Notes From the Margins…

Iraq: The Liberal Combat Team is Back

  • February 27, 2013
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‘It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation,’ General William Tecumseh Sherman once declared, when looking back on the American Civil War.

Sherman’s indictment was aimed at the civilians and politicians who he believed were largely responsible for the war,   but his words can be applied with equal force and validity to the liberal keyboard warriors who supported the Iraq war.

Some of them have been back in combat mode in recent weeks.   Like the journalistic equivalent of Sylvester Stallone and his crew in The Expendables,   age cannot wither them, and here they come with jaws jutting out to hit the keyboard or appear at tenth anniversary debates to justify the catastrophic war they once supported.

In the New Statesman, there is John Lloyd, one of Paul Wolfowitz’s nightclub pals at Annabelle’s, telling readers  ‘Iraq: Why Blair was right.’         At the Times, there is   David Aaronovitch, one of the hardest and most valiant liberal interventionists of all, a man whose weight-loss experiences at health farms have never blunted his appetite for combat, with a typically belligerent piece entitled ‘Now we know it was right to invade Iraq’ (access by payment only) .

Elsewhere, the Independent‘s John Rentaghoul –   the Renfield to Blair’s Dracula, endlessly willing to eat insects for his master – is cheerfully   upbeat in his blog about his participation in a Newsnight debate on ‘ what Iraq is like now and the implications for liberal interventionism elsewhere’.

Now these are men who clearly know what war means, wise, intelligent, thoughtful men who care deeply about humanity – especially Arab humanity.   So we know that their decision to support the war didn’t come lightly.     We can take it for granted that, like Bush and Blair,   they carefully weighed up all possible options before they started churning out op eds and appearing on tv to support the 2003 invasion.

And we can also assume that such men are capable of reflecting on the complete and utter discrepancy between what actually happened and what they said would happen – as many US and British army officers did when the Iraq war ‘went wrong’ –   and perhaps expressing a certain humility and wariness about proposing future ‘interventions’.

Well, not exactly.   For these warriors are a tough breed, and not the kind to be put off by minor setbacks.       All of them are unrepentant about the war that they once promoted so fervently.   All of them are serenely indifferent to – or at least accepting of – the death and trauma that the war left in its wake.   And after all these years in the frontline, they have not lost their ability to reinvent the past or ignore inconvenient facts that contradict their arguments.

This is what liberal interventionism is all about.     It’s a long game, and anyway, Iraq wasn’t that bad, says Major-General Aaronovitch from his Hampstead base of operations.   After all:   ‘Ten years after the war began, the country is more secure and democratic. The alternative was Syria on steroids.’

Counterfactuals are a stock weapon in the apologist’s arsenal.     Aaronovitch was one of those who predicted that Coalition troops would be greeted with flowers, who believed claims that there were WMD hidden all over Iraq and that these weapons would be found.       Having been proven completely wrong on every single count in his   attempts to predict the future of Iraq, he now takes refuge by imagining an alternative past and present, while simultaneously ignoring or diminishing the impact of what actually did take place.

Like many others in the liberal combat squad, Aaronovitch takes issue once again with the epidemiological surveys that placed the overall death toll in Iraq between 600,000 to one million, even though the British government’s own scientific adviser once declared that the methods used were ‘close to best practice.’

Aaronovitch prefers the figure of 180,000 – clearly a tragic but nevertheless acceptable figure for ex-communists like him, who come from the Stalinist   ‘can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs’ tradition.   In addition, these statistics support one of Aaronovitch’s favourite arguments – that Saddam would have killed just as many people if he had remained in power.

I don’t know about you readers, but I find a gross and outrageous cynicism in this kind of calculus.   Saddam was a vicious bastard for sure, but he did not kill people by quota, and it is not for pampered Western journalists to decide how many Iraqi deaths   constitute an acceptable statistic – or dismiss surveys which don’t support their own assumptions.

John Lloyd, another ex-Stalinist, also compares Saddam to Stalin in his New Statesman piece, which argues that the Iraq war was largely based – on Blair’s side at least – on the ‘powerful moral imperative’ of the ‘responsibility to protect’.

Well, actually, no it wasn’t.   Blair did not invoke that principle before the war.     On the contrary, he insisted again and again that the war was justified by Saddam’s non-compliance with weapons inspectors. He even declared on one occasion that ‘regime change’ was not inevitable, and that Saddam could remain in power if he complied.

If ‘responsibility to protect’ was such a ‘moral imperative’, why did the US and Britain do so little to ensure that the Iraqi population were protected after the invasion?     If Blair cared so much about Iraqi civilians, why were he and his inner circle so outraged by British media coverage of Iraqi civilian deaths during the invasion, as documented in Peter Stothard’s fly-on-the-wall book?

Why did they not deploy sufficient troops?     Why did they effectively dismantle the Iraqi state?   Why, despite the experience of both the US and British military in running successful post-war occupations, was there such a monumental failure in post-war planning, something that US and British army officers have commented on many times since?

Why did US and British troops so rapidly alienate the Iraqi population?     Why did the US military open fire on an unarmed crowd in Fallujah in the first weeks of the occupation?   Why did American and British soldiers torture and humiliate the ‘liberated’ Iraqi population?     Why are women in Fallujah still giving birth to deformed babies?

If Bush and Blair really believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, as Lloyd insists, why did they feel the need to include an old Phd thesis in the ‘dodgy dossier’ and refer to faked stories about ‘yellowcake’ uranium to inflate the ‘threat’ posed by Saddam?

There are many other questions like this that could be asked, but the liberal tough guys are not interested in asking them.       For these hard-livin’, hard-fightin’   crusaders,   the Iraq war may not have had a perfect outcome, but it’s still good enough for them to argue in favour of new wars.   Thus Lloyd concludes with a ringing endorsement of liberal intervention, declaring:

‘It may work in Mali. More thought needs to be given to how it might work in Syria. For the left, the responsibility to protect should be part of a progressive view of global problems. That the principle has become synonymous with a kind of refurbished imperialism is a sign of decadence.’

Now John Lloyd, like Aaronovitch, clearly regards himself as a profound thinker, and sees some kind of inherent nobility in his willingness to urge other people to fight and die in the West’s endless struggle to make the world a better place.

But their latest interventions suggest to me that that deep, deep, deep down, these are very shallow men indeed, both morally and intellectually.   And reading their apologias, I can’t help feeling that the real decadence is not be found amongst those who criticize the misuse and manipulation of ‘responsibility to protect’ as a justification for militarism, but amongst lazy and credulous journalists who endlessly recycle the lies and delusions of more powerful people than themselves and peddle a vision of war that is essentially as hollow and fake as their own humanitarian pretensions.




  1. Nik H.

    28th Feb 2013 - 1:15 pm

    I could not agree more with you. I think the following quote by Blair the genius rather than Blair the warmonger is quite interesting in this context:

    “It is sometimes a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is changing the conditions of warfare. In the next great war, we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.”

    I almost fell out of my chair few years back when I read these two lines in Homage to Catalonia. In the war that followed shortly after the book was published the western countries took their centuries old favourite game (as Chomsky so eloquently put it) to such a level, that even the armchair generals figured out after the war that we might better stop doing the crushing and killing of each other and instead beat the wardrums preferably only on those occasions when there is no potential for serious retaliation.

    The by comparison (compared to real acts of war) pathetic attempts by 3d world countries/insurgents/”terrorists” to take revenge, however wrong and bloody they are when they target civilians intentionally, are then used to justify the jingo’s clamour for war and beneficial bombing/drone action in the first place.

    It took centuries of war and two World Wars for the western industrial countries to figure out that with the nowadays means of destruction they ought to better find a way to avoid war rhetoric and belligerence amongst themselfes. However the urge for the jingoist warmonger class to heavy heartedly search the globe for places to carry out democracy/security/humanitarian bombings against midget-threats still exists and probably won’t go away.

    I wonder how long it will take for the west and it’s “experts” and “intellectuals” to realise that bombing others is eaqually wrong and eventually selfdestructive as bombing each other – and to be honest, that it is simply cowardly. Let’s face it, when the “usual historical suspects”, be they german, english, french, american et al. decided to go for each other’s throat there was at least some kind of balance in terms of military power.

    Our contemporary jingos love to talk about the cowardice of the midgets they seek to crush, however in my opinion, and I don’t know how you see this Matt, going after midgets with the sledgehammer of nowadays western military power is the real cowardice.

    Orwell was so right, nevermind the fact that bombers do not cause bullet-holes. The development of large scale bomber fleets combined with the development of the first short range and then longer and longer range missiles finally culminating in nuclear tipped missiles/nuclear bombs taught the armchair generals to only call for “war” when there is no chance of them having to spend their nights in airraid shelters for several years.

  2. Ian Taylor

    3rd Mar 2013 - 2:37 pm

    Hi Matt,

    I agree with nearly all of your comments, except that I’d just like to introduce one corrective note and also ask a question.

    The corrective note:
    You ask, rhetorically, ‘Why are women in Fallujah still giving birth to deformed babies?’ Actually it’s far worse than that. According a recent WHO report, over half of newborns in Fallajah are born deformed, mainly with limb deformities and heart conditions, whereas before the 2003 invasion that figure stood at less than 2% (and of course that was in a country already crippled by sanctions). In other words, the last ten years of war have resulted in a more than 25 fold increase in birth deformities in Fallujah. The official US/UK line on this is breathtaking in it’s callousness: They insist there’s no causal link here. Case closed. So much for the humanitarian impulses underpinning the ‘responsibility to protext.’

    The question I’d like to ask though does pick up on R2P.
    I completely agree that the alleged compassion of Bush and Blair, and the keyboard hawks has been exposed as a hollow sham over this one, but do you think that the West has any sort of ‘responsibility to protect’ vulnerable people from wars and ruthless dictators so long as they do so in a way that stops short of engaging in military action? In other words, should we be proposing non-military alternatives to enact R2P?

    Best wishes,


    • Matt

      3rd Mar 2013 - 4:22 pm

      That’s a big question Ian! I think it would take an essay or a book to answer it fully. To keep it short, I don’t think we should approach this issue simply by limiting the question of responsibility to the handful of powerful states that call themselves ‘the West’ – and which use their dominant position within the UN Security Council to claim that they represent the ‘international community’ – while selectively carrying out military interventions that are, for the most part, driven by very particular geopolitical objectives that have little or nothing to do with protecting anyone.

      I would like to see a genuine international community, based on the notion of collective security, in which all its members accept common responsibility for acting to prevent egregious acts of violence, atrocities, and crimes against humanity etc carried out by any state anywhere – an idea that underpinned the formation of the United Nations but which has never been fully realised.

      That ‘acting’ would include a scale of options that could – in my view – be military, in certain instances, including peacekeeping and peacemaking. Of course it depends on the situation, and the kind of military force – and a wider calculus about whether military force can make things worse or better. I recognize that we are miles away from this, but to my mind the selective – and dishonest – invocation of R2P rhetoric in cases such as Iraq, Libya – and now Syria – make it less, rather than more likely that we will ever get there.

      The idea that ‘the West’ has a unique responsibility to protect, is a recognition of the power that Western states have, and it also assumes that ‘we’ use that power for essentially benevolent reasons (I’m not saying that you think that, but many of those who advocate R2P do). There have been some cases in which that power has been used for positive effect from the point of view of protection, however fortuitously (eg.Sierra Leone), and other cases in which it could have been used and wasn’t. eg. the first years of the Bosnia war, when the UN had the ability and the power to prevent bloodletting and allowed Serb paramilitaries to run amok.

      In general though, the ‘successes’ are outnumbered by the failures and disasters, in which the cure has been worse than the disease – and the great problem with R2P as it is now, is that it largely a rhetorical instrument used to sanitize a new neo-imperialist projection of military power by a handful of states, which invoke a phony moral universalism only when it suits them.

      As for non-military alternatives to R2P, that takes us into the realm of genuine solidarity rather than the pseudo-universalism of R2P. And I would be interested in your views as to what those alternatives might be.

      • Ian Taylor

        10th Mar 2013 - 11:09 pm

        Hi Matt,

        Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this one – it’s been quite a busy week for me.

        There aren’t any easy answers to the question I asked, which is partly why I asked it. (In other words, I don’t really know.) That said, I am inclined to acknowledge the concerns and complexities you highlight, and I think we probably agree on most points.

        In my view, we should retain the UN – although of course it needs to be seriously reformed. The responsibilities of the Security Council should be replaced by the general assembly, effectively making all countries permanent members whilst giving no single country, or even a small minority of them, the right to veto majority decisions. In principle, I’d be in favour of giving greater weight to democracies, and possibly also more populous countries, but in practice I expect those arrangements would be hard to balance out and implement.

        Of course, I understand full well that the chances of this ever happening are around about absolute zero, although that’s not really the point here. Moreover, even if the UN were to be reconstituted along the lines I’ve outlined above, there could still be no guarantee that the UN would be able to genuinely enact the principles of R2P. Great powers can bully and bribe other countries to suit their own interests. Furthermore, if the threat or use of force did turn out to be necessary (I’m not a pacifist), the most powerful nations would doubtless claim that they deserved a higher degree of influence over the course of events given that they’d be the ones committing their forces to battle. So it’ not a perfect solution that I’m advocating. But I think it would be better than the current SC dominated arrangement.

        I also think this is preferable to the abolition of the UN, as some people on the radical left favour. A position that chimes with the preferences of the Republican right is never a good idea!

        Those are my thoughts at any rate.

        Best wishes,


        • Matt

          12th Mar 2013 - 9:33 am

          Thanks Ian. You’re right that there aren’t any easy answers to this question, and you’ve opened up a complex debate that is difficult to have in a comments section, so I’ll just add a few thoughts.

          In a way R2P is an attempt to weld together the ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ school of international relations, ie. that it serves the national interests of (some) states to act on behalf of universal humanitarian principles against regimes that perpetrate crimes against humanity.

          The idea of R2P as it is now, almost always imposes ‘responsibility’ on those states with the political and military power to extend such protection, but in the world that we now have, the states that invoke R2P tend to do so only when intervention supports their perceived national and geopolitical interests.

