War in Iraq: a political stunt?
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
What sort of war was that? It began without any immediate casus belli; no islands or small countries invaded, no archdukes assassinated. It was launched with uncertain aims; one day it was to destroy weapons of mass destruction and save America, then it was to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime and liberate Iraq.
It was fought against an enemy that did not want to fight; despite the tragic casualties, there has not been one encounter with Iraqi forces that could qualify as a battle. And it is ending amid scenes of chaos, with nobody sure exactly what might constitute victory, barring perhaps the sudden appearance of Saddam’s head on a pole.
This is supposed to have been a war of high principle fought by conviction politicians. Yet it seems eerily reminiscent of the empty politics of spin that we endure at home. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then this war has been shaped by our degraded political culture. At times the conduct of the campaign has looked like a political stunt -albeit one with far-reaching consequences.
As in domestic politics, when you are uncertain about the substance, emphasise the style. Coalition leaders have often seemed more concerned with projecting a positive self-image than pursuing a clear strategy. Here are a few of many skirmishes in the image wars. Before their forces had taken one step towards Basra, coalition leaders announced plans to helicopter in journalists and broadcast instant scenes of joyous Iraqis greeting troops. In the words of the US Marine commander, they apparently believed that: ‘The first image of this war will define the conflict.’ When the people of Basra failed to play the part scripted for them, the search for that defining image moved on.
The much-publicised aerial assault on Baghdad was designed less as a conventional bombing campaign than as a projection of an image of power. One American analyst described how Shock and Awe would ‘seek to defeat Saddam with ‘effects’ rather than the physical destruction of enemy troops or their resources’. It was effectively a PR exercise to broadcast a message with tons of explosives.
Several American TV networks are planning films of Saving Private Jessica Lynch, the teenage supply clerk turned celebrity POW. Arguably they are too late, since the unprecedented military operation staged to rescue her was itself a made for-TV movie directed by the Pentagon. Never mind life imitating art, real war now imitates Hollywood.
Demolishing statues of deposed tyrants is traditional. But knocking down all those statues of Saddam while the man himself still ruled looked like another image-centric stunt. When British troops raided Basra largely in order to smash a couple of Saddam statues, a colonel said it was ‘to show the people we will strike on any representative token of that regime’. Waging war on tokens sounds like the stuff of a token war.
When the big Baghdad statue of Saddam was toppled, the coalition finally got its ‘defining image’. Yet there remained considerable confusion over what the content of that image should be. A US soldier draped the statue with the Stars and Stripes, but that was swiftly removed as inconsistent with the image of liberators. Then they put the Iraqi flag around Saddam, before that too was deemed the wrong image to broadcast. The little farce was a snapshot of what can happen when being seen to do the right thing takes precedence over being sure of what you are doing.
If the Iraq campaign has been a continuation of the politics of spin by other means, where does that leave the notion of Mr Blair as a conviction politician?
He is the same Prime Minister who wrote that infamous memo three years ago, demanding that his Cabinet prioritise ‘two or three eye-catching initiatives’ (that is, stunts) and that he ‘should be personally associated with as much of this as possible’. He is the same Prime Minister who, when a Labour MP asked him one year ago to explain ‘the political philosophy which he espouses and which underlies his policies’, gave an embarrassingly empty answer about appointing Sir Magdi Yacoub to ‘head up’ some NHS sponsorship scheme. Are we to believe that Mr Blair has undergone a conversion on the road to Baghdad? Or is his new role as conviction politician rather the latest reinvention of his image? What are these supposed new-found convictions anyway? That Saddam is bad and war can be for good? Some philosophy.
New Labour long since realised that it is easier to manipulate targets, league tables and images than to solve social problems. New Iraq and its coalition liberators are now faced with the reality that it is easier to knock down statues for the cameras than to create something of substance to raise up in their place.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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