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May 18, 2006

Quagmire or Cut and Run?

Reknowned Australian human rights barrister Jim Nolan gives a wide-ranging address to the Sydney Fabian Society in which he trenchantly addresses parts of the Australian left on Iraq and much more.

May 17th 2006.

Tony Blair’s recent visit should have been the occasion for Australian labour to reflect upon its differences with him on Iraq. Unfortunately for anyone who any longer bothered to reflect on the topic, Blair’s clarity and conviction did nothing so much as highlight the predicament of Labor’s claimed progressive credentials in foreign policy - which these days have withered to little more than a conservative parochialism.

Strung on a taught and straining thread which connects Jaques Chirac to Michael Moore - with nothing in between - Labor’s recent pronouncements on Iraq seem a pale apologia for defeatism when compared with Blair’s resolution.

Speaking in London in early April, Blair reminded us that there is another, optimistic and idealistic, view of a progressive, internationalist agenda.

“[T]he defining characteristic of today's world is its interdependence; that whereas the economics of globalisation are well matured, the politics of globalisation are not; and that unless we articulate a common global policy based on common values, we risk chaos threatening our stability, economic and political, through letting extremism, conflict or injustice go unchecked. The consequence of this thesis is a policy of engagement not isolation; and one that is active not reactive.

Confusingly, its proponents and opponents come from all sides of the political spectrum. So it is apparently a "neo-conservative" ie right wing view, to be ardently in favour of spreading democracy round the world; whilst others on the right take the view that this is dangerous and deluded - the only thing that matters is an immediate view of national interest. Some progressives see intervention as humanitarian and necessary; others take the view that provided dictators don't threaten our citizens directly, what they do with their own, is up to them.”

This speech echoed Blair’s earlier landmark 1999 speech in Chicago where he laid out the need for a fresh internationalist foreign policy after the cold war. He showed a remarkable prescience then which still holds today:

“I want to speak to you this evening about events in Kosovo. But I want to put these events in a wider context - economic, political and security - because I do not believe Kosovo can be seen in isolation. No one in the West who has seen what is happening in Kosovo can doubt that NATO’s military action is justified. Bismarck famously said the Balkans were not worth the bones of one Pomeranian Grenadier. Anyone who has seen the tear stained faces of the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across the border, heard their heart-rending tales of cruelty or contemplated the unknown fates of those left behind, knows that Bismarck was wrong.

This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.”

Blair also singled out Saddam in this connection and foreshadowed that Saddam’s continued recalcitrance would have to be dealt with.

Its now forgotten that while Blair was speaking in Chicago, the then governor of Texas – when he had any thoughts on foreign policy at all – expressed himself in the language of that self same parochialism which now appears to be the guiding (and enervating) principle of Australian Labor’s foreign policy. Isolationism, indifference, an arch ‘realism’ of the kind that the Henry Kissinger of old would have espoused. Just ask the Kosovans, the Kurds or the East Timorese what that held out for them!

September 11 shook Bush and the Republican establishment out of the complacency which had led many of them just a few years earlier to oppose the NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia and in the first months of the Bush presidency to focus on missile defence and reducing troops deployments overseas. Some Republicans had queried as naive idealism Clinton’s support for that intervention. Early in his presidency Bush even toyed with the idea of lifting the sanctions on Saddam in favour of so-called “smart sanctions”, but the plan was scuppered by France and Russia. September 11 powerfully brought home the message of just how murderous and calamitous the internationalist jihadi program had become. With the aid and comfort of the likes of Iraq whose state power could be utilised as a facilitator and quartermaster of the jihadis, this was a potentially deadly combination.

Bush was not the only one whose comfortable world view was shaken by September 11. Bush ‘got it’ just as Blair had ‘got it’ many years earlier. But not everyone did. So devalued had become the vocabulary of contemporary political analysis that when militant Islam broke so dramatically into the western consciousness, there was no adequate political term to describe it. Despite the wishful thinking of the playschool pretend Marxists who tried to re-invent these fanatics as doughty anti-imperialists, the truth is that they represent a deeply reactionary nihilist death cult which is in the process of attempting to hijack a major religion. As the Taliban regime demonstrated, their ‘vision’ could not be adequately described as medieval. No amount of sociological dissimulation can alter this fact .

