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September 25, 2004

If you start the fight don't complain when you get hurt


The unspoken reaction to this week’s barbarism is that we should never have got into Iraq

FROM KABUL where I write this, news of blood-curdling events seems less shocking than it must in Britain, but even in Afghanistan to hear of the week’s events in Iraq leaves an awful feeling in the pit of the stomach. To try to express horror almost devalues the horror — as though any other reaction could be imagined. Some things go without saying. Some things are, literally, unspeakable. There, perhaps, the commentary should rest. But too many years listening to politicians in private as well as in public teach me that, behind closed doors in Westminster and Washington, this is not where commentary will rest. Of course Tony Blair’s and George W. Bush’s shock will be as genuine as that of any other human being; it will have been instinctive. But they are politicians as well as human beings, and after the instinct will have come the calculation. How (Mr Blair will be asking himself this weekend) will these horrors play with the British voter? Whom will the public blame? Popular disgust we can take for granted, but in the “War on Terror”, will disgust bring a stiffening of the sinews, or a nervous wobble?

In these political leaders’ minds a small shaft of what in less grisly circumstances one might call hope breaks through. Surely in the Western imagination this atrocity puts the Iraqi insurgents so far beyond the pale that public anger in Britain steels a national determination to see this war through to victory? Surely even a woolly-minded liberal who has felt sympathy for the insurgents’ cause, if not their methods, will now see these terrorists for the animals they are? Being abroad I do not know whether any of my fellow columnists or leader writers in Fleet Street have yet written that column. But they will.

And they will be spitting into the wind. Spitting as valiantly as they have spat since this conflict began.

Let me explain why. It all starts from the word “crude”. To describe the approach of those of us who have from the start opposed this war, “crude” has been a favourite term among Pentagon cheerleaders on both sides of the Atlantic. I used to resent it, but I am beginning to think we should embrace it.

When, after 9/11, we warned America against any lashing out in ill-directed rage, we were accused of a “crude” distortion of US strategy. When as war looked increasingly inevitable we worried aloud about the Pentagon’s approach, we were charged with pandering to “crude” anti-Americanism.

When, as Washington worked on plans for the handover of “sovereignty” in Iraq, we recalled the time-honoured fate of puppet governments, we were accused of making “crude” comparisons with South Vietnam. And when we deplored our own Prime Minister’s too-ready compliance with the wishes of an American president, we were said to have painted a “crude” caricature of dog owner and poodle.

Very well, then, I thought: if not a crude case for paralysis, how about a thoughtful case for inactivity? If not crude anti-Americanism, how about some sophisticated anti-Americanism. If not a crude comparison with South Vietnam, how about an erudite one? If not a crude caricature of dog owner and dog, how about a delicate portrait of that most trusting of relationships?

But then again, why bother? Perhaps we who have opposed this stupendous blunder should come out of the closet and proclaim ourselves proud to have been crude. As Lord Melbourne once lamented: “What all the wise men said would happen has not happened, and what all the damn fools predicted has occurred.”

And so it has come to pass in Iraq. The damn fools said America would lash out, and America did. The damn fools said it would only make terrorism worse, and it has. The damn fools said America would prove a mulish occupying power, and America did. The damn fools said Mr Blair would exert little or no influence on Mr Bush, and nor has he. The damn fools said things would get worse, not better, once power was handed to a puppet government in Iraq, and things have.

So where from here? There follows a damn fool’s judgement — mine — about the likely subliminal popular reaction to this week’s instalment of barbarism in Iraq: the quiet and mostly unspoken reaction behind all the headline screams of fury and disgust.

It is that we should never have got ourselves into this in the first place. It is that we — not those poor dead hostages, but the Government we have elected which effectively sent them there — were “asking for it”. Now how crude is that?

So crude that, like many sentiments in which there is a sharp splinter of truth, it hurts to read it and it hurts to write it. “Asking for it” expresses a thought which is callous and unfair on so many counts and which, taken literally, is plain wrong; yet which will have occurred to tens of millions of my fellow citizens this week — though few would try to justify it if challenged, and fewer still would dream of expressing in so many words.

Almost none of them, I hope, will have thought that to go abroad and take risks in order to help reconstruction in Iraq is “asking for it”. But a good many will have heard the pulpit-thumping and breast-beating of the politicians whose policies caused humbler citizens to take those risks, and wondered whether a period of silence from those politicians might not be called for. “Bush and Blair ought to have thought of these things before they sent the troops in,” many will whisper to themselves in the still of the night. Official exhortations to all of us to redouble our hatred of the perpetrators and to pursue and bring to justice an insurgency of unknown size will ring the hollower for it. People are getting tired of hearing Mr Blair say this is a war against evil; they ask who poked the hornets’ nest.

“Asking for it” is a horrible phrase, yet horribly close to the way human beings do think. It is not a maxim known to our law. English law holds that no degree of folly on the part of one party can justify criminal behaviour on the part of another. But “serves you right: you asked for it” is the sort of thing mothers say to their children, and when those children become adults they do not forget.

In no area of human behaviour is this more potent than in the area of aggression. As the chap who threw an egg at John Prescott in Wales during the last election discovered to his cost, those who start a fight forfeit (in the popular mind) much of their right to complain if the fight turns against them.
Loathe him as everybody did, few see Saddam Hussein as having picked the fight in Iraq. No wonder Mr Blair tried so hard to get that second UN resolution, for Saddam might then been presented as wilfully breaching it. But in the end he never really committed anything easy to describe as an act of war against Britain or America. It follows that, deep as our disapproval today of the insurgency in Iraq should be, “but what are we doing there in the first place?” is a question which relentlessly undermines Mr Blair’s moral platform.

It is not a question which you often hear when your own side is winning; but when the tide turns it suddenly seems to matter. Even were I not opposed to this war, I would, as a matter of popular psychology, see the general perception that Mr Bush and Mr Blair picked this fight as a huge impediment to their propaganda effort now, and fatal to their attempt to whip up the public rage they need against the insurgency.

The converse is also true. When a war leader (such as Winston Churchill) can convincingly paint the nation he leads as in no sense the aggressor, his wartime propaganda gets off to a flying start. Where (as in the Boer War or arguably the Vietnam War) the impression gains ground that a big guy is picking on a little guy, then if the tables are turned and the little guy fights back, the emotional logic is all against the supposed aggressor, even where he is arguably in the right. The Boers were no angels, but Britain’s pursuit of them stuck in the throats even of patriots such as Rudyard Kipling. We had “asked for it”. Vile dictators such as Fidel Castro have been shrewd enough to see this. It is why all the worst kinds of bullying populists begin by representing themselves and their supporters as victims.

It will be hard now (I suspect impossible) to turn the insurgency in Iraq into a movement which the British people believe has picked the fight with us. That, at least, is what this damn fool believes. And if you want the next step in the damn fools’ manifesto, then here goes: for the wise men say that whether we were right or wrong to occupy, it is now our moral duty to “see it through”. It would be the height of irresponsibility to cut and run.

And the damn fools? Cut and run, we say, and the sooner the better, because we will in the end.