I talked to Damian Counsell of Ricochet in a wide-ranging conversation about my recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan to mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s genocide against its people; why the survivors viewed Allied action as a liberation; the surprising preference of many Kurds for Turkey over the United States as a future partner, and the meaning of humanitarian intervention 10 years after the Iraq War.
Allow me to make one thing clear in advance: this post is written from the perspective of someone who strongly supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still maintains the same position. I am not claiming to be entirely unbiased.
That said, I always accepted, then and now, that there were legitimate reasons against the war. As with every complex foreign policy decision, different alternatives were evaluated and genuine pro and contra arguments presented for each possibility. It is a natural, democratic process and one that should be welcomed because, if we take such far-reaching decisions that have a severe impact on our own people and others, we should make sure that all opinions are represented in the process of the debate.
I have great respect for many of the people who opposed the invasion right from the start, including family members and close friends, and also for those who, over the cause of the war, shifted their standpoint from a pro-war to a contra-war position like, for instance, Professor Norman Geras.
Yes, I even understand them in a way. There were moments when I myself had severe doubts over some aspects of the invasion, although I can say in all honesty that I never came close to the point where I felt that we got it completely wrong and should have left Iraq alone. I still believe the removal of Saddam was a moral and just cause and that the positive implications outbalance the negative ones.
In particular, I had issues with several of the US-led coalition’s post-war policies, like the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the De-Ba’athification. The greatest mistake, in my view, was the American exit policy. After the surge of 2007 under the leadership of General Petraeus, it was fair to say, for the first time, that we won the peace in Iraq. But when the Obama administration pulled out too quickly and over-hastily, the situation began to deteriorate again and that was the moment we once more lost the peace in Iraq.
This brings me back to my original point about the pro and contra arguments for the invasion. The greatest issue I have with the opposition to the war is that a significant part of the anti-war movement opposed the invasion not for the right but all the wrong reasons.
In fact, very few of those who marched on the streets of London 10 years ago, had previously spoken out against the intolerable cruelties committed by Saddam’s fascist regime against his own people. Unlike, for instance Tony Blair, who already spoke about the brutal and inhumane nature of Saddam’s rule in the 1990s, long before the Bush administration took office.
Too many of those who were protesting against the war were doing it because of their own, petty politics. As Nick Cohen pointed out, the anti-war movement united the worst elements of the Left – an amalgam of Marxist Leninists, George Galloway fanboys, and radical Islamists. Their motives were not so much rooted in the humanitarian tradition and a genuine concern for the Iraqi people, but were rather an expression of their deep-rooted anti-Western and anti-establishment sentiments.
Opposition to the war per se was a legitimate and moral position to hold. The tragedy is that the movement was hijacked by individuals with a highly suspicious agenda, who used it for their own ideological and political crusade against those who they despise.
The wellbeing of the Iraqi people was never really central to their cause.
What saddens me is that 10 years later we are basically still stuck in the same level of ignorance. Three points, in particular, are worth addressing.
First of all, as John Rentoul wrote the other day, the opinion of Iraqis is almost entirely absent from the debate, with the possible exception of the Kurds, whose position is rather well-known, as a result of a long history of suffering under Saddam’s regime. But we still know very little about the thoughts of average Iraqis. My prediction is that we would not find a clear cut set of opinion. Neither would the vast majority say that the war was a success, nor that the war was a total failure. Rather, I predict, we would get a variety of views with some arguing that, on balance, they are better off or, on balance, they are worse off. Furthermore, I would expect the result to be different now than, let’s say, three or four years ago. Ever since the pull-out of the Americans, the situation has deteriorated again and, at the moment, Iraq is also suffering not only from internal Shia-Sunni strife, but spill-over effects from the war in Syria. In recent months, we have seen a sharp increase in terrorist attacks, as Assad’s murderous campaign allowed al-Qaida to slip back into Iraq.
The second point is that the counter-argument is also almost entirely absent from the debate. While it is, of course, rested exclusively on hypotheses, it would be wrong not to take into account the scenario of Iraq still being ruled by Saddam and the implications entailed – a consideration made by Fraser Nelson.
And finally, it is quite tragic that we still cannot have a “moderate” debate about the war in Iraq in which both sides acknowledge that they got some things wrong and some things right. For people like myself that means to admit that, while, on balance, removing Saddam was the right thing to do, we got several things terribly wrong which led to chaos and bloodshed. It is important to learn the right lessons from Iraq, especially if we are going to advocate interventions in the future. At the same time, it is of critical importance not to overlearn the lessons of Iraq. Just because we did not get everything right, does not mean that intervention is always wrong and always causes more harm than good. Several examples, such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo, have proven the opposite. The Iraq war did not discredit the notion of liberal interventionism altogether and it would only be fair of those who opposed the war to acknowledge that we, too, had genuine and legitimate reasons to support the overthrow of a totalitarian, fascist regime.
Only when we start meeting in the middle and realise that Iraq was so much more than a clear cut case, a black and white, right and wrong decision, we can do the debate justice. Apparently, 10 years were not enough, as became clear during the event organised by Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan the other week. Maybe, we have to wait another 20 years and leave it to the historians to have an open-minded and intellectually rigorous discussion about the war. In the end, only the Iraqis themselves can determine whether the war was, after all, a success story. And that maybe is also a call too early to make.
Here is an excerpt from an interview I gave today:
Relaxed and engaging, with a fine sense of humour, excellent manners, and just the right amount of charm.
Why are you so loyal to Tony Blair and George W Bush?
Tony Blair stands up for what he believes is right and not necessarily for what is popular. That is a rare trait among politicians and for that he deserves respect and loyalty. I am more ambivalent when it comes to George W. Bush; not so much because of him but some of the people around him – especially Cheney and Rumsfeld.
What attracted you to humanitarian interventionism?
We always look at the consequences of intervention but the truth is that inaction has consequences, too. War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian catastrophes but when you look at history, toothless diplomacy often caused more suffering, death, and destruction than principled interventionism in the face of utter evil.
Each conflict, of course, is distinctive. It takes individual approaches to deal with them accordingly. Interventionism should not be seen as a rigid, evangelical code of principles but a flexible tool to achieve what it does best: saving lives.
Humanitarian interventionism isn’t always popular. What is it like being attacked for your beliefs?
It is a matter of principle. It is not only worthwhile but also extremely important to take a stand for what you believe is right.
Why do you defend the Iraq invasion so vigorously?
Because I believed and still believe that Saddam was a threat that needed to be confronted. I have always accepted that there were legitimate arguments against the invasion and never claimed moral superiority in regard to anyone else’s opinion. Others unfortunately have. People no longer listen. They have, on both sides of the argument, made up their minds. Now, there only exist right or wrong, black or white; no maybes and no shades of grey.
What really makes me fume are the self-appointed moralists who call a thrice democratically elected Prime Minister a “war criminal” and “mass murderer” in the absence of a legal judgement, while straining their brains to find absurd and grotesque excuses for a totalitarian tyrant.
When and why did you first start Julie’s Think Tank?
About 3 years ago. I started blogging because I wanted to put down some political ideas and get some interaction from others on them. And because I was spending so much time commenting on other people’s blogs, I thought I might as well have my own.
Tell me about your time at the LSE.
Going to LSE was one of the worst decisions in my life. The anti-Western and anti-Israel feelings are running high in certain circles at the LSE. The backward philosophy of Orientalism has become the dominate narrative. We are the aggressors; they are the victims. They are freedom fighters; we are occupiers. Their cause is just; ours is not.
LSE has become an institution where Professors tell their students that the West “misunderstands jihad” and that the “Bush administration is the most radicalised government” one can possibly think of.
We have to stop apologising for own position and stop buying into our enemy’s narrative. It’s self-defeating.
Why is intervening in Syria so important?
The humanitarian crisis in Syria is heart-breaking. According to UN figures, 60,000 people have died since March 2011 and the actual number is likely to be much higher. Thousands are fleeing the violence across the border every day – 84,000 in December 2012 alone – bringing the total number of those displaced to around half a million.
But as much as Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe, it is also a geo-political crisis.
Syria is not an isolated case like, for instance, Libya. It is central to holding together the Middle East, as it touches upon various, complex interests. Due to the sectarian nature of the conflict, the spill-over effects into other countries are severe.
As such, the brutal conflict is not only pushing Syria into the humanitarian abyss but is destabilising various other countries to a dangerous degree. It is a recipe for a long-term sectarian strife, destruction, and death across the entire region that will make post-war Iraq look simple.
What is the best part of being a prominent political blogger? The worst?
To be visible is necessary to have influence and advance ideas but it also makes you a target for abuse, criticism, and potentially dangerous attention.
Also, you’re 25 (even though I think you’re 40 deep down), right?