Ah – but we all know how robustly secular Saddam was - right? Well, as robustly secular as any man who was using his own blood to write a Koran (or at least claiming as much), who had written, in his own hand, “Allahu akbar” on Iraq’s national flag, a policy known as “al-Hamla al-Imaniyya” (the faith campaign), instituted the Islamic law punishment for theft (cutting off of the right hand), banned the drinking of alcohol in public (even while his favourite tipple was Matteus Rose), whose son Uday had “prostitutes” publicly beheaded and who brought in legislation that amnestied any Muslim in prison who managed to learn the Koran , and who had embarked upon a major mosque building program whose major architectural feature was the minaret as missile. And we know how these secular regimes have nothing to do with religious fanatics don’t we – just as Secular, Ba’athist Syria, where most of the population is Sunni, has nothing to do with Shi’ite fundamentalist Hezbollah or, faced with the alternatives of democratic reform or further reaction has become a catspaw of the deranged Ahmadinejad – sure!! The truth is that Ba’athism in both its Syrian and Iraqi strains was up to its grimy blood stained armpits in cahoots with various jihadi groups.

Islamofacism is a serviceable, if interim, description of this phenomenon - since as Paul Berman has showed us , - the particular toxic ideology which animates the international jihadi movement draws upon fascism as much as is does upon fanatical religion. The conveyor belt for many of the ideas which underpin it was Ba’athism as much as it was other stripes of fanatical Islam. Yet this has little penetrated the ideological blinkers of many on the western left – preferring as they do the scenario whereby visceral anti Americanism trumps all comers - no matter how ugly . And thus was born the contemporary phenomenon of the alliance between the extreme left and Islamic right – confirmed by nothing so much as the indefatigable George Galloway in Damascus, if confirmation was needed, by an even more shameful scene than his famous paean to Saddam.

Repeating the mantra like Keating’s pet shop parrots, the conventional wisdom on much of the political left appears in Australia to be that the removal of Saddam was a greater crime than the many which he committed? The truth however was and is, much different.

Time does not permit a recapping of many of the issues which led to the war, and in particular the canard that western governments ‘lied’ about Saddam’s WMD. Some recent revelations may cause a rethink of those who have swallowed this piece of Michael Moore inspired mendacity.

A long report in the May-June Foreign Affairs gives an intriguing view of Saddam’s last days which chimes with the last days of so many dictators. Read it. There is no doubt that Saddam wanted, until the end, to maintain ambiguity about his possession of WMD because he wanted, when sanctions had collapsed, to rebuild his WMD capabilities. Given his past record, of cheat and retreat there was no reason why any serious government should have believed his – never unequivocal - denials.

Many months after the fall of Baghdad, a number of senior Iraqi officials in coalition custody continued to believe it possible that Iraq still possessed a WMD capability hidden away somewhere although they insisted that they had no direct knowledge of WMD programs. Saddam’s secretive compartmentalised tyranny lent plausibility to the existence of secret compartmentalized WMD programs; and unsurprisingly many Western governments believed such programs existed. Indeed, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector freely admits in his 2004 memoir that on the eve of the war he believed along with Egyptian, French and German intelligence, that Iraq did have banned weapons and prohibited programs: "gut feelings, which I kept to myself."

It is now also clear that Saddam believed until the end that the French and Russian governments would save him. He also knew that the oil-for-food programme would sustain him in the meantime. It had the added advantage of ‘cementing’ his support in French and Russian circles. Indeed, Serge Boidevaix, the former secretary general of the French Foreign Ministry, and Jean-Bernard Mérimée, French Ambassador to the UN from 1991-95 and Kofi Annan’s special advisor on European issues from 1999-2002. have both have admitted taking oil-for-food cash from Saddam and have claimed that the French government was aware of their behaviour (for good and implausible measure, Boidevaix said that the United States also knew of his oil dealings).

