Free Life 41, 15th February 2003, Washington and Brussels: Reply to Critics, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life No 41, 15th February 2003
ISSN: 0260 5112

 Washington and Brussels: Reply to Comments
by Sean Gabb

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Events appear to have proved me wrong in my predictions. The British Government has made a fuss about the draft of the European Constitution – though more over its wording than the things those words describe. At the same time, the French have taken a decidedly hard line in their reluctance to join in a war with Iraq. I am writing this response on a day – Friday the 14th February 2003 – when it looks as if NATO is falling apart, and the British Government may be forced to choose between Washington and Brussels – this last a choice that I denied was on the agenda.

Perhaps something has gone wrong. Perhaps I was correct in my analysis, but that the misunderstandings and personal disputes that always attend crises of this sort have turned events from their intended course. Or perhaps I was just wrong. Perhaps Mr Blair, for whatever reason, believes that the American alliance is our most basic foreign policy interest and that his duty as Prime Minister is to side with Washington even against Brussels should this be required – and that he believes this in spite of his known previous commitment to closer European integration.

I do not need, however, to investigate motives. It is enough for me to deny that there is any British interest in joining the war against Iraq. For such a case to be, at least one of two claims needs to be made out. It must be shown either that the Government of Iraq is developing weapons that it is able to use and desires to use against this country, or that – regardless of whether these weapons do exist – there is a clear and great and otherwise unachievable advantage to this country to be had from going to war.

The first of these claims I reject out of hand. Dale Amon claims private knowledge of some Iraqi threat. I do not doubt his belief in the truth of what he claims: I only doubt the truth of what he has been told. Set aside for a moment the nature of the evidence offered, and consider the nature of the claims being made. We are expected to believe that a poor and barbarous country, which was badly damaged in a previous war, and which has been under close blockade and supervision ever since – constrained and spied on by every possible means – has yet been able to develop weapons against which a country like Britain has no defence but a pre-emptive attack. We are expected to believe this, moreover, despite the repeated assurances of those in charge of the inspections within the country that, while the Iraqi Government has been either negligent or dishonest in its disclosure, no such weapons have been found.

Of course, this claim may be true. Perhaps Saddam Hussain has spent the past twelve years pretending impotence while secretly building the most alarming aggressive capability that, unless he is stopped now, really do let him threaten this country. However, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The proof offered so far has not been extraordinary. It seems of much the same nature as the pretexts given for other recent wars or attacks – pretexts that have often turned out to be lies.

Remember that alleged Kuwaiti nurse back in 1990, who testified so movingly in Washington how the Iraqi invaders of her country has torn babies from incubators. Remember how she turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador – without medical training and without personal experience of the invasion. Her evidence was used to swing American and British opinion behind the first war with Iraq. By the time it was exposed as a lie, the bodies were already rotting in the Arabian desert.

Remember how the al-Shifa factory in Sudan was supposed to be making chemical weapons – Mr Blair even said he had proof. It was bombed and at least one person burned to death. Remember how the place turned out to be just an aspirin factory after all, and how the Americans eventually paid compensation to its owner.

Remember the claims of 100,000 Albanians murdered by the Serbs in Kossovo. Remember how the bodies have still to be produced, and how the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague has turned into sinister farce, concealed from the world only by an effective news blackout in the main media.

Remember all this and then look at the file of evidence against Iraq published by the British Government and much used by the Americans. It is a compilation from sources found on the Internet. One of the sources is twelve years old. This compilation contains whole unacknowledged passages lifted form its sources, complete with errors of language. These passages have only been altered to turn descriptions into unsupported accusations.

So little reliance, moreover, is placed on this report by the American and British Governments, that they have continued since its publication to seize and twist every subsequent fact to support their case for war. Two days ago, for example, a tape alleged to come from Osama bin Laden was published. Without waiting to check its provenance, and on the basis of selective quotation, the American Secretary of State and British Foreign Secretary immediately claimed it to prove a link between the Iraqi Government and al Qua’eda – thereby implicating Saddam Hussain in the 2001 American bombings. The newspapers now carry a full transcript of the tape, and it proves no such thing. Whoever is talking calls on Moslems to support the Iraqi Government despite the fact that it is a government of “socialists and infidels”. Proclaimed common cause is not proof of a close working relationship. Accordingly, the accusations appear to have been dropped.

