Tuesday 5 March 2013

March, 2003

I've been reading through the comments under this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates describing his feelings about the anti-Iraq-war movement back in 2003:

"Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that I what I thought did not matter much. I was a writer in the sense that there were things that were published with my name on them. I didn't have a blog. I didn't have status. I didn't have a pager.

But I did have a grinding cynicism. I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, "You fools believe that you matter? You think what you're saying means anything?"  
In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, "No. Not in my name." It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism."
Personally I didn't agree much with the anti-war protesters back in 2003, and I'm not sure even now if they really knew what they were talking about. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't back the war knowing what I know now - the war was a gamble with the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people - but I don't think that means that those who opposes the war should be allowed to retro-spectively claim they knew what was going to happen all along.

Back in 2003, the anti-war protests seemed to be made up of exactly the same people who had opposed the Gulf War in 1991 on the grounds that it would become a 'New Vietnam', the same people who said that the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York had been orchestrated by the US government, the same people who believed the war was motivated entirely by oil wealth, the same people who, in short, had spent the previous ten years being wrong repeatedly. It seemed that they would oppose the war whatever the fact of the matter, and this made their opinions seem irrelevant.

I do, however, recognise the cynicism Coates describes, I got the feeling that it really didn't matter what anyone thought about the war.

For me the progress to war seemed unreal - especially since I followed it mostly from Taiwan and China - because we had by then seen more than ten years of empty threats directed at Saddam's government. When I watched George W. Bush's ultimatum giving Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq, neither I nor the people I was watching with could resist laughing out loud - the idea of a dictator giving up power in this fashion was simply too ridiculous, the speech itself very hard to take seriously. The statements about WMD also seemed over-blown - it was not possible to see this as a credible casus belli given the number of WMD-holding countries in the world, and I simply didn't believe that Iraq had a nuclear bomb yet.

I saw WMD as not much more than a pretext to remove Saddam Hussein, a brutal and vile dictator, and didn't believe that anything could be worse for the Iraqi people than his rule. This was my mistake - I didn't see the civil strife coming. Sure, there had been warnings about the post-war situation, but I couldn't believe that the US wouldn't be able to solve that by simply opening their financial coffers. The examples of Germany and Japan after the second world war loomed large in my mind. In a bar conversation in the summer of 2002 with one of the guys who ran the Taipei Baboons (who later suffered a tragedy of their own ) I remember holding forth about the possibility of a final battle in Baghdad, and dismissing the possibility of a guerilla war out of hand. Few people, I thought, would want to die for Saddam - that was about the limit of what I could see.


Cathy Liu said...

Honestly don't know much about Iraq war...when I actually started to care & hear about it years later from liberal professors who love to say they are right at the start etc. I cannot know in retrospect what I would have thought back then.

However, stories of Germany & Japan may be the exception not the rule (something I actually talked about the other day in class). Many so-called 2nd and 3rd wave democracies don't do that well (though definitely depending on one's definition) - places in Southern Europe, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe etc. etc. Democratization is a delicate matter. There are times when I lean towards Fareed Zakaria's argument in Future of Freedom (surely others have made similar points before, but I happen to remember this one out of my head) that liberal values and ways of running a society (rule of law etc.) needs to take precedent before democratization. Other times I don't think these two can be separated. But one thing I'm more sure of is the importance of a group of domestic elite taking lead, unless the outside force assumes significant role for a very long period of time (which US and its allies are no longer able to do because of budget constraints).

[To the numbers and figures below: a robot doesn't have a fever after walking in the snow...]

Anonymous said...

I was one of the people who opposed the Iraq War from the start, mostly because it was the position of my church (then the Mennonite Church USA) that there were preferable alternatives to war to achieve the goals stated by the US government. I remember hearing some of the proposals - using not only the UN weapons inspectors led by Blix et al (who, it turned out, had indeed been right when they informed us that Iraq no longer had WMD within its borders), but also human rights inspectors who could put a stop to most of the best-publicised abuses of the Hussein regime - and I thought they sounded eminently reasonable, not least since the military force was already in place to give the inspections teeth.

If you listened to the nutjobs, of course, you would come away with the impression you describe here - and I am far from denying that there were nutjobs in our movement (the 11/9 'truthers', as you state, chief among them). But for the most part, in the run-up to the war we found ourselves silenced and ostracised from mainstream political fora such that the intelligent arguments against war got completely lost; all that got through were views that were easily caricatured and dismissed.

For me, that impression was the beginning of my loss of faith in democracy qua democracy - the entire Anglo-American fourth estate, with the exception of a few local newspapers owned by Knight Ridder, were completely asleep at the switch (that's saying it charitably), and the rest of the public-policy apparatus was barrelling forward, emboldened by the promises of PNAC that 'we would be greeted as liberators' and that 'the occupation would pay for itself' and wild-eyed visions of remaking the Middle East in our image, with no thought to second-best scenarios or contingent strategies, let alone to those of us in the thoughtful opposition.

It is one thing, and quite fair, to say that those of us who opposed the war from the start shouldn't hubristically claim that we had any special degree of foresight. But it is quite another to continue using the one-dimensional caricature of the opposition to the war in order to retroactively justify contextual support of it.

Wukke said...

I actually wrote a joke version of what would happen in the year 2003 back in 2002, which was like follows:

* The war starts in May (so I was off there).