Age is overrated. But I guess when you are surrounded by older people, you become older yourself. (It’s not necessarily a bad thing though!)
The kingdom’s medieval system of punishment includes chopping off the hands of thieves, flogging homosexuals, and beheading women for alleged adultery. The death penalty can also be carried out by stoning or firing squad followed by crucifixion.
In 2012, some 79 executions took place. One woman was beheaded for witchcraft and sorcery.
The country’s official murder and rape rates are one of the lowest in the world. The actual number, however, is far higher, and is corrupted by women and other minorities’ fear to report assaults committed against them.
The law is more often on the side of the aggressor than on the side of the victim, especially if the victim is not Saudi and male.
Foreign workers, in particular, have absolutely no protection or rights in the kingdom. At the moment, over 1.5 million female foreign maids live and work in Saudi Arabia, of which the majority is from Indonesia. Physical and mental abuse against them is not a rarity; it is a common practice. Many have had their passports taken away by their bosses. They are second class human beings – modern slaves – and are subject to random and unscrupulous attacks from their masters.
In 2010, an Indonesia maid was hospitalised after her boss burned her with an iron, cut off her lips with a pair of scissors and left her to die. Another maid was seriously injured by nails and other metal objects which were hammered into her body, after she complained about over-work.
Months later, Saudi Arabia beheaded a foreign worker and hanged her mutilated body from a helicopter as a warning to her colleagues.
According to Freedom House’sWorld Index, Saudi Arabia belongs to the ‘worst of the worst’ countries in the world.
Despite such an appalling human rights record, the kingdom is the West’s oldest and one of our closest allies in the Arab world.
This is our history. It is nothing to be proud of.
But what are the options on the table? Can we distance ourselves from the House of Saud? Should we encourage their overthrow if and when the Arab Spring hits the country? The brutal truth is that if the House of Saud were to fall, it would have serious repercussions for the West and several Middle Eastern countries, and would likely make the situation worse – even if that seems hard to imagine now.
The fall of the monarchy would touch upon central security and economic interests.
1. Iran: Saudi Arabia is the major counterbalance to Iran in the Arab world, especially since the end of the Saddam Hussein tyranny, and has contained its influence for decades. The demise of the House of Saud would considerably strengthen the regime in Teheran. While it is not an intelligent policy to control one dictatorship with another, as it is likely to result in a disaster in the long-term, it is of critical importance to take the consequences of that scenario into account.
2. Regional stability: At the same time, the fall of the monarchy would considerably weaken the sheikdoms of the Gulf and the Hashemite Empire of Jordan. The collapse of King Abdullah’s reign, in return, would put the peace with Israel at high risk and undermine the stability of the region even further, with Syria drowning in blood and Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
3. Oil: The oil for security pact between the US and Saudi Arabia was forged by President Roosevelt and Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud on board of the U.S.S. Quincy in 1945. Nowadays, the US retrieves only 8.1% of its oil from the kingdom, as it is one of the world’s largest oil producers itself. Close to 40% of its oil needs are met at home. Europe, however, is far more dependent on the oil supply from the kingdom and would be subject to another economic crisis, if that flow were to stop.
So, how likely is it that Saudi Arabia will be hit by the tidal wave of change that is sweeping across the region? At the moment, it seems unlikely, but possible, that the Arab Spring will have a major impact on the country. It cannot be ruled out, as the kingdom shares some of the key criteria with other countries affected by the revolutions. For example, it suffers from high unemployment among the youth, no freedom of expression, oppression of minorities (in the case of Saudi Arabia, the Shia minority), and gender apartheid.
The House of Saud is indeed concerned and troubled by that scenario. It has significantly increased its security budget, forged closer ties with allies through the Gulf Cooperation Council (Jordan and Morocco were invited to join), supported revolutions that weakened arch-enemy Iran, such as in Libya and Syria, and on the other hand, supported the embattled monarchy of Bahrain, and pumped millions of dollars into Jordan.
But what should be of uppermost concern for the West is the make-up of the opposition to the House of Saud. Although there are some secularist democrats and moderates, the strongest and best organised opposition faction by far, is that of the Wahhabis. They have been part of the establishment ever since the existence of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, due to the alliance between the House of Saud and the clerics. That puts them into a privileged position and makes them the most likely successors to the monarchy.
Wahhabism is the most extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism prevalent in the Middle East and the origin of the radical ideology to which al-Qaeda is subscribed. Given Saudi Arabia’s immense wealth and largest oil reserves in the world, they could spread terror not only across the entire region but the entire planet.