The Duelfer report in any event confirmed that Saddam intended to retain his regime’s capacity to restart production once the sanctions had been lifted or rendered ineffective.

As for Saddam’s sponsorship and support for "terror", Stephen Hayes in a series of recent articles in the Weekly Standard has laid out a significant case for these connections, based on a mere fraction of declassified documents captured from the Ba’athist regime. These show Iraqi Baathist involvement with jihadist and Bin Ladenist groups from Sudan to Afghanistan to Western Asia.

As Christopher Hitchens observed in summarising this material earlier this year in Slate - Never mind "imminent threat," if that phrase upsets you. How does "permanent threat" sound?

Was anything said about Saddam untrue? It is beyond dispute that Saddam was a genocidal fascist psychopath whose crimes against his own people were legion - including a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs . In addition, he committed major acts of environmental vandalism against the habitat of the Marsh Arabs and the Kuwaiti oilfields. Iraq’s President Talibani recently reminded us that Ba’athist Iraq was the longest lived fascist regime in history. Hitchens rightly described Saddam’s Iraq as a ‘charnel house above ground and mass grave below’. All of this was widely known before March 2003 yet, disingenuously, Saddam’s crimes were sidelined when the debate on the war broke out.

Only a fortnight ago there were mass demonstrations in many western capitals calling for military intervention in Darfur to stop the genocide. Yet Saddam was a more determined and successful genocidiare than the Sudanese government and its repellent Janjaweed militia (two groups it must be noted enthusiastically boosted in the recent broadcast of that doughty anti imperialist Osama Bin Laden). Still, this counted for little among the western ‘intelligensia’ once Blair and Bush had Saddam slated Saddam for removal. Suddenly there was a ‘virtual’ statute of limitations on genocide. When ever Saddam’s crimes were discussed the subject was changed.

But, has Oliver Kamm has reminded us, significant parts of the French left defected to the fascist right in 1936, so the coddling of Ba’athist and other middle eastern dictators should come as no real surprise. In early 2003, little wonder that Saddam believed that he was set to be back in business as soon as the French and Russians contrived to weaken or remove the sanctions. In the meantime he could use the sanctions as a political weapon – and as we know now, thanks to AWB and others, he was awash with cash.

The English journalist Nick Cohen writing in the New Statesman a little while ago suggested that if you asked an Iraqi communist or Kurdish socialist today what support they have had from the liberal left, ‘they won't detain you for long’. While little better could be expected from the crypto fascists on the far left who represent the ‘insurgents’ as some kind of Iraqi Viet Cong, it was the collapse of much of the democratic left which Cohen said was catastrophic. “Why couldn't it oppose the second Gulf war while promising to do everything possible to advance the cause of Iraqi democrats and socialists once the war was over? Cohen asked. “Why the sneering, almost racist pretence that Saddam had no honourable opponents?” Why indeed!

George Orwell once wrote in another, not unrelated, context: "The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it…There was even a tendency to feel that the Nanking atrocities had become, as it were, retrospectively untrue because the British Government now drew attention to them." Reminding his appeasement minded comrades of the atrocities in pre war Europe, Orwell said "These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened."

What is the situation in Iraq now? And what does it call for? Listen to Iraq’s Ambassador to Canada, Howar Ziad. In a speech just last month at Carleton University in Ottawa, he said this:

“The contrast between democracy and dictatorship explains much of what is happening in Iraq. Diehard fascists, the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaeda fanatics, have waged a relentless campaign against the Iraqi people. They have allowed Iraqi citizens almost no rest, no opportunity to heal the wounds of 35 years of Baathist totalitarianism. This faction, which subscribes to the dark days of state brutality in Iraqi history, has viciously attacked schoolchildren, mosques, churches, funerals and hospitals. They provoke murderous sectarianism in attempt to undo every weave of the country's social fabric. Outrageously, foreign apologists dress up their ruthless acts of murder as a so-called "national resistance."

