American Interventionism: A Condemnation and a Defence. The Cases of Iraq and Somalia

The invasion of Iraq stands as strong case of failed intervention. Some enthusiasts are still clinging to the idea that Iraq is better of than it was under Saddam and that opponents of the invasion can be dismissed as ‘appeasers’ on the model of those who failed to stand up to Hitler in the 1930s.

There is clearly a strong current in the US right which regards criticism of the war as treason. Fortunately the latter position has very little influence on the British right which now looks extraordinarily liberal compared with its US counterpart. Even the most traditionalist parts of the British right has learned to live with, and even love, civil partnership for gays. No one is calling for the return of the death penalty. There is little denial of global warning or the need to government action to at the very least moderate the change. There has never been a Christian Right and traditionalist social conservatives now consider it daring to criticise ‘multi-culturalism’, though equivalent critiques exist on the left of the separatist forms of multi-culturalism.

Leaving aside a deeply worrying tendency of hardcore US conservatives to interpret criticism of the Iraq war as treason, and criticism of Guantanamo Bay as support for terrorism, it is necessary to deal with the respectable residue of support for the Iraq Invasion.

Is Iraq better off now in human and civic rights thanks to the elected institutions?
Sadly no, and it is getting to the point of blind irrationality to deny this. Grotesque abuses of human rights by the Baath Party regime have been replaced by abuses committed by gangs. Essentially Iraq has lost central state power, the one achievement of the Baath Party was that there was a central state which held a monopoly of power however cruelly that power was used. The Iraqi state is now one gang amongst many. Armed militia are now mini-states which in many cases have colonised parts of the legal state. Their methods include torture with power drills before murder, even hospital patients are not free from this extreme sadism of political and religious resentment. The most peaceful region is the predominantly Kurdish north, but even here journalists, and people I’ve talked to with direct knowledge, confirm that tribal, ethnic and religious differences are festering and not much would be required to push the region into all out conflict between its own micro-state gangs. That’s just leaving aside the impact on the whole Middle east and neighbouring states, which may be another blog.

Are opponents of the war habitual appeasers?
No. Some opponents are of the view that all American and Western intervention anywhere anytime is illegitimate and all resistance of any kind must be legitimate. However, many others supported armed intervention in Yugoslavia during the ethnic cleansing and persecutions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. Many also supported the Gulf War that pushed Iraq out of Kuwait and the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. I certainly belong to this category, as to most liberal minded people in Britain, particularly, but not only, active supporters of the Liberal Democrats.

