Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 07:07 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 07:07 | SYDNEY

Good and bad reasons for opposing the Iraq war

10 February 2009 17:33

Scott Burchill is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University.

The key question to be asked of those who opposed the war in Iraq is this: was your opposition ethical (crimes of aggression are immoral) or strategic (you opposed because you didn’t think the war was winnable or in the pragmatic interests of the West)?

Realists avoid ethical questions by pretending that the world of international politics is a domain of power with little or no room for moral considerations. They will only discuss strategic questions such as whether we have the right strategy to win in Iraq, whether it will divert resources from the struggle against Al Qaeda, whether it will upset the regional balance of power, or whether the war was necessary, given their claim that Saddam Hussein was already contained.

They did not pose or address the a priori ethical question of whether we have the right to attack and occupy another country. Intervention, in their eyes, is always a pragmatic consideration: can we win?

Liberals in the US (Anthony Lake et al) who belatedly opposed the Vietnam War after 1968 did so on similar grounds – the war was unwinnable and too costly – not because they thought it was a crime to invade another country and slaughter its defenceless civilians.

By ignoring key ethical questions and limiting comments to strategic or tactical discussions, they imply that there are no ethical or moral issue at stake – itself, arguably, an immoral assumption.

On recent 'progress' in Iraq, Noam Chomsky’s comparison is irresistible. In the West there was universal and principled condemnation of Russia’s crimes in Chechnya. Those crimes were not mitigated by the fact that Putin’s brutal measures appear to have largely succeeded in restoring order and reconstruction under a Chechen government. No one applauds Putin for this achievement. Yet in Iraq, the surge is being praised by supporters of the war for achieving something similar – as if this retrospectively legitimates the invasion and six year occupation. The ends apparently justify the means.

If you praise David Petraeus you should also praise Vladimir Putin on the same grounds. The Russian leader justified his surge and defined its 'success' in Chechnya in almost identical language. Tom Switzer asks why it so hard for critics of the war in Iraq to acknowledge recent progress in the country? It might have something to do with the death and destruction we visited upon the Iraqi people prior to and during the 'surge' – we have killed so many innocent Iraqi civilians we refused to count them. Or it might have something to do with our breaches of international law. Or it might be for the same reason it is so hard for opponents of Putin’s war to acknowledge progress on the ground in Grozny.

There is more than simply the double standards of the West to consider. Stability means nothing until you acknowledge what is being stabilised and how is it being stabilised. The Indonesian military 'stabilised' East Timor for two decades by turning it into a charnel house, committing atrocious crimes against humanity with the support of successive Australian governments. Many realists in Australia praised Suharto for stabilising the Indonesian archipelago, their laser-like focus on pragmatic, strategic considerations leaving them untroubled by ethical issues such as the Indonesian military’s human rights violations in the territory.

Undoubtedly there has been 'progress' and 'success' in Iraq, but at what cost? One cannot insulate the current situation from the preceding years which got us to this point. It would be astonishing if after such an investment in blood and money, something positive couldn’t be found. What is more remarkable is how badly the occupation was handled and why 'progress' is only being noted now – 6 years on.  It should be hoped that Iraq gets a stable, secular government in place. However, if this happens it won’t mitigate our earlier crimes – for which we hung the Nazi leadership after WW2 - and it won’t be because this was Bush’s primary objective. It will be despite these factors.