Sorry, that's OUR light on the hill

In 2003, I was a supporter of intervention in Iraq (apart with Michael Costello and my friend Macgregor, it’s hard to think of many other Australian leftists who took the same view). Knowing what we know now, intervening was a bad idea. But policy is made with the information available, and given the information then available, I still think Blair, Bush and Howard made the right call.

Still, there were then many good reasons for opposing intervention in Iraq, and there are more now. And then there are bad reasons for opposing intervention. One of the strangest is the notion that it is arrogant to help countries move towards democracy. Here’s Neville Wran, in today’s SMH:

We did, in fact, fight a great war to make the world “safe for democracy”, as we were told. This was 1914 to 1918.

In less than two decades, the democracy we were supposed to have established in Europe – in the very heartland of Western civilisation – had been destroyed; in Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria and, above all, Germany.

Just three years ago, at the start of the war against Iraq, the American writer Norman Mailer wrote in his pamphlet Why Are We at War? these prophetic words: “Democracy is never there, in us, to create in another country, by the force of our will. Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries. You can’t play with it. You can’t assume we’re going over there to show them what a great system we have. This is monstrous arrogance.” 

First, it’s a stretch to argue that WWI was a battle for democracy. That was Wilson’s rallying call to Congress in 1917, but the real justification for WWI was the balance of power in Europe. If you want to identify a pro-democracy war, you’d be thinking about Roosevelt’s support of the allies in WWII, but that doesn’t fit so neatly into Wran’s argument.

Second, I’m old enough to recall a time when one of the signal features of the left was a belief that the world could be made into a better place. A version of social democracy that involves caring only for the wellbeing people inside your national borders, and “jealously guarding” your values, is a sad husk of a philosophy.

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23 Responses to Sorry, that's OUR light on the hill

  1. Sacha says:

    I always found myself ambivalent about Iraq – I never understood the huge reaction against the invasion – and still, I can’t say whether I’m for or against it. I did find Michael Costello’s column at the start (or before) of the war convincing, though. I am in favour of removing dreadful regimes – the problem is in determining when they’re dreadful enough. Saddam certainly qualified! The problem is then working out how to do it, which can be really hard.

    ‘Second, I’m old enough to recall a time when one of the signal features of the left was a belief that the world could be made into a better place. A version of social democracy that involves caring only for the wellbeing people inside your national borders, and “jealously guarding” your values, is a sad husk of a philosophy.’

    I agree – national borders are a pretty poor place (reason) to stop one’s concern.

  2. Russell Hamilton says:

    Same rationale for the CIA meddling in other countries affairs ?

    In 30 years time we might have superpower China not letting our national borders get in the way of their concern. Don’t you have any regard for the UN – for international law ?

  3. Caroline Armstrong says:

    Remind me of the ‘information then available’? I presume that you are not referring to the linkage between 9-11 and Iraq that the Bush administration successfully pushed in their own country.

    There was no information to support and of the various reasons put forward by the US on why it was going to invade Iraq. Attempts were made to deceive the citizens of the world into thinking that our governments were relying on ‘information’ but that was all it was, lies. Those who pointed out that the information was being ‘sexed up’ were subject to ridicule, faced with the loss of their jobs and, in some cases and against the law, were exposed to danger.

    The decision was taken. No arguments, no ifs, buts or concerns for the Iraqi people or the increased instability in the Middle East. Blair was told what was going to happen and Australia has been allowed to play a small role too. Howard expressly stated that if it was just a case of Saddam being a bad dictator he would not support regime change. It was all about those WMDs. Which weren’t there.

    As the information available indicated to many people.

  4. Sacha says:

    Here’s a question – what circumstances, if any, warrant an outside state’s intervention into another state’s affairs? This is a difficult question to consider. What if the moral case for intervention is completely compelling but there is no legal basis for it? These are not rhetorical questions designed to support one or another position about the Iraq war – they’re real questions.

    What balance, if any, can be achieved between civilian deaths and the removal of an awful regime? Or between the number of deaths under the old regime and the smaller number of unintentional deaths in the shift to a new better regime? (Tony Abbott used this argument from memory, which struck me as repugnant – balancing lives in this way).

