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Intervention and the left

6 May 2005

The quest for democracy shouldn’t obscure the real lessons of Iraq, argues Clive Hamilton

THE LEFT has been snookered by the US invasion of Iraq, for it is deeply opposed to the war yet supports the spread of democracy and civil freedoms. It is in the interests of the world that democracy should succeed in Iraq but that the US has its nose bloodied in the process.

President Bush and his allies, including John Howard, had little interest in promoting democracy in Iraq until it became expedient to do so, when the weapons of mass destruction proved chimerical. Neoconservative support for democracy is contingent on whether its promotion is in the financial and strategic interest of the US.

For anyone with an appreciation of the history of US foreign policy, Bush’s dewy-eyed homilies in praise of democracy in the Middle East are nauseating. If he were serious he would act against regimes in those countries that could most easily be converted to democracy - those where autocrats rule only by dint of US support. He could begin with the US client regime in Saudi Arabia.

The decision to go to war in Iraq was wrong, not because Saddam was not a monstrous tyrant, but because it violated the first principle of international relations - respect for sovereignty. Without respect for sovereignty, international relations are reduced to the will of the powerful.

The only exception arises when a regime’s activities directly threaten one’s own security. Thus Vietnam was within its rights to invade Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot regime, which had launched a series of military incursions across their common border. Although most of the world breathed a sigh of relief to see such an odious regime fall, even then some countries, such as Singapore, were alarmed that a nation’s sovereignty had been violated by a powerful neighbour.

The principle of non-intervention is one that has been much harder for the left to accept than the right, because historically the democratic left in the West has been a much more staunch defender of democracy and human rights. And it has been at the forefront of legitimate means to put pressure on dictatorial regimes by supporting domestic dissidents and pro-democracy movements.

Trade sanctions and sporting boycotts against the apartheid regime in South Africa were supported by the left long before the conservatives felt the need to respond to public pressure. Some on the right, such Margaret Thatcher and our own petty tyrant Joh Bjelke-Petersen, resolutely refused to support the international opposition to the white regime.

Western powers could have intervened militarily to overthrow the minority government. But none of the anti-apartheid activists, within South Africa and outside, ever advocated such a move. Imagine if majority rule in South Africa had not been won by the struggle of black and coloured South Africans but had been delivered by a foreign victor.

Similarly, the revolutions in Eastern Europe were so inspiring and successful because they were people’s revolutions. Governments created by US or NATO occupying forces could never enjoy the same degree of legitimacy and stability.

It is regrettable therefore that some, such as Michael Costello, former adviser to Labor leaders and one who identifies with the left, should give unalloyed support to the Iraq invasion and criticise sceptics on the left by repeating the arguments of people with abysmal records of support for democracy and human rights throughout the world (Australian, 15 April 2005).

It is more regrettable that some on the left should support an invasion by a belligerent Administration that trampled over the United Nations and then used appeals to democracy as a post hoc rationalisation to cover up its own lies.

Unscrambling the egg
While the intervention in Iraq was based on misrepresentations and hypocrisy, the fact is that withdrawal now would, in all likelihood, lead to catastrophic civil war. This is why the left is snookered: it wants peace and democratic government in Iraq, but it understands that an outcome that allowed the neocons to claim a victory would have grave consequences for the world.

While appalled at the human cost, the fact that the US and its allies quickly became bogged down in a costly and uncontrollable insurgency in Iraq is not without its long-term benefits. For if the adventurism of Bush and his hawks had been vindicated it would have entrenched the US under George Bush as an aggressive and arrogant power prepared to impose its will anywhere.

Only those ignorant of history, or blinded by a faith in American exceptionalism, believe that the US’s global intentions are everywhere benign. Just as the hawks have been willing to promote democracy when it has suited US interests, they have shamelessly destroyed democracy when it has stood in the way. There is no better illustration than the US-led destruction of the Allende government in 1973, events that ushered in a vicious US-backed tyranny that traumatised Chile for decades.

So a rapid victory in Iraq would have been good for the Iraqis but not for the future of peace, stability and self-determination elsewhere. The bloody nose that the US has received in Iraq has severely dented the confidence of the neocons and that can only be good for the world. •

Clive Hamilton is executive director of The Australia Institute.

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