* At first, the war grinds to a seeming standstill. Chomsky goes around holding speeches in the US and Europe on how it will go on forever, and is hailed as having the greatest political wisdom of all.

* Then a few weeks later, all resistance melts away. After a few months of war, Iraq surrenders. All the major pundits now instead hail war for democracy as sacred, and begin talking about taking on all countries that are not multi-party democracies.

* The Baath party is outlawed and replaced by the Freedom Party, which mostly consists of old members of the Baath party anyway. The new party is praised for its freedom values by Dick Cheney.

* No WMD are found, but this is largely ignored by the world media, which says it will probably be found in a few years anyway.

Part of this was serious, though. I never took part in the anti-war movement and felt alienated from it, but I also felt there was a strong pro-war opinion that felt odd to me. I never believed the war would solve any problems, really, except getting rid of Saddam Hussain.

Gilman Grundy said...

@MFC - To be fair, many newspapers and news media that I read in the period, especially in the UK, published editorial content critical of the decision to go to war by people like Richard Gott, John Pilger, Robert Fisk, George Galloway. Pretty much every one of them had, as far as I can recall, opposed the Gulf War, and been proved wrong in their predictions about it.

Hans Blix was correct in saying that Iraq had, as far as he could see, been disarmed, but this was neither the real reason for invading, nor did it seem possible that all gas/biological weapons had been disposed of - even people high in Saddam's government didn't believe it. There were, it's true, plenty of other serious critics and a greater crowd of sceptics, but many of these (e.g., Robin Cook) had question-marks next to their names the equal of the question marks that should now sit next to the names of those who supported the invasion.

Anonymous said...

Cynicism, That is an appropriate word for a change in an attitude. Especially considering the term "Green on Blue" Incident was the grand innovation that the greatest military minds Mcchrystal, Petraeus, Kilcullen could give us, 12 years into the GWOT.. and continuing.

justrecently said...

My main objection against the war was that it should not be up to one government to decide if another, in a foreign country, should be "changed" or not. This aspect of international relations is the one where I feel pretty close to the - official - PRC position.

I remember some heated discussions among friends during the invasion. A rather conservative friend said that "at least, the Americans aren't sitting on their ass, and they do something about it". He firmly believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, and cited news that ABC-protection gear had been found with some of the Iraqi military. It was pretty much the level at which the warmongering sections of the press were arguing, too.

Another friend and I laughed at him - both of us had done our compulsory military service, and obviously, anti-ABC training had been part of our drill. Did that mean that Germany possessed such weapons? The cool war advocate - as frequently seems to be the case - had preferred to do a civilian duty instead of serving in the military.

Then why weren't we out in the streets, protesting against the invasion?

Because we didn't want to be Bush's useful idiots - but we didn't want to be Saddam's useful idiots, either. To us, two idiots were in a war with each other. But it would have been nice if they had duelled each other, individually. That could have saved many innocent lives

Anonymous said...

Mao's Famine is described by Dikotter and fellow travellers the worst catastrophe anywhere.

They are quite wrong. The mortality rate during the worst year of the GLF (1960), while exceptional by the standards of socialist China, was quite unexceptional when compared to the mortality rates of the two other big Asian countries, Indonesia, and India of the time (26/1000, 24/1000, 25/1000 respectively). In the other years of the GLF the mortality rate was actually less than that of India (refer work by Patnaik).

Furthermore, pre-revoultionary China, consistently had mortality rates which were at or exceeded the rates of the worst year (1960) of the GLF.

The GLF was a catastrophe relative to the otherwise tremendous accomplishments of the new regime in reducing mortality and raising life expectancy.

Dikotter is patently dishonest. He calculates excess deaths based on deaths over 10/1000. 10/1000 was the mortality rate of advanced countries like the US at the time. Yet Banister puts the mortality rate at 38/1000 in 1949, only 8 years before the GLF. If the communists really had achieved a 'normal' mortality rate of 10/1000 by 1958 (the same as the developed countries), then they surely deserve all the credit for saving millions of lives, up to that point.

If you accept the massive excess deaths calculations of Dikotter and you then have to accept that mortality in revolutionary China was normally extremely low for a developing country – and then credit the number of lives saved to Mao.

The fact is that the number of people (as a proportion of the population) who died in the three or four years of the GLF was less than over any chosen consecutive three year period in pre-revolutionary China. More people died in India as a proportion of the population than in China, over the same period as the GLF.

So how can one logically proclaim the GLF to be humanity's greatest catastrophe?

In fact the most rapid increase in China's population happened under the Mao era — but in a time of falling fertility. Why? Obviously the only possible explanation is a dramatic decline in mortality. Amartya Sen calculates 4 million excess deaths on average for the Indian 'democratic' experiment over China's socialist system. I trust Sen over Dikotter anyday of the week. He is a Nobel prize wining economist.

Mao's system probably saved close to 100 million lives (refer Chomsky on Sen's work). That is had China followed the development model of other backward countries, one hundred million more people would have died than under the Maoist system. Thus it could possibly argued that Mao was the greatest humanitarian in history.

justrecently said...

Foarp, I'm getting the impression that you've been spammed. But I wouldn't delete that comment about Dikotter if I were you. Nice little memorial for a fenqing living in a universe that ends at the Himalaya mountains...