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Friday, 1 March 2013

Remembering Tony and Chris

The looming ten-year anniversary of the 2003 Iraq War has seen a flurry of memorialising, though more for the political participants than the soldiers or civilians who died in the conflict. A fortnight ago, various anti-war worthies looked back on the Stop the War march, pinpointing it as the moment when the scales fell from their eyes. Last week saw a hostile reception for Richard Seymour's Unhitched, an unsympathetic review of Christopher Hitchen's career, and in particular his pro-war-on-terror stance. This week saw Tony Blair resurfacing on Newsnight to parade his angst and unrepentance. Meanwhile, the carnage grinds on in Iraq.

The right (and neoliberal fellow-travellers) have understandably criticised the anti-war demo memorialisers as narcissistic, but in so doing they avoid the need to admit that the anti-war case was bang-on in every major respect: the WMD claim was confected, the US had already decided on regime change regardless of Saddam's "threat level", and the consequences of invasion were likely to be very bad. This cannot be blithely dismissed by pro-war apologists, like John Rentoul, on the grounds that contemporary UK opinion polls supported the war, or even by quibbling about the number of civilian dead or whether Iraqis today are hopeful about their prospects. A protest does not need to mobilise 50% of the population to be right, and the claim that things are better now in Iraq than they were 10 years ago is a bit like celebrating the decline of anti-semitism in Eastern Europe. Ends do not justify means.

The Newsnight programme aired the now common belief that the US bungled the invasion by stirring up the hornet's nest of sectarian and ethnic rivalries, and that it lacked a credible plan for state-building in the aftermath. This requires you to believe that the US State Department knew next to nothing about the country in advance and that the occupation authorities were incompetent thereafter. While cock-up is more prevalent than conspiracy, this tragic error trope seems a little too convenient, much as the way that the absence of WMD has been cast as "an assertion made in good faith that turned out not to be true". Christopher Meyer, the former UK ambassador to the US, noted that democracy cannot be parachuted in like humanitarian aid, at which heads nodded sagely. Again, this suggests that exporting democracy was actually a war aim that regrettably failed.

I think a more useful way of looking at the Iraq War is to assume that it was a success, rather than a failure. Given the outcome, this would imply that the objective was to emasculate Iraq as a regional power. This is consistent with the proposition that the root cause of the war was Saddam's unwillingness to be limited to his role as a buffer against Iran in the 80s;  that once he'd decided to upset the regional balance of power with the invasion of Kuwait, and had proven unrepentant after defeat in 1991, it became necessary for Iraq to be neutralised. A no-man's land is the next best option to a buffer. WMD and the spurious links to al-Qaeda and 9/11 were mere opportunism. The UK suggestion that this was a continuation of the humanitarian policing operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone is plainly absurd. As for the spread of democracy, no one ever suggested we invade Saudi Arabia in that cause.

Martin Kettle feels that the toxic legacy of Iraq must not blind us to the era of Blair (and Brown), which was "more an attempt to reassert social values and new forms of solidarity in the aftermath of Thatcher than an attempt simply to embrace Thatcher's possessive individualism". He even describes it in terms of there being "no alternative". As far as the left is concerned, "There wasn't a coherent alternative on offer and, even if there had been, not enough people would have voted for it." This is weaselly. The inclusion of the judgemental "coherent" is meant to rule out the actual alternatives on offer. The assumption that had there been a "coherent alternative" it would still not have commanded popular support is obviously illogical. If it never existed, how can we say what the electorate's view would have been?

Kettle dislikes the vulgar idea that Blair was just the continuation of Thatcher, but that, with suitable caveats about amelioration, is what he was. The emotionalism of the 2003 anti-war movement, and the virulence of the subsequent attacks on Blair, were in part a transference of the broader frustration caused by the neoliberal turn. After the hopes raised in 1997, it was bad enough to discover by 2003 that Blair was a neoliberal true believer, but worse to realise that he'd drunk the neocon Kool-Aid as well. "There is no alternative" had ceased to be the personal motto of Margaret Thatcher and had become the mantra of the entire political class. The failure of the protest to change government policy simply reinforced the feeling of powerlessness.

Where Blair had WMD as a precisely imagined threat, Christopher Hitchens had the hydra-headed monster of Islamofascism. Since 1945, "Fascism", when appended to any type of movement or activity, simply means something that we will not tolerate - i.e. we cannot co-exist or negotiate with it, like "heavy" parents. We are ironically using a totalitarian bogey to adopt a totalitarian attitude. Hitchens got into knots trying to define Fascism in such a way as to allow an equivalence with the mad mullahs. For example, being hostile to modernity, nostalgic for empire, obsessed with humiliations, prone to anti-semitism, leader-worship, sexual repression, anti-intellectualism etc. Unfortunately, these would all equally apply to your average right-wing nut job. In Hungary, these would be qualifications for a cabinet post.

Hitchens catalogue of sins was the description of a reactionary, which showed his ongoing attempt to square his conflicting progressive and neocon impulses. While all these characteristics can be found among fascists, they do not cohere as Fascism, which is the ideology of the totalitarian state. al-Qaeda, as a supra-state network obssessed by the propaganda of the deed, is closer to the violent Anarchism of the late 19th century, but "Islamoanarchy" doesn't work so well as a bogey-word. Hitchen's scatter-gun justification for the term is evidence that he was himself at work on propaganda, the imaginative realisation of a repellent concept, not a lucid analysis of a real-world movement. His strength as a polemicist was in the invention of a caricature of the enemy, from Mother Theresa to Jerry Falwell. It is perhaps no surprise that the term seems to be rapidly falling out of fashion following the death of Osama Bin Laden.

One of Seymour's chief criticism's of Hitchens is that he always wanted to be on the right side of history, not unlike the Stalinist fellow-travellers that his hero Orwell criticised. He could not fully accept the neoliberal case, so he diverted his commitment to the safer strand of the anti-clerical Enlightenment, much as Orwell escaped both Eton and Stalin by dallying with Trotsky. Blair clearly thought that neoliberalism was the spirit of history incarnate, for good and ill. His personal tragedy was to be seduced by more cynical Americans into accepting that the neocon agenda was part and parcel of the zeitgeist. Like Hitchens, he was a little bit in love with the US and the ideal of the noble state. The UK proved too small for both their ambitions.

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