Now, if unambiguous evidence does exist for an Iraqi threat to this country, why is our Government seizing so eagerly – indeed, with such apparent desperation – on every shred of evidence, regardless of its value? The answer strikes me as obvious – that it has no proper evidence, but was hoping that what it had would not be too closely examined. Nor is this a singular event. Rather, it is a single instance of what has been a general trend – to make wild allegations, and then to drop them.

Of course, perhaps in spite of its form and the nature of other supplementary evidence, this report is true in its substance. But there must be a strong presumption against its truth. Though even known liars can tell the truth, it is reasonable to take their word only when supported by evidence that is both unusually strong in itself and that is unlikely to have been fabricated.

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The claims being made by the American and British Governments are of the same nature as the claims made by the Roman Church about some particular miracle. Miracles are in themselves unlikely events, and even the best evidence for them can be explained within narrower hypotheses; and the evidence comes from a source repeatedly exposed as fraudulent. Perhaps the blood of St Januarius does liquify, and perhaps all those plaster casts of the Virgin do weep. But we are justified in rejecting such claims unexamined, or in demanding overwhelming and independent proof from whoever persists in maintaining them. So it is with the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction”. Perhaps Mr Hussain will make an unscheduled appearance on television tonight, stroking his cat and showing us how he can destroy London with one blast of his space cannon. If so, I shall have been wrong again, and may even make another retraction. But I see no reason to suppose that he is a threat to anyone at the moment except his own unfortunate people – and that is a problem for them to solve, not for British servicemen or tax payers.

I turn to the second claim, and I have slightly more respect for this than for the first. Whatever their grounds, the Americans seem committed to war with Iraq. Perhaps it is in our interests to support them. Going to war regardless of whether there is a threat to us may sound immoral, but moral considerations have never in themselves been a strong motivating force in international relations. The world is and always has been an anarchy in which states follow their interests as they conceive them and by whatever means they find convenient. Few wars are fought for the reasons given by any of those taking part. The reasons given have generally been pretexts – their purpose being to secure consent at home, to court neutral opinion, and perhaps also to demoralise the enemy.

This being said, the quality of the pretexts used is important. The more they can be made to look like moral considerations, the more likely they will be to achieve their purposes – which in an age of semi-democracy and fairly open debate, such as ours, are crucial to success in war. Though a country’s foreign policy need not have any moral qualities at all, it should appear to have some. This requires the avoidance of openly aggressive war. Even before the rise of public opinion, great powers found it convenient to use force to get their way only as a distant resort, and to deal justly with inferior states in small matters, at all time proclaiming their adherence to certain principles of international law. One of the signs of greatness in diplomacy has always been to maintain this adherence in general, while finding good pretexts not to be bound by it in matters where great inconvenience would follow. I will not again discuss the nature of the pretexts offered for this war, but – even if they should happen to be true – they are plainly insufficient.

What then of the objects to be achieved? There is a continual whispering campaign from those allegedly in the know that the British ruling class has privately decided close European integration not to be in our interests, and that we should emphasise our special relationship with America as a means of disentangling ourselves from what has turned out to be an unwise connection. As MS says, “Capturing Baghdad is the next best thing to capturing Brussels.” If true, joining in an American war with Iraq would serve this purpose admirably. It has already brought British relations with the continental powers to their lowest point since the 1940s. It is also clear that a Britain submerged into a European federal state would not be the ally that it presently is. Much more of this, I am told, and we shall be out of the European Union and into NAFTA long before Gordon Brown has run out of excuses for not telling us the results of his five tests for deciding on membership of the Euro.

