Tim Burke has written a long post on the Iraq war, which begins from one of mine and then broadens out from the issue I discussed there to larger questions. In so far as he directly engages with what I argue in the post he links to, Tim doesn't disagree with what I say. He endorses it. I argued that being a supporter of the war didn't make me answerable for practices of torture, sexual humiliation or other abusive treatments meted out by US soldiers and others against Iraqi prisoners, since I've never said anything to condone or turn a blind eye to these practices, and I don't in fact condone or turn a blind eye to them. In response to this Tim writes:
I agree that those who supported the war with a rigorously reasoned case do not have to feel personally responsible for Abu Ghraib. I think it is appropriate to hold war supporters directly responsible for Abu Ghraib if (and only if) they fail to regard systemic abuse there and [in] other American military prisons as being a grave concern by the very same criteria that we held Hussein's misrule a concern.In the rest of his post - which is most of it - Tim goes on to take issue with positions which normally I wouldn't feel any pressure to put together a response about, because they aren't my positions. To be clear here, Tim doesn't say they are my positions, so it may be he wasn't meaning to ascribe them to me, merely using an initial link as the occasion for arguments he wanted to make - a common and perfectly legitimate practice amongst bloggers. Nevertheless, because mine is the only pro-war name mentioned in his post, it wouldn't be an outlandish inference on the part of his readers - whether this inference was intended by him or not - to assume that I am the target, or at least amongst the targets, of the critical observations he develops. I therefore make three points here for the record.
First, after the passage of his which I've quoted, Tim goes on to put forward two further arguments which directly relate to the Abu Ghraib scandal: (a) that it won't do to discount the latter as merely a matter of a few 'bad apples', because there should have been overseeing constraints in place against the possibility of such abuses; and (b) that there is strong evidence that, so far from being an accident, the abuses were the result of policies, concerning the treatment of prisoners, adopted by the Bush Administration. Both of these points are also made by me in the post from which Tim's post takes its point of departure.
Second, in a long and interesting reflection on fundamental, productive and democratic social change, Tim associates support for the war in Iraq with a statist, top-down approach to this issue, its proponents believing in sudden transformation by externally imposed design. To this mistaken conception he opposes a more de-centred and organic (my terms, not his) way of understanding worthwhile change, citing Gramsci as one, though only one, source for that alternative view. I would recommend what Tim writes here to anyone interested in these questions. But with respect to my own beliefs about them I have never held to the kind of statist, top-down approach Tim takes issue with and neither do I now. It is true that Gramsci has not been the central inspiration for what I think, Rosa Luxemburg serving as a more continuous point of reference for me within the Marxist tradition; and, outside it, John Stuart Mill from way back when, and then more recently Michael Walzer (the Walzer, that is, of Just and Unjust Wars) and Primo Levi, amongst others. Still, I'm confident enough that I can show from my work that a statist, top-down approach to democratic social transformation is not a burden I have to bear, whatever else I may have to find a response about. (I'm happy to provide chapter and verse on this to anyone who requests it.)
Third, I now anticipate, as a possible riposte, that this isn't about what's in my work or in my head. I willy-nilly signed up to a statist, top-down conception, it might be said, by supporting the war to oust Saddam Hussein. But that isn't right either, because I know what I signed up for and it wasn't what Tim sets out - though, remember, I've already allowed that he may not have been saying this specifically about me, but rather about supporters of the war at large, or at any rate many, or just some, of them. I proceed now to explain the basis of my own support for the war, and I don't believe it is unique or eccentric to me. I explain it in terms of a schematic distinction which I first present in bald form, and then go on immediately to qualify.
The core reason in my support for the war has always been remedial rather than utopian (to fix on two terms that intensify the distinction I have in mind). It was support according to the logic of a humanitarian intervention: that is to say, support for putting an end to an ongoing political, and human, horror; and not primarily inspired by the vision of a flourishing democracy as the early and unproblematic sequel to this. Here are some pertinent historical comparisons. I did support the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia at the time it occurred, and I also did support the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda at the time it occurred, and I would have supported an intervention by outside powers, had there been one, to stop the genocide in Rwanda. I respectively did and would have, not because I thought the sequel would necessarily be a shining order of peaceful and pluralist democracy in any of the three invaded countries, but because what was happening in each of them was so bad that I didn't believe the sequel was likely to be worse, or even anywhere near as bad. Likewise now with regard to Baathist Iraq. It was a state and a situation which, for the sake of the Iraqi people, cried out desperately to be brought to an end. I shall be arguing this further in the series I've embarked on entitled 'The argument over Iraq'. But in any event I'm not willing to be landed with the well-meaning but ahistorical naivetë of having assumed that a brutalized country might be turned, just like that, into a model democracy.
That's the bald distinction; here's the qualification. Naturally, the two terms of the distinction (remedial action and utopian vision) can be made to intersect. One can hope - as all of us who supported the war did and some of us still do hope - that the product of remedial action might be, if not a model democracy, then at least a democracy; or if not that, then a partial democracy or a society further along the road to being a democracy than it was before; or, at the very least, a type of polity in which the regular, systematic, day-to-day barbarities of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship no longer occur. I think such hope, on the part of anyone supporting the Iraq war primarily as a remedial project, was humanly understandable, even creditable, and in all the circumstances prevailing it wasn't empirically unreasonable either, even if in the end that hope comes to be dