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Could the left back an Iraq war?

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

In the black and white world of President Bush, the European left is as soft as Saddam is evil. And the White House seems to be as uninterested in persuading the left to back a war in Iraq as they are in negotiating with the Iraqi leader about readmitting weapons inspectors.
The Republican right may believe that pacifism is so firmly ingrained in the psyche of the left that all arguments will fall on deaf ears. But are they right to cut their losses? Maybe the strategists at the Pentagon should take a little time off from studying the politics of the Iraqi opposition and spend some time understanding their potential allies. There was, in fact, an extraordinary turnaround in the sensititivities of the left on questions of war and peace in the 1990s. After the cold war baby boom leaders who had been brought up on a diet of protest and peace marches became the most hawkish political generation yet. In Britain, Robin Cook, Clare Short and Peter Hain made the case for intervention in Kosovo with the same passion that they had called for world peace in the CND salad days of the 1980s. In Germany, the former revolutionary Joschka Fischer and student activist Gerhard Schroeder over-turned half a century of German Constitutional law to allow them to deploy troops abroad.

Cynics may claim that this was just more selling out on the road to power but that simply doesn’t explain why so many on the left changed their minds. The feeling of powerlessness in the face of genocide in Bosnia and in Rwanda meant that when European centre-left parties came to power, and had the chance to do so something about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, they were determined to act where their predecessors have failed. The embrace of military power in support of humanitarian values was driven by the heart-rending ineffectiveness of diplomatic solutions and sanctions, which the left had previously pinned their hopes on during the last Gulf War in 1991.

This meant coming to terms with the use of power. The psychological hurdles to doing so were higher because of the innate, and largely justified, suspicion of Cold War military adventurism in Suez, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Yet the left found it could rediscover an older tradition – the universalist impulses that led their fore-runners to support military action during the second world and the Spanish civil war. Today as Bush threatens action on Iraq, the hawkish rhetoric of the post-Cold War era has given away to dove-like caution. In Britain, Robin Cook and Clare Short have quietly voiced their concerns about military action while the usually outspoken Peter Hain has been silent. In Germany Schroeder and Fischer are competing with each other to pour cold water on Bush’s plans as the German Chancellor declares that German troops will not be involved and that the “cheque book diplomacy” of the last gulf war (where Germany and Japan bore 80% of the costs) will not be repeated this time round.

So was the militarised left simply a flash in the pan? Was it simply a 1990s fad that was swept away in a cloud of dotcoms? Some of the reasons for the change in perspective are circumstantial. First, many on the left are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and are worried that a war in Iraq could further exacerbate the violence in the region. Second, opinion polls show the broader public is sceptical about military action, to say nothing of what most party activist think – and, of course, Germany is entering the final stages of a General Election campaign.

But some of the opposition is disingenuous. The intransigent demands for a UN mandate – reinforced by the Church of England’s recent updating of Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the just war – would not be a definitive stumbling block if the left really believed in the case. Their primary concern is with justice and the project of building a rules-based global order. The UN can be an important part of this order but its decision-making can epitomise the worst of realpolitik. Because of the Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council, the United Nations has at times been as much a barrier to justice as a source of it – neither Rwanda nor Kosovo were the subject of a UN mandate.

Of course, the left’s ambivalaence about war also has a lot to do with who is calling the shots. During Kosovo, it was the Europeans who were setting the pace and convincing a reluctant America to get involved – although the opposite was true over Bosnia. Over Iraq, Washington is clearly in the driving seat. A former ministerial aide blames the residual power of anti-Americanism: “The natural reaction of the CND lot is to see any American intervention as imperialism. There is a knee-jerk reaction that if it is supported by a rightwing government it must be bad. It hasn’t helped that the Americans are being so uniliateralist and pulling out of treaties left-right and centre. You can understand why the left think that this isn’t about international order but about George Bush Junior finishing off his dad’s work – but their prejudices are blinding them to the real issues.”

So is there anything that could make the left change its mind? What would the conditions be for a war that the left could support? Rock-solid evidence of a real and imminent Iraqi threat to the west or the region would probably produce acquiescence for action, but it is unlikely to mobilise their hearts and minds. For a progressive case to do that it would have to be based on the principle of humanitarian intervention. The liberal philosopher Michael Walzer has described how the left’s opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded because of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghans greeted that success: “the pictures of women showing their smiling faces to the world, of men shaving their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer in shorts… was no doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but also politically disarming… it was suddenly clear, even to many opponents of the war, that the Taliban regime had been the biggest obstacle to any serious effort to address the looming humanitarian crisis, and it was the American war that removed the obstacle. It looked (almost) like a war of liberation, a humanitarian intervention”.

Could the same thing happen with Iraq? The left is acutely conscious of the double burden of suffering which Saddam’s continued presence places on the Iraqi people. His own mass killings, summary executions, detentions, and attacks on minorities have been well documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. And this record of suffering is overlayed with the collateral damage of a decade of containment: comprehensive economic sanctions, no-fly zones, periodic military attacks. Opponents of war are making the case that containment works. But that also means that, as long as Saddam remains in power, so too will these policies. Yet there has been no clear picture of a post-Saddam Iraq. If it could be credibly shown that changing the regime in Iraq would mean ending sanctions and creating a functioning democracy, the case for action might persuade more people.

But that will not be the case which President Bush makes this Autumn. After September 11 it is inevitable that America’s self-defence will weigh more heavily domestically than the welfare of the Iraqi people. And Bush’s strategy for the mid-term elections is based on keeping America mobilised. If European citizens were more inclined to take the threat of attack seriously, this would no doubt be their first priority too. But focusing on exclusively on self-defence rather than talking up the benefits for the Iraqi people is likely to further fuel the suspicions of the left who fear that a western-imposed military government will only be marginally less oppressive to Iraqi civilians than Saddam Hussein.

Tony Blair has kept his powder dry so far, but if he decides to back a military offensive – and it is extremely unlikely that he would break with the Americans – his dossier of evidence would have to show how the suffering of the Iraqi people and Saddam’s external threat are linked and how a plan for regime change can get rid of both. That is his best hope of persuading some of those who supported the west’s military interventions in the past but who remain to be convinced this time round.

· Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre ( and writes a monthly online commentary for Observer Worldview.

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