Is there no escape from war, famine, pestilence and death?

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Ten years after the invasion of Iraq by the American led coalition the air is still full of condemnation and recrimination. Much of it is far too simplistic. A piece in today’s Washington Post, combining as it does both heart and head, is much more nuanced than any of the other assessments, for or against, which I have read. This article, by a participant and undoubted victim of the war and its aftermath, reflects the perplexity which must assail anyone trying to unravel the complex tragedy that is Iraq, past and present.

When people ask me, he wrote, “Was the war worth it?,” I am often unsure how to respond. The world is a better place without a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. But poor U.S. post-invasion planning helped unleash sectarian furies that will plague not just Iraq but the broader Middle East for decades. I think a better question is “What should the United States do now?” My answer is that the venture into Iraq must not result in American detachment from the region. American ideals and aims are too noble for isolationism. The United States must learn from its errors and use its unequaled power to positively shape the world, helping to prevent future conflicts rather than sparking them.

Was it worth it to me? I can’t deny that my wife and child are healthy or that there is limitless opportunity for me in the United States. But is that worth losing my friends, family and country? Never.

Is it not true to say that the turmoil of this entire region, stretching from the borders of India and Pakistan to the Mediterranean coast, presents a problem for mankind which is well beyond the limits of what the powers of the rest of the world can either understand or cope with by either war or diplomacy? Leave them to their own devices is the explicit or implicit consensus which now prevails.

Is this a just consensus? As the Syrian conflagration inexorably climbs towards the sum total – and perhaps greater – of human misery and suffering endured by Iraq following the West’s intervention to remove its dictator, can we say “better that way”? We say, “we do not know how to solve their problem. Let us not even think of trying”.

The ingredients of the Syrian conflict bear many similarities to those which prevailed in Iraq. They were not adequately understood before the Iraq intervention took place and the consequences of that lack of understanding made that venture into a truly horrendous misadventure. Now they are better understood and the consequence of our better understanding is moral paralysis and “a plague on both your houses”.

No one can yet dare say how Iraq will turn out. But is there not at least a hope that some foundations have been laid on which an eventual peaceful coexistence may be established – a coexistence held in place by the free choice of a free people and not by a tyranny as heretofore? Furthermore, does it not seem that if the fall of Sadam had not come in the manner in which it did, it would inevitably have come in the way that the fall of the Baathist regime in Syria will surely come – after who knows how much bloodshed? Had this been the fate of Iraq then, with its more clearly defined historic enmities, its body count would have far exceeded that which it suffered when it had an external force holding the the factions at bay in however flawed a manner.

The mystery of the evils with which this region of the world presents us tests us to what appear to be the limits of our imaginative powers. But can we therefore, without guilt, succumb to the “bystander” effect and just walk on by? Or do we, all else failing, make a practical judgment on the principles of justice and take up arms to vindicate those suffering injustice? Can it be that there is no escape from condemnation? Here, surely, is a formula for true tragedy.

Saddam is gone – and what conflicting reactions ab…

Saddam is gone – and what conflicting reactions abound. Many supporters of the war which overthrew him still cannot bring themselves to reverse their judgements – and I number myself among them. Some of those judgements have clearly been undermined as the law of unintended consequences unfolded. However, new ones have taken their place and on balance these still support the intervention. But we are clearly in the minority. Is it pride, desperation or right judgement that keeps us sticking to our post?

The reality of our position now – whatever rational arguments we may still be prepared to entertain and advance in its support – is more that of the desperate victim who has walked into a trap and has to fight for his life to get out of it. The enemy has been engaged, the engagement has opened a Pandora’s box of indescribable complexity but now has to be closed. They cannot leave it open. They have no choice but to fight to the end and hope against hope for an ultimately positive outcome.

The anti-war faction is of no help. The sterility of their “I-told-you-so” stance – spoken or unspoken – offers nothing. Whatever might be said for the misgivings on which they based their original opposition to the military action they now have nothing to say that is positive.

The unpalatable thought for those who supported the action – in the belief that it was protecting the world from an imminent threat (nuclear chemical WMD) which turned out to be no threat in fact, and in the belief that the volatility of Iraq under Saddam was something that could be removed with his removal – is that death and destruction have come in its wake along with the creation of an apparently more threatening instability than was there before.

The most painful truth of all that may have to be faced is that the just war basis which had been held to support the action has been fatally compromised by the apparent calamity that has ensued. On the basis that some kind of proportionality should apply and on the basis that a hope of a successful outcome with a minimal suffering and death should ensue, the case for this being a just war seems no longer tenable.

And yet a lingering suspicion persists. All this may be necessary, all this may be an unavoidable conflict in the interests of avoiding an even greater conflict and catastrophe. Had there been a political will prepared to face up to the perceived threats of Nazi Germany in the 1930s which would have been prepared to engage militarily with the monster at an earlier stage of its development, would millions, tens of millions of lives been saved?

There is a Middle East scenario which is potentially as disastrous as any of the two great world wars proved to be. Millions have already died in a conflict between Iraq and Iran. In this case the majority who died were military personnel. Sadam was not going to live forever and one might have anticipated his death – from either natural or unnatural cause any time over this decade. What was likely to happen in the aftermath of that death is probably a pale shadow of the conflict now raging there. The Rwanda massacres for which the world still feels guilty would probably even have been a pale reflection. The world’s greatest military machine is grappling with a situation which by now would be a quagmire of blood were it not in the place to help contain it.

A militant fundamentalist Islamic nuclear power is a far more frightening prospect than a nuclear Communist power ever was. Iran still threatens to become one. Had Sadam become one Iran would certainly have done so. Had Saddam’s regime collapsed into a vacuum then Iran would almost certainly have gone to war to protect the Shia community and Saudi Arabia to protect the Suni. The rest of the world could not have stood aside and watched the oil on which its entire economic structure is based run into the sand. A war bringing unimaginable suffering and death and of unimaginably disastrous consequences would have followed.

Hypotheses? Perhaps. But politics of any kind, national or international has to take account of hypotheses, weigh them up and act. Had the hypotheses of the few in the 1930s been acted upon there would doubtless have been death and destruction and many would have excoriated the few responsible. But had that happened the greatest evil that the world has ever seen would have been prevented.

America and Britain have to stay the course in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It does not mean they have to conduct themselves on this course in the way they have to date. The reality is that there is a monster lurking in the fold of Islam. It is not Islam itself but it will destroy Islam the world as we know it unless it is removed.

These are the conflicting thoughts lingering in the mind of one who in 2003 thought that the Coalition which invaded Iraq was going in to do good job quickly. Guilty of naivety? With hindsight, yes? But if he was guilty of naivety once he may be even more determined not to make the same mistake twice.