Despite the violent challenges that we face from fanatics in our attempt to establish a secure and stable democratic state, our aim is to go further than mere democracy and to build an Iraqi national consensus. The majority of Iraqis has insisted on a principle of inclusiveness over one of narrow majoritarianism. We have already built a government that represents over 80 per cent of Iraqis, and now we are trying to accommodate the remainder. Most members of the Sunni Arab community of Iraq reject terrorism; it is only a violent minority that wishes to wreck a peaceful and democratic future.”

I invite anyone to quarrel with this prognosis and anyone with any credibility on the left to say that the ambassador’s description of Iraq’s enemies is inaccurate. Or do we support those dishonest foreign apologists who dress up the Ba’athist and jihadi ruthless acts of murder as a so-called "national resistance” or acquiesce in their continues campaign by shamefully ignoring its consequences just as Saddam’s crimes were ignored. Where is the “resistance” to foreign “occupation” in the blowing up of Iraqi mosques, hospitals and funerals?

That is the nightmare to which Iraq will return if the West decides to ‘cut and run’. Faced with a determined and ruthless insurgency combining fanatical jihadis and Ba’athist fascists – none of whom appear to lack significant international support - what should the response be? As with the Saddam denial syndrome, the ‘cut and run’ strategy steadfastly refuses to face up to its consequences.

Australian Labor’s present Iraq policy quietly steps around the consequences of ‘cut and run’ while remaining shamefully silent on the reasons why the world is a much improved place thanks to Saddam’s removal. What this leads to is the ‘progressive’ left’s own groundhog day, from Kissinger and Ford (abandoning the Kurds in 1975) Bush Snr (abandoning the Shi’ites, and briefly the Kurds, in 1991) to encouraging Bush Jnr to abandoning all the anti Saddam Iraqis in 2006, and all in less than a generation. Only cold indifference and a substantial addition to the stock of Saddam’s & Ba’athisms’ mass graves will lie between these two shameful episodes, with only the prospect of further desertion and abandonment for the future for Iraqi democrats. That is no place for any progressive to be.

It is not Kissinger, so much as Pogo (see the enemy approaching, hack off your left arm and use it as a club) which is the inspiration for this non-policy, the fragility of which is exposed in a minute if its implications are to be pressed. But of course the lazy, Blair-Bush hating consensus which has infected much of the left - not to mention the ‘quality’ media - has now become so widely entrenched it rarely has to confront squarely the existential consequences of the cut and run strategy.

Late last year the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen – no supporter of Bush - remarked upon a troubling shift in left opinion which had turned its back on internationalist idealism. The article was titled “Ceding Idealism to the GOP”. Cohen said:

Both JFK and FDR were Democrats, of course, and the party has always been associated with internationalism. Somehow, though, that moralism -- that urge to do good abroad -- has drifted over to the GOP. It is Republicans, particularly neocons, who talk the language of moralism in foreign policy and who, weapons of mass destruction aside, wanted to take out Saddam Hussein because he was a beast. It mattered to them that he killed and tortured his own people. It says something about the Democratic left that it cheered Michael Moore's infantile "Fahrenheit 9/11" even though the film made no mention of Hussein's depredations, not even his gassing of Kurdish villages.

Just last week Madeline Albright, also in the Washington Post, warned that a preparedness to punish Bush for his setbacks in Iraq would translate into a new conventional wisdom which will treat as a mistake the promotion of democracy in the middle east.

There is an alternative. UK trade unionists and Labour activists have created a group called ‘Labor Friends of Iraq’ [‘LFIQ’] [www.labourfriendsofiraq.org.uk]. LFIQ has recently sponsored a trip to Iraq by trades unionists and their report makes compelling reading. No surprises who the real enemies of trades unions in Iraq are. The report mentions trade union leaders such as Nozad Ismail in Kirkuk. Nozad, like many other Iraqi unionists is constantly targeted by terrorists because of his support for pluralism and democracy which undermines those who seek to foment civil war. Nozad has survived two assassination attempts and is always armed himself. The Iraqi Kurdish Communist leader Kamal Shaker told the LFIQ delegation that terrorists who target civilians are enemies of the people and that the real resistance are those who are building trade unions and reconstructing Iraq.

