What to Do With Iraq?

Shall we agree on a few things? If Mr Blix and his Unmovic chums are even squinted at by some Ba’athist oaf, that will be pretext enough for war. If there is then a war, it will, presumably, be waged at least as efficiently as the last one – and although there will be heap big pile of dead Iraqis at the end, there won’t be so many Anglophone causalities. Leastways, not there and then, in the actual theatre of conflict (who knows what will happen, as it were, off-Broadway at some later date?) That agreed upon, what actually are ‘we’ planning to do with our new vassal state of Iraq? I’d like to hear a convincing answer to this question above all others, because that would more effectively than anything else provide a conservative justification for military action. Or equally, provide a conservative rationale for inaction. To date just about every right wing answer I’ve heard as to what war will do for us is the usual mixture of self-delusion, liberal fantasy and cowardly self-deception. I do hope that George W. Bush, who seems personally to suffer from none of these traits, continues to be the master of his own house, for as yet a war in, against or ‘for Iraq’ remains as pointless as ever.

Our neoconservative friends, when putting the world to rights, often like to loosely aver to ‘British colonialism’, and the ‘drawing of lines in the sand’. With this critique one can never be sure whether we were at fault for colonising and map-doodling in the first place, or whether, having done so, we should have ferociously and implacably maintained the settlement we imposed. It would be fair to say that the nuclear-armed Wilsonians of The Weekly Standard and The Daily Telegraph offer up a pretty incoherent account of what went wrong, of what exactly it is that they’re now so eager to put right. Anyway, the point is, the world’s all higgledy-piggledy – you know, the sweeping wave of Muslim terror that’s going to overwhelm the decadent west, Saddam and his hated foe bin Laden are all in it together, that garbage – but there is a solution. That solution is, whatever it is we’re going to do with Iraq once we have her. Now the thing is (and stop me if you’re a sometime Marxist masquerading as a Conservative because the pay’s better, and really don’t have much time for redundant notions like history) we’ve been here before.

Today’s Iraq – Mesopotamia was and remains a better name – was formed out of three Ottoman vilayets (the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) bereft of a central state after the dissolution of that empire. Helpfully we stepped in and gave them the Kingdom of Iraq, with the Hashemite Faisal Ibn Husain getting the throne to compensate him for being denied a crown by the French. Britain enjoyed a mandate from 1920 till 1932, after which Iraq was an ‘independent’ constitutional monarchy (member of the League of Nations, the full works) until the coup of 1958 which ended predominant British influence. From the coup grew the conditions that eventually led to the arrival of Saddam at the apex of Iraq, and there he’s kept himself (with more than a little help from us) ever since. This then is the means by which the painfully disagreeable world as it is came into being for all those excitable types over at National Review and where have you.

What exactly went on during this lucky period, 1932-58, for Iraq when she was a British client state? Well, her patron enjoyed considerable commercial advantages in terms of the oil-based development of the country (and just about every memo from every high commissioner, then Ambassador to every regime in office in Baghdad makes the case for ‘spreading the wealth’). As good little capitalists we can all agree that British economic penetration of Iraq fuelled the modernisation of the country, and thus if you’re keen on that sort of thing, was good news. Britain, moreover, because of her wider strategic interests, maintained airbases in the friendly independent country, and regularised this with the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of Preferential Alliance.

Under the benevolent eye of London, the mandate period saw the laying down of the political institutions which prevailed after independence in 1932: a lovely looking constitution, a chamber of deputies, a senate, and universal male suffrage. All terribly progressive and sophisticated stuff. However, what the indigenous regime wasn’t allowed to do until after 1932 was to raise a conscript army. This Baghdad did as soon as it was constitutionally able, not so much for the purposes of external aggression, still less for turning on the British, but so as to buttress the writ of central government. An expanded army was also always consciously intended to serve the proto-Clintonian purpose of helping achieve social integration among the disparate groupings of Iraq.

Tribal chiefs were incorporated into the juridical make-up of the new state – in other words, it worked with what it found on the ground – and the landlords (who were rapidly built up as a class by the sell-off of land previously owned by the despotic Ottoman state) were allowed great power over their serf-like fallahs [peasants]. Or as the Marxists like to say in their history books, the cash nexus and the tyranny of contemporary capitalistic economic relationships were rapidly introduced into Iraq. The parties that contested elections were weak and personality-led (governments rarely lasted more than a year), and the system, oligarchic in large part, faced the twin problems of the rise of the effendis (educated Arabs with few prospects) and industrial/urbanisation sucking the population out of the traditional countryside and into the towns and cities. But the system worked, in as much as it endured, and hindsight allows us to see that much worse was in store for Iraq in its stead. At root it was underpinned by the monarchy, and the British imperial military presence; and by Britain’s high degree of political involvement inside her nominally independent client state.

This then is the world that has been lost. One in which modern, Western economic advantages were being brought to bear, and one where the Arab population benefited, albeit drafted and superintended by others, from the most advanced forms of political representation known to man. Familiar? A scheme anyone we know may very well have in mind? That, however, is the thing: I for one have no idea what it is that we’re going to, second time round, do with Iraq. Are we going to do all that again, or have we some new whizz-bang scheme in mind? Are we looking to the same sort of timeframe to sort this out, or is history just so much faster now? Will it entail the same sort of practical commitment from imperial America as imperial Britain put in first time round? Who knows?

In the absence of knowing what it is we’re actually going to do with Iraq, the arguments that float out of the mouths of right wing babes are less than convincing. If you listen long enough and hard enough, you can hear all sorts of extraordinary claims about why we’re about to go to war with Iraq, though not very much on what the upshot of that act is likely to be.

Some delusional conservatives offer the hardly entrancing prospect that this is a war to be fought ‘for the authority of the UN’ (with, um, some resolutions being more equal than others), ‘for international law’, and for all the reasons that we fought Iraq last time around. Whenever I hear that last one, the thing that always occurs to me is, what a pity it was that Saddam didn’t go west rather than south. Something tells me that had the ‘butcher of Baghdad’ done what he ought to do if any of those raving neocon accounts of the man made any sense, and moved in the direction of the hated Israel, then there wouldn’t have been any great international fuss about getting him out of Jordan. Saying that oil played a central role in our decision to, dressed up in all sorts of high-minded verbiage as it was, chuck him out of Kuwait is hardly rocket science. What it is is the application of the merest fraction of realism, and realism’s what’s so patently lacking from nine tenths of the conservative arguments for war.

It’s a willing disavowal of realism that allows supposedly right wing actors to stand up and justify their support for war precisely because, as they no doubt sincerely see it, this won’t be a war about ‘defence of empire or territory’, but is instead for some nebulous notion of the ‘international order’. This, in terms of substituting foggy presentational metaphors for realistic estimates of what policy goals power should hope to achieve, is on a par with that woolly nonsense, ‘influence’. The things that some conservatives will do in pursuit of that chimera hardly can be imagined – it was for the sake of ‘influence’ that Britain entered the EEC, and it’s so as to avoid losing this precious stuff that we stay in.

Perhaps the most risible text book examples of folly are those British conservatives who would advocate participation in an American war against Iraq for the sake of ‘international respect’. Respect between states is a key element in understanding international relations, but I do wish that most of my conservative peers would believe me when I tell them that (a.) it’s vastly more consequential for hegemons to have ‘respect’ (i.e. the habitual British obsession with ‘respect’ is yet another redundant foreign policy posture, concerning ourselves with issues which were once ours to attend to, but are now the Americans’ concern) than it is for a country like Britain; & b.) if we wanted respect, whether from the US or the rest of the world, we’d get it when we got some self-respect. And that’s on the agenda only when we have the courage to disagree with our great patron across the sea.

What phantoms consume the right wing British imagination when it comes to arguing that we should sometimes risk a difference of opinion with the US are depressing indeed. You’ll hear every absurdity known to establishment-bureaucracy (and revealingly, they are nearly identical in form to those fearful reasons adduced as to why we must never depart the EU). People whose connection with capitalism is as distant as mine from coal-mining will sedulously assure you that if ever Britain were to countenance a serious foreign policy disagreement with the US, why then our largest market for foreign investment would be imperilled. Or perhaps it’s our largest source of foreign investment in Britain that would be imperilled, either way it’s an equally implausible and fantastical summary of the way the world works. Quite what the dreadful consequences for Britain would be if we sat out this war are never spelt out in any great detail on the right – and that’s of course because they can’t be. Even if there were serious penalties Washington could inflict on London as punishment for some petty act of defiance (which in this insane instance means not doing something contrary to the interests of the United States, but simply doing nothing whatsoever) the whole basis of knee-jerk Atlanticism is that they wouldn’t, not the Americans, not our special friends whom-we-are-tied-to-forever (and all the normal rules as between states don’t apply). Not them, not to us.

