Ten years on: yes, the Iraq war was wrong, but…

February 15, 2013 at 6:48 pm (apologists and collaborators, fascism, Galloway, history, Human rights, imperialism, internationalism, iraq, iraq war, Jim D, John Rees, Lindsey German, London, New Statesman, protest, stalinism, SWP, Tony Blair, war)

Like many readers of this blog, I was there on 15 February 2003, and I’ve never had cause to regret it. But I don’t share the self-righteous preening of tyrant-lovers like Andrew Murray, nor the slightly more forgivable solipsism of Laurie Penny (who at least has -or had- the excuse of youth). Even at the time, I was sickened by the refusal of the SWP, Galloway, Murray, etc to address the human rights issues and their systematic, deliberate, whitewashing of Saddam (Galloway, of course, being the most grovelling and egregious Saddam fan). A little later, their support for the fascistic gangs who were murdering Iraqi trade unionists alienated me once and for all. The subsequent degeneration of the Stop The War Coalition into a shrivelled Westphalian excuse-machine for vicious dictators and tyrants everywhere has only served to confirm my worst expectations.

Ian Taylor, an unrepentant marcher and anti-war campaigner, puts his finger (in the present issue of the New Statesman – no link presently available) on the central weakness of the ‘line’ of the SWP/Galloway leadership at the time, though he naively puts it down to a lack of political imagination rather than a lack of political will:

“In my opinion, what we needed more than anything else was an answer to the dilemma of what should have been done about Saddam Hussein and the appalling human rights abuses that were undoubtably that were undoubtably going on inside Iraq. Questions about this came up a great deal at public meetings, when leafletting the high street and in letters to local and national newspapers from supporters of the war. When asked about Iraq now, Blair always plays this card because he knows that opponents of the war don’t have an answer to it. If being on the left means anything, it ought to mean standing up for the oppressed. It shouldn’t have been beyond the wits of those speaking for the movement to have woven an answer to the problems of human rights abuses by non-western regimes into the fabric of their anti-imperialist principles. My view is that, just as we had weapons inspectors in Iraq, we should also have had human rights inspectors there. That would have done a lot to wrong-foot Blair et al.”

I can remember stumbling across the following searingly honest ‘Letter to an unknown Iraqi’ that pretty much summed up my own feelings at the time. I circulated it on the local Stop The War email list, where it didn’t go down terribly well as I recall:

The Urge to Help; The Obligation Not To

By Ariel Dorfman (February 28, 2003)

I do not know your name, and that is already significant. Are you one of the thousands upon thousands who survived Saddam Hussein’s chambers of torture, did you see the genitals of one of your sons crushed to punish you, to make you cooperate? Are you a member of a family that has to live with the father who returned, silent and broken, from that inferno, the mother who must remember each morning the daughter taken one night by security forces, and who may or may not still be alive? Are you one of the Kurds gassed in the north of Iraq, an Arab from the south displaced from his home, a Shiite clergyman ruthlessly persecuted by the Baath Party, a communist who has been fighting the dictatorship for long decades?

Whoever you are, faceless and suffering, you have been waiting many years for the reign of terror to end. And now, at last, you can see fast approaching the moment you have been praying for, even if you oppose and fear the American invasion that will inevitably kill so many Iraqis and devastate your land: the moment when the dictator who has built himself lavish palaces, the man who praises Hitler and Stalin and promises to emulate them, may well be forced out of power.

What right does anyone have to deny you and your fellow Iraqis that liberation from tyranny? What right do we have to oppose the war the United States is preparing to wage on your country, if it could indeed result in the ouster of Saddam Hussein? Can those countless human rights activists who, a few years ago, celebrated the trial in London of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet as a victory for all the victims on this Earth, now deny the world the joy of seeing the strongman of Iraq indicted and tried for crimes against humanity?

It is not fortuitous that I have brought the redoubtable Pinochet into the picture.

As a Chilean who fought against the general’s pervasive terror for 17 years, I can understand the needs, the anguish, the urgency, of those Iraqis inside and outside their homeland who cannot wait, cannot accept any further delay, silently howl for deliverance. I have seen how Chile still suffers from Pinochet’s legacy, 13 years after he left power, and can therefore comprehend how every week that passes with the despot in power poisons your collective fate.

Such sympathy for your cause does not exempt me, however, from asking a crucial question: Is that suffering sufficient to justify intervention from an outside power, a suffering that has been cited as a secondary but compelling reason for an invasion?

