Clarity versus incoherence in the Iraq debate

Two very different viewpoints on Iraq today.

Firstly, an unapologetic piece by the essential Oliver Kamm: We were right to invade Iraq. (This article also appears in today’s Guardian.) Kamm is always an intriguing read, being a self-declared left-wing supporter of neo-Conservative strategy. He’s even written a book about it. So while there’s nothing surprising about the content of this latest article, it’s still well worth reading.

Money quotes:

“Saddam allowed intrusive inspections only because of the threat of force. Containment of his regime would have meant continuous military deployment in neighbouring states and the no-fly zones; intensified economic sanctions; inspections coercive enough to withstand Saddam’s intimidation and fraud; and the support of France and Russia. Even with personalities of greater competence than Hans Blix and higher morals than Jacques Chirac, that commitment would have been inconceivable. Of the permanent members of the security council, only the US and UK could have been relied on.”

– – –

“Recall also the alacrity with which some commentators attributed the 7/7 bombings to the provocation of the Iraq war. Disgracefully, the New Statesman carried a cover picture of a rucksack with the caption “Blair’s bombs”. But containment would have meant persisting with what most outraged Osama bin Laden: western troops in Saudi Arabia – and Bin Laden urges “Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorise the enemies of God”.

– – –

“The failures of the occupation are legion: delayed elections, inadequate security, eroding infrastructure, complacency over the tortures at Abu Ghraib, and a heavy death toll among Iraqi civilians and our troops. But had we allowed Saddam’s regime to persist, in defiance of its obligations under 17 UN security council resolutions, the consequences would have been an unalloyed catastrophe. The Uday-Qusay dynasty would have ensured further extreme oppression, unless and until the regime collapsed in chaos. It is a fine judgment whether a rogue state or a failed state, prey to the barbarities that jihadists are trying to inflict on Iraq now but without hindrance, would have been the worse prospect. The notion that terrorism has been brought to Iraq uniquely by the west’s overthrow of Saddam, who bankrolled it and was the most likely conduit for Islamist groups to obtain WMD, is astonishingly ahistorical.”

I’ve posted significant chunks of it here, but could easily have quoted it all.

Meanwhile, on The Guardian’s new Comment Is Free site, Gary Younge puts forward the opposite viewpoint in his post Marching into the mainstream. The premise of his argument is that “It’s becoming apparent that the supporters of the Iraq war are morally and politically bankrupt. But when will the anti-war movement take advantage of its own position of strength?”

Younge sets his piece around the results of a CNN/USA Today poll showing that 57% of Americans now consider going to Iraq to have been a bad idea. All well and good, but if we’re talking statistics, nearly all polls conducted in Iraq show that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are glad that Saddam and his psychotic henchmen have been driven out, arrested or killed. So where does that leave his argument? Nowhere, because he doesn’t actually have one. While Oliver Kamm has set out a well reasoned defence of a position that has become increasingly difficult to defend (you’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and stupid to support the war but not acknowledge how disastrous much of the post-invasion strategy has been), Gary Younge just trots out once more the bland protestations of the anti-war movement. I’ve yet to read a convincing anti-war piece because they all peddle the same insubstantial, self-satisfied arguments, posited around one or all of the following: “It’s all about the oil”; “It’s all for Halliburton’s benefit”; “It’s American imperialism”; “It’s a crusade against Muslims”; “Blair is just Bush’s poodle”, etc, etc, etc. The other old classic is the claim that ‘we’ armed Saddam in the first place. Actually, ‘we’ didn’t arm Iraq to any great extent at all (the vast majority of their weaponry was bought from France and the Soviet Union*), this is just another falsehood that has been repeated so often it’s become accepted as a fact in many quarters.

A principled objection to war is one thing, but I’ve never come across anything written by anybody who opposed the invasion explaining why removing the tyrant of an imploding rogue state, who menaced the whole region for decades, is a bad thing. If anyone thinks they can point me in the right direction then, please, enlighten me.

Younge, meanwhile, signs off with the following:

“As the situation in Iraq moves to the next level so should we. The marches are important; but what we need now is a movement.”

No. What you need, what you have always needed, is a coherent argument.

* According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which conducts research in these areas. A list of arms sold to Iraq from 1970-2004, by country, can be read here (.pdf).


Centrist. Atlanticist. Dry liberal. Anti-totalitarian. Post-ideological pragmatist. Child of The Enlightenment. Toucan.

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7 comments on “Clarity versus incoherence in the Iraq debate
  1. Jim says:

    The job is now for everyone, on both sides of the argument over Iraq, to come up with a strategy for preventing the country sliding into anarchy, and becoming an Afghanistan-style failed state and haven for terrorists. This is going to take a lot of hard decisions – the ‘least worst’ option is as much as we can aim for.