    I am not in favour of states being completely immune from doing awful things to their populations. How do we ensure this?

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    Caroline, the bulk of evidence at the time suggested that Saddam had WMDs, which is why even war opponents like Chirac said that they thought he had them. The evidence was overplayed to the public, but I find it hard to believe the conspiracy theories that said that BBH knew all along that there was nothing there.

    Russell, there’s nothing sacrosanct about national borders. I think the interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan were both on balance good. It sounds like neither you nor Neville Wran would have intervened in Kosovo when Clinton did (remember that at the time the UN SC had not approved intervention).

  6. Sure, an Arab tribal culture is not the most promising place to start a democracy. But I think Andrew L makes a good point here – since when is the left (or the right, for that matter) a defender of Arab tribal culture and the corrupt authoritarian states it has created to date?

    Also, these arguments have a depressing similarity to the arguments long made against extending the franchise to the poor and to women: that they are not ready for it, that they won’t use their votes responsibly, that they are not capable of holding high office etc. All these concerns have been proven to be exaggerated at least, if not entirely without foundation.

    From my own right-of-centre perspective, the radical left supporting Saddam has a certain honesty to it. As we have long maintained, there is a totalitarian logic to their ideas. But social democrats can do better.

  7. Caroline Armstrong says:

    Hi Andrew, I was living in London at the time and over there the evidence was not presented as certain. Many people in the UK saw the changing arguments as a disturbing basis on which to bomb a country. Certainly the resignations of intelligence officials who maintained that there were no WMDs and that there was no legal basis for this war helped to convince me that it was as if a decision had been taken and we were on the way, non stop, to this war.
    Friends here in Australia said they hadn’t heard about all the allegations of falsifying reports (plaguarising old essays found on the Internet as the UK govt did) and silencing of official dissent. Perhaps Chirac was taken in by Powell’s UN presentation too but anyone who had already read about the other faked documents shouldn’t have been.

  8. Peter says:

    I don’t know about Australia, but in the UK and the USA, the most compelling argument for the invasion of Iraq was never made to the public. This argument was that war was needed to preclude the event that Iraq would collaborate with terrorists to use WMDs in a 9/11 style terror attack. This event, the west’s leaders knew, was of low probability but its consequences would have been catastrophic. For some reason, both the Bush and Blair administrations did not feel able to make this argument to the public. This seems odd to me. I think it is a perfectly good argument, and compelling.

    You may be interested to read this article:

    Jeffrey Goldberg: “The C.I.A. and the Pentagon take another look at Al Qaeda and Iraq.” The New Yorker, 2003-02-10.

    In addition, in Britain, there was another argument made by Tony Blair, although rarely in public: That for the USA to enter this war alone would intensify isolationist sentiment within the US, and anti-American sentiment outside it, and so other countries needed to stand alongside the US in this war.

  9. Russell Hamilton says:

    “nothing sacrosanct about national borders” ?? so the Indonesians could just start including the north of Australia in their transmigration program?

    Who’s going to decide who has the ‘right’ motive for regime-changing another country? In the case of Iraq very many people weren’t convinced that the US had the pure and noble motive of bringing democracy to Iraq – it was all mixed up with oil and protecting Israel and extending US influence in the Middle East.

  10. Ben Ticehurst says:

    I was another fence sitter with Iraq intervention before the event. It does seem that the invasion was the easy bit but the forging of a peaceful, stable society remains elusive. Needs some time perhaps.

    Sacha – regarding: ” what circumstances, if any, warrant an outside state’s intervention into another state’s affairs? ” – although this is a bloody big question to chew over there is a long history of scholarship regarding “just war theory”. Take a look here:

    Andrew L – re: “One of the strangest is the notion that it is arrogant to help countries move towards democracy.” – Love that turn of phrase “help countries move towards”. Can think of other less polite ways of describing the brutal act of war. Perhaps we might help China move towards democracy : ) in the same way – hmm maybe not.