Despite having spent most of my life as a firm anti-interventionist, protesting American aggression in Latin America and Asia, and Soviet invasions of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, during the 1990s I gradually came to believe that there might be occasions when incursions by a foreign power could indeed be warranted. I reluctantly agreed with the 1994 American expedition to Haiti to return to power the legally elected president of that republic; I was appalled at the lack of response from the international community to the genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda; I applauded the Australian intervention to stop the massacres in East Timor; and, regarding Kosovo, though I would have preferred the military action to have taken place under the auspices of the United Nations, I eventually came to the agonizing conclusion that ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale could not be tolerated.

I am afraid that none of these cases applies to Iraq. For starters, there is no guarantee that this military adventure will, in fact, lead to a “regime change,” or peace and stability for your region.

Unfortunately, also, the present affliction of your men and women and children must be horribly, perversely, weighed against the impending casualties and enormous losses that the American campaign will surely cause. In the balance are not only the dead and mutilated of Iraq (and who knows how many from the invading force), but the very real possibility that such an act of preemptive, world-destabilizing aggression could spin out of control and lead to other despots preemptively arming themselves with all manner of apocalyptic weapons and, perhaps, to Armageddon. Not to mention how such an action seems destined to recruit even more fanatics for the terrorist groups who are salivating at the prospect of an American invasion. And if we add to this that I am unconvinced that your dictator has sufficient weapons of mass destruction to truly pose a threat to other countries (or ties to criminal groups who could use them for terror), I have to say no to war.

It is not easy for me to write these words.

I write, after all, from the comfort and safety of my own life. I write to you in the knowledge that I never did very much for the Iraqi resistance, hardly registered you and your needs, sent a couple of free books to libraries and academics in Baghdad who asked for them, answered one, maybe two, letters from Iraqi women who had been tortured and had found some solace in my plays. I write to you harboring the suspicion that if I had cared more, if we all had, there might not be a tyrant today in Iraq. I write to you knowing that there is no chance that the American government might redirect to a flood of people like you the $200 billion, $300 billion this war would initially cost, no real interest from those who would supposedly liberate you to instead spend that enormous amount of money helping to build a democratic alternative inside your country.

But I also write to you knowing this: If I had been approached, say in the year 1975, when Pinochet was at the height of his murderous spree in Chile, by an emissary of the American government proposing that the United States, the very country which had put our strongman in power, use military force to overthrow the dictatorship, I believe that my answer would have been, I hope it would have been: No, thank you. We must deal with this monster by ourselves.

I was never given that chance, of course: The Americans would never have wanted to rid themselves, in the midst of the Cold War, of such an obsequious client, just as they did not try to eject Saddam Hussein 20 years ago, when he was even more repressive. Rather, they supported him as a bulwark against militant Iran.

But this exercise in political science fiction (invade Chile to depose Pinochet?) at least allows me to share in the agony created by my own opposition to this war, forces me to recognize the pain that is being endured at this very moment in some house in Basra, some basement in Baghdad, some school in Tarmiyah. Even if I can do nothing to stop those government thugs in Iraq coming to arrest you again today, coming for you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, knocking once more at your door.

Heaven help me, I am saying that if I had been given a chance years ago to spare the lives of so many of my dearest friends, given the chance to end my exile and alleviate the grief of millions of my fellow citizens, I would have rejected it if the price we would have had to pay was clusters of bombs killing the innocent, if the price was years of foreign occupation, if the price was the loss of control over our own destiny.

Heaven help me, I am saying that I care more about the future of this sad world than about the future of your unprotected children.


  1. Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) OOps upside your Head this time with feeling said,

    you are wrong, all the stupid cuernts who were anti fuckking hussain were wrong and all of youse are even more wrong than you were back then. fuckwitts one and all. AWL especially cretinous third campist bullshit wanting cake and eating it moRAns.

  2. Jimmy Glesga said,

    What was wrong with the War! Gorgeous has furthered his career out of it and the nice man Saddam is pan bread. All is well in Britain we can sleep safely in our beds .

  3. Danial young said,

    ee wee Geordie ,like the most of them, have had fine dinners at the expense.Ban all capitalist wars, fuck it “band private property”

  4. s4r4hbrown said,

    That Dorfman piece is indeed very good. I would be fascinated to hear more about exactly how/why it didn’t go down well.

  5. Jim Denham said,

    The majority of STW activists seemed unwilling to accept that there was any moral or political difficulty with simply opposing war and saying nothing about the human rights issues. Indeed, many of them refused to accept that there *were* any human rights issues and when I attempted to raise them, assumed (I think genuinely) that I must be pro war. Such a position was, of course, encouraged by the SWP.

