In response to news that the al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), had seized control of Mosul and surrounding territories in Northern Iraq, the Times journalist David Aaronovitch summarised the desperate situation as follows:
Isis [now] loosely controls a big stretch of territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq and has captured millions of pounds of cash in Mosul banks and tonnes of Iraqi military equipment donated or sold by the United States. It threatens the existence of a unitary Iraq, the safety of the Kurdish autonomous region and the stability of the whole area.
These same events prompted Owen Jones to publish his own article for the Guardian, which began like this:
I have encountered no sense of vindication, no “I told you so”, among veterans of the anti-war protest of 15 February 2003 in response to the events in Iraq.
The first thing one notices is that this sentence looks very silly indeed sitting beneath a headline which flatly declares: “We anti-war protesters were right: the Iraq invasion has led to bloody chaos”.
Secondly, Jones’s use of the term “veterans” to describe peace activists just a week after commemoration of the Normandy landings is unfortunate, to say the least. D-Day veterans are the survivors of a mission in which thousands gave their lives in defence of democracy. By contrast, those peaceniks (including Jones himself), valorised with this term in Jones’s article, merely marched through London in lawful demonstration against government policy, and at no risk to themselves whatsoever.
And, lest it be forgotten, they did so in opposition to an attempt to build a democracy on the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s fascist despotism.
Whatever one’s related views about the threat posed by Iraqi WMDs, there is, I’m afraid, no getting around this awkward fact. One might argue that the casus belli was manufactured and/or repeatedly altered, but the stated goal of democratisation, one central to neoconservative ideology, remained consistent throughout. Given that the anti-war movement were not exactly preoccupied with devising an alternative, peaceful means to this end (beyond the occasional, woolly reference to the ‘Iraqi grassroots’), this left them objectively defending a totalitarian status quo.
Not that this is a morally reprehensible position per se. The utilitarian case for war can be countered with a utilitarian case against it; in other words, one can hold that the consequences of intervening have been worse than the probable consequences of not intervening, and that the West’s stated goals were always unattainable and unrealistic. The problem is that, since the war did occur, a retrospective consequentialist argument for non-intervention depends upon acceptance of an unknowable counterfactual. We only have the facts of one half of the argument, and the consequences of non-intervention in Syria do not speak to an attractive alternative.
Nonetheless, it is with this kind of far-sighted thinking that Jones wishes to vindicate the arguments of the anti-war movement:
The catastrophic results of the Iraq invasion are often portrayed as having been impossible to predict, and only inevitable with the benefit of hindsight. If only to prevent future calamities from happening, this is a myth that needs to be dispelled. The very fact that the demonstration on that chilly February day in 2003 was the biggest Britain had ever seen, is testament to the fact that disaster seemed inevitable to so many people.
The February demonstration was testament to the breadth and depth of opposition to the war. It tells us nothing, by itself, about the marchers’ reasons. Apocalyptic predictions of disaster are part and parcel of opposition rhetoric before any kind of armed conflict, and were just one of a battery of ever-evolving objections to the war in Iraq, many of which contradicted one another, and many of which have not been borne out.
What in fact drove opposition to the Iraq war wasn’t sober and wise prognostication at all. On the contrary, opposition was ideological and visceral. In the wake of 9/11, America experienced a surge in support for a right wing President the European Left already mistrusted. Reflexively uneasy with national pride, they became uneasier still as they watched it being mobilised in support of not one but two Middle Eastern wars.
Pacifists and those already inclined to believe that America had, to some degree or other, brought the 9/11 attacks upon itself were soon joined by those who felt that al Qaeda’s atrocities were being exploited to advance a hegemonic geopolitical agenda. Some saw hubris, others saw something more sinister and dangerous. Suspicion only increased as the British and American governments sought to terrify their publics into supporting the approaching invasion with fear-mongering speeches and lurid intelligence dossiers filled with alarmist misinformation.
What united opponents of the war was not a rational analysis of the likely effect on Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Marsh Arab communities; it was hostility to the governments who would lie to their citizens and take them for fools, and hostility to American power in the hands of an administration they despised. One can sympathise with this kind of thinking or not but, either way, it requires no consideration of either Iraqis or their interests.
Such consideration remains conspicuous by its absence from anti-war arguments offered today. The first part of Jones’s column is a self-aggrandising reminder of how prescient he and the anti-war camp were; the second of how wrong and generally unsympathetic everyone else is:
The commentators who cheered on the conflict, far from being driven from public life are still feted: still writing columns, still dispensing advice in TV studios, still hosting think tank breakfasts.
Jones also writes columns and dispenses advice in TV studios, and he sits on the National Advisory Panel of a left wing think tank called the Centre for Labour And Social Studies. So the juxtaposition of pro-war elitism with his self-flattering portrait of principled grassroots stoicism is unpersuasive. What really irks him is that, having been so completely right about something so completely important, the West’s most influential media organisations and foreign policy think-tanks have not been filled up with people who think like Lindsey German and Tony Benn.
As for those commentators who ought to be shamed from public life to make way for them, Jones singles out David Aaronovitch and his article in the Times for particular opprobrium. He finds it simply incomprehensible that Aaronovitch is not broken by shame and remorse.
Irrespective of the hostages to fortune, Aaronovitch unwisely conceded back in 2003, he never struck me as all that interested in quarrelling over the wording of Security Council resolutions or the dossiers about WMD. Along with a minority of like-minded Leftists, he decided that he wanted to see the back of Saddam Hussein’s regime more than he hated the Bush administration, and that the mission to replace a Ba’athist dictatorship with a democracy was one worth supporting, not opposing.