          In my opinion R2P is useful to these states, because it provides a moral figleaf for militarism, and a useful means of pressuring the public through selective ‘what can we do?’ rhetoric.

          Would this be any different in a more ‘democratic’ UN? Is it possible to create a genuine ‘international community’ that accepts common responsibility for the protection of all its members, and is prepared to act when certain principles and rules are broke? Perhaps. But so far national interests have generally prevailed, from the League of Nations to the UN.

          Even the prospect of a UN in which decisions are not limited to the security council does not necessarily mean that a reconstituted ‘international community’ would be able to agree on collective action to prevent crimes against humanity. Even within the more limited format of the security council, UNPROFOR’s mostly disastrous mission had no teeth, because of the very different national interests and alliances of the security council member states.

          Then there is the question of defining what crimes are sufficiently outrageous to require action. The Rwandan genocide might seem an obvious example (even though Paul Kagame and the Rwandan army later went on to commit some pretty horrific crimes themselves in the DRC).

          But one could equally argue for intervention to protect the Palestinians of Gaza during Israel’s last two onslaughts, or Tamil civilians from the Sri Lankan army at the end of the civil war. No one of any significance did, of course, and not surprisingly, since the ‘international community’ was complicit in these events.

          There’s also the crucial question of whether self-interested interventions presented as an attempt to enforce universal humanitarian principles make things worse or better. In general, the record of such interventions has not been good, in my opinion.

          That’s all for now!

          • Ian Taylor

            16th Mar 2013 - 7:27 pm

            Hi Matt,

            Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. It’s been another busy week.

            I tend to agree with your suggestion that there is something quite phoney about the way that the great powers selectively invoke the R2P doctrine when it suits them only to turn a blind eye when their geo-political interests aren’t at stake. For this reason then, I think we should always be very sceptical whenever politicians invoke R2P and ask questions about what their real interests are. Furthermore, even if – in some fantasy version of reality – they were driven by genuinely altruistic motives, that would still be no guarantee that desirable consequences would follow, because as you say ‘the record of such interventions has not been good’. This is why I’d be against military intervention in Syria even if the country was of no strategic importance. In fact, I’m fairly sure that the Cameron/Hollande plan to arm the rebels is a recipe for disaster, not least of all because it scuppers any hopes of the West taking on the role of (semi)-honest broker in the crisis to force a cessation of hostilities and thereby pave the way for a more lasting peace process. This is the only way out of the crisis that I can foresee. But in some ways this is a bit of a digression.

            When I initially responded to this thread I didn’t necessarily have direct military intervention in mind. One alternative here would be to have human rights inspectors in those countries with the worst human rights records to bear witness to what goes on in their prisons, detention centres and torture chambers, and in many cases to investigate instances of disappearances. This is something that can only be done through the UN, which is one of the reasons why I still believe in a (reformed) UN. This wouldn’t work in every case, but it might help in some. Overall though, I would be reluctant to embrace a position along the lines of ‘if a dictator is torturing and murdering his own people that is no business of ours’ (to quote the title of a debate I once saw advertised).

            Those are my thoughts for now anyway.

            Best wishes,


  3. Richard Carter

    6th Mar 2013 - 5:06 pm

    One more Iraq war supporter who’s crawled out of the woodwork is Nick Cohen in the Observer ( In a particularly noxious piece, he boasts about how he reminds people in the audience he’s lecturing of the suffering imposed by Saddam, and then proceeds in this fanciful way:

    “My questioners invariably look bewildered. The notion that, even if they opposed military intervention, they had obligations to support those who suffered under a regime which can be fairly described as national socialist had never occurred to them. No one can say that time’s passing has lessened their confusion.”

    All I can say is that he must meet some particularly dumb protestors if they really are “bewildered” by his remarks. It was, of course, readily accepted by people that Saddam was an appalling brute and that, amongst other dastardly acts, he’d gassed Kurdish people in Halabja etc – and the British government at the time completely failed to protest about the gassing because, of course, Saddam was ‘our’ SoB at the time.

    The truth is that there was no support for Saddam amongst those protesting about the planned war at the time, and it is an ugly piece of smearing on Cohen’s part to suggest that protestors were ignorant of the nature of the Ba’ath regime. But then, that’s all of a piece with Cohen’s journalism: make an insupportable point and smear people who disagree with him.

    • Matt

      6th Mar 2013 - 5:23 pm

      Yes, I saw that piece. You need a strong stomach to read much of Cohen’s smears. Strawman doesn’t even begin to describe is crudely manipulative bag of trick, including the endless references to Hitler that echo the neocon accusation that those who didn’t want to whack Iraq were guilty of Munich-like ‘appeasement’. The usefulness of ‘liberal hawks’ like Cohen is that they give their arguments a leftist gloss ie. bombing Iraq is a form of true ‘internationalism’ like the Spanish Civil War etc, etc

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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