  6. Dr Ian Taylor said,

    Dear Shiraz,

    Thank you for taking an interest in my article; it’s always useful to get some commentary. I’m sympathetic to much of what you’ve said here, but feel compelled to clarify a few matters.

    Over the years I’ve have interviewed a lot of people from the anti-war movement, including many from the SWP (whom I disagree with on a lot of things), and I have never encountered anyone who declared any support for Saddam. More generally, when to comes to foreign affairs, the vast majority of people on the radical left sincerely believe they represent the best interests of non-Western peoples. I have no time for Galloway though.

    The weakness in the anti-war movement’s position is not that they supported Hussein but, as I tried to indicate my New Statesman article, that they didn’t have an answer to the ‘what should be done about Saddam’ question. Although I didn’t actually characterise this as a problem stemming from a ‘lack of political imagination’ that is, I suppose, a fair account of my way of looking at things. I stand by my article however, because the roots of the problem lie in the widespread belief on the radical left, that if any form of Western pressure that is brought to bear on non-Western regimes that amounts to some form of imperialism. The best way I can characterise this is to say that there is a somewhat one-dimensional mindset on the radical left when it comes to foreign affairs, because the only question that’s ever really addressed is whether Western actions are imperialistic, to which the answer they give is almost always yes. If any other questions need to be asked about a given situation, they are, at most, subsumed under the anti-imperialist paradigm. That is ultimately a failure of political imagination. It is not, in the main, because those involved in the anti-war movement are indifferent to the suffering of people in other parts of the world.

    Nonetheless, their somewhat one-dimensional way of understanding international affairs does have the pragmatic benefit of holding most strands of the anti-war movement together simply because imperialism is a dreadful thing. I’m sure we can all agree on that. In other words, anti-imperialism provides a ‘intellectual’ frame around which the movement can unite. (Sorry about the slip into academic jargon there!)

    Best wishes,

    Ian Taylor

  7. Dr Ian Taylor said,

    Hi again,

    I must also add that some local anti-war groups, including the one that I was part of in Slough, did take a hard look at the nature of Saddam’s regime and asked questions about what should have been done about it. These kind of discussions never turned anyone into a Neocon hawk (or at least not in my experience), but they do tend to undermine any comforting sense of certainty that one is definitely right. This, I believe, is also part of the reason why many other parts of the movement shied away from addressing those unsettling matters. I suppose you could characterise that a failure of ‘political will’ if you want, but in my view that would be stretching the meaning of the term somewhat. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that the movement would have put itself in a far stronger position with the public, with politicians, and with the media if it addressed those matters.



  8. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Ian. I don’t think we have a serious disagreement here, but I stand by what I wrote (above): the SWP (and others, but the SWP were the leadership) consciously played down criticisms of Saddam’s regime. The fact that they sought out and welcomed the filthy, grovelling tyrant-lover Galloway as the public face of the campaign is – for me anyway – decisive proof of this.

    It’s not that they couldn’t work out an answer to the human rights “dilemma” you describe in your article: it’s that they took a conscious decision to avoid and bury the issue. And the reason for that is that they actually supported Saddam, albeit on a “lesser evil” / “my enemy’s enemy” basis.

    I agree with you that many rank and file activists in the campaign convinced themselves that the human rights issue didn’t exist, because they had no answers to it and wanted to keep things comfortable without the intellectual distress of considering “difficult” issues. But the SWP and Galloway had no such excuse. Actually, in my opinion Galloway was, in a horrible way, more honest in openly supporting Saddam – something the SWP only did in private.

    It’s all of a piece with the SWP’s uncritical embrace of Islamism and the UK section of the Brotherhood (the MAB) and exclusion of those of us with criticisms during the earlier campaign against the Afghan war.

    All the best


  9. Dr Ian Taylor said,

    Hi Jim,

    You wrote that: ‘many rank and file activists in the campaign convinced themselves that the human rights issue didn’t exist.’ I wouldn’t quite put it that way. They knew that serious human rights abuses were going on in Iraq, and, with rare exceptions aside, they never denied that. My criticism of so many people in the movement is that they didn’t confront the issue with a view to finding a way of resolving these matters. I think we are agreed though, that the reason why this didn’t happen was because the ensuing discussions would have raised too many uncomfortable questions.

    This criticism incompasses those who were in the SWP, but I wouldn’t go any further and say that members of the SWP actually supported Saddam as you allege. Over the years I interviewed a lot of people from the party, and frankly some of them were quite deluded, but none of my interviewees ever declared support for Saddam. However, if you have any evidence to the contrary I’d be interested in learning of it.

