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‘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:
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
Trans prisoners often face a 'double-punishment', which heaps abuse and isolation on top of their incarceration.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it