Even more encouraging for a re-invigorated democratic left is the publication, just the last month, of the “Euston Manifesto”. The Euston Manifesto [eustonmanifesto.org] started with some like-minded progressives – principally Norm Geras, the leading U.K. Marxist scholar and Nick Cohen, Observer columnist and author, and others, meeting in a London pub about a year ago. They were disenchanted with what they saw as the wrong-headed thinking of the anti-war movement, they began to talk of a new left movement.

The manifesto brought together those who were supporters of the military intervention in Iraq, and those who had opposed it but who found themselves increasingly disaffected with the dominant so-called ‘anti-war’ discourse. They were at odds, too, with how it related to other prominent issues - terrorism and the fight against it, US foreign policy, the record of the Blair government, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more generally, attitudes to democratic values.

The manifesto, will be given a public launch next week (May 25) at Kings College, in London. I am proud to have been one of the founding signatories (along with three other Australians) among whom are included: UK academics Norm Geras, Brian Brivati, journalists Nick Cohen, John Lloyd Frances Wheen and Oliver Kamm, pillars of the US left Paul Berman, Marc Cooper and Michael Walzer and the Iraqi dissident and author of Republic of Fear - Kanan Makiya.

The general principles of the Manifesto may be summarised as follows:-

‘We value the traditions and institutions of the liberal, pluralist democracies, and we decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy. We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal. Equally, violations of these rights are to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context.

We argue that the time is long overdue to break with the tradition of left apologetics for anti-democratic forces and regimes; that there is a duty of respect for the historical truth; and that it is more than ever necessary to affirm that, within the usual constraints against incitement, people must be at liberty to criticise beliefs - including religious beliefs - that others cherish.

Turning specifically to Iraq the Manifesto states:-

“This opposes us not only to those on the Left who have actively spoken in support of the gangs of jihadist and Baathist thugs of the Iraqi so-called resistance, but also to others who manage to find a way of situating themselves between such forces and those trying to bring a new democratic life to the country. We have no truck, either, with the tendency to pay lip service to these ends, while devoting most of one's energy to criticism of political opponents at home (supposedly responsible for every difficulty in Iraq), and observing a tactful silence or near silence about the ugly forces of the Iraqi "insurgency". The many left opponents of regime change in Iraq who have been unable to understand the considerations that led others on the Left to support it, dishing out anathema and excommunication, more lately demanding apology or repentance, betray the democratic values they profess.”

Hitchens writing about the manifesto in the Times a fortnight ago summed up its contents and approach with typical flair:

The “Euston Manifesto” keeps it simple. It prefers democratic pluralism, at any price, to theocracy.

It prefers those who vote in Iraq and Afghanistan to those who put bombs in mosques and schools and hospitals. It does not conceive of arguments that make excuses for suicide murderers. It affirms the right of democratic nations and open societies to defend themselves, both from theocratic states abroad and from theocratic gangsters at home.

… So call me a neo-conservative if you must: anything is preferable to the rotten unprincipled alliance between the former fans of the one-party state and the hysterical zealots of the one-god one.

On a purely pragmatic level can anyone imagine a post Bush White House ‘cutting and running’ from Iraq? Whether the next US President is Senator John McCain, Rudy Guliani or Senator Hillary Clinton, the commitment to Iraq will be continuing. Its success is vital not for the future of any particular US politician but for the future of democratic politics in the middle east. That is a goal worthy of the commitment of any social democrat.

Blair has reminded us that “[w]e are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other counties if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.” Blair is right about this as he was right in 1999. It will be to our cost if we fail to listen to his message. We may only hope that, however unpalatable, Australian Labor finds the courage and determination to see past its current trough of pessimistic conservative parochialism and instead, embraces the principle and enduring wisdom of Blair’s progressive internationalism.

Jim Nolan
May 17th, 2006.

[Jim Nolan (jimnolan@ozemail.com.au) is a Sydney barrister, Labor Party member, and a Fabian Society member]

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