Pre-emptive inaction?

Fear of provoking terrorists is a cowardly basis on which to oppose war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Media pundits and anti-war activists leapt upon last week’s revelation that Tony Blair ignored the advice of intelligence officials, who apparently warned him that invading Iraq would ‘increase the risk of terror attacks’ in the West.

According to a report published by the Intelligence and Security Committee on 12 September 2003, Blair was told in February that the collapse of Saddam’s regime might allow terrorists to get their hands on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons and to launch assaults on ‘Western interests’. For the anti-war lobby, this shows that Blair took us into war, not only against our wishes, but against our ‘best interests’ and ‘safety’ (1).

The critics’ sudden interest in the alleged threat posed by Iraq’s WMD is a striking turnaround. Up to last week, the key anti-war argument was that Blair and Bush had lied about Iraq having WMD and had launched a war on false premises. Now they criticise Blair for recklessly taking us into war when he had been warned that one of the consequences of war might be for Iraq’s WMD to be turned against us in the West. What WMD? The anti-war lobby’s about-face on whether Iraq’s weapons are a threat (‘no’ when Bush and Blair say they are, ‘yes’ when they might be pointed at us) shows the problem with basing your opposition to war on exposing lies, damn lies and dossiers, rather than on anything like political principle.

Yet this notion that war should be avoided because it increases the threat to the West has been a recurring argument of the anti-war movement for the past two years. From the Afghan war of October 2001 to the second Gulf War in March 2003, anti-war activists and commentators have argued that wars abroad will result in ‘Target Britain’, where increasingly irate terrorists will take their angst out on us. This is no way to oppose war. It is a cowardly position that calls for a safety-first approach to international affairs, where inaction is elevated over action ‘just in case’ – and it is deeply prejudiced, buying into the argument that the real problem is the terrorists ‘over there’ who might be stirred up if we take irresponsible, risky action. It is an anti-war argument concerned more with saving ourselves than anybody else.

In the run-up to the Afghan war of 2001, veteran anti-war writer John Pilger argued that ‘Blair’s belligerence is dangerously irresponsible’, because ‘we want an end to terrorism, not a new war’. ‘Blair has made Britain a target’, wrote Pilger. ‘He is endangering the people of this country….[and] risks nurturing a new generation of suicidal killers.’ (2) On 8 March 2003, a week before the Iraq war started, Britain’s Stop the War Coalition held a public meeting entitled ‘Will war on Iraq protect us from terror?’, where it was argued that ‘a headlong rush into war against Iraq will precipitate the very terror threats that most sane people want to avert’. ‘We will be inviting catastrophic terrorist actions on ourselves’, claimed Stop the War, feeding into public fears of another 9/11 (3).

It is hard to know who influenced whom, but around the same time George Michael made similar arguments in his ill-advised venture into protest singing. In his single ‘Shoot the dog’, Michael sang, ‘I got the feeling that when it all goes off, They’re gonna shoot the dog’ – ‘they’ being the ‘Mustaphas’ and ‘Gaza Boys’ over there, and the dog being Blair’s Britain which supported Bush’s plans to attack Iraq (4). For those who were still confused about Michael’s political stance, the cartoon video that accompanied ‘Shoot the dog’ showed a map of Britain with a target sign across it. It is coming to something when the anti-war movement sings from the same sheet as ex-Wham! star Michael.

These arguments demonstrate the streak of moral cowardice running through the anti-war movement – an amorphous group that today includes, not only the protesters of old, but many in the media, opposition politicians and even, apparently, some military and intelligence officials. Their arguments are not about challenging Britain and America’s actions abroad on the grounds that they undermine state sovereignty, exacerbate local tensions, and make life a misery for people in the third world. Rather, they oppose such action because it is unpredictable, because it might unleash unknown quantities and risks, because it could provoke dark forces to take action against us in the comfortable West.

Of course, exposing the role of Western intervention in creating terrorism and less-than-desirable political movements in the third world has long been central to anti-imperialism. But today’s arguments against taking action abroad are based less on a political analysis of the consequences of British and American intervention, than on a kneejerk response to the potential, unpredictable outcomes of war. As one anti-war commentator put it in the weeks before the war in Iraq kicked off: ‘Our military action could provoke a reaction….[and] fuel terror.’

This line of argument is also a self-obsessed one, where Britons’ safety is elevated over concerns for people in the third world. It accepts that the main problem on the world stage is ‘over there’, in the shape of crazy terrorists and ruthless regimes waiting for an excuse to attack London and Washington – where the role of the West becomes one of acting responsibly in order to avoid provoking such unpredictable actors.

These prejudices were much in evidence at the anti-war protests against the Arms Trade Fair in London last week, where protesters pointed the finger at Britain and America for selling arms to ‘irresponsible’ regimes, some of whom have ‘ties with terrorists’ (5). Comedian Mark Thomas argues that Britain has helped to arm just about every ‘crazy fucker’ in the third world. The anti-war demand is clear: Western elites should behave more cautiously, and avoid arming and antagonising those crazy natives.

These are weak arguments against war – indeed, they can end up boosting the moral authority of the West to intervene abroad. The anti-war lobby’s arguments buy hook, line and sinker into the prevailing prejudice of modern international relations, where pre-emption is the order of the day and keeping the world safe from the ‘embittered few’ is the key justification for foreign intervention.

Today’s defensive Western elites no longer justify foreign intervention in the name of ‘defending the national interest’, much less in the name of winning territory or resources or political influence. Rather, risk-aversion has become the ideological linchpin of Britain and America’s actions around the world. In September 2002, the Bush administration published its National Security Strategy, which argued: ‘We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.’ (6) What we need, argued the Bushies, is a ‘pre-emptive’ foreign policy, the ability to combat threatening elements around the world before they strike against us.

Far from challenging the assumptions behind these arguments, the anti-war movement implicitly accepts them – and merely seeks to apply them more thoroughly to Britain and America’s interventions. When the Stop the War Coalition asks in the run-up to Iraq whether the war will or will not ‘protect us from terror’, it is clear that the anti-war camp judges international action by similar criteria to their pro-war opponents. Interventions are not judged by whether they are morally and politically right or wrong, but by whether they live up to the new international standards of precaution, pre-emption and keeping us safe from the ‘embittered few’.

Indeed, it would appear that the real clash is over whether we should have pre-emptive action to keep us safe, as favoured by the pro-war side, or the pre-emptive inaction demanded by the anti-war movement, who judge that not acting at all is the safest route of all.

Whatever happened to opposing war by offering solidarity to people in the third world, rather than worrying about me, myself and I? When being anti-war is all about saving ourselves, everyone loses out.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Blair ‘right to override terror warnings’, BBC News, 12 September 2003

(2) Blair has made Britain a target, John Pilger, Guardian, 21 September 2001

(3) Will war on Iraq protect us from terror?, Berkhamsted Stop the War, 8 March 2003

(4) See Shoot the Dog lyrics, George Michael, Lyrics Domain

(5) Arrests over arms fair protests, BBC News, 8 September 2003

(6) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, US Department of State, September 2002

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Topics Politics


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