Invading Iraq

As we enter what promises to be a month frantic with accusations, diplomacy and cant, I set down what at present seem to me to be the central issues for a British citizen to confront.

I believe that a strictly pacifist position is defensible. But I will not try to argue it here. Rather I will start from the assumption that it is at least possible to wage a just war.

If any war is to be called "just", I maintain that the following conditions (at least) must be fulfilled:

In the present case we are contemplating an invasion of Iraq by the United States, preceded by aerial bombardment; the problem for the people of my country is whether to support them.

Of the arguments I have seen in favour of such action, the only "righteous cause" I can take seriously is the observation that Saddam Hussein is a brutal despot, and that the people of Iraq have a right to our assistance in gaining their freedom. From this starting point, the next two criteria give no insuperable difficulty. In more than twenty years, no-one has found any other way of dealing with him. And from the experience of the 1991 Gulf war, and more recently the conquest of Afghanistan, there seems to be a good chance of winning with total deaths (on all sides) in the low tens of thousands or less, perhaps much less; the savagery of his rule is such that this may be a price worth paying.

A more serious problem lies in the question of what should be counted as "success". This cannot be just the removal of Saddam; we must also look to replacing him by a government which will seek the welfare, and can gain the loyalty, of the Iraqi people. Iraq has already once been conquered by a Western power, and that within living memory. The British mandate, compared with those before and after, was not a bad government. But it did not impart civilization. The new imperialism has successfully installed administrations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan; none of these can yet be called safe for democracy.

There is however a further aspect of the problem which we ought to address. If we are going to say that brutal dictators are the enemies of mankind, to be removed by force of arms, then we are at once faced with the question of which of the world's tyrants we should eject. It is intolerable that this question should be decided by any self-appointed nation or group of nations. If it cannot be done by consensus, then it should not be done at all. The United Nations, as at present constituted, is a most imperfect instrument; but it is the only one we have. For this reason I am firmly opposed to any military action against Iraq which is not explicitly supported by governments speaking for a majority of the world's people. Resolution 1441 won't do; it would never have been passed had those voting for it supposed that they were authorizing an individual nation to determine for itself whether Saddam was adequately submissive.

I can imagine one set of circumstances in which action without a further Security Council resolution might be admissible. Suppose that the majority of the Security Council approved an invasion with the aim of changing the government of Iraq, but that one of the permanent members vetoed it. In this case, it might be right for the majority to present a motion to the General Assembly calling for reconsideration of the issue. And if the General Assembly passed such a motion, but the veto-wielding power remained recalcitrant, then I might agree that there was an adequate consensus for action, even though the rules of the United Nations made it impossible for a Security Council resolution to reflect this consensus.

Everything I have written is predicated on my conviction that there is no real urgency in the matter. It is true that Saddam has twice invaded neighbouring countries. In both cases, I believe that his motive was simple rapacity; he thought he could steal some oil. With a gravely weakened army and a northern frontier to defend, it is not credible that he now believes anything of the sort; and five out of six of his immediate neighbours (Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) are clearly confident that his teeth have been drawn. It is true that Saddam has used chemical weapons in the past; but only inside Iraq, and the last time was before the last Gulf war. It is true that Saddam would like to have biological and nuclear weapons; I see no reason to believe that he is any closer to achieving them than he was twelve years ago. It is true that Saddam offers verbal support to terrorists, notably Hamas; that any effective terrorist group depends on him is unproven. On all these issues, of course, there is room for argument. In particular, I await with interest Colin Powell's promised address to the United Nations in the coming week.

David Fremlin, 3 February 2003

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