The Anti This War Now Left
I can’t remember which particular newspaper column or weblog post motivated me to write this out longhand, but it’s a version of an argument I’ve been repeatedly making in response to various flavours of the “pro-war left” argument that opponents of the war are somehow deficient in their loathing for Saddam Hussein (by the way, another entry for the Catechism: “What kind of a dictator was Saddam? A brutal dictator”). My defence against this charge is that I was, provably and repeatedly, in writing, in favour of war against Saddam Hussein. I just simply didn’t want it to be this bunch of pillocks in charge of it.
This is an important point, and one of the few things they teach you at business school which is worth the price of entry; very few decisions in business or elsewhere are “now or never”. It is massively more common for a decision to be “now or later”. Furthermore, corporate finance theory teaches us that the option to wait is usually really quite valuable. So when we were faced, pre-war, with the following dichotomy:
Option A: Have a war which will kill people and have many undesirable geopolitical consequences (the Ken MacLeod point).
Option B: Leave Saddam in power
it was necessary to consider not just the pros and cons of A and B, but also the unstated third option which is almost always present whenever you are considering an expensive and time-consuming project.
Option C: Wait awhile to see if a better tradeoff or more information becomes available.
Specifically, my taste was to wait until 2004, when we might have a different American government which wasn’t quite so zealously devoted to the project of cocking things up. This is why I never qutie understand why the pro-war crowd, left and right, seem to think that injecting the phrase “Bush is a moron” into the debate is in some way unsportsmanlike, unmannerly or evidence that one’s opposition is partisan or not serious. It’s an entirely germane point in considering the costs and benefits of a war whether or not it’s being run by a moron, and it is by no means established that the option of a war not run by a moron was completely out of the question. The benefits of waiting could have been considerable; we might have had a significantly better-planned war and post-war. And I’d argue that the costs were not so great; although Saddam was indeed a dictator or the variety “brutal”, the fact is that those mass graves were filled in the early 1990s. At the particular time when we were discussing this question, the actual Saddam-caused mayhem was at a much lower level (although, obviously, I would certainly not have chosen to live there). In any case, any argument based on the assumption that Saddam’s domestic brutality was so horrible in 2003 that it could not be suffered to carry on for a single second longer runs into a particularly nasty tu quoque objection; like the rest of us, the humanitarian-bomber crowd were, observably, not out in the streets demanding intervention in Iraq during the first half of 2001, so how serious could this argument actually be?
I’m pretty sure that a lot of us who marched to Hyde Park were in the same camp as me; opposed to “this war now”, rather than opposed to “any war against Saddam ever”. A very significant proportion of UK and world opinion was entirely prepared to give them their damn war, if they could only get a UN resolution in favour of it, but they couldn’t. It’s simply an error of reasoning to assume, without specific proof to the contrary, that the anti-this-war-now left could be described as “objectively pro-Saddam”. Much fairer to say “objectively pro-Saddam until a sensible plan can be formed to get rid of him, which they judge the current proposal not to be”. I’m pretty sure that this was a common point of view, which is why I’m disappointed to see that it wasn’t articulated better at the time (I only said anything about it myself in a pretty frivolous way).
Of course, the point would have been moot if there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that of course would have been a decent reason why the “war/not war” decision was “now or never” rather than “now or later”. But I don’t think anyone’s pushing that line any more.