What would you suggest?
Those who are opposed to war on Iraq need to show that there is a peaceful way to liberate its people
Wednesday February 19, 2003
Here's the question every opponent of the coming war on Iraq fears most: well, what would you do? We're comfortable enough announcing what we would not do, rattling off all the flaws, contradictions and hypocrisies of the war camp. We've got those arguments down pat, and apparently they're winning the day: witness not only the million-plus who marched last weekend but the clear majority polled by the Guardian yesterday against a military attack.
But what do we say when our opponents ask not for our criticisms but our alternative course of action? I don't mean our solution to Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. On that we can legitimately dispute the scale and urgency of the threat, citing other more pressing dangers. Nor do we have to find a response to the alleged links between Baghdad and al-Qaida: the evidence for those is so flimsy even Downing Street seems embarrassed by the claim.
No, we need an answer to the argument which has become Tony Blair's favourite in recent days: that war is needed to topple a cruel tyrant who has drowned his people in misery. In this view, the coming conflict is a war of liberation which will cost some Iraqi lives at first, to be sure, but which will save many more. It will be a moral war to remove an immoral regime. To oppose it is to keep Saddam in power.
This is a much harder case for the anti-war movement to swat aside. We have to take it seriously, if only because no slogan will sink the peace cause faster than "anti-war equals pro-Saddam". And the anti-war movement has made itself vulnerable to that charge. Tony Benn's patsy interview with the dictator was a terrible error, while aspects of Saturday's rally hardly helped. Few speakers paid more than lip service to Saddam's crimes; indeed, most seemed to regard George Bush as by far the more evil despot. Tariq Ali suggested regime change was needed in Britain more than it was in Iraq, while the official banners told their own story. "Don't Attack Iraq," they shouted, above a second line, "Freedom for Palestine." Why was that not "Freedom for Iraqis"?
So the anti-war campaign has to make three sharp moves. First, we have to establish that we oppose the Ba'athist regime with all the fervour now claimed by the PM. (And it won't do to bring out the yellowing scrapbook, and brag about all the anti-Saddam rallies we held in the 1980s: the issue is now.)
Second, we have to dispute Blair's description of the coming attack as a war of liberation. He may be claiming that now, as he seeks to win over a stubbornly sceptical public opinion, but it hardly squares with the rhetoric coming from the chief prosecutors of the war. Washington does not cast this conflict centrally in humanitarian, Kosovo-style terms, but as a way of snuffing out a threat to US security. Those who claim this as a war for the Iraqi people need to listen harder to the men who will be fighting it: Bush, Rumsfeld and the guys don't talk that way. People cannot pretend this is the war they want it to be; they have either to support or oppose this war as it actually is.
Third, the peace camp has to set out its own, alternative method of ridding Iraq of its oppressor. We have to have an answer to our critics' legitimate question: what would you do?
So far the offerings have been pretty meagre. Tariq Ali spoke of "strengthening the people" on Saturday, but we will have to do better than that. We need to start coming up with detailed, fleshed-out ideas that might work.
One approach would be to use this moment of pressure - admittedly brought about by the threat of war - to demand Saddam not only give up his armoury but also open up his society. The UN could demand that Hans Blix's team be joined by a squad of "human rights inspectors", keeping tabs on, say, the fate of political prisoners. That finds favour with Mary Kaldor, a leading light in the 1980s anti-nuclear movement, who has published a long list of ideas on the openDemocracy website. Her objective: to open a few cracks in the Iraqi frost that might lead to the home-grown, peaceful regime change that eventually came to eastern Europe. She imagines a UN resolution demanding, among other things, the right for opposition parties to open offices inside Iraq. If the same pressure that is currently being applied to Baghdad on arms were transferred to freedom and democracy, it could bring results.
Scilla Elworthy of the Oxford Research Group, which specialises in conflict resolution, returned from a visit to Baghdad last month with her own scheme to undermine Saddam through means other than force. She imagines an instantlifting of sanctions and permission for Saddam to sell oil - on condition that some or all of the revenue go into an account controlled by the UN. Those funds would only be released if and when the regime made democratic reforms: no change, no cash.
Backed by a military presence, "muscular rights inspectors" could force Baghdad to open up. They could demand that Iraqis be allowed access to western media, the internet and cell phones (intriguingly, Saddam recently placed an order for a million mobiles). Most pressing of all, the UN could demand the return of Iraqi exiles. Numbering in the millions, these are the professionals with skills who either fled or were chased out of their country. Elworthy suggests an electronic tagging system to guarantee their safety: if the regime arrested or harassed them, the UN human rights monitors would be on hand to help. "Returnees are the key," says Elworthy. "Within two or three years they would have organised and got rid of Saddam."
Elworthy and Kaldor both imagine change coming to Iraq the way it reached communist Europe or fascist Spain and Portugal, through gradual exposure to the outside world - and delivered by the people themselves. It would require persistent UN commitment and the constant pressure of a military threat hanging over the regime. But it would be a lot less bloody than an invasion.
You can pick holes in such thinking - many UN members are hardly democratic paragons themselves; you can point out what might not work. If Saddam is refusing to cooperate with arms inspectors, even as the world puts a gun to his head, why would he allow democracy stewards to crawl all over his country? Those are fair worries. But even so, these ideas have to be worth a try. If they fail, we could always turn to war as a last resort. But if they are brushed aside, not even attempted, then neither Blair nor Bush can say that "all other means" were exhausted - a pre-requisite for a just war.
Whether the UN follows such a route or not, the peace camp should surely begin advocating it. If we do not, we allow our opponents to say we are coddlers of evil, allowing an oppressor to rule unchecked. This way, we can hold our heads high with a new slogan: pro-peace, aggressively anti-Saddam.