Where does is leave us? Saudi Arabia remains the most complicated case in the Arab World for Western policy-makers. There is no easy way out of our moral dilemma. Tony Blair once said that if one cannot solve a problem, one has to manage it. As we cannot solve the Saudi problem, the best chance we have is to manage it by continuing to put pressure on the monarchy to engage in genuine reform.
Some steps into the right direction have already been taken; women were allowed to represent the country in the Olympics, and last week the king announced that from now on women can join the national assembly. We should be under no illusion, however, that progress in Saudi Arabia will be anything but painfully slow, and there will be many setbacks still to come.
The Saudi dilemma will stay with us for the foreseeable future, but while the West cannot fix the problem, it can at least apply pressure to make a bad situation better.
There are too many fascinating people on Twitter to name them all but here is a list of those whose tweets I have most enjoyed in 2012. The entries appear in no particular order of relevance or importance.
Tweeps from the United States
Jeffrey Goldberg – National Correspondent, The Atlantic. One of the most reasoned, calm and sane voices
Eli Lake – Senior national security reporter for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Follow him, if you want to know the truth about Benghazi
Abe Greenwald – Senior Editor, Commentary
Ben Cohen – Contributor to Commentary, WSJ, Ha’aretz, NY Post, Jewish Ideas Daily, Fox News, JNS and Jerusalem Post
Ari Fleischer – Former White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush. Probably the funniest guy I follow.
The Bush Center- Official account of the George W. Bush Presidential Center
Tom Taylor - No one re-tweeted me more often. Thank you!
Condoleezza Rice – Former Secretary of State. Political queen of the universe and parallel universes
John McCain – The man who tirelessly exposes the moral bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign policy
Steven A Cook – Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
Max Boot – Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
Josh Rogin – Staff Writer, The Cable
Jackson Diehl – Foreign Affairs columnist, The Washington Post
Ian Bremmer – President of EurasiaGroup
Shadi Hamid – Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center & Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution
Brian Stewart – Unabashed neocon
Charles Krauthammer – The man behind the ‘Bush Derangement Syndrome’
Andrew Kaczynski – Reporter for BuzzFeed Politics
Tweeps from the United Kingdom
John Rentoul – Columnist, Independent on Sunday; biographer of Tony Blair. The oracle of Westminster
Nick Cohen – Writer for the Observer, Time, Spectator and Standpoint. He affectionately calls me a ‘crazed neocon babe’
Stephen Pollard – Editor, the Jewish Chronicle
Tony Blair Office – Official account of the Former Prime Minister
Ruth Turner – CEO of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and one of the hardest-working and most trustworthy people you will find in British politics
Mr Partisan – Writer , Commentary. In his own words: ‘I makes Newt Gingrich look like a Marxist’.
Robert Halfon – My favourite MP
Tom Harris – A fine and immensely entertaining Labour MP
Martin Bright – Political Editor of The Jewish Chronicle and Spectator blogger
Blairsupporter - I may resigned from the Blairite attack squadron but he is still standing
Rob Marchant - Blogger and keeps sanity alive on the left
Glen OGlaza – Political Correspondent Sky News
Citizen Sane – His Twitter name speaks for itself: 100% sanity from the political centre
Charles Crawford – Former British Ambassador
Peter Watt – Former Labour Party General Secretary under Tony Blair
Jacob Campbell – Research fellow at the Institute for Middle Eastern democracy and Ahmadinejad hater numero uno
Ed West – Prematurely Right-wing London journalist and Daily Telegraph blogger
Sarah Pilchick- My Jewish princess. Plus, we survived the London School of Economics together
Mark Wallace – Political campaigner
Matthew Taylor- Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce
Gary Kent – Administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group the Kurdistan Region in Iraq
Ben McCcabe – It takes a brave man to wear a Rick Santorum sweater vest at the London School of Economics
HKK G – The crème de la crème of Twitter Kurds
Matthew d’Ancona – Columnist, The Sunday Telegraph
Norman Geras – Professor Emeritus in Politics, University of Manchester
Daniel Finkelstein – Columist, The Times
Hopi Sen – Blogger
Alex Dean – Head of Public Affairs, Weber Shandwick UK
Oliver Kamm – Leader Writer, The Times. No one destroys Noam Chomsky like he does
David Aaronovitch – Columist, The Times
Heath Pritchard - Political refugee from Obamunist Seattle