Mindful of the risks of doing so, Aaronoviotch arrived at this conclusion with considerably more reluctance and unease that Jones allows. But having offered Iraqi democrats his support, he has been consistent in his loyalty to their struggle ever since. Why should he apologise for positions he still holds? And why should he renounce his support for Iraqi democracy just as it faces its moment of greatest peril?
For Owen Jones and the war’s opponents, the very idea of democracy in Iraq had to be smothered at birth. It was either derided as a sham – a mere pretext used to justify Western plundering of a Middle Eastern nation – or as a pipe-dream so foolish and quixotic as to be worthy only of scorn. For if Iraq’s democratic experiment stood any chance of success, then what exactly were they opposing?
In this way, opponents of the war developed a perverse ideological interest in the neoconservative project failing, irrespective of the cost to Iraq and its people in whose name peaceniks invariably claimed to speak. And so it was that they conceded the battle for a democratic Iraq before it had even begun. As the country began its slow, gory slide into civil war in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall and arrest, the bloody-minded schadenfreude from the anti-war camp, briefly silenced by the taking of Baghdad, began to gather confidence and authority, which were only reinforced by the non-appearance of WMDs. Not only was the growing mayhem a vindication of their opposition, but it would ensure that next time peace activists spoke on international affairs, democratic governments would be forced to listen.
But democracy in Iraq is not a failure, nor has the idea that Arabs deserve accountable governance been decisively discredited, as Jones and his allies appear to believe. It is a work in progress. A deeply imperfect one, but one in which important, if fragile, gains have nonetheless been made in the teeth of appalling violence. All such gains are now threatened by the advance of ISIS, who seek nothing more noble that the enslavement of the Iraqi nation and its people. Jones, however, appears remarkably eager to excuse ISIS and its forerunners all responsibility for their actions. He will enlist their depredations when they add colour to his canvas of post-war carnage, but condemnation of their culpability remains oddly absent:
The US massacres in Fallujah in the immediate aftermath of the war, which helped radicalise the Sunni population, culminating in an assault on the city with white phosphorus. The beheadings, the kidnappings and hostage videos, the car bombs, the IEDs, the Sunni and Shia insurgencies, the torture declared by the UN in 2006 to be worse than that under Saddam Hussein, the bodies with their hands and feet bound and dumped in rivers, the escalating sectarian slaughter, the millions of displaced civilians, and the hundreds of thousands who died: it has been one never-ending blur of horror since 2003.
Jones is not to be detained by the niceties of who has been killing whom and why. Instead, all post-war violence is simply reported as the by-product the invasion, responsibility for which lies exclusively at the feet of the West. There is no accountability expected for the “never-ending blur of horror” visited on Iraq, except Western accountability. Battles fought to reclaim insurgent strongholds are reported as arbitrary massacres and simply run together with the car bombs, executions and marketplace slaughters carried out by the insurgents themselves.
To Jones, such actions are not premeditated acts of mass murder performed by actors who have chosen to pursue a merciless theocratic agenda. They are simply manifestations of abstract and unaccountable ‘blowback’; a violent and uncontrollable counter-reaction unleashed by Western actions. They are, Jones avers with barely-disguised satisfaction, simply the chickens of American imperialism and Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite sectarianism coming home to roost.
The ISIS conquest of Mosul, we are given to understand, is just the latest development in an irreversible process, resistance to which is futile. “In a way,” he sighs, “[the] opponents of the war were wrong. We were wrong because however disastrous we thought the consequences of the Iraq war, the reality has been worse.”
Having remarked ruefully on the anti-war movement’s noble failure and righteously denounced the war’s unrepentant supporters, he abandons Iraq to despair:
What hope, then, for the future? It is difficult to see how the continuing collapse of Iraq can be avoided: the more informed the expert, the more despairing they seem to be. There will be those who champion more western intervention. But whatever happens, this calamity must never be allowed to happen again.
Jones gives no analysis of his own in support of this hopeless prognosis but, on the word of unnamed experts, we are assured that all is lost, just as he foretold.
David Aaronovitch, on the other hand, is not minded to concede Iraq and its people to theocratic fascism just yet. Unlike Jones, he does not perceive ISIS to be a mere force of nature, but an army of organised, committed and extremely dangerous fanatics operating according to their own ruthless logic. Democrats in Iraq, he argues, need to be identified, supported and, wherever possible, protected from this menace. If this means airstrikes against ISIS positions, then so be it. In particular…
. . . [t]he Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq [KAR] and its 4.8 million inhabitants represent the one incontrovertible gain of the last Iraq war. We must do everything short of putting boots on the ground to help the Kurds to defend themselves against Isis and similar groups. Britain and France should give President Obama whatever encouragement he needs to take this action, and render whatever assistance the Americans might require. We don’t have to agree on anything else — 2003, WMD, Syrian red lines, whatever — just this.
This last appeal is completely wasted on Jones. Nowhere in his article, framed in part as an indignant reply to Aaronovitch, is any mention made of the Kurds, a stateless people whose plight was once so important to the Left that Harold Pinter wrote an unwatchable play about them. As the beneficiaries of an invasion he opposed, the Kurds now find themselves forsaken by Jones, whose only comprehensible recommendation in response to the current crisis is a demand for Western penitence and inaction.
Should the KAR fall to ISIS, then perhaps the Kurds will reclaim the attention of Owen Jones: for by then they will be just another inevitable casualty of a war he’d opposed, and further evidence that he has been right all along.
This article was first posted at the Unrepentant Jacobin blog.