This is an interesting line of argument, and I do not entirely reject it. However, is this sort of intrigue really necessary? If the British public were as committed to the European Union as the Irish seems to be, it might be useful to withdraw by stealth. But there is both wide and deep hostility in this country to membership of the European Union. One reason why the Government has avoided calling a referendum on the Euro is that it is almost certain to lose. If there were a referendum tomorrow on whether to pull out entirely from the European Union, it is not at all certain that there would be a majority for staying in – and this even with the Government campaigning to stay in. A referendum with withdrawal backed by the Government seems hardly worth the bother of counting the votes. Perhaps there are powerful interest groups that force the Government to hide its true intentions, but I cannot think what they are. To get out, it seems only necessary for the Government to make the suggestion. As for the Americans, it is reasonably clear that their long term interests lie in a weaker European Union lacking credibility as a counterweight to their own power. Detaching Britain is the most obvious way to achieve this. An unaligned Britain would be no threat to American power. A more or less allied Britain would be a clear addition to it. We have no more need of American gratitude than we have of European anger: neither is likely to mean much in the long term, foreign policy interests being what they appear to be.

I turn now to the general utility of our “special relationship” with the United States. As I see it, this has not been to our advantage. The Americans provided us with lavish funding to fight two world wars that were useless from the point of our own national interest as closely defined, and in which we comprehensively undermined our position as a great world power. This done, we then allowed them to make us into a kind of satrapy in their crusade against the Soviet Union. As part of their strategy in this crusade, I do believe that they encouraged our rulers to take us into the European Union, so that the West European states could be kept steady in their own American alliances. Perhaps, with the inevitable relative decline during this century of American world power, it is now in their long term interests to have us as a free and prosperous ally. But I do not trust the Bush Administration to consider only long term interests. Its prestige is now inextricably connected to the destruction of Saddam Hussain. If it suits an immediate purpose to throw us deeper into Europe, I have no doubt that we shall be thrown there.

I do not blame the Americans for what they helped us do to ourselves in the last century. Had I been an American wanting to make my country into a great power, I should have done exactly what was done. Means being correctly apportioned to ends, foreign policy interests cannot in themselves be condemned or praised: – they can only be discovered and measured. But I do not trust the Americans any more than I trust the French or indeed the Iraqis. And I have no time for all the sentimental dwelling on the harmony of the Anglo-Saxon democracies that I am seeing from people who ought to know better. International relations are matters of interest, not of sentiment.

And as there is no probable benefit from supporting America in this war, the costs must be considered purely in themselves. These flow from the probable need of a long occupation of Iraq. This is not a nation state, like west Germany and Japan, that can be fitted out with liberal institutions and made into a valuable friend. Iraq is a chaos of ethnic and religious groups that can only be united by despotism or by common hostility to an outside force. It has neither the cultural nor the administrative resources to enable even the shadow of liberal democracy. Once there, it would be difficult for any occupier to withdraw without immense loss of prestige. Yet every day of being there would bring high costs. There are the direct financial costs. There are the diplomatic costs, so far as holding the country together will compromise relations with every other power in the region – mainly Turkey and Iran, but also perhaps Israel and Syria. And there is the cost in terms of our lives – those of our servicemen out there, but also those of British civilians exposed to the risk of terrorist attacks – attacks that millions in the Islamic world and nowadays in this country as well would regard at least secretly as acts of justified retaliation.

Unless it can be argued that the costs are not so great and that there will be actual benefits – and, I repeat, unless a better pretext can be found than has so far been revealed – I see no case for war. Little as I respect the United Nations – at best a hot air factory, at worst a sinister constraint on our ability to govern ourselves as we please – I hope that it will manage this time to avert a war. If not, I am sure the consequences will be terrible.

Though I think it a waste of time to dwell on arguments of morality, we must remember that war involves killing some people and inflicting great suffering on many more. As such, war is an evil. This does not make it in itself an illegitimate instrument of state policy. But those able to decide between going to war or not have an obvious duty to look closely at the expected benefits and costs. If people elsewhere in the world are to have their heads or arms and legs blown off, it should at least be for our own clear advantage. Nothing I have seen in the past few months gives me reason to suppose that there been any serious calculations of advantage.

One day, if there is a war, passions will have cooled enough for people to take a rational look at the various cases now being presented for war; and those of us now opposing war will turn out to have been as right as those who opposed the Boer War and the Great War. Sadly, it will by then be too late.

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