    It will also need both sides to set aside their claims to the moral high ground. The vast majority of people (except for outright Al-Qaeda sympathisers) are presumably in favour of a stable, democratic future for Iraqis. What matters now is not how we got here, but what we can do to prevent disaster.

  2. mAc Chaos says:

    Bush is going to go on another spree of speeches to raise support for the war, so don’t count out the public just yet.

    And no matter how low it goes, I doubt anybody will see a majority of Americans want to pull out prematurely, because while it’s been problematic, and maybe some see it as a bad idea, it would be infinitely worse to simply abandon the region to whatever destruction would befall it in our absence.

    As for these polls themselves and the liberals championing them – half of it is a self fulfilling prophecy. Liberals seize any item they can to discredit the war, Abu Ghraib, any sort of accidental bombing mishap, any difficulty is blown out of proportion as the long view is tossed out the window – and then they act surprised when support for the war has plummetted.

  3. Citizen Sane says:

    I saw a poster on the way to work this morning for the Socialist Worker’s Party. Yet another ‘Stop The War – Send The Troops Home’ protest. These people claim to be concerned for the welfare of Iraqi people, yet they opposed the removal of their psycopathic government and now, when the new elected government is struggling to bed down and contain what could become a national implosion, they still advocate troop removal.

    It seems that what these people want is nothing less than US/UK defeat and for extremist jihadists to reign supreme with all that entails: fundamentalist Islam, beheadings, stonings, women enslaved. What a victory for socialism this would be.

    I find these people utterly contemptible.

  4. H says:

    Good point well made – your point being presumably that Oliver Kamm is a better writer than Gary Younge. For it is clear that Gary Younge’s piece was not about the justification for the War or lack thereof, while Kamm’s was. Kamm was arguing that Britain and the US were right to go to war. Whether one agrees or disagrees, this argument is irrelevant to what should be done now. The invasion has happened – the question is now, how to stop the occupation of Iraq by a foreign power. Younge was putting forward a case for the anti-War forces to change from being a protest coalition, to a unified movement with the obvious goal of getting the boys home, as it were.
    So their arguments are not comparible. As for the arguments that the war was not justified – that is very simple. The public was lied to – very simply. Bush and Blair promised the public of the US and the UK that the issue was WMDs and that they would find them. Neither of these was true. It wasn’t about WMDs, as we are now talking about it in terms of regime change. And no WMDs were found. Perhaps if Blair had said, we need to take down Saddam because he is a danger, then the public debate could have centred around the morality of removing a dictator in a foreign country, who is deemed dangerous to the interests of his enemies. If that were the question, the moral debate would be much more complex. But if the question is, as it should be, were we right to go to war on Iraq to destroy non-existent WMDs, which posed no real threat to the US or UK, then the answer has to be no.
    As we all agree though, that is a pointless argument over what has already happened. Surely the discussion should be – what now? When and how to leave in a way which will cause as little damage as possible. Neither of these articles relate to that point.

  5. Citizen Sane says:

    My intention wasn’t to directly compare the two articles in terms of their specific arguments, but to highlight two very different approaches at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one hand you have Oliver Kamm, robustly and articulately restating the argument why invasion was justified. And in the Guardian of all places (check out his blog for some of the deranged emails he’s been getting since publication).

    On the other hand was an incredibly lazy post by Younge along the lines of “Well, as we all know, those that supported the war don’t have any valid arguments now. So let’s have another march. But be more organised this time. Or something”. That was about it.

    The point is, Kamm’s piece was an utter rebuttal of Younge’s lazy conclusions. (Without even trying to be.)

  6. ph says:

    The “left’s” opposition to the war was little more than using an opportunity to denegrate their own government and the Americans. This is what many on the left enjoy, and enjoy it they did. At the time I was for the invasion, removing murdering tyrants does have something going for it. However, we were lied to by the governement, and I hold the view that taking the country to war on a lie is probably the worse thing a government can do, and I am amazed that the British people let Blair get away with it.
    Secondly I do not think the west understood the dynamics of the sunni/shia hatreds, and if we had we would have probably been wise to keep Saddam in place. We could have proably curbed his worst excesses in other ways

  7. H says:


    I would say rather that Kamm in no way adequately justified the war. He gave many reasons for the war, but he did not justify it. To justify it, he would have had to plainly say that we have achieved more than has been lost, which plainly is not true. More iraqis are dying under the American, British occupation every day than they did under the murderous and brutal dictatorship of Saddam. The ongoing occupation is causing huge resentment in the islamic world and fuelling the fire of support for Islamic extremism around the world, thus compromising American, British and overall Western Security. None of our aims have been achieved. Regime change is not a goal it is a method to achieving peace and stability.

    Kamm put forward good points – and there were good reasons which made war an option, however they were not compelling enough to actually launch a war, and the subsequent mess proved that. The very fact that Bush and Blair were forced into lying in the first place proves the point that the war could not be justified.


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