The case against the recent invasion of Iraq is not a general case against American interventionism, Western interventionism or armed Liberal Internationalism. I am an enthusiast for armed Liberal Internationalism, but on the basis of case by case judgement. The Iraq intervention was the wrong case for the following reasons.
1. The US led coalition had left Saddam in place after the first Gulf War, which inevitably calls into question the legitimacy of a delayed overthrow. To my mind there was a very strong case for at least degrading Iraqi armies enough to allow overthrow of Saddam after the first Gulf War, but once the opportunity was missed it could not be legitimately reinvented.
2. Claims that Saddam was allied with Al-Quida and connected with the 9/11 outrage were clearly false and dishonest, and were cynically used to manipulate that large section of US public opinion lacking adequate knowledge international politics to grasp the absurdity of the claim. It is clear that most US service personnel in Iraq believed that Saddam was connected with 9/11. That was the result of a scandalous and cynical manipulation by the Bush administration which showed contempt for service personnel risking life and limb.
3. Claims that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons were clearly believed by most Western intelligence agencies, and even many Iraqi generals. Nevertheless, the fact is no such program existed. Even given the suspicions that existed, they were not confirmed by hard fact, and the idea that a war can be legitimised by the possibility that the opponent is working hard to develop nuclear weapons is quite extraordinary, and would clearly introduce chaos into the international system if the accompanying doctrine of preemptive invasion against the possibility of WMD was widely adopted. Even the Bush administration has not applied this consistently, as was seen in the reaction to North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons. Though the nuclear weapons of Israel, India and Pakistan are less of a danger than weapons possessed by a loose canon like Saddam operating outside normal calculations of balance of power and risk, which establish some kind of self-regulating international system, the gap between the attitude towards the hypothetical Iraqi bomb and the very real bombs of other countries is just too great. The inflammatory effect on Arab opinion is rather obvious and was an inevitable consequence of an absurdly careless strategy. These considerations of consistency are not an intellectual game, they have real consequences in the Arab street, and those who do not care to bother much about Arabs should at least give some thought to the effects on Israeli and western civilians. Evidently Israel was initially keen on the US smacking a rejectionist Arab regime around, but I do not think Israelis are mostly thinking this anymore, as they are all too obviously faced with resurgent Iranian influence and manipulation in the region.
4. Following on from the above, pro-War hawks tend to correctly insist that the Middle East is festering with conflicts and resentments, which scapegoat the West/infidels/Israel/Jews that are there regardless of the invasion of Iraq or whether Israel gets out of the occupied territories. However, it is a very big jump to say that these problems are not intensified by the invasion of Iraq, and certainly absurd and boorish to claim that anyone who points out these effects is excusing Islamist terror.
5. The US supported Saddam against Iran in the 1980s, everyone has now seen the pictures of Rumsfeld from that time embracing the Butcher of Baghdad. Before that the US stood aside as Saddam butchered Iraqi Kurds in the 1970s when the Shah of Iran withdrew his support for insurgents, after settling a dispute with Saddam to his own satisfaction. Both moves by the Shah took place with US support. Where is the apology for any of this? Where is the humble gesture which should have been undertaken before contemplating a war against Saddam on the grounds that Saddam was the eternal enemy of the US and its principles? A large part of the justification for the war involved a swaggering refusal to acknowledge previous errors as a mood of self-righteousness was built up accompanied by vacuous appeals to ‘strength’ as the answer to problems of international relations and nonsensical attempts to smear Clinton as weak on terror, and as an appeaser. This despite Clinton administration enforcement of sanctions on Iraq, bombing of Sudan, and military intervention in former Yugoslavia. It was the Bush administration that came to terms with arch-terrorist and despot Gaddafi, if Clinton had done such a thing, clearly all the hard core conservatives would have interpreted this as weakness and appeasement.

Is American intervention always wrong? No.
Is intervention by the Bush administration always wrong. No.
Let us take the example of Somalia. I will risk being made foolish by events and insist that the US supported overthrow of the ‘Islamic Courts’ was a justified armed intervention. The actual intervention was carried out by Ethiopia, which is now seeking an African Union force to replace its army. There is no need to American hard-core conservative triumphalism here. The Ethiopian regime is one of manipulated democracy, ethnic and political persecution. The intervention in Somalia was sparked by rivalry with Eritrea, in which Eritrea is the wronged party in a border dispute. Nevertheless, Eritrea, which has a downright totalitarian regime, is not right to use Al-Quida linked fundamentalists as a weapon against Ethiopia. ‘Islamic Court’ radicals were appealing to Somali Muslims in Ethiopia and Kenya, and such an expanding arc of religious fundamentalist destabilisation could not be tolerated.

In the wake of the Bush disaster in Iraq, middle ground, including centre right, opinion in Britain has tended to condemn the US sponsored Ethiopian intervention as destabilising, though it has been too much on the periphery of attention for different views to emerge and contend on the topic. It is true that Somalia was divided between brutal micro-state gangs before the Islamic Courts established a central government. That government was destroying individual liberties, was clearly a boon for terrorists, and right now efforts are being made for an AU force to stabilise a secular central government. It could all go wrong, but if it works, globally dangerous terrorists have been ejected from the Horn of Africa, eastern Africa has been immunised from destabilisation, and the AU will have taken a step towards nation building through African cooperation. There is a risk here, but this is the risk here, and on this occasion
liberal minded British minded commentators are wrong. If Bush, and his conservative aides, come up with similar actions during the remainder of his term, then he will have done some good.

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