A panic attack over Iraq

The Bush/Blair campaign against Iraq seems to be modelled on the UK's foot-and-mouth fiasco.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The great debate about whether the USA and UK should launch a war against Iraq seems increasingly surreal.

The arguments among politicians, military men, pundits and priests seem at times to be taking place in a parallel universe. Back on Planet Earth, meanwhile, the American and British people appear largely indifferent to the entire affair.

True, public opinion polls are being waved around by the media, the latest of them showing around 70 percent in Britain opposed to a war against Iraq. But there is little more passion or commitment behind that expressed opinion than there would be if the same people had been asked to state their preference between margarine and butter.

It is little wonder that so many seem uncertain about the Iraqi issue. After all, neither supporters nor opponents of a war have offered a particularly convincing case. As Brendan O’Neill reports, there is a lack of clarity and conviction on both sides (see The first casualty is clarity).

US President George Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair have had a hard time convincing even their allies that Saddam Hussein poses a pressing threat to America and Europe. The argument that ‘pre-emptive’ action against Saddam is suddenly imperative is unpersuasive in circumstances where he appears weaker than ever. The rather pathetic attempts to compare this tinpot dictator of a ruined little country to Hitler, master of an imperial superpower, are a sign of desperation within the pro-war lobby.

The long-promised dossier detailing Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction is unlikely to galvanise opinion. If it really was the political bombshell that Blair claims, they would have dropped it on the doubters long before now.

On the other side, while reflecting vague public disquiet about the Bush/Blair crusade, the anti-war lobby has hardly offered us a powerful case either. The most coherent argument it has come up with is a rip-off of the old left mantra, ‘No war for oil’.

The notion that a war with Iraq would be a smokescreen for defending US oil interests, once the preserve of radicals like John Pilger, has now been endorsed by no less a New Labour dignitary than Blair’s former cabinet minister Mo Mowlam. Yet this crass brand of anti-capitalism bears little more relation to the real world than the suggestion that Saddam could nuke London. Since when did Saddam pose any obstacle to Western control over Middle East oil supplies?

These dusty old arguments, about Hitler on the one side and oil on the other, all ring pretty false today. The confused debate about Iraq confirms that the traditional ways of understanding political events are inadequate to make sense of our changed world. Any idea that debates are still polarised between left and right is rendered redundant when a Labour prime minister speaks for the war party on behalf of a conservative Republican president, while leading Republicans and former army commanders are prominent among the dissenters.

Nor can it make any sense to try to interpret the Western debate on Iraq as being between pro- and anti-imperialists. All sides now support the principle that the USA and its Western allies have the imperial right to intervene in other states’ affairs. The argument is merely over the circumstances in which such invasions are justified.

So how might we make sense of all this? The Bush/Blair offensive does not fit into traditional patterns of great power politics in the Middle East. It has less to do with Iraq or oil than with the broader problems of political leadership in the Western world.

Since the end of the Cold War over a decade ago, Western politicians have lost many familiar signposts, along with the rallying point provided by their old enemies in the class struggle at home and the Soviet bloc abroad. At the same time the institutions that have traditionally helped the elite to manage society, from the British monarchy to the US Congress, have suffered a crisis of legitimacy that has loosened the grip the governing class has on affairs.

The result of this loss of authority has been to heighten the Western elite’s sense of isolation and insecurity, creating a tendency to overreact to perceived problems. We can see evidence of this in the ceaseless churning out of knee-jerk policies in Washington and Whitehall over recent years, a panicky habit that was well-established long before the terrorist attacks of 11 September took the culture of fear to new heights.

Perhaps the model for this new paranoid politics was the New Labour government’s handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001. First they talked up the crisis, turning a non-fatal animal disease into the cause of a national nervous breakdown. Then they launched a runaway extermination policy, fuelled by a dangerous cocktail of caution and panic. At times, the aim appeared to be to kill every cow and sheep the men in white coats could lay their plastic gloves on, ‘just in case’ something dreadful might result if they didn’t. The resulting ‘cure’ turned out, of course, to be far worse than the disease.

The current campaign against Iraq looks like the global equivalent of the disastrous foot-and-mouth cull. Except this time it is not cattle in the firing line, but an entire nation.

The Western elite’s domestic management problems have been projected on to the international stage. America now bestrides the post-Cold War world as the sole superpower. Yet it has neither the old imperial sense of Manifest Destiny to guide it, nor any effective institutional framework for running a global empire – the United Nations looks more and more like a relic of another time. Against this background of uncertainty, the attacks of 11 September had an even more traumatic impact on the American worldview.

The result is the new Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, the notion that the USA will launch military action as a precautionary measure wherever it feels threatened. It rests on the irrational basis that, regardless of a lack of evidence, it is best to treat every potential problem as a clear and present danger, and to lash out against it just in case.

In short, it now appears that the world is being run according to the grandmotherly maxim that it is better to be safe than sorry – even if the ‘safe’ option is a war against Iraq or anybody else.

Yet the same insecurities that drive Bush, and Blair, towards war against Iraq also inhibit their ability to carry through that mission. The big problems are not military, nor anything to do with the Middle East. Rather they relate to politics in the West. This is why we have seen so many divisions and contradictions within the Western establishment on this issue. The recent 100-plane US/UK air strike on Iraq looked to some of us like an attempt, not just to show Saddam that they are serious, but to convince themselves that they really mean business.

The biggest thing working in favour of Bush and Blair is that their domestic critics, many of whom come from the upper echelons of the Western political class, are influenced by the same climate. It is just that they have a different version of precautionary politics from the Bush/Blair school. Instead of acting decisively to deal with a potential problem, they suggest doing nothing hasty, for fear that intervention will only make matters worse.

If the foot-and-mouth fiasco provides the model for US/UK government policy, their opponents seem to prefer the template provided by the campaign against the MMR triple vaccination in Britain. That is, a campaign driven by fear more than facts, by panic more than principle, which cautions against any action unless it can be guaranteed in advance that there will be no adverse consequences.

Many of the leading critics of a war against Iraq are not really anti-war at all. They simply want to be reassured that it will be safe for the West to blast Iraq. In a debate where all sides are influenced by the politics of panic and precaution, the do-nothing lobby has managed the remarkable achievement of appearing even more conservative than George W Bush.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-conference: Panic attack

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

The first casualty is clarity, by Brendan O’Neill

When in doubt, attack Iraq, by Mick Hume

Bush’s Gulf War syndrome, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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