Platform Sixteen

Norman Geras responds to Lindsey Hilsum’s change-of-mind over Iraq in The New Statesman.

In the issue of the New Statesman for 11 September 2006 (one free hit), Lindsey Hilsum explains why she could not oppose the Iraq war, went along with it despite misgivings, but now thinks she was wrong to do so. Key to what she says was an Iraqi friend, Mohammed Fatnan, whose hopes, and whose desperation for change ‘even if it meant war’, she shared in some measure. He was kidnapped by Sunni insurgents in December 2004 and has not been seen since. The story she tells of Mohammed Fatnan’s fate she tells as being part of something wider, of the present state of Iraq and the ‘cruel chaos’ that has overtaken it. With this there can be no quarrel. But Hilsum’s article also has another purpose. She writes:

Here in Britain, the pro- and anti-war lobbies continue their arguments, tired and shrill. Everyone wants to prove that they were right. I was not right. I was swayed by Mohammed, who wanted the war, and was destroyed in its wake.

Not right, and her arguments no doubt not tired or shrill either. Hilsum is, nonetheless, sufficiently possessed now of the rightness of her abandoned wrongness, so to put it, as to be rather free and easy in how she lays about her. Here’s the central passage:

From the beginning, the debate in this country has been about British politics and prejudice, largely ignoring Iraqis, as if they were bit players in their own tragedy. The pro-war lobby—including the Euston Manifesto Group, heavily influenced by the Kurds, who have a different agenda from other Iraqis—refuses to acknowledge the disaster war has created. Even as Sunni insurgents slaughter Shias, and Shia ministry of interior thugs terrorise Sunnis, they claim that democracy is nascent. To them, anyone who states the obvious—that Iraq is a violent mess where life for ordinary people is worse than before—must be a covert apologist for Saddam. As Winston Churchill said during the Second World War: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

Their refusal to acknowledge the truth is as sickening as the cynical reasoning of the anti-war lobby, which opposed the war because its members hate America, not because they thought it would harm Iraqis. Most Iraqis I know agreed with Mohammed that there was no other way to get rid of Saddam, and that, however rough it was, war would in the long run bring a better life. They have been proved wrong, but the anti-war mob infantilises Iraqis, allowing them no responsibility for their own fate. They blame the US for all killings in Iraq, as if the murderous bands who detonate car bombs in Baghdad and Baquba were not responsible for their own actions.

As it’s not something I do very often, I’ll start here by defending ‘the anti-war lobby’. Lindsey Hilsum does what supporters of the Euston Manifesto are widely accused (but without justification) of doing: she simplifies opposition to the war as if all of it was based on hatred of America rather than on any concern for the well-being of Iraqis. But while this properly characterizes part of the anti-war movement, it is a travesty if applied to the whole. There were people (including, it may be said for the nth time, amongst supporters of the Euston Manifesto) who opposed the war not out of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, or ‘anti-imperialism’, but because of their estimate—or merely worry—that the consequences of the war would be all-round negative.

I turn to what she says about the Euston Manifesto Group. Hilsum relies on an ambiguity in her statement ‘they claim that democracy is nascent’. The Euston Manifesto says that once Saddam’s regime had been overthrown…

…the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted…

If ‘nascent’ is taken in this spirit—in the spirit of the possibility of democracy being born in Iraq, of a battle for, an effort at, transformation and democratization—then yes, pro-war Eustonians might reasonably be said to regard democracy as nascent. We have argued that there was a project there to be supported, against those forces trying to defeat it—a project for which there was evidence from two elections that millions of Iraqis themselves supported. But Hilsum’s meaning for ‘nascent’ would seem to be the more closed one, in support of her unshrill but condemnatory purpose: namely, that we Eustonians think democracy is being born born regardless of the forces ranged against it and as though it were a foregone conclusion. And that is pure invention. As also is her allegation that supporters of the war can’t see and won’t acknowledge that, in her words, Iraq is ‘a violent mess’; and that for us anyone who says so must be an apologist for Saddam. I repeat, pure invention. Iraq is now a violent mess, if this is how you want to put it; and there is no foregone conclusion about the democratic project which those of us who supported the war were supporting in doing so. This is not something that—speaking for myself—I’ve just got round to today. You can read here and here and here to see the point made perfectly clearly.

If the whole democratic project does come to grief in Iraq, then the hopes of those of us who supported the war will have been defeated, and the estimates of anyone who did think the outcome was a foregone conclusion confounded. This doesn’t show that, turning the clock back to late 2002/early 2003, the decision to support the war was self-evidently wrong. That decision was made on the basis of information available at the time, of estimates of probable consequences both ways—with war and without it—and of ignorance about certain things that hadn’t yet happened; not on the basis of 20-20 hindsight. Those like Lindsey Hilsum who now wax righteously indignant after changing their mind about the war face the small difficulty that they themselves, on the basis of what they knew and didn’t know back then, made precisely the same call as those at whom they are so indignant.

What is it that Hilsum takes to license such self-righteousness? I don’t know her, so I don’t know. But one possibility is that, having had Iraqi friends like Mohammed Fatnan, friends she knows she cared and cares about, she imagines that this puts her in a different category from the rest of us: you know, those both pro- and anti-war who ignored the needs and interests of Iraqis to focus on ‘British politics and prejudice’. What an unlovely moral conceit. ‘Only I (or some small ‘we’) care about the suffering of Iraqis; all you others… just shrill and callous.’ Give yourself that satisfaction if you will, but it isn’t how the world goes. Others (than Lindsey Hilsum) who supported the war also had Iraqi friends or acquaintances. And still others, although they didn’t, were moved by the same considerations as she was—‘swayed by Mohammed, who wanted the war’, thinking just like ‘most’ of the Iraqis Hilsum knew ‘that there was no other way to get rid of Saddam, and that, however rough it was, war would in the long run bring a better life.’ And others than Hilsum have been every bit as dismayed and upset and troubled as she is by the current tragic sufferings of the Iraqi people.

It may be thought that self-righteousness only afflicts those who remain resolute in a single unchanging view. Never, though, underestimate the capacity for self-righteousness of the recently ‘saved’. (Thanks: GK.)

Norman Geras is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester

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