Unreality like this is of a higher and madder order than the boring, obvious stuff like the British conservatives who’ll advance the stupendously odd claim that we should fight a war with Iraq, all the better to ‘contain the threat to Israel’. Poor, dear, sweet Israel: if only someone would take her by the hand to safety. But of course, she too has a special friend, an ally with whom the normal order of things between separate, sovereign nation-states doesn’t apply. She has the United States, and with that (and the nuclear weapons) on her side, you’d have to wonder why they need us – you’d have to wonder that especially keenly when in no meaningful sense is Israel on our side. Though there in itself is a thing. If there is some demented ‘civilizational imperative’ that means we, the non-Arab world, need to mess about in the Middle East (and there is, and it’s oil) it could all be so much better arranged.

As our neocon friends keep telling us – and as the State Department wisely keeps ignoring them over – the conservative Arab regimes who have long been the West’s (remember that word, it’s the one we want to use when we choose to cloak American interests under a multilateral cover) loyal allies in the region don’t seem to be completely signed up for the entire Commentary agenda. In which case, and since we’re supposed to be looking out for the wider, collective interests of some mythical ‘West’, why not let the US focus on defending Israel? The alliance between those two countries, unhealthy as it ultimately is for both, is most directly poisoned by the inability of the US any longer to juggle the competing interests of her many and varied clients. There’s a job of work to be done in the Middle East we can all agree, and there’s, in America at any rate, a consensus of sorts behind guaranteeing the security of Israel, right or wrong. What conflicts with this US priority at the moment is her entanglement with the oil monarchies – in which case, if others can be found to do the necessary task of maintaining a pro-Western bias there, why not step aside? The reason why the US will never contemplate this strategic abnegation, why she wouldn’t even countenance a catspaw like Britain acting as no more than her front man is the curse and burden of empires everywhere and always.

A case is there to be made that some sort of ‘Kuwait Pact’, superseding the half covert, half unavoidably overt American military presence in the Persian Gulf would be by far the better arrangement both for the old Trucial states, and indeed for Saudi Arabia herself. What undermines the regime in all those countries so acutely is not that they are seen as having diplomatic ties to the West per se, but that they are rightly seen as being enmeshed with Israel’s proxy. Were an alternative ‘West’ on offer, say Britain (or Britain and France, or Britain and Russia), then the good work which is the pretended justification for the American presence maintained since 1990 could be continued, but at far less cost to the regimes we are aiming to protect, strengthen, and, frankly, guide. For those captured by such a prospect, it would also, naturally, free the US to be that bit more robust in her defence of Israel vis-à-vis Arab irredentism.

For decades Western policy makers tormented themselves with the lunacy that in one form or another an United Arab Republic was going to rise again, but this time even more powerful, even more cohesive, despite its chances being in truth more slender than those of Puerto Rican freedom. With the one republic that American intends to meddle with after her military victory, what will democracy bring to Iraq? Why will it be anything different to what Algeria brought? Since the basis of a certain strain of conservative paranoia about Islam is the alleged views leeching up from the Arab street, why should we expect a representative Iraqi government to be anything other than fully reprehensible?

Things might be different if monarchy were being considered – though the traditional social elites simply aren’t there in Iraq anymore to collaborate with whoever the US finds most congenial for its rather inconsistent King making – but otherwise the only Iraqi institution liable to offer a basis for government is the army. And if not the Iraqi army, then the American. Which brings us back to all the questions we started with: how long, let alone through what, will the US govern for? What will the end of this governing be? Should the strategy seemingly being pursued by the US have a chance of longterm success, this goal, far from being one that needs to be whispered (whatever it is), is one that would help realise itself if clearly and quickly enunciated. The reason why we hear nothing is that, other than one faction having determined on war regardless, no reason other than change for change’s sake has been seriously advanced.

That the reaction of the Tory party in House of Commons was to attempt, through a cack-handed parliamentary ruse, to help the government avoid a contested vote on this issue is contemptible. That it’s pathetic was shown by their being out-witted by the Lib Dems (whose critical motion was called by the Speaker in preference to the pointless Tory one), thus permitting the House to voice parliamentary criticism of the government. No Tory case has yet been made for why we should back the Labour government in supporting the American government in waging a war our absence from will in no way influence, nor damage us thereby. Opposition isn’t what’s needed, merely prudent silence, and we can’t even manage that.