    Best wishes,


  10. Jim Denham said,

    Ian: I can only go on my own first-hand experience of working with the SWP in both the Stop The War movement and the Socialist Alliance: I am in no doubt whatsoever that they supported Saddam during the Iraq war. They certainly systematically played down the human rights issue and made out that any concern with human rights under Saddam was playing into the hands of the “imperialists.” I admit that I have no concrete proof of this, beyond my own experiences and the similar experiences of many other comrades I’ve spoken to. But if you seriously doubt it, how do you explain the SWP’s enthusiasm for the undoubted Saddam supporter Galloway and their promotion of him as the de facto leader of the anti war movement?

    • Andrew Coates said,

      I would agree with Ian Taylor, “They knew that serious human rights abuses were going on in Iraq, and, with rare exceptions aside, they never denied that. My criticism of so many people in the movement is that they didn’t confront the issue with a view to finding a way of resolving these matters.”

      I was extremely active in the Ispwich StWC (helping for example run a street stall every week for months) and that is exactly how most of us (from left socialists to the Quakers who made up our group of six stalwarts).

      The SWP kept largely silent on Saddam – that is as far as I know they never ‘supported’ him, though Jim is certainly right to say nobody seriously thought about the wider human rights issues involved in opposing the invasion of Iraq.

      It was the visceral anti-Americanism, lightly dressed in ‘anti-imperialism’, that seemed to inspire a deeper callousness of some of the left.

      Believe me I am culturally a lot further from the US than most of the British left, but I one SWP reaction (by a ‘cadre’ who lives in a neighbouring town) still sticks in my mind.

      He actually said |(and did not wait for the LRB etc) immediately after 9/11, “*They* really got hit ! *They* had it coming!”

  11. Dr Ian Taylor said,

    Hi Andrew,

    What does LRB stand for?


    • comradeNosaj said,

      London Review of Books

  12. Dr Ian Taylor said,

    Ahh, of course. I remember now.

    A bit about me: I am an academic who has been conducting ongoing research into the anti-war movement and the media for a few years now. During that time I’ve interviewed quite a lot of people from the various strands of the movement. However, since I always think it’s good idea to add to my data collection I’d be quite keen on interviewing Jim and Andrew (separately) for research purposes. If either of you guys would be interested in participating, please drop me an email at it57@le.ac.uk

    Best wishes,


  13. Stephen said,

    The real sadness is that 10 years after the march is that the likes of the SWP and Galloway have done absolutely nothing to come up with ideas as to how international institutions can be used to deal with those who continually abuse human rights and flout the UN Charter – and in the meantime have offfered no little support to those who do so. If they don’t want the US to be the world’s policeman – then there has probably been no better time to put that role into more relaible and neutral hands. They really have just thrown away the political legacy that they had – and I can only conclude that all they are really interested in is their crusade against the US and maximum disruptiuon and confusion. They really don’t give a damn about the lifes of ordinary people or human rights.

  14. Malte Brigge said,

    I agree with the criticism of the SWP and the Galloway grouping and their positioning and posturing in the anti-war movement. I also believe it is worse than you describe inasmuch as that at leadership level it is simple opportunism every time with these ‘far’ left careerists. (I once asked Callinicos a question about language, ‘materialism and Wittgenstein that he simply could not answer and was nearly clumbed in the bar later for my trouble by his lackeys – that is until I threatened to glass those scum). Be that as it may, I think you ought to appreciate one other important aspect. I was in Italy at that time of the war and was part of picketing railway stations to prevent military shipments and also on the demos. The left and broader left movement was categorically against the war and were able to articulate very convincing arguments against the Saddam regime. However, what astounded me at the time were the so-called social fascists that trace their lineage to the ‘national Bolsheviks’ and to a certain degree to the Strasserite wing of Euro-Fascism. This is a political phenomenon largely unknown in the UK. These groups were vehemently anti-Saddam but also rabidly anti-American and anti-war. In other words, they pass your basic test for being ‘correct’ on the issue. Curious no?

  15. Jim Denham said,

    Bob from Brockley takes a broadly similar view (to mine):

    Btw Ian: I’ll drop you an email shortly about that interview. Honoured to be asked!

  16. cowellhumanrights said,

    Reblogged this on Frederick Cowell: Human Rights and More and commented:
    This basically sums up the problems the Iraq war and the humanitarian basis for it. The war had no real legal basis and was a clear stain on the authority of international law. There is however a deeper moral and political question that those of us who marched in 2003 need to reflect upon. What would have happened had he stayed.

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