    Andrew N – there is a view that there are very specific and delicate pre-conditions required for democracy to take root in a society. Perhaps we should look more closely for these before deciding on a one size its all approach to regime change. If the likelihood of success is very low, the cost of war may not be justified. At any rate, I believe we in the West are a long way from achieving a democratic system which lives up to literal meaning of democracy: “the common people rule”. Should we impose Swiss style direct democracy or US style representative democracy?

    These are difficult areas. I’m not a cultural relativist. I do believe there are times when we should intervene in other nation’s affairs though I am a little concerned about the way the phrase “democracy” is paraded with a sort of religious zeal in the US. Socrates would be most upset.

  11. Sacha says:

    Bloody hell – I typed a comment in and lost it!

    Thanks Ben, it’s an interesting link.

    Here’s a question – at what point in a govts behaviour should intervention happen? (partly covered in the wiki link)

    Something I’ve picked up amongst people on the left, is that they’re happy to debate any decision to intervene, which is fine and great, but I wonder if they’d ever be able to make a decision to intervene, even in absolutely extreme cases. “They”, of course, are a huge number of people with different ideas, but my impression is that intervention is a big no-no word. This is a mistake (as could be my impression!)

    About national borders – in usual times, of course they’re important, but they’re not sacred.

  12. Christine says:

    Very courageous Andrew (in the Yes Minister sense).

    I’m with you on the idea that completely giving up on the idea that the world can be made a better place is a bit sad. But there are a whole lot of ways other than a full out invasion of another country in an already unstable part of the world to get rid of a regime that you once helped support when most of the world is against you and the ostensible reasons you give to justify the invasion are pretty dodgy.

    Here’s my big concern: people who want the world to be a better place may support invasions of other countries to get rid of nasty regimes, but if we are not running the show, it’s not at all clear our goals are going to be achieved. I do not really understand the motivations of the US administration for going into Iraq, but it certainly didn’t seem to involve a desire to install democracy, given that seems to have been little pre-invasion planning for that. Not surprising then that it hasn’t been working out so well, given that the people who run the show didn’t seem to care about it. Maybe it’s working out really well on some other criterion that I don’t know about?

    Sacha: cost-benefit analysis! Doesn’t matter just how bad the particular government is, it matters whether there’s anything you can do that has a good chance of making it better. The problem is the whole thing is just so incredibly complicated there’ll probably never be complete agreement on any individual case.

  13. Andrew Norton says:

    Ben – I would not have supported a war to instal democracy in Iraq – not because I want to consign the Iraqis to Saddam’s rule, but because politically we cannot sacrifice Western soldiers to save a people most Westerners don’t care much about. But if a regime is removed, we need to replace it with something, and I can’t see that another authoritarian regime is the way to go, as the left implicitly argues. We can’t expect a great democracy in Iraq, but we can at least hope for a state with more restraint in its murderous activities than we’ve seen previously. Churchill’s remark about democracy being the worst system except for all the others seems apt.

  14. Andrew Leigh says:

    Ben & Christine, I agree entirely that this is a very very hard cost-benefit calculation. But we on the left have historically been willing to make such decisions, putting weight on the welfare of those outside our national boundaries. If social democracy doesn’t mean internationalism, it means nothing.

  15. Sacha says:

    Christine – of course it’s a matter of whether the outcome of an intervention is better than what was there previously – working this out (or attempting to) is no doubt very difficult (and horrible complicated as you mention). But that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t or can’t try.

  16. Mork says:

    Andrew – I think there’s an aspect of Wran’s argument that you’re ignoring, which that whatever the rights and wrongs, our own experience with democracy should have taught us the practical near-impossibility of transplanting it by force.

    You could argue that this is really the key thing that should have been obvious to us all before the Iraq invasion (I know, I know – we were incessantly pointed towards Germany and Japan – but the cultural, historical and circumstantial differences between the Iraq invasion and the end of WW2 should have made that comparison laughable).

    I say “should have” because, to my shame, I was a supporter of the invasion at the time. Now, I can’t imagine why anyone thought that anyone, let alone the U.S. military, would be able to create a civil society robust enough to support a democratic national government, fast enough to contain the various cross-currents among the different groups in Iraq. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of hindsight bias there, but this was a lesson that I think became apparent very quickly indeed.

