Four ways of looking at the Iraq adventure

Thoughts delivered at a Retreat, 6 April 2003

Iraq is a complicated issue. You can view it from many dimensions. I am going to pick four.

The first is strategic. This has three divergent parts.

One is an extension of the Huntington thesis posited a decade ago that the world is headed for a clash of civilisations: between the post-christian west and militant islam. This pits the ideal of liberal-democratic capitalism against fundamentalist islam. It is a false contest, in that few muslims are fundamentalist (just as few christians are) and few islamic fundamentalists are terrorists. Nevertheless some who back the American presence in Iraq do argue that at least part of its mission is to bring liberal democracy to Iraq and perhaps the whole Middle East — to civilise islam. This is a chimera in that it would take generations to achieve such a conversion — if indeed it proved possible. (Our own brush with indigenous rights and the reassertion of the validity of animist spirituality, as Whaimutu Dewes touched on yesterday, is surely enough to cause thinking New Zealanders to pause). Nevertheless, it is an arguable reason for the invasion of Iraq, if the combatants and those who follow and help in the reconstruction are prepared to apply money, patience and effort.

The second strategic argument is that the Iraq invasion is a campaign in the war against terrorism. The first campaign was in Afghanistan and there will be many more to follow. This argument holds good if you think George Bush and Tony Blair genuinely do intend to go on and on until terrorism is banished or at least contained. There is a danger, however, that the war effort (against terrorism) will get derailed by the intensity of focus on this campaign. Military history is littered with examples of misjudged campaigns losing wars: Hitler in 1939-45 was an example.

Put at its best, I think a case can be argued for New Zealand’s participation in the Iraq campaign on these grounds. We are liberal-democratic. We are rich and capitalistic and, by the standards of islam, decadent. We are potentially vulnerable to anti-western terror. To the extent that the Iraq campaign is quelling terrorism, if it is, we are freeloading.

But the New Zealand government has argued a third and, it says, greater strategic issue: building a multilateral, rules-based world. However imperfect the United Nations — and the WTO and the ILO — we should support it and not step outside its aegis. Small countries, most agree, have a choice: powerful allies; or multilateral rules. National and ACT go for powerful allies; the government goes for multilateral rules.

The second dimension is moral. This divides people deeply as no other issue here has since the 1981 Springbok tour issue.

Pam Woodall spoke of her reception in New York. I can attest to vigorous emails which pose the war as a moral issue and that those not wholeheartedly behind Bush are immoral. The deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal in his weekly column a couple of weeks back said people round the world are faced with a moral choice, not just for the moment but for a long time to come. Oppose the war and your soul will be damned, he seemed almost to be saying. Hearing this sort of declamation has had me almost dusting off my ancient Vietnam war slogans.

On the other side are those who oppose the Iraq war because war is immoral — especially wars initiated by the United States. The Greens have this position and many on the Labour left. These people, just like the Wall St Journal deputy editor, cannot be countered with homilies about Saddam’s brutal treatment of his citizens. Such remonstrances don’t register. I have had a mischievous temptation to stand at a peace demonstration with a placard reading “Sadists for Saddam”.

States, particularly liberal democratic states, need to be very careful in deciding to act on moral grounds. It is a basis that could very easily go badly wrong. The New Zealand government has good reason to have rejected the moral arguments of the pro- and anti-war brigades, though there have been little flashes of her old anti-Vietnam inclinations from the Prime Minister over the past two weeks.

The third dimension I want to focus on is practical. This, too has two subdimensions, one verging on moral, the other verging on immoral.

One is that Saddam has appallingly oppressed his own people and that oppression has amounted to a humanitarian disaster so egregious that a responsibility falls on other peoples living in other states to intervene to “protect” their fellow humans. There are overtones of this, too, in Bush’s and Blair’s rhetoric. But actually those are only overtones, not the core of the rationale for the Iraq invasion. States have shown very little enthusiasm to take up this notion of “the responsibility to protect”, devised by a Canadian-sponsored international commission in 2001 in the wake of the Rwanda disaster.

The New Zealand government has given this notion no credibility at all.

The second practical dimension is a utilitarian calculation of gain and loss. Should New Zealand be alongside the United States to help its chances of a free trade agreement with the United States, or at least not further reduce those chances? Some in the National party say yes, others are not so sure. The government says it won’t trade lives for trade.

There is, if I may be mischievous, possibly a third practical dimension. Bush is avenging his father, whose line in the sand was blown away in the wind. And/or he is exacting utu — revenge for the Twin Towers.

My fourth dimension is ethnic. This is the ACT argument and part of the National argument. We should stand with our traditional allies right or wrong (and all the more convenient if one of the above arguments can be adduced to suggest right rather than wrong). This stance is tribal. It is an interesting stand to take in the twenty-first century and returns us to the Huntington thesis of a “clash of civilisations” where I came in. Beat them or they will beat us.

Now, which dimension shall we use to frame the “for or against” question Pam Woodall wanted to pose on Friday night?