Along with fellow journalists Nick Cohen, Johann Hari and Christopher Hitchens, ten years ago David Aaronovitch was an important liberal advocate for war on Iraq.
Writing for the Independent and then the Guardian, curiously Aaronovitch’s changing reasons for supporting the invasion closely followed the Government’s own shifting justifications. So when Tony Blair started pushing the humanitarian argument in early 2003, Aaronovitch was right behind him. “I was never in favour of this war mainly because of the threats of terrorism of WMDs. Getting rid of Saddam (and therefore the myriad afflictions of the Iraqi people) was enough”, he wrote in April 2003.
When, you might wonder, did Aaronovitch have his damascene conversion to ridding the world of Hussein by foreign invasion? Certainly not on 8 August 2002 when he said of removing Saddam, “But we can’t… Wars are very particular things and civilised nations can’t just have them when they feel like it or when they feel they have run out of options”. Later the same month Aaronovitch seemed to cry out for some evidence that would justify the invasion: “But war? Show me the evidence first. Don’t just tell me you have it, tell me what it is.” The title of this article? I’m All For War On Iraq – But Only If I See The Evidence That Saddam Is A Threat. Strange words and title, I’m sure you agree, for a man solely interested in toppling the Iraqi dictator.
It was this magpie-like moral positioning that led to the famous April 2003 letter in the Guardian asking “When is your walking mid-life crisis of a columnist David Aaronovitch and all the other liberal solipsists, going to realise that this war is not about them or their delicate consciences?”
Ten years and around one million Iraqi dead later and you might think Aaronovitch would be a little sheepish about his enabling role in the slaughter. If so, you’d be mistaken. His performance at last month’s Huffington Post debate on Iraq was a master class in the kind of denial of reality that he ridicules conspiracy theorists for in his book Voodoo Histories.
“What you’ve got to try and remember when you deal with Saddam Hussein, is that you are not dealing with sodding Mubarak”, he explained to the audience at Goldsmiths. “Mubarak was a bad and authoritarian man but there are scales and scales of authoritarianism and Saddam Hussein was right down the Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin end of the scale.” Because of his “terrible blend of external aggression and internal repression”, foreign invasion was the only way to get rid of Hussein, Aaronovitch maintained in his subsequent Times column.
Of course, equating Hussein with the leader of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union at the height of its power would likely lead to a very poor mark in a GCSE history exam. And as veteran journalist Philip Knightly pointed out in the Guardian in 2001, demonising the enemy’s leader is a key stage of Western media disinformation campaigns to prepare a nation for conflict. However, if you can wade through Aaronovitch’s slurry of propaganda, there is an important and popular argument to refute here – that a foreign invasion was the only way to topple Hussein.
So what were the facts of the ground in 2003 when Tony Blair and Aaronovitch were attempting to persuade the British public to support the invasion of Iraq? First, let’s look at Hussein’s external aggression. As late as February 2001 US Secretary of State Colin Powell was saying Hussein “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours." US dissident Noam Chomsky agreed with Powell in 2003, noting it “is well known” that “Iraq is militarily and economically the weakest country in the region.”
How about his internal repression within Iraq? By 2002 Amnesty International was counting the number of prisoners of conscience and executions in “scores”. “Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention”, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch noted. “By the time of the March 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein’s killing had ebbed”.
As these examples illustrate, what is missing from Aaronovitch’s disingenuous humanitarian argument is any specificity about time. Yes, Hussein was a serious threat to his neighbours and population in the 1980s – when the US and UK were backing him to the hilt – but by 2003 his power had been significantly reduced by 12 years of sanctions and no-fly zones. Speaking in August 2002 Sharif Ali Bin AlHussein, an exiled opposition leader with the Iraqi National Congress, confirmed this analysis. Hussein “is very weak” and the Iraqi military is “ready to rise up”, CNN reported AlHussein as saying.
These basic facts are important but they are something of a side issue. As the historian of nonviolent revolution Gene Sharp told me when I asked him about the humanitarian argument for invading Iraq, “It has been shown repeatedly that there are alternative ways of overthrowing dictators.” To support his assertion Sharp pointed to the people power of the Arab Spring. Certainly the removal of the western-backed dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak by their own populations proved to many the fallacy of deposing Hussein by foreign invasion. But as Aaronovitch feels Mubarak isn’t fit to shine Hussein’s shoes when it comes to repressive rule, how about the example of Chileans ousting US-backed Augusto Pinochet in 1989? Still not enough “internal repression” for you, David? How about Iranians toppling the Shah in 1979, a regime with the worst human rights record of any country in the world, according to Amnesty International in 1976? In East Timor, Amnesty International reported that Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people between their 1975 invasion and 1989. 200,000 people was about one third of the total population of East Timor. Despite this mass murder a largely nonviolent mass movement eventually managed to eject the Indonesian forces, and declared independence in 2002.
All these examples appear in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, a landmark study published last year that analyses 323 examples of resistance campaigns and rebellion from 1900-2006. Rather than external military invasions, authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as successful as violent campaigns in achieving their objective. More importantly in terms of countering Aaronovitch’s focus on the “scale of authoritarianism”, the book notes “Nonviolent campaigns succeed against democracies and non-democracies, weak and powerful opponents, conciliatory and repressive regimes.”
“It’s not the nature of the opponent that determines the effectiveness of the [rebellion’s] strategy”, Stephan explains in an interview. “It’s much more some of these internal, intrinsic characteristics of the movement.”
Of course, we can not be certain that Iraqis would have been able to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But, as Chomsky argued just before the 2003 invasion, if the murderous sanctions regime had been lifted “there’s every reason to believe that they’ll get rid of him the way that others have.”