    I also think you are somewhat off-base in saying that the bulk of the evidence at the time favored the existence of WMDs. That may have been true in late 2002, but by February 2003, the U.N. inspections had systematically disproved a great deal of the U.S. and other intelligence on WMDs. Go back and read Hans Blix’s reports from that time. This is why war supporters chose to demonize Blix as a bumbler or worse: if they permitted his reports to be taken seriously, the case for war evaporated.

    To put it simply, if the U.S. and British governments had been honest about what they knew and did not know at the time of the invasion, it could never have occured.

  17. derrida derider says:

    Yeah, what mork said. In early 2002 it was forgiveable for we punters on the ground to believe in the WMDs. It may even have been forgiveable for Prime Ministers to believe in them then, given what the Americans were saying.

    But if you still believed this nonsense in 2003 you weren’t paying attention. And it was always crystal clear that Bush’s way is to change the rationale for policy in the light of new facts, rather than change the policy. This stuff about “I only went to war as a last resort” was and is a bald-faced lie. He belongs in the dock in the Hague.

    For an entertaining summary of why you should have known better, read this.

  18. Geoff R says:

    I doubt many on both sides of this debate will come out well, too many have thought it was an opportunity to score points rather than engage with the horrors of the real world. But Iraq democracy is dying in part because a small and ruthless minority have pursued a strategy of political polarisation via terror with the expectation that this will bolster their numbers to a level where they can impose their will on the majority. Potentially this is working, how do defenders of democracy respond to this new political technique? From suicide bombing to the Pacific solution we live in an age of political innovation and progress. Is the only option to accept a countervailing dictatorship of the majority? As well of course the US has never wanted a sovereign Iraqi government.

  19. AlanDownunder says:

    Who were the isolationists when Clinton went extraterritorial? To what party does Blair belong? There was nothing left-right about knowing why Bush was wrong. But there is definitely something left-right in still not knowing why.

  20. I remember thinking at the time that Iraq might work out. But that is just because like everyone else, I didn’t expect to see the Berlin Wall fall, or Mandela released. So amazing and wonderful surprises happen. Maybe, I reasoned, they’ll happen in Iraq.

    But it seemed so hare brained, so irresponsibly hyped up, so arbitrary and trumped (why were we attacking then and at no other time in the previous 12 years?). And while I don’t subscribe to the “George Bush is so stupid and isn’t it all so funny” school of interpretation, I knew in my bones that Bush was at the very best a complete amateur at what he was doing – and that’s putting it kindly.

    So at the time the war seemed madness to me. And to genuine conservatives like Fukuyama and Harries. Why can’t we have a few more genuine conservatives?

  21. Sacha says:

    Just on Nicholas’s post: people have lambasted George W. Bush and laughed at him – to me this isn’t a useful way of considering his actions/policies. To me he’s a fairly usual US nationalist looking to maintain US interests overseas with a (comparatively radical) idealist strain and a too underdeveloped sense of reality or foresight. I know this is off-topic, but I just felt like writing it.

  22. derrida derider says:

    Sacha, Bush’s “underdeveloped sense of reality” has cost well over 100,000 lives in Iraq – and foreseeably so. I couldn’t care less whether he mangles the English language or not – I’m more concerned at the real evil this spoiled frat boy, a man only comfortable with sycophants and who had a very dubious track record even before he got to the presidency, has caused. He’s not to be laughed at at all.

  23. I agree with most of what Mork said.

    I assumed at the time of the invasion that there must have been WMDs present – (part of my irritating habit of assuming that political leaders wouldn’t lie about somehting that important). Even then I thought that an invasion was a bad idea that would be highly likely to fail.

    Even if they were right about WMDs, it was still a high risk approach. To find out after the fact that the ‘evidence’ about the existence of WMDs was constructed to fit a pre-determined intent to invade makes me want to call for war crime indictments. I can only imagine how it makes the millions of Iraqis affected by the ongoing consequences of the invasion feel.

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