Nine Red Herrings: How the Western 'Left' has Misread Iraq

Is it really only two months since we wrote that the left’s “efforts at mustering a mighty and lasting coalition of antiwar forces are likely to be stillborn”? We don’t make a habit of quoting ourselves, but for once it seems appropriate. We turned out to be better at prediction than we had thought we were, and certainly better at it than those who said that the war would go on for months, drawing the US-led coalition forces into “another Vietnam” and spreading across the region as the “Arab street” rose up against the “invaders”. Indeed, one of the reasons why we supported the war throughout was that we expected it to be relatively short, relatively sparing of lives and infrastructure alike, and relatively effective in achieving its purposes (no absolutes for us, thankyou very much). As these expectations too were borne out by events, we have been able to celebrate the overthrow of one of the most murderous and dangerous dictatorships in the world with (again, relatively) few regrets. Unlike those who opposed the war, we have not been comprehensively proved wrong, nor have we betrayed any of our principles – let alone, as so much of the “left” has, betrayed every single one of them.

But how is it possible for us to call ourselves Marxists and support a war waged by a coalition of rich western liberal democracies against the government of a poor “Third World” country? We would turn the question round: how it is possible that Marxism has been so corrupted and distorted that “Marxists” prefer to see thousands more Iraqis die in the torture chambers of the Ba’ath, and millions more suffer under the iniquities excused (not caused) by the UN sanctions, rather than admit that socialists not only can but must support even the worst bourgeois democracy against even the least bad tyranny? For the beginnings of an answer, let us consider just some of the transparent and disgusting lies generated and spread by the western “left” before and during the war.

(1) The Ba’ath regime was in some sense “progressive”: It is very revealing that few western “leftists” ever went beyond ritualised, purely verbal opposition to the “excesses” of the regime, even in the midst of their efforts to hijack the leadership of the anti-war movements from the pacifists, Muslim fundamentalists, “Not in My Name” solipsists and other malcontents with whom they made such opportunistic alliances. Meanwhile, a horrifyingly large number of “leftists” actually praised the regime – for its “secularism”, disregarding the Ba’athists’ praise for Islam as the “soul of the Arab nation”, Saddam’s fictional claim of descent from the Prophet and the addition of “Allah is great” to the national flag; its “socialism”, disregarding the whole sorry history of tyrannies deploying empty leftist rhetoric; and its sporadic defiance of the western powers, disregarding the fact that it happily cooperated with those powers whenever it suited it and them to do so. The western “left” has evidently become so habituated to denouncing the hypocrisy and cynicism of western governments – which we also denounce, though more consistently – that it is now incapable of discerning the hypocrisy and cynicism of nonwestern governments. Any organisation that can call, as the Socialist Workers Party did, for “Victory to the Resistance”, as if the Ba’ath regime’s last remaining loyalists, and those it imported from other Arab countries, resembled the French Resistance rather than the Vichy regime’s Milice and their Nazi friends, has not just deserted Marxism, it has taken off into a world of fantasy from which it looks unlikely to return.

(2) The suffering of the Iraqi people was mainly due to the effects of UN sanctions: If that was true, how was it that, on all the standard indicators – infant mortality, standards of literacy, public health provision and so on – the Kurds in the Northeast were measurably better off than the rest of the Iraqi people, despite being subject to the very same sanctions? The suffering of the Iraqi people was mainly due, sanctions or not, to the misgovernment and brutality of the Ba’ath regime, which, unlike all too many such regimes in former colonies, was not installed with aid from the West, or the former Soviet bloc, or China, but was entirely indigenous in origin, apart from its borrowings of ideas from the writings of various western fascists. The western “left” bears a heavy responsibility for its utter failure to recognise the regime for what it was: the rebirth in the Middle East of Nazism, in opposition, not just to “Jews, Persians and flies”, as a notorious Ba’ath pamphlet proclaimed, but to all the heirs of the Enlightenment, from liberals and social democrats to revolutionary socialists and anarchists. The people of Iraq tried to tell the western “left” what it was inconvenient for them to hear, but their pleas for aid, just like those of the people of Bosnia and Kosova, fell on deaf ears. Thus, yet again, an oppressed people who had a right to expect help from the western “left” were compelled to turn to western capitalist states for help instead, with all the reactionary side-effects that that implies.

