Moral cowardice – what hawks and doves have in common

There is little evidence of either war fever or anti-war fervour in America or Britain.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Supporters and opponents of a war against Iraq are all busy claiming the moral high ground. Yet on closer inspection, both sides seem to be lacking something in the way of moral fibre.

Take the Washington hawks. If they are cynically setting up Saddam Hussein as a convenient whipping boy in a campaign designed to reaffirm America’s global authority, that is a cowardly excuse for launching a war.

If on the other hand they genuinely mean what they say, and believe that Iraq must be blitzed to make the world safe, that looks even worse. For the world’s only superpower to be spooked by a ruined, disintegrating state like Iraq suggests a serious crisis of self-belief at the heart of the US elite.

The twists and turns in the hawks’ campaign also point to a distinct lack of certainty. If the hard men around the White House seriously believe that Saddam poses a mortal threat to all they hold dear, one might expect them to take him out without fuss (as they have done with many a third world leader before), regardless of what Hans Blix or any UN bureaucrat has to say.

Yet despite all the bellicose rhetoric, the Bush administration has continually fought shy of taking firm unilateral action, returning to the UN again and again in search of support and approval for its actions. In Britain, Tony Blair’s New Labour government is considerably less enthusiastic about putting its military where its mouth is.

When the US authorities have got down to some serious war planning, the toing and froing about which military option might be best betrays the same indecision and lack of clarity of purpose. It has long seemed likely that a nervous White House would eventually fall back on using the same approach in Iraq as it did in Afghanistan and Serbia – bombing everything from a great height rather than committing heavy ground forces.

Now the talk is once more of a massive military invasion of Iraq. Whether the US authorities can make such an operation happen today remains to be seen. But the thinking behind it is consistent with the rather timorous, hands-off approach to recent conflicts. It is saying ‘Let’s completely steamroller them with so much force that we can get out fast without suffering serious damage’.

It should be emphasised that, for all the talk about the difficult climate and terrain, the barriers to a successful invasion do not lie in Iraq. Saddam’s armed forces offered little real resistance to the US-UK armies in the Gulf War of 1991. Today, the seriously weakened Iraqi army should be swiftly blown away.

But there are serious, self-made barriers within the mindset of the US state itself. To glimpse the uncertain atmosphere within the armed forces, look at the recent panic about the side effects of anthrax vaccine given to US soldiers. What we have here is the makings of another Gulf War syndrome, long before the war has even begun. Meanwhile the British military drags its heels en route to the Gulf and worries about whether its guns will work.

If there is evidence of moral cowardice and a lack of conviction among the pro-war lobby, however, it is more than matched among the antis. Despite its claimed ethical objections to a war with Iraq, much of the anti-war lobby looks to be running around in search of any argument – about oil, or Israel, or whatever – that will serve as an excuse for inaction.

This cynicism should come as no surprise. After all, most prominent critics of the Bush-Blair campaign are not particularly anti-war or anti-intervention at all. They have been willing to support other wars of foreign intervention in the past, most recently against the Serbs over Kosovo. They are hiding behind the fig leaf of the UN to give their misgivings about war an air of high-minded internationalism. But the motives of many are a more base fear of the side effects of doing anything decisive.

The ubiquitous slogan ‘Not in my name’ seems to sum up the outlook of much of the anti-war lobby. It sounds like a strong moral stance. But as Brendan O’Neill has previously pointed out, closer inspection reveals it to be a serious cop-out (see Opting out on Iraq). It is saying to the hawks, you go to war if you want, but leave me alone.

Far from principled internationalism, it reflects the self-centred obsessions of individuals whose petty priority is to ensure that their personal conscience is clear by washing their hands of the whole affair. History suggests that opposition to war based on this sort of pacifistic fear can be turned into support for military action if the hawks can turn the fear factor to their advantage.

With moral cowardice the dominant mood of the moment, however, the Iraq issue remains cloaked in uncertainty and confusion. The US administration veers between suggesting that the discovery of a few empty shells or old papers might be a legitimate cause for war (‘documents are not weapons of mass destruction’, as Blix had to remind them), to offering Saddam a ticket to asylum in another country. Meanwhile Britain’s pathetic foreign secretary Jack Straw claims one week that war is increasingly unlikely, and the next week that war is about to start unless Saddam behaves as if he has already lost.

With no convincing case being offered by any side of the Iraq debate, there is little evidence of either war fever or anti-war fervour in America or the UK. In this confused climate, most people remain anxious but unmoved by either side – a remarkable and unprecedented state of affairs, given that some scaremongers on both sides would like us to believe that we could be on the verge of an historic conflict.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Too scared to fight…, by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 21 January 2003

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

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