'I know you are going to be outraged,' a member of the Bush administration told me. 'But a violent upsurge may be what is needed to bring about change and awareness of change. The wars in the 20th century, after all, created the democracies in Europe.' These chilling words seem to me to epitomise the mood I encountered in Washington on a recent visit there. The mood was messianic, ideological and supremely confident; the goal to reshape the Middle East. Repressive, undemocratic regimes could no longer be tolerated for three reasons: terrorism, which is bred in such circumstances; the need to protect Israel; and the security of oil supply. The aim was to establish a model democracy in Iraq, one that could radiate outwards. As one enthusiast put it, war in Iraq would be a 'transformative event.'
When Bush decided to take the UN route, he said disarmament of Iraq would amount to 'regime change'. Then his acolytes began to argue that Saddam Hussein himself was the main weapon of mass destruction.
It is not just the zeal that was striking; it was also the optimism. War would be short with not too many casualties. Then the US would rule Iraq as it ruled Germany and Japan after WWII. It was made clear to me that Washington did not want regime change to be internally contrived; a coup or popular uprising would be too messy and unpredictable. Iraq had no experience of democracy, the Americans pointed out. The US had to show the way. It would impose a rule of law and 'de-Ba'athise' the country. When I observed that the US had not done a very good job of imposing a rule of law, arresting war criminals or imposing democracy in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, they replied that they had learned from their mistakes. 'Our prestige is on the line,' I was told.
After that, the argument went, the rest of the Middle East would follow. First the 'road map' for Israel and Palestine, and then the democratisation of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. I asked one of the ideologues at the right-wing think-tank the American Enterprise Institute whether that meant there would be more pre-emptive wars. Such a policy, I was told, had certainly not been ruled out.
Those of us on the Left should not simply dismiss the goal of reshaping the Middle East. Many of us, after all, have been protesting repressive, undemocratic (and often US-backed) regimes for a long time. But the huge question is: 'By what means?' War will have terrible consequences for ordinary Iraqis, and they have already suffered enough. If war were to start with a bombing campaign, Saddam could kill as many of his own people as possible so as to pre-empt an uprising; if he had any, he could use his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the process. In the fog of war, warlords would be likely to seize local fiefdoms in the name of religion, tribe or ethnicity. This could result in the kind of widespread violence that US troops have not shown themselves able to manage in the past.
There could also be unpredictable consequences for the rest of the region and the world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions with Turkey and Iran and between India and Pakistan could all deteriorate. War could lead to a polarisation of perception that could result in an increase in terrorist attacks. This, in turn, could intensify global political polarisation and could greatly weaken those who do not want to take sides. Even if war was short and the rule of law was successfully imposed after 'clean' regime change (all big 'if's), the US strategy of reshaping the Middle East and pre-emptive war would be justified and that would lead to even further polarisation. And, of course, the division between Europe and the US could well undermine multilateralism and international law and set back the cause of global governance and human rights.
Those of us who oppose war, however, should not allow ourselves to be seen as defenders of the status quo in the Middle East. This is a charge the Bush administration has made against 'old Europe' that is not entirely without substance. There is a need for regime change in much of the Middle East, just as there is in Washington. In an interdependent world we do have responsibility for people in other countries because there is no such thing as internal and external any more. But because the distinction between external and internal is breaking down, the same rules apply about methods externally as they do internally. War, which means a violent struggle between collective entities, is becoming unacceptable and illegitimate as a means. We have to develop legal methods of supporting those who resist repressive regimes, and - in some circumstances - this might involve the use of military means to protect people from humanitarian catastrophes such as genocide. But there should be a sharp distinction between humanitarian intervention and war.
What could an alternative approach towards 'reshaping the Middle East' look like? First of all, such an approach would need to address the Israeli occupation of Palestine and find a peaceful way to end the occupation and suicide bombers. Secondly, it would be important to identify civil society groups either inside authoritarian Middle Eastern countries or in exile and develop strategies for them. Thirdly, of course, it would involve a plan for 'opening up Iraq' - and I will focus on this simply because Iraqi people have had their hopes raised for regime change in the last few months and if, amazingly, war had been avoided it would have been cruel not to pursue an alternative.
Changing dictatorships the Eastern Europe way
The fall of Eastern Europe's Communist regimes in the 1980s might provide a useful precedent. What worked in the 1980s was the opening up of totalitarian regimes - something achieved both from above and below. On the one hand, new international instruments like the Helsinki Final Act offered dissidents and opposition groups some hope of a legal framework that overrode national sovereignty. On the other, direct support to opposition groups - both material and psychological - helped expand political space. Every possible opening was seized upon, starting with the most moderate regimes in Hungary and Poland.
Of course, the Eastern European regimes of the 1980s were far less brutal than Saddam's dictatorship. His rule could be compared to the worst excesses of Stalinism - without, some would say, any openings at all.
Yet the return of the weapons inspectors was, in itself, a new opening. It used to be assumed both by Saddam and among Iraqi people, that the US implicitly supported Saddam's rule. (The failure to finish off the regime in 1991 was explained by the fact that the US feared any alternative to Saddam). Evidence from the Iraqi Communist Party - which still had members on the ground - and from the conflict-resolution organisation the International Crisis Group, suggested that Saddam was beginning to weaken. People are talking more freely than before. By agreeing to the weapons inspectors, Saddam has lost some of his seeming invincibility.
Saddam chose the worst possible course of action to ensure his survival. Partial cooperation with the inspectors made him look weak, but also ensured international pressure would be sustained. What if he had cooperated fully? Couldn't inspections have been extended to measures designed to open up the regime?
The peace movement could have pushed for more international measures to sustain the pressure on the regime, to make openings in the totalitarian system and to offer opportunities to Iraqi opposition groups. Among the Iraqi opposition, some argued - and this is borne out by experience of other totalitarian regimes - that once holes had began to emerge in the structures of power the whole edifice would have quickly disintegrated.
Many proposals were put forward by Iraqi opposition members. Measures that could have been introduced to open up the regime and provide leverage for courageous opposition groups could have included: