Over the Iraq war debate – my kind were hated by all sides


by Sunny Hundal    
9:21 am - February 21st 2013

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Ten years after the big march against the war in Iraq, I’m reminded again how my kind are still excluded from the debate about what happened and where we go from here.

On one hand are the absolute anti-interventionists (Stop the War Coalition et al) who aren’t shy in expressing their righteous anger and calling others war-criminals. On the other side are those who still say it was the right thing to do, and their critics are just idealistic fools.

My kind are those who aren’t always against humanitarian intervention abroad, but still saw the invasion of Iraq as a frenzied fraud whipped up by the establishment without sufficient care for innocent Iraqi lives. I also marched in London that day, like a million others, against the war in Iraq. It was obvious to me that the entire operation – from the reasoning to the hurried nature to the invasion – was a sham. I opposed it in every way. But I partly marched because I felt it would detract from operations in Afghanistan – which I supported (I explained why here). I wanted the Taliban to be ousted and a democratic government elected in Afghanistan, and it was obvious that Blair’s promise that “we will never forget Afghanistan” would itself be forgotten. But the fact we are still excluded from this debate matters for the future.

Ten years on there are silly arguments being made on both sides. Laurie Penny and Owen Jones say it alienated a generation of people from politics. There’s an element of confirmation bias here – because people around them say it, they believe it. But that view is not borne out by polling.

But the dwindling band of usual suspects who are still trying to justify what happened sound even more deluded. Fraser Nelson for example says if the opponents of Iraq had their way, “Afghanistan still would be run by the Taleban”. But the invasion of Afghanistan was legally justifiable, properly ratified by the UN and had widespread international support. The invasion of Iraq had none of those things. It had moral force, the invasion of Iraq did not.

The reason why my kind are hated by both sides, and excluded from the debate, is because we pose uncomfortable questions that neither side want to confront. And for the media such nuance is too difficult to handle now, as it was then .

There is only one central point to make: we fucked up and hundreds of thousands of people got killed as a result. From that, flow the questions: what can we learn from our failures? How did we get fooled so comprehensively? And what about the media outlets who willingly fed the lies? A debate about whether it was right or wrong now is just noise.

And more importantly – how does this inform our future? Do we want Britain to become fully isolationist and not engage in any intervention whatsoever? Because intervention worked in liberating Bangladesh from the massacres of the Pakistani army. It would have saved lives in Cambodia, Congo, Rwanda and countless other places around the world. Intervention is the reason why Libyans marched in support of the Americans; why Malians cheered the French for getting rid of Al-Qaeda.

On the other hand if your only lesson from the Iraq debacle is a tentative ‘we could have done it a bit better‘ (by Labour’s Jim Murphy) – then you’re still wasting everyone’s time because you haven’t learnt anything – and the public won’t trust you next time.

My kind did not offer an easy caricature to either side, which is perhaps why we were ignored or hated by both sides. But if we are learn from the mistakes of Iraq ten years on, it is my kind that need to be the most prominent in this debate. We need to have an intelligent debate about the future, but like ten years ago we are still being denied it.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


Of all the victims of the last ten years, it’s especially important that we remember Sunny. He’s lost so much. #prayforSunny

I’m one of your ‘kind’ Sunny, and my hunch is that a majority of the marchers on 15.ii.MMIII were of a similar mind. Not against all wars, just (in the words of Senator Barack Obama) against “dumb wars”. The “frenzied fraud” as you put it.

But I disagree that we are ‘hated’. Your language of ‘my kind’ seems to take identity politics a step too far. I think that people like us are simply ignored, because a position that are equivocal and openly tentative are less convenient to argue against. We anti-Iraq-war types were guilty of that too. We ignore and ignored those with equally guarded ‘pro’ views, in favour of the assertive, certain, doubt free ideologues.

I must say that I think both sides learnt their lessons from Iraq. There was much less certainty, much more tentativity and equivocation in the discussion over whether to intervene in Libya, Syria and Mali. And 10 years on, the conversation about what we have and can achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan seems much less bold and much more pragmatic, than the crusading Bush/Blair rhetoric of the early noughties.

I largely agree. The interventions in the Balkans were justified and prevented the spread of the conflict and its associated crimes. The Iraq farce has made such interventions more difficult.

I was equivocal about invading Iraq. Saddam and his regime were vile and likely to get worse, but there must be better ways of dealing with brutes such as them.

Given the state of our armed forces this is pretty academic now. We’d have to be in a coalition to carry out similar interventions. The question to me now is the state of our government that led to the fraud has or has not changed. I’m particularly concerned about our secret services that face so manny accusations of illegality.

excluded from the debate

?

