Below is a column I wrote when Young Labour President, back in 2003, on the Iraq War.
Some of the stuff I wrote in those days was appalling, but this remains an interesting read, as we finally near the end of the Bush presidency.
After the War
24 March 2003
Young Labour opposes the current war against Iraq. As we have said elsewhere, it is illegal, immoral and wrong.
But Saddam Hussein's regime is also immoral and wrong. And to see it gone will be no great loss to the world.
The most common theme emerging from those who are supporting the war is that this is somehow a fight for freedom against tyranny; as if those with concerns support Saddam and his works.
I would like to state, for the record, that it is possible to both oppose war, and oppose dictatorship.
And it takes no great genius to realise that this is making the world a more dangerous, and less free place, rather than anything else.
Strange things are stirring as the war moves ahead. I am convinced that the US and UK military operation will see no stunning setbacks; the war does not appear likely to last very long notwithstanding current delays. Unless there is a Stalingrad-esque attempt to stand and die around Baghdad, the days of the regime are numbered. It's no joke when the US armed forces are described as the most powerful in the world, and the idea that a half-starved, sanction-depleted government could stand against American might does not bear serious consideration. We can only hope that reconstruction of an independent Iraq proceeds quickly once the fighting is finished.
Sadly, the war is only the very beginning of a much more difficult set of questions and problems.
The biggest and cruellest joke is the idea that this war will somehow create peace. Every bomb that falls; every innocent civilian killed; will simply feed the terror networks the Americans seem to think they are in the process of destroying. The impression of a religious war, no matter how strenuously denied, is one that will have its consequences. The saddest outcome of this conflict is likely to be a steady worsening in terrorist activity all around the world; targeted to be sure at the aggressors in the current conflict, but making the world more dangerous for all of us.
For me, serious as this is, it is only a secondary consideration. The more chilling issue is the shambles at the United Nations, and the question of American hegemony. The world's multilateral institutions developed after World War Two with peace as their mission, in a world of disintegrating empires, facing the fallout of fascism, and determined never to see a repeat. America was if anything more dominant then that it is now; certainly in economic terms it was, though militarily today's power is more extensive.
The difference between then and now is one in Washington. A far-sighted and clear-thinking US administration realised that it could never win the peace through war. It generously helped to rebuild Europe; treated the vanquished enemy with a large measure of decency and compassion; and put together a system of multilateral institutions designed to build international cooperation and development.
And it worked - it worked wonderfully, for those countries which were part of it, and especially for the Americans and their interests. It saw off the challenge of the Soviet Union; it developed unparalleled economic prosperity. For sixty years the Americans were seen more as friends than as something to be feared; and largely they were.
Today all that good work and reputation is close to being in tatters. A hard headed regime in Washington fails to understand how the world works; lacks the insights and sheer humanity of the victors in the Second World War; and on a host of issues is driving wedges between the United States and the rest of the world.
This war in Iraq is a continuation of that divisive way of doing things; it sets a very chilling precedent in several respects:
- it gives free reign to states to step outside the international legal system, if they perceive it as being in their interests to do so.
- it entrenches the idea that UN declarations and resolutions will only be imposed on America's enemies (Iraq) not their friends (Israel).
- it tells murderous regimes all over the world that if they are disarmed (Iraq) then they are a ready target; if they have weapons of mass destruction (North Korea, Pakistan, Israel etc) then they are safe.
- as mentioned, it will inflame Arab opinion and increase the risk of terrorism around the world, threatening us all.
It also doesn't help the twists and roundabouts that America's objectives in the region are so unclear. Do they want a democratic Middle East? Do they want the harder-line Arab regimes with democratic mandates, and lessened access to oil that would result?
No, of course not. They want - need - that cheap energy. So will we see the toppling of Iraq; the same of Iran; and then the continued propping up of other autocratic regimes to keep the "Arab street" under control?
The entire situation reeks of hidden motives, duplicity in language, and danger for now and the future. Once the war is over, the UN must take over the reconstruction of Iraq. Urgent consideration needs to be given how to repair the damage the international law has suffered: the UN must consider reform and regeneration in a new era of unparalleled American dominance. The whole global community needs to stamp out any notion that pre-emption outside the UN Charter is okay, and instead continue to address how the world will deal with regimes it finds repugnant, without destroying the existing framework.
Whatever happens, in a way completely unlike September 11 2001, it seems all too safe to say that things will never be the same again. The values bases of Europe and America are shown to be too far apart to paper over. Much work needs to be done, and it's our generation that will wear that effort - as well as the consequences of the current mess.
New Zealand's position has been simply outstanding. One can only hope that in the hard conversations and rebuilding to come, Helen Clark can play as much of a role as Peter Fraser did in the aftermath of 1945. Cooperation on the world stage is in peril now, but rebuilt it must be. America has proven in the past that it can be compassionate on an unparalleled scale. America does not have to put the rest of the world on edge; but that requires changes in American politics and leadership which will be the subject of another column.
Change is vital. Otherwise, peace will remain a dream, and this Iraq campaign will be remembered as the time when the lights went out - not all over Europe this time, but all over the world. I fear we will not see them lit again in our lifetime, if this doesn't get sorted out.