(3) Hostility to Saddam’s regime was “really” hostility to the “Arab world” and/or to Islam: The West is undeniably permeated by suspicion and distrust with regard to Islam, which is reinforced by widespread ignorance of, and contempt for, the countries in which Islam is dominant. What is also undeniable, however, if Islam is what you claim to care about, is that the western powers did more than any Muslim government did to help the largely Muslim peoples of Bosnia and Kosova; that Saddam’s regime killed more Muslims than any other regime in history; and that Muslim minorities in western countries are treated at least as well as, and often much better than, non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries are. But so what? Religious affiliation is no more reliable a guide to political and economic relations now than it has ever been, and the “Muslim world” is as internally divided as the “Christian world”. As for the “Arab world”, only a fanatic (such as Robert Fisk of The Independent) could believe in such a mirage, not only in the face of the obvious political, economic and social differences between (say) Iraq and Kuwait, Egypt and Bahrain, Algeria and Jordan, but also in the face of the presence in almost all these countries of non-Arab peoples (Kurds, Berbers, Turcomen and others, not to mention the slaves of Mauritania), whose mistreatment the western “left” has been silent about for too long. Just as 19th-century Pan-Slavism degenerated from its liberatory origins into being a vehicle for Russian imperial expansionism and Serbian ultranationalism, so Pan-Arabism fragmented long ago into traditionalism (as in Saudi Arabia), fascism (as in Syria) and Stalinism (as in Libya), and now has nothing to offer to the Arabs or the other peoples of these countries as they start to move against the assorted regimes that currently control their lives. In that respect the liberation of Iraq has at least the potential – which, of course, may not be realised – to assist the process of democratising and modernising Islamic countries in general, and Arab countries in particular. Compromise and collusion with any nationalism, or any religion, in these countries or anywhere else, can only delay and undermine that process, and give comfort to fanatics and reactionaries.

(4) The western powers kept Saddam in power, armed his troops and funded his foreign ventures, so they cannot be trusted now: The left used to have a better grasp of history, and of its importance in shedding light on the present: this highly slanted, selective version of the recent past sheds no light at all. For a start, which western powers are being referred to? While Britain had virtually no contact with the Ba’ath regime up to 1979, and the United States had no diplomatic relations with Iraq until 1984, France (and the Soviet Union) started making deals about oil and arms in 1972, and none other than Jacques Chirac himself first visited Baghdad as long ago as 1974. In any assessment of the 35 years that Saddam and the Ba’ath were in power, the French (and Russian) record of 31 years of continuous and very close relations weighs a lot heavier than either the US record – six years of cynical and ineffective collaboration against Iran versus 29 years of hostility – or even the British record of 11 years of opportunistic trade deals versus 24 years of hostility. The behaviour of Jimmy Carter, Margaret Thatcher and their colleagues was certainly hypocritical and repulsive, but taking the present governments of the United States and Britain to task for the crimes of their predecessors is analogous to blaming Winston Churchill for the errors of Neville Chamberlain. Meanwhile, what adjectives are left to describe the French government’s wholly unprincipled objections to the war, which attracted the wholly predictable support of the depressingly gullible western “left”? As for trusting any of the western powers, that is not even a serious proposition: our concern as historical materialists is to judge states, political movements and individuals alike not by what they say but by what they do. From that perspective, liberating Iraq from barbarism, whatever the motive for doing so, counts as a greater good than helping the Ba’ath regime to carry on, which is what the French government and its allies, including the western “left”, were effectively doing for as long as they could.

(5) The war against the Ba’ath regime was a violation of international law: The British Liberal Democrats demonstrated the sheer silly irrelevance of this claim by asserting before the war that it would be “illegal” without a second (in fact 18th) resolution of the UN Security Council, and then, during the war, that its legality could be determined only by an international court once it was over. We expected this kind of unprincipled opportunism from that party of shallow, complacent, vaguely left-leaning but ultimately timid petit-bourgeois idiots, but we are still baffled by the readiness of those who regard national laws as bourgeois illusions to treat “international laws” as if they are any different. In this internecine dispute between some bourgeois lawyers and politicians and others of their kind, the US and British interpretation was probably right, and the French and German side was probably wrong. The willingness of such lawless dictatorships as China’s to go along with the latter merely confirms that conclusion. But that is a problem for liberals (and Stalinists) to sort out, and should have nothing to do with socialists’ attempts to assess the rights and wrongs of the war. Some day in the unknown future, a democratically elected world authority may perhaps be in a position to make and enforce genuine, socialist international laws. Until then Marxists need to be at least as realistic about relations between states as those states’ own policy-makers are. If that means making temporary alliances with bad capitalist regimes against even worse ones, then so be it.

(6) The war was opposed by majorities of the populations of Britain, the United States, Australia, Arab countries, Muslim countries, the whole world, and, if the Pope can be trusted, Heaven as well: The western “left”, having spent years denouncing opinion polls as just another part of the capitalist propaganda machine, suddenly took to citing them when they briefly seemed to go their way, then just as suddenly took to denouncing them again when they showed large majorities in many of the coalition countries supporting the war. Equally inconsistently, the British “left” dropped all their hostility to “parliamentary fetishism” for as long as it looked as if the House of Commons might vote against the war, then reverted when the Commons voted in favour of the war, twice. But who really knows what most people support or oppose? Are demonstrations really more reliable guides to popular feeling than parliamentary votes or media campaigns? What if the government, in any of the coalition countries, had called their critics’ bluff and arranged a snap referendum on whether to go to war? The chances are that they would have won a convincing majority – and that the “left” would have denounced it as manipulated and unreliable. Why can’t the “left” simply argue its case strictly on its merits, regardless of whether it has majority support or not? It might then gain some more respect, and possibly a larger audience, than it does at present with all its lies and bombast.

As for claims to be able to discern Arab or Muslim public opinion, either in general or within any one country, they must all be regarded as highly suspect. These are societies controlled by regimes that do not permit free media (even Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV are by no means as “independent” as they or their new fans claim they are); that impose severe restrictions on political activity; and that give religious fundamentalists privileged positions from which to spread their poison. There is thus no genuine Arab public opinion to be discerned, and not much in most other Muslim countries. Perhaps most Arabs do feel humiliated by the coalition’s actions; perhaps they feel far more humiliated by the actions of Arab regimes; perhaps they are much less concerned about the fate of Iraq than we might wish them to be. In the absence of reliable evidence we refuse to trust any of the self-appointed experts, especially when their reading of Arab public opinion just happens to coincide with their own views and/or depends on applying monolithic stereotypes to millions of people – if that isn’t racism, what is?

(7) The war was “really” all about US control of the world’s oil supplies: Of course the US ruling class is as capable of stupidity and ignorance as any other ruling class, but historically it has shown a keener sense of self-interest than this crass economistic nonsense suggests. If the fate of the oil industry was the overriding concern then the US government and the oil companies with which it is closely connected could and would have carried on as before, collaborating with the Saudis and others to keep the oil flowing. The fact that US oil companies are now being awarded contracts for work in Iraq indicates only that they are the leading players in the industry, their only serious rivals being French and Russian – and is it any surprise, or cause for indignation, that US and British decision-makers prefer to deal with US companies rather than companies from two of the countries that were close to the Ba’ath regime before and during the war?

Meanwhile, we are not so naive as to suppose that, because oil was not the main motive, the liberation of the Iraqi people was. The US administration and the other governments in the coalition, with their customary cynicism, exploited that goal, and the issue of weapons of mass destruction, to promote their shared vision of an international order that is safer for capitalism, implying, among other things, more liberal democracies, with more compliant governments; more “free” trade, in oil as in other commodities; and more effective joint action against terrorism. There is every reason to think that they are insincere about much of this programme, and that their definitions of such terms as “democracy” or “terrorism” differ from ours. There is no reason, however, to think that they are insincere about all of it – the western “left” has no monopoly on self-deluding idealism – and it makes more sense to assess each scene in this continuing drama on its own merits, by the light of the doctrine of the lesser evil, than to either buy into the whole deal or reject it out of hand simply because it isn’t revolutionary socialism. Given the widespread popularity of capitalism and the vanishingly small support for socialism in the contemporary world, it would be stupid to expect anything more radical. On the other hand, as long as we are to be ruled by capitalist states, which would you rather be ruled by: a coalition of liberal democracies that pay at least lipservice to free speech, or any number of ruthless genocidal dictatorships that want to revive the worst aspects of the Middle Ages (and we don’t mean folk songs or William Morris wallpapers)? If you can’t or won’t answer that question, how can you claim to be interested in contemporary politics, as opposed to useless dreaming about the politics of the distant future?

(8) Invading a country in order to remove its regime from power was an unprecedented violation of “state sovereignty”: Like the fake “left”, we few remaining adherents of the real, Marxist left can easily list all the bad precedents, from Vietnam onwards, although we utterly reject the selective approach that allows ageing Stalinists and “Trotskyists” alike to go on and on about the Bay of Pigs, an invasion that failed, while evading discussion of the invasions of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, or the Serbian campaigns that first destroyed the Yugoslav federation, and then came close to destroying Bosnia and Kosova. But what about the good precedents, that is, the invasions that genuinely liberated millions of human beings from barbarism and helped them to establish replacement regimes that, though inevitably falling far short of Utopia, were certainly significantly better than what went before? Well, now: Italy and France in 1944, Germany, Austria and Japan in 1945, Uganda in 1978, Cambodia in 1979, Afghanistan, paradoxically enough, in 1979 and 2002 ... If “state sovereignty”, or any other piece of rotten bourgeois rhetoric, stands in the way of liberation from barbarism, then let it be disregarded. But what on Earth is such rhetoric doing in the mouths of people who still insist, despite all their posturing, inconsistency and laughable arrogance, on deluding themselves and others that they have anything in common with genuine Marxism?

(9) The coalition forces have met with stiff resistance from the Iraqi people: “Stiff resistance”, if it means anything at all, suggests months or even years of sustained and at least sporadically effective opposition to an invading force. That was not what happened in Iraq, where deserters (wholly to their credit) heavily outnumbered those few conscripts who stayed at their posts, while a few fanatics, many of them not even Iraqis, spent a few weeks killing and injuring a few American and British soldiers, and trying to avoid being killed or injured, not only by the coalition forces, but also by the people they had helped to oppress for decades. The “Iraqi people” means some 23 million human beings, about one fifth of whom, namely the Kurds, have indeed been putting up stiff resistance for decades, not to any western forces, but to the Ba’ath regime, which tried to eliminate them from the planet while most of the western “left” either ignored all Kurds or romanticised the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey, who have certainly been mistreated but have at least not been gassed.

Yes, of course, except for a day or two in Basra the Shi’as chose not to rise up against Saddam when the coalition forces arrived. But then, they had been betrayed back in 1991, and they had also been told not to rise up by their imams and by the coalition forces this time round. Accordingly, the only people who were surprised at their passivity were the western “left”, once again caught out confidently making useless predictions on the basis of shallow dogma rather than sober analysis.

Yes, of course, many Iraqis, both during the war and since it ended, have visibly expressed at best wariness and at worst outright hostility towards the coalition forces: who but a western “leftist”, vocally antiracist but unconsciously deeply in thrall to racist stereotypes, would expect a uniform response, favourable or not, from so many human beings with so many different interests, backgrounds, hopes and fears? Nevertheless, it is equally plain that many Iraqis have expressed joy and gratitude for their liberation, although the western “left” has been quick to deny their existence even so, partly because so many “leftists” belong to that tribe of self-satisfied bourgeois pseudointellectuals who regard it as beneath their dignity to watch television at all, and so missed what everyone else saw. We do not know which response represents the feelings of the majority in Iraq and, unlike those commentators who deliriously predicted the course of the next few years within a week of the war ending, we do not claim to be able to know. Suffice it to say the following. First, whatever they are feeling now, the majority of Iraqis would certainly not want to see the Ba’ath regime restored, and it was the coalition forces that removed it. Second, we shall all know what they are feeling when the first democratic elections in the lifetimes of most Iraqis are held in their country – yet if the western “left” had had their way those elections would never be held at all.

It sticks in the throat to have to admit that for once the western powers have done more to promote justice than the western “left” has. It is nauseating to find “Marxists” trying to ensure that any human beings should go on living under a dictatorship. Such are the contradictions of advanced capitalism.

So much for the festival of fools and liars that erupted in the West in March and April 2003, and that presented such a pathetic spectacle compared to the magnificent festival of the formerly oppressed in the cities of Iraq, where thousands engaged in freelance redistribution and creative recycling, only to be denounced by the fools and liars as “looters”, and vilified by being wrongly equated with the much smaller numbers of opportunistic thieves who stole hospital supplies or ancient artefacts. What, by the way, does it say about the western “left” that some of them got much more indignant about the alleged disappearance of Mesopotamian treasures from museums in the course of a few days than they ever did about the actual disappearance of thousands of Iraqis from their homes between 1968 and 2003?

As for what happens next, we refuse even to engage in debate with, still less apply the just about honourable epithet of “socialist” or “Marxist” to, anyone who defended Saddam’s dictatorship, ignored the pleas of the Iraqi people or gave any other form of comfort to the Ba’ath regime. To aid such a regime’s campaign of lies and intimidation is to desert the cause of human progress altogether. In wartime every individual must necessarily, and regardless of intentions, end up helping one side or the other. In the centuries-long conflict between enlightenment and barbarism, the possibility of progress and the certainty of reaction, of which the war in Iraq was just one more skirmish, the western “left” has shown which side it is on. Just as Stalin’s “Communist” dictatorship destroyed the lives and hopes of so many socialists of an earlier generation, the complicity of the “left” in the growth of Ba’athism, “Pan-Arabism”, Islamic fundamentalism, “Third Worldism” and the other anti-democratic ideologies that have brought us to this point has helped to destroy all prospects of any advance beyond liberalism for another generation at least. We cannot forgive these charlatans and renegades their betrayal of the very tradition they pretend to uphold, and we are confident that the working class will go on seeing them for what they really are. Then again, given their remoteness from any contact with working-class people, their embedding in academia, journalism and other marginal outposts of the capitalist system, and their total incapacity to realise that they have made stupendous errors, let alone learn from them, it is already abundantly clear that the western “left” no longer has anything in common with the working class – and that, somewhere behind their smug masks, they know it.

Ben Illin, Lucia Thorn and P.S. Burton

28 April 2003