OT, but just on the issue Penny raises about the marchers being ‘ignored’: isn’t it the case that, rather than Parliament “betraying” or “ignoring” the marchers, perhaps it was the marchers who had unrealistic and/or ‘unconstitutional’ expectations?

We live in a representative democracy, for better or worse.

“On the other hand if your only lesson from the Iraq debacle is a tentative ‘we could have done it a bit better‘ (by Labour’s Jim Murphy) – then you’re still wasting everyone’s time because you haven’t learnt anything – and the public won’t trust you next time.”

Precisely. Unfortunately the lessons that can be learnt are very uncomfortable (both for politicians and the press) and they don’t want to learn them. Murphy is still desperate to fell accepted by people like the HJS and isn’t going to give a speech pointing out how their ideas have taken a battering in the last 10 years.

For example, 10 years ago Blair was trying to sell to the Labour Party the idea of an alliance with the USA on the basis that the UK could influence the USA, that we were partners, that the USA would listen to the UK. The story of the invasion completely disproves these assumptions. Throughout Blair was riding pillion, but accepting this fact would require big changes in the way that our political establishment works. It’s an idea that is just too uncomfortable to accept. It’s easier to set up a false deabte with George Galloway or Richard Seymour.

Yes I would agree with most of this. Unfortunately, people tend to polarise into pro-and anti-war factions without anything between. It makes me wonder how many anti-war activists would have supported a more militant stand to Hitler, and us declaring to war in 1939.

It is a fact that Osama Bi n laden was involved in 9/11 attacks, the Taliban were sheltering him in Afghanistan, and there were terrorist training camps situated there. In addition to these factors which could influence the West, there were also repressive activities against the population, particularly women.

Although the invasion of Afghanistan was poorly executed without the mountain passes being sealed off it was morally justified in my opinion. It doesn’t require a detailed knowledge of history to guess the weaker force would try and retreat over the border of a different jurisdiction, regroup, and then impose a guerrilla war of attrition. These factors should have been planned for and prevented from the outset. If they couldn’t have been executed efficiently we shouldn’t have gone.

Iraq was morally unjustified due to the use of false or exaggerated assumptions, although we mustn’t forget Saddam was a tyrant. On a practical level it was a major diversion of resources that was surely needed in Afghanistan which unlike Iraq ticked all the boxes in justifying action.

Fraser Nelson for example says if the opponents of Iraq had their way, “Afghanistan still would be run by the Taleban”.

Which of course is pricless drivel seeig as his political philosophy brought Saddam to power in Iraq. (After sending him to sandhurst for training) and

Trained Bin Laden at West point before putting him into Afghanistan with his Islamist brothers.

Still Dick Cheney made a fortune out of the wars, along with many neo cons. Which is what it was really about. Even Blair made a fortune out of it. But it’s ok because Blair only answers to his imaginary cloud man.

9. the a&e charge nurse

The OP raises two main questions.

[1] was the invasion in Afghanistan justified, or even legal?
The answer is clearly no – there was never a UN or NATO mandate for invasion – 3 of the countries involved in the first military action were not even NATO members, and 2 soon withdrew (France and Germany) due to a lack of popular support for an illegal war.

Anyway, all of this meddling in other countries by the US long predates Afghanistan – I’m afraid you simply sound like somebody who either doesn’t know, or fails to understand how sinister american foreign policy has always been.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bFOhAAYfqk

[2] The second element implies there should there be an international police service to reign in nasty regimes whenever they draw attention to themselves for flaunting human rights just a little too freely.
I think the answer to this one is yes, in theory, but no in practice, because the main enforcers are tarnished by their own convert agenda and invariably use such enterprises to feed their own corporate and political needs (selling arms, acquiring contracts, getting a foothold in a country for geopolitical reasons, etc) – this and the fact the capacity for human rights abuses are widespread one you start looking (Burma, Chad, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, etc, etc) – obviously it would not be easy to police or invade them all.

By the way, what have you learnt that we did not already know?

Blimey that may be the most sensible thing I’ve read about this in ages.

I agree with this article and I think that most people are one of your ‘kind’, Sunny.

12. the a&e charge nurse

[12] most people were pro-invasion of afghanistan without UN or NATO mandate – are you sure about this?

You know what happens when you sit on the fence? You get splinters in your arse.

There is no such thing as humanitarian intervention. Imperialism is entirely self-serving. The invasion of Iraq wasn’t to get rid of tyranny in the state but to get rid of a tyrant. He has been replaced by a new more pro-West tyranny and in the meantime hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died in the sectarian civil war that the invasion inevitably and deliberately unleashed. Even sadder is that those 100s of thousands could now be participating in the secular, democratic Arab Spring.

Of course the Libyan revolutionaries were correct to take advantage of the imperialist intervention to press home their rebellion against the repulsive Gadaffi and the StWC was completely wrong to demonstrate against an action ostensibly launched to save the people of Benghazi but it would have been equally wrong to describe that intervention as `humanitarian’ when it was entirely self-serving. We have seen how the liberal imperialists have liberated people from tyranny in the past from Dresden to Hiroshima to Baghdad it’s been one war crime after another.

Mali is no humanitarian intervention. They are mopping up the consequences of selling Gadaffi all those guns after he’d signed over all Libya’s oil.

“Absolute anti-interventionists (Stop the War Coalition et al)”

Oddly they’re silent about Russian involvement in Syria…

I’m unclear about the suggestion that you are excluded from the debate. What on earth does this mean?

16. the a&e charge nurse

I am troubled by the idea anybody believes the US could get it so catastrophically wrong in Iraq, yet maintain credibility for the war in Afghanistan since both came from the same polluted well.

Why has nobody in the west not been brought to account – I suppose the moral of the story is that if Kissinger can get away with it any high ranking american official can.

17. Man on Clapham Omnibus

Interesting to note the flexible definitions of interventionist versus isolationist which seem to be entirely dependant on the result. Iraq = Bad Bangladesh = Good. Nice to know that imperialism is alive and well.

Whatever happened to the right of self determination.

“Oddly they’re silent about Russian involvement in Syria…”

Erm, what relevance does this have? Are anti-interventionists supposed to demand our government intervene to stop other people doing so? That would be stupid.

“Even sadder is that those 100s of thousands could now be participating in the secular, democratic Arab Spring.”

You had me there. Up to that line I thought you were being serious.

Sally says: “Which of course is pricless drivel seeig as his political philosophy brought Saddam to power in Iraq. (After sending him to sandhurst for training) and

Trained Bin Laden at West point before putting him into Afghanistan with his Islamist brothers. ”

Only, errr, Saddam Hussein didn’t attend Sandhurst. And Bin Laden didn’t attend West Point. And the west didn’t place Bin Laden in Afghanistan. And the west didn’t put Saddam into power in Iraq. She then continues:-

“Still Dick Cheney made a fortune out of the wars, along with many neo cons. Which is what it was really about. ”

Only, whilst there are undoubtedly many questions regarding cronyism and corruption to be answered by Cheney from his time at VP, most of his fortune came from before he was VP, including a £36 million dollar severance package when he retired from Halliburton in 2000.

So, one vague half point and the rest, the usual conspiracist nonsense.

I can’t say I really have a lot of sympathy with your plight. You represent the mainstream, Guardian-Independent point of view shared by the majority of opponents of the war. The only people who hated you were the pro-war fascist mob who branded any critics of the war as appeasers of fascism or some such other shit.

Man on Clapham Omnibus: Interesting to note the flexible definitions of interventionist versus isolationist which seem to be entirely dependant on the result. Iraq = Bad Bangladesh = Good. Nice to know that imperialism is alive and well.

Whatever happened to the right of self determination.

I’m not even sure what this means. Of course every conflict is different – I’ve already said I’m not instinctively on one side. I look at the case and make up my mind.

In 1971 the Pakistani army went into present-day Bangladesh to quell an uprising and mass-raped 10s of 1000s of women and massacred 10s of 1000s of men. Bangladesh only got independence because India stepped in and attacked Pakistani forces. Every Bangladeshi recognises this.

If you’re willing to stand by and watch 10s of 1000s of people get massacred against a superior force in the name of self-determination, then that’s up to you. It’s not my brand of politics however.

23. the a&e charge nurse

[23] yes, and if you know your history you will know that the US, especially Kissinger had blood on their hands after this atrocity as well.
http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Kissinger/Bangladesh_TOHK.html

In this letter to the Guardian on 7 March 2003, almost a fortnight prior to the invasion of Iraq on 20 March and the beginning of hostilities, these eminent academic teachers of international law had no doubts about whether the war would be illegal or not:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,3604,909275,00.html

In Blair’s keynote speech in Chicago in April 1999, he had said:

“If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.”

You are spot on Sunny and I intend to write about this as soon as openDemocracy’s funding is secured, at least enough to make sure it does not close. The point is that you made a judgement, a wise one. Oddly enough you were in very good company. Barak Obama, John le Carré, Robin Cook, President Chirac, Chancellor Schroeder, Joschka Fischer and that’s just some of the men. There were a lot of us who were against “dumb wars”. Today, those who supported the war then and say if only they knew then what they know now they wouldn’t have (eg David Miliband, Ed Balls, Cameron has said nothing that I know of) can’t bring themselves to admit that it wasn’t hard and that we were right. they try to suggest that everyone who opposed the war was a head-banger.

“Oddly enough you were in very good company.”

This BBC news report from March 2003 shows the names of MPs who voted for the rebel amendment to the Blair government’s motion for the war:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2862397.stm

Good article
I think many of us agree.
For instance liberal intervention in Sierra Leone and the Balkans were correct.
Even at the start of the Iraq war I felt it was a correct decision.
But over the war and certainly now it feels like a war of economic conquest.
I really felt that when Iraqi trades unionists were arrested by the US backed government complaining that their oil fields were been sold to US oil companies

28. the a&e charge nurse

[25] which war are you actually talking about – sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the americans starting so many.

By the way is obama threatening war against iran yet?
“Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. That is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/09/obam-s26.html

Perhaps it might be a case of third time lucky?

Anthony @25:

Robin Cook’s resignation speech in the Commons was one of the few times I’ve been genuinely proud of the place in a long time.

30. the a&e charge nurse

[29] Cooky may have acted honourably, but our expectations of MPs are so dismally low that we expect little more from them, despite them taking us into 2 illegal, and interminable wars.

I wonder if the Chilcot inquiry will ever be concluded, or if any senior british figure will be held to account for their part in the bloodbath?

Seems unlikely given high-ups have not even sanctioned access to intelligence documents which presumably highlight the real motives for buddying up to dubya before the US unloaded on eye-rak?

What really sickened me was reading news reports at the time saying British troops were being sent into Iraq without protection against chemical warfare and other WMD, supposedly the very reason for invading Iraq. That really showed how much Blair cared for the welfare of our armed forces.

32. So Much for Subtlety

22. Sunny Hundal

If you’re willing to stand by and watch 10s of 1000s of people get massacred against a superior force in the name of self-determination, then that’s up to you. It’s not my brand of politics however.

But it is the mainstream Left’s brand. After all when America saw tens of thousands of people being massacred in Vietnam, they intervened. They lost. Because the Left came out and marched to make sure Pol Pot was free to massacre whomever he wanted. When America saw Saddam do the same, they intervened. The Left protested. The Left is consistently on the side of torturers and mass murderers. And they consistently oppose the West doing anything about it. Not just the Hard Left, but all the Left.

So I don’t see the difference – what makes Bangladesh so special that it is worth defending. Unless you are doing this retrospectively: intervention that turns out to have worked is good later on, but all intervention is bad at the time it is being proposed?

33. Anthony Barnett

Sorry to disappoint you ‘So much’ but the Americans spent some years supporting Pol Pot

34. So Much for Subtlety

33. Anthony Barnett

Sorry to disappoint you ‘So much’ but the Americans spent some years supporting Pol Pot

No they did not. I assume the Left needs to believe this nonsense because it absolves them of guilt is some way for making the Killing Fields possible – cheering it on in fact. The Americans rejected the illegal invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese government. They continued to support the King of Cambodia in his opposition to that invasion. Unfortunately the King, who caused so many of the problems of Cambodia by his alliances with various Communist groups, chose to align himself with what was left of the Khmer Rouge. That does not make the American government allies of the Khmer Rouge and it does not mean they supported them. Indeed only America and the West played a consistent role in working to make sure the leadership of the Khmer Rouge would face justice.

35. Anthony Barnett

Well, ‘So much’, now YOU are defending Pol Pot – against the “illegal invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese government”. For me it is neat that this issue comes up here as that invasion taught me that it could be right to support such actions on principle, as Sunny argues about his original support for Afghanistan. I crossed the border into Cambodia in 1980, a year after the invasion which the Vietnamese had ordered after Pol Pot (encouraged by the Chinese) refused to demilitarise their border. With the right to money, religious belief, family life, living in towns and the end of forced labour as their programme the Vietnamese were welcomed relative to Pol Pot, “at least they do not genocide us”, a Cambodian told me, as we photocopied the evidence of torture and forced confessions in Tuol Sleng, later published in the New Statesman. Meanwhile, as we spoke, the US and China were funding and arming the Pol Pot remnants. Later I watched their diplomats supported by the UK’s ensure that these hated killers retained their place at the UN assembly. Don’t tell me that the US was on the side of legality! As for the Killing Fields, to use your cliché, there were precipitated as everyone accepts by the American bombing of Cambodia when Sihanouk, for all his faults, was trying to keep it out of the Vietnam war.


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