“We aren’t on the wrong side in the Vietnam War; we are the wrong side” ~ Pentagon Papers Vietnam Whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg
There has always been a battle between an isolationist approach to intervention (if it doesn’t affect us, leave well alone) and a humanitarian case for intervention (injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere). However, a growing number oppose intervention precisely because they subscribe to the humanitarian view. These people have come to the reluctant and disheartening conclusion that we are not the good guys. To send war ravaged nations our governments, corporations and armed forces as saviours, is like sending a second Big Bad Wolf into the forest after Red Riding Hood.
Iraq – Lest We Forget
The Corporate State and media outlets have become expert in the manipulating our basic concern for our fellow human beings. Ahead of the Iraq war, the stated case for intervention was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, deployable within 45 minutes.
Since the war, the Hawks have sought to justify the interventions with a new cover story. They have stolen the humanitarian case for intervention. They argue, often in rhetorical tones:
- Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his own people.
- Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator, are you saying Iraq was a better place without democracy?
These points often paint those fighting the case against intervention into a corner. One can easily appear to defend a dictator or open themselves up to a ‘sin by omission’ argument e.g. ‘So you would just do nothing and let all those people die?’
However, this argument is quite simple to destroy if you challenge its fundamentally flawed assumptions.
Firstly, these same people arguing the evils of Saddam were the very same people who installed him in the first place. Saddam in actually the perfect case against intervention. Iraq has already been a democracy. The US funded the Ba’ath party to perform a military coup against elected President Arif in 1968, to prevent him continuing his Arab Socialist programme in Iraq and talks of reunification with Syria and Iran. Despite Arif’s role as an elected leader, and in building up an impressive Iraqi infrastructure – the US backed his opponents as part of their Cold War position against socialism. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party quickly turned Iraq into a dictatorship, where Iraqis had to become a member of the Ba’ath party perform any function in the society.
The UK’s Thatcher government spent £1bn of taxpayer money propping up the Hussein dictatorship throughout the 1980’s. In the early 80’s Saddam’s bellicose Iraq launched a bloody war against Iran that was to last the best part of a decade. The House of Commons had voted to support a position of neutrality in the Iran-Iraq War and signed up to the United Nations arms embargo. The Scott Inquiry of 1996 found that the Thatcher government had operated in secret to ignore the United Nations arms embargo and supply military support to Iraq (the aggressor in the war). Official misconduct included shredding documents to cover the smuggling of British Chieftain Tank Hulls into Iraq and abusing credit lines meant for civilian trade development in Iraq to buy munitions.
When people claim Saddam used chemical weapons on his own people, they refer to the chemical gas attack on Halabja in 1988, which killed thousands of Kurdish civilians. This attack was carried out in the dying months of the Iran-Iraq war, while Thatcher’s government were providing military support to his regime. One might argue, it was a different time, with different governments. Yet, Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, was in the Special Envoy to the Middle East in 1983 when he shook Saddam Hussein’s hand during the height of the Iran-Iraq war. We are in it up to our eyes.
One might also argue that these were mistakes that we can now rectify with a democratic Iraq. This is where we must challenge the second of the rhetorical questions above.
What kind of democracy is Iraq? The beleaguered installed government hangs on by a thread. More than 450 Iraqis have been killed across Iraq this month alone; a string of coordinated car bombs across Baghdad killed 66 people just two days ago. April this year was the deadliest month in Iraq since the worst on record in 2008, with more than 700 people killed.
There might well be a parliament building in Iraq, with men and women talking about policies for the nation – but their ability to implement them in any real way is nil. Iraq is in the hands of militias.
The war has also been of great cost to the US and UK taxpayer. Senior White House official Lawrence Lindsay left government in 2002 after suggesting the Iraq war could end up costing the tax payer $200bn. Donald Rumsfeld denounced the estimate as ‘baloney’, endorsing previous White House estimates of $50-60bn.
A recent Harvard Study found that Iraq and Afghanistan have added $2trn to the US national debt, 20% of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2012. Furthermore, the final costs will likely end up between $4-6trn.
So if not the ordinary people of Iraq, the UK or the US – who exactly did profit from the invasion of Iraq? Big business.
Corporations received $138bn (10% of US GDP) of US taxpayer money for government contracts in Iraq. Ten companies took 52% of this sum. Included in their number was Halliburton. Dick Cheney, the US Vice President, left his role as Halliburton’s CEO just three years prior to the invasion, to join George W Bush’s campaign. Bush also had close ties to the oil giant. Halliburton had previously merged with the Dresser oil firm run by Prescott Bush, grandfather of George W Bush. The US President at the time of the invasions had worked for Dresser oil decades before. Halliburton received $39.5bn of contracts in Iraq, without needing to compete against bids from other firms.
Iraq is Not an Isolated Incident
It is difficult to find a blood-stained dictatorship in the world that didn’t begin its life as a US/UK sponsored project, or become one over time.
This 2 minute sequence from Michael Moore’s movie ‘Bowling for Columbine’ summarises this unedifying history perfectly.
Be it Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, or even The Taliban– the US and UK governments have supported countless undemocratic organisations to take over nations, so long as they sign contracts which profit our companies and support our foreign policy agenda. This is not conspiracy, it is verifiable fact. Our governments provide support with weapons, financing, and the most crucial element – legitimacy.
The U Turns on Saddam and the Taliban are akin to the excerpts of George Orwell’s 1984 where midway through a speech denouncing Eurasia as the enemy of Oceania, the government’s policy changes and war commences with Eastasia. Without missing a beat, the speaker claims that Oceania was never at war with Eurasia, but Eastasia is their perpetual enemy. This is the role of the media in these pleas for intervention, providing little or factually inaccurate history to contextualise the issue.
Supporters of intervention have one case they cling to where they claim a successful intervention – Bosnia. Even if Bosnia were a resounding success – it would stand alone. Bosnia is also far from a success story – the intervention has lasted two decades, cost more than $17bn, and whilst the killing stopped, unemployment stands at 25%, corruption is rife and poisonous local political dynamics continue.
A Rock and a Hard Place
This leaves those who conceive of themselves as Citizens of the World, with a strong commitment to supporting those facing persecution and death anywhere in the world, with a real problem. To do nothing means looking on while people face oppression, suppression and death. To support our governments intervening will likely result in the same or worse, while adding a large bill to the taxpayer and farming out the indigenous economy to our most rapacious corporations.
It is an unenviable position and is obviously less attractive than the easy knee jerk platitudes of the isolationist and humanitarian positions. But that might evidence it as the truest of the three.
To acknowledge that we are not the good guys is not easy, and it does require searching for alternative ways of intervening where we feel compelled to act.
As Syria burns, we will likely face calls to intervene again soon. Our new model of intervention won’t be ready by the time these calls come. But that does not mean we need to support an already failed policy. This does not constitute a sin by omission, rather it represents our best worst option right now, backed by a commitment to find something that works.
Those who did the same prior to Iraq were castigated as hard hearted armchair theorists, fiddling while Rome burned. But Iraq is still burning a decade later, and those who cautioned against the invasion were proven right.
It behoves us to consider alternative models for intervention and action, which don’t hand our taxes, and foreign lives and resources, directly into the hands of corporate criminals. It is time to find another way. We do not have to turn our backs, but we do have to change our tactics.
Richard Falk’s paper ‘The Failures of “Intervention from Above”: Is There and Alternative Model for Humanitarian Intervention’ explores this topic further.