to the Underpants Gnome business model – except that in this case they can’t even tell us what stage 3 is. Iraq is the hippopotamus in the room (one of them, anyway); the way it’s currently being ignored by all the major parties is genuinely shocking as well as being disgraceful. If an initiative like this can do something to change that, I’m all for it.

Because the people who took this country into Iraq aren’t just asking us to ignore what they did; they’re actually asking us to put our trust in them all over again. The fact that those people are New Labour makes it all the more blatant – New Labour’s all about trust. Or rather, it’s about trust, ruthlessly efficient machine politics, Economist-reading power-worship and motivational-poster managerialism – but the greatest of these is trust. You could sum up the basic proposition in one line: “It’s not Old Labour. It’ll work. Trust me.”

The trouble with this is that if you lose trust, you’ve lost everything. From a purely tactical standpoint, for Blair to stake his biggest asset on Iraq was a huge gamble. Even Martin Kettle seems to have picked up on this, as far as you can make it out through the clouds of incense:

Labour’s election in 1997 (and to some extent in 2001) was a collective attempt, articulated by and through the uniquely qualified person of Blair, to reassert some sense of lost community and nationhood amid the disintegration. If that is so, then Labour’s great tragedy is to have disappointed that yearning – and the Iraq war was the pivotal moment in that process.

But Blair is a gambler – and at this election he’s playing for double or quits. Reading the Independent interview Nick quoted, what struck me was just how little Blair was actually conceding. He won’t assume that every Labour voter backed the war, fair enough. The real question is whether he will recognise the possibility that we were right and he was wrong. There’s no sign of that in the interview – just the usual moralistic squid-ink that Blair produces whenever his decisions are questioned (you know the kind of thing – …I’m honest enough to accept that I may have been wrong, but I would hope that people would recognise that I sincerely believed…). Ted Honderich skewered this stuff in the Guardian a few weeks ago:

“He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,” he spits. “He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.”

Be that as it may, if Blair’s government gets re-elected with a workable majority, Blair isn’t going to see it as his cue to introduce PR, abolish the monarchy and bring back Jackanory. He’s going to see it as a vote of confidence in his government, past and present – Iraq included. More to the point, that’s how it will be seen by a lot of other people – to the point where, a few years down the line, that will have been part of what it meant. As Norm says, “Election results have a way of affecting what it makes sense to go on saying, and what it doesn’t.” If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.

Is that what you want? Because that, frankly, is what’ll happen.

One word: Iraq.

%d bloggers like this: