4 December 2003


Stephen Marks, review of Regime Change by Christopher Hitchens (Penguin, £5.99) and Bush in Babylon: the recolonisation of Iraq by Tariq Ali (Verso, £13), Tribune, January 2 2004

These two appalling books have more in common than I expected. Their two authors, former comrades in arms, are now on opposite sides of the Iraq war barricades. Each has employed his own richly distinctive polemical style. Each starts from an initial one-sided but sound premise, and proceeds from there on automatic pilot, with little reference to the complex reallity of Iraq.

Hitchens’s starting point is the undeniable fact that Saddam’s tyranny was one of the most odious on the face of the earth whose disappearance must be reckoned a blessing. From this it is clear - to him at least - that the US and its ally are the “good guys” fighting for democracy against “Islamo-fascism” (the link with al Qaida being assumed as axiomatic) and that “the government and people of these United States are now at war with the forces of reaction”. Those who dissent from this Manichaean view are to be treated with the contempt appropriate for appeasers, fellow-travellers with tyranny, and apologists for fascism.

That there are a few considerations to be put in the other pan of the scale is either ignored or ridiculed away with arguments that would discredit a school debating society on a bad day. In particular, the idea that America’s determination ot go to war, UN or no UN, might fatally subvert any notion of a structure of international legality, is neatly sidestepped by debunking the notion of international legality itself with a brutal cynicism which even some hardened neo-con ideologues would hesitate to engage in unless pre-fortified with a few stiff drinks.

Eroding the key distinction between pre-emptive and preventive wars? Well, aren’t all wars preventive? Wouldn’t the world be a safer place for more preventive wars? As for the crummy old “just war” criteria - why, “one wonders how the theory of just war...ever managed to endorse the use of force”. So much, evidently, for a thousand years of western culture’s attempt to come to terms with the ethical bounds of warfare.

As for the effect of the war on Muslim and Arab opinion, and thus on the possibility of winning support for the real “war on terrorism” - why, the brave Hitch refuses to “meekly avoid the further disapproval of those who hate me enough already”.

There can be few things more irresponsible than Hitchens’s philistine dismissal of the key distinction between the terrorists themselves and the wider layers without whose passive acquiescence the terrorists could not operate. That a naked and cynical display of American power, on a patently confected excuse, might enrage a sufficient proportion of Arab and Muslim opinion actually to enlarge the layer of potential sympathisers appears either not to have occurred to him, or to have been ignored for the easier consolations of a quick debating point.

Almost all the dictatorships to have fallen since 1945 have done so without external military intervention. The alternative - which was never tried, and was actively opposed by Bush’s father in 1991 - was to help the Iraqis themselves to overthrow Saddam, or at least not to prevent them from doing so by crippling civil sanctions.

In the absence of an Iraqi civil society forged through that struggle, the occupation forces have no way of dealing with the Saddamite and fundamentalist resistance than by scorched-earth trigger-happy tactics which enrage the public and strengthen the insurgents - or by co-opting and strengthening reactionary tribal and sectarian leaders.

Of course it can be argued that Saddam’s regime was so uniquely oppressive that no internal overthrow was possible - but not by Hitchens, who believes that the regime was “on the verge of implosion” and that intervention was needed to rescue Iraq from “mere anarchy and revenge”.

At least Tariq Ali’s offering has the merit of reminding us of Iraq’s combative and militant history of resistance to foreign domination dressed up as “liberation” and to “preparation for self-government” (in the guise of the mandate system) as cover for the installation of a client regime by the superpower of the day.

He also supplies an entertaining postscript in the form of a collection of Hitchens 1991 polemics against the first Gulf war.

But that’s about it. For the rest, he cannot get beyond his initial insight that US motives were imperialist, and that Iraq is now an occupied country. From this, it appears to him to follow that all those collaborating with the occupation authority or participating in the governing council are “jackals” and “Vichyites” against whom we should support the distasteful crew of Saddamites and fundamentalists who appear to make up the “resistance”.

Since the collapse of Saddam a multitude of political parties, trade unions and workers organisations, independent newspapers and religious groups have sprung up. The great majority appear to combine relief at the fall of Saddam with intense suspicion of the occupiers. What is their view - or range of views - on the way forward? We are not told.

Most Iraqi parties - including the Communist Party and the more radical Worker Communist Party - demanded a provisional government drawn from an assembly convened by the UN, not the US. When this did not materialise, the US was compelled to concede a governing council which, though not sovereign, had more powers than the US had intended. The CP agreed to participate in it, the WCP opposed it, but both oppose the armed resistance groups, whose actions seem aimed at preventing the resumption of any sort of normal life, and therefore of any independent civil society.

Again, Ali gives us no information on any of this, no analysis or description of any of the diverse political forces inside or outside the governing council, or any idea of the range of political debate which must be raging in Iraq. Mind you, there is some glimmering of an awareness that the majority of Iraqis may not support the “resistance”: “This is not to imply that the whole country is desperate for a protracted war. If anything the opposite is the case. If the occupation succeeds in stabilising the country and if basic amenities are restored together with some semblance of normality then a Vichy-style operation staffed by local jackals could succeed, if only for a limited period...Were the Iraqi Communist Party, a section of the Kurdish organisations and the Shia to take such a plunge [ie to back armed resistance] it would become virtually impossible for the US to hold onto Iraq indefinitely.”

In other words - most Iraqis currently do not support the “resistance”, and political parties with mass support believe in working within the governing council, and are carrying their base with them in varying degrees... though why their influence should be so crucial in denying support to the “resistance” if they amount to no more than “jackals”, we are not told.

It is bizarre and not a little sad to see how some on the Left see the need to fit post-war Iraq into a mechanical "one size fits all" anti-imperialist framework and to treat all responses as equally and self-evidently collaborationist apart from armed resistance (and who has the guns from the old regime)? Imagine drafting the leaflets asking former political prisoners and trade unionists to stand arm in arm with their gaolers in support of Ali's analysis.

While Ali’s book will tell you a lot about obscure factional manoeuverings among Communist and Ba’athist party leaders 40 years ago, there is literally no more than the above about the attitudes of the Iraqi people today. Those interested in helping the Iraqi people build an alternative to American imperialism, Ba’athist totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism will have to look elsewhere.