A disaster of strange allies

What is going on? Until recently Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, parroted Washington’s thesis that Iran was an axis of evil. No epithet was too harsh for the ayatollahs and their minions, and “all options” were on the table for punishing Tehran.

Now the British government is in a spot of bother in Iraq, and suddenly it is: “Please Iran, dear Iran, best-beloved Iran – this is your real friend, William, calling.”

This has been a bad week for consistency. Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, until recently blessed as the architect of Anglo-American nation-building, is now blamed for nation-demolishing. The Sunni “reawakening councils”, created at vast expense to help the United States and Britain to get out of Iraq, are now aids to its insurgents and invaders. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is a vicious war criminal, but it seems for the time being he is a force for stability and order.

Meanwhile, we condemn the Isis militants for committing war crimes by executing Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s, then we discuss executing them with drone bombs. A former US general even explains that the drones will need “execution-level intelligence” to work. Quite so.

There is scant morality in Western military intervention these days. Former British prime minister Tony Blair returned this week from beyond the grave and showed no concern for justice, reason or even national interest. He is a confirmed Iraq disaster denier. Civilisation may advance over millennia, but politics remains stuck in Homer’s day, in human vanity and tribal loyalty.

Each week Hague sits in his Whitehall office drinking in the pictures of Britain’s imperial past on his walls. Then he jumps and declares: “What we want to see in Iraq …” Or it could be Iran or Afghanistan or Congo. Does he ever wonder at his reference for that first-person plural?

Agency confusion
Hague is now suffering from what philosophers call agency confusion. He does not distinguish between wanting something “to happen” and wanting something “to be done”, possibly by him. We can all wish for the best in Iraq. That does not mean we have to act to bring it about. Nor does not acting render us guilty of “standing idly by”.

On the other hand, doing something imposes substantive obligations. In the case of Saddam Hussein, we wished him gone (a happening) and got rid of him (a deed). We then vaguely wished it would all turn out well in the end (a happening). This confusion holds the key to the immorality of the Iraq invasion.

Its apologists cannot excuse themselves by claiming the invasion was fine and only the aftermath bungled. Invasion and aftermath were a single act. They involved death, destruction, a collapse of order and a flight into tribalism. Blair was blinded by Thatcher’s Falklands victory and wanted one of his own, with no thought of consequences. Others were no less culpable in supporting it.

Ten years ago, soon after the 2003 invasion, I had dinner in Baghdad with a man I took to be a British spy. Like many spies at the front, he was shrewd and unconcerned with diplomatic nicety. I had been shocked by visits to Falluja and Basra, and he convinced me that the longer the chaos lasted, the sooner Iran would come in to protect the Shias from Sunni revanchists. The most likely outcome would be an Iraq divided into three autonomous provinces for Kurds, Sunnis and Shias.

Ten years and 180 000 Iraqi corpses later, that prediction is coming true. And still, a British Cabinet is itching “to see something happen in Iraq”.

There are plenty to the right of Hague (such as Blair) ready to interpret this not just as a wish but as a statement of agency. They dream of more war, always starting with “just some bombing from the air”, always “to make the streets of Britain safe”.

Now Hague is meddling with the Iranians. Even I can hardly imagine a British foreign secretary so cynical as to be in cahoots with Iran’s dreadful and corrupt Revolutionary Guards. These are the troops against whom a certain Saddam Hussein fought in the 1980s, with British support.

They have since kept in practice by torturing Tehran dissidents. But then disaster makes strange bedfellows. Who would have thought Washington would back the “plucky” Taliban in toppling the Russians in Afghanistan in 1989, and then topple them in turn in 2001? The maxim that my enemy’s enemy is my friend is an old standby.

Of course, Western intervention was not entirely to blame for plunging so many Southwest Asian states into chaos. Turkey, Iran and Egypt have been upheaved without Western help.

But the West crucially misread the importance of the Ba’ath Party and other secularists, from Nasser to Saddam, in keeping Islamist fundamentalism at bay. The Ba’athists stalled what the US historian Bernard Lewis called “new causes for anger, new dreams of fulfilment, new tools of attack”. We opposed them as enemies of democracy, and got ayatollahs and al-Qaeda instead.

For Western leaders emerging from victory in the Cold War to make this category error must rank as a catastrophe of modern history.

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman said of leaders who pursue folly, the most inexcusable are those who were warned at the time but went ahead for short-term gain. Thus was Iraq.

The forces that drive democracies to war are as incorrigible as ever. Barack Obama is now abused as weak, David Cameron as vacillating. The media drive them on, demanding firmness, and professing a belief in the efficacy of air power and the need to “deter the men of violence”.

It beggars belief that further military intervention by the West in Iraq is now being considered. Yet the yearning to intervene, to bomb someone even if just to “send a message”, shows how thin is the veneer of sanity cloaking great power aggression.

War still has the best tunes. How glorious it must seem to certain politicians to somehow turn 10 years of disaster in Iraq into a final victory.

That is why the causes and effects of 2003 must be nailed to the wall, time and again. Trillions of dollars were spent and tens of thousands of people died, for no good reason then and no good reason now.

A total disgrace. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Simon Jenkins
Guest Author

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

‘Justice for Marikana will only be served if we see...

The mineworker union’s Joseph Mathunjwa spoke at the ten-year anniversary of the massacre

US conduct regarding Taiwan evinces a dangerous and ignorant strain...

It underestimates the role of face-saving, which is central to Chinese culture, and the country’s priorities, such as attaining the Chinese Dream

Eskom: Stage two load-shedding tonight

Continued blackouts highly likely on Wednesday and Thursday, the energy entity added

MPs dismiss Mkhwebane’s call to subpoena Ramaphosa

The president’s evidence is not necessary to determine whether she is guilty of misconduct, the section 194 committee concludes

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…