the Disillusioned kid: The Battle of Hastings
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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The Battle of Hastings

There was fascinating, and possibly quite revealing, piece in Monday's Guardian by Max Hastings "former editor of the London Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph". My attention was caught by the prominent title,"To quit Iraq now would be as shocking as the invasion," which was followed by a purported summary claiming, "If the prime minister is serious, our troops will be there for a decade." Given the chaos into which the occupation of Iraq has descended and the carnage of recent days I was curious to see exactly what arguments supporters of the occupation are now offering in defence of the debacle and its continuance. If this is the best they have to offer then the occupation will be over very soon.

Title and conclusion aside, the article is actually a damning indictment of the conduct of the occupation and to my mind a compelling case against its continuation. He comments, towards the end, "Rationally, those who argue that the coalition forces should withdraw have a case. It is hard to be optimistic about what will happen if they stay." Hardly a compelling argument in support of the occupation. Elsewhere he refers to the "half-baked reconstruction efforts" and the dire law and order situation, which demonstrate that rhetoric aside, the occupation has provided little of benefit to most Iraqis.

Hastings argues that the elections planned for January may well take place, although difficulties and low turnout will mean that "the result will lack credibility". That the way the elections are to be conducted might impact on their credibility doesn't seem to occur to him. Once this has happened he believes that "Washington and London will attempt to wind down the coalition's military role and transfer security responsibilities to Iraqis":
Thereafter matters will become much messier, the outcome hard to foresee. Tony Blair told the Labour conference last week that Britain should stick it out in Iraq "until the job is done". If he really meant what he said, our troops would be there for a decade. The black hole in Blair's remarks is that he did not address what happens if, as seems overwhelmingly likely, the Iraqi people will not tolerate the coalition's presence for a tithe of that time.

Next year, a growing body of non-violent Iraqis will press for the withdrawal of the "foreign occupiers". Their demands could well become irresistible. It is implausible that, without allied firepower, either new Iraqi institutions or security forces will be strong enough to sustain the country's political integrity.
Hastings seems to consider the demands of Iraqis irrelevant. Otherwise, how does his belief that "the Iraqi people will not tolerate the coalition's presence" or that "a growing body of non-violent Iraqis will press for the withdrawal of the" US and UK, square with support for the occupation? This is perhaps why Hastings doesn't really engage with the point, instead seemingly ignoring it as irrelevant. By contrast I think it is absolutely central. If the majority of Iraqis oppose the occupation, this not only makes it practically unworkable, but undemocratic as well.

Elsewhere he remarks that "failure in Iraq seems certain, unless Bush, Blair and Allawi can create civil structures while containing violence, and provide Iraqis with evidence that their lives are getting better." Note that we need merely to provide "evidence that their lives are getting better." The insinuation is that all that is required is a better PR job, which is presumably why the US "recently solicited proposals for 'aggressive' public relations and advertising to shore up faltering Iraqi support for the U.S.-led operation". The truth of course is that in many senses Iraqis are much worse of than they were before the war. Muggings, rape, murder and kidnappings are endemic and many facilities damaged during the war have yet to be returned to pre-war levels of output. In Basra, for instance, as recently as August, UN officials were warning of a humanitarian crisis due to a shortage of water and reporting that the water supply in the city was unlikely to return to pre-war levels before the end of the year.

Hastings seems to believe that troops should remain in Iraq in order to secure the future of the Allawi government, although he never expresses this view openly. He comments, "It is implausible that, without allied firepower, either new Iraqi institutions or security forces will be strong enough to sustain the country's political integrity," which suggests to me that he sees both the new regime and the security forces as legitimate. That many Iraqis may well view them, arguably with good reason, as stooges of the occupiers and so illegitimate is not something he considers. This in fact, is an important point. If such a view is widely held, seeking to ensure the regime remains in power is not only destined to fail, but also undemocratic.

The core of his argument in support of the occupation only emerges in the final paragraph:
Yet allied troops must surely remain through 2005 to support some edifice of government, however rickety. Simply to quit would be as shocking an act of irresponsibility as was the original invasion without postwar planning. Bloody anarchy may overtake Iraq anyway. It will assuredly do so if coalition troops depart prematurely. In this, at least, Blair seems right. Unfortunately, neither he nor the Iraqi people may yet have felt the depths of George Bush's capacity for folly and the abuse of force.
That Iraq will descend into anarchy is a recurring motif amongst supporters of the occupation, but not entirely compelling. The implication that Iraqi is essentially peaceful now is simply risible. Recent figures put the average number of attacks at 80 a day, with 35 suicide bombings over the last month. How much worse could things get if the occupiers, against whom the majority of the insurgents' anger seem to be directed, were to leave?

There is also the issue, which I have warned of before, that the occupation may be strengthening the very elements its supporters cite as the justification for its continuance. At the height of the US assault on Najaf, I wrote,
The situation in Iraq still strikes me as bleak. There are at this point no good solutions. There is a real risk that when the US withdraw some form of undemocratic theocracy could take power, but I still do not believe that this is a justification for the ongoing occupation or the assault on Najaf. It seems that Islamist groups are taking legitimacy from their opposition to the occupation as there is no credible secular force filling that role. The longer the occupation continues the stronger they may become. Quoting Noam Chomsky is something of a lefty cliche, but in this case he makes a point so well, I feel it's justified. With regard to the unpredictable consequences of an "expeditious withdrawal" he notes,
We cannot say much with confidence, of course, any more than we could have said anything with confidence about withdrawal of Japanese armies from much of Asia in the early 1940s, or of Russian forces from Afghanistan, and many other cases. But that lack of confidence is not much of an argument for military occupation.
There are, I repeat, no easy answers. However, it seems clear that the US and UK cannot bring peace and stability, let alone democracy to Iraq by force of arms. The occupation is part of the problem (arguably a large part), not the solution. We are going to have to withdraw eventually. If I am right and the presence of the "coalition" is only strengthening the hand of the reactionaries, is it not better that we leave now to maximise the chance of a good outcome, rather than allowing these groups to grow in strength?
I do not offer this as a cast-iron prediction of how things will play out in Iraq, but I do think the risks are very real. Hastings' convenient assertions that "bloody anarchy... will assuredly" "overtake Iraq" if we leave, are based on no better empirical foundation.

Additionally opposition to the ongoing occupation does not preclude some of its functions being replaced by another force. One could conceive of a situation where an UN and/or Arab peacekeeping force fulfilled some security roles in Iraq until a domestic force could be established and trained. This would, however, require that the US and the UK give up any control over international forces in the country and would look very different to the US-led force with greater participation from other countries, which Kerry has called for. Such a force might operate along the lines of the "UN Transitional Authority" advocated by Justice Not Vengeance. Such a force is likely to be far from perfect given the UN's many flaws and the fact that the Arab states from which forces could be sent are all far from democratic, but who else in the world could fill the role. As such, this strikes me as the least worst solution.

In short, Hastings' argument, such as it is, is far from compelling. Indeed, if anything it makes quite the opposite point to the one he intends. Despite that, however, it is important to engage with such arguments as they are widely held. A huge portion of the population feels uneasy about the conduct of the occupation (albeit primarily because of the cost in western lives), but also about calling for an end to the occupation because of the possible consequences. Easy slogans about bringing the troops home and ending the occupation "now" will do nothing to convince those people and therefore nothing to further the cause of Iraqi self-determination.

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