Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Regime change without war

Mary Kaldor writes that those of us who oppose war should not allow ourselves to be seen as defenders of the status quo in the Middle East

April 1, 2003
10 min read

‘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:

  • a permanent monitoring system on WMDs;
  • the establishment of an ad hoc international court to try some 300 or so war criminals; Saddam and his immediate entourage would have been indicted, but it would have been made clear that there would be amnesty for others – perhaps through a South African-style ‘truth and reconciliation commission’; it was sometimes argued that it would have been better to offer an exit strategy for Saddam, but (quite apart from the fact that he was never likely to accept such an offer) the approach outlined here would have offered hope to those who were not immediately implicated in the regime;
  • a monitoring system for human rights violations in Iraq – as agreed in UN Security Council Resolution 689; there should have been demands for
  • the return of refugees, the right of opposition parties to operate inside Iraq, and for internationally supervised democratic elections;
  • UN (as opposed to government) administration of the oil for food programme; the programme’s continuation could have been conditional on reductions in military spending and increases in health and education spending; and
  • targeted sanctions to be aimed at Saddam and his entourage in place of the present sanctions regime; the foreign bank accounts of these people should have been frozen and they should have been prevented from travelling internationally; as it was, the elite was hardly touched by sanctions – in contrast to the treatment of Milosevic in Yugoslavia, nothing was ever done to target those responsible for the brutality of the state.

    Where would this have left military pressure? Paradoxically, military pressure helped bring about the return of the inspectors. Does that mean the threat of war should have been sustained? I do believe that troops should have been kept around Iraq’s borders so they could have protected Iraqi citizens from Saddam. But this would have been humanitarian intervention and quite different from war.

    We are living through a very dangerous moment. I told my US interlocutor who spoke of the benefits of a ‘violent upsurge’ about an interview I had seen on television with Bertrand Russell in the 1950s. Russell was asked why he had been a conscientious objector in WWI. He explained that fascism and Bolshevism – everything bad in the 20th century – had stemmed from that war. I believe that the present situation is much more like 1914 than 1939. After all, 1914 was also a time when there were many pressures from global movements for peace, women’s rights and worker solidarity. Unfortunately, these movements were cut short or diverted into extremist statist directions. I fear that many bad things in the 21st century could result from this war.

    Mary Kaldor is professor in global governance at the London School of Economics

    From our archive: Five years on

    Five years ago Red Pepper published a number of articles on the Iraq war, we’re reprinting a selection here covering the period March to June 2003

    Tony Blair, in the name of peace and democracy, go

    Tam Dalyell on why Tony Blair should reconsider his position as leader of the party

    No more demockery

    We failed to stop the war but another world is still possible writes Hilary Wainwright

    The warfare state

    Now that the fog of war has lifted David Beetham assess the implications for British democracy

  • Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
    Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

    Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
    Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

    Put public purpose at the heart of government
    Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

    Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
    Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

    The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
    Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

    With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
    Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

    Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
    A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

    A musical fightback against school arts cuts
    Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

    Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
    Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

    Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
    Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

    To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
    To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

    Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
    Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

    Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
    There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

    With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
    As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

    Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
    Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

    A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
    A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

    ‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
    The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

    Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
    Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

    Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
    Closing date for applications: 1 September.

    Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
    The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

    Interview: Queer British Art
    James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

    Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
    Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

    Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
    Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

    Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
    Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

    Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
    Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

    Editorial: Empire will eat itself
    Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

    Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
    Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

    Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
    With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

    Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
    The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

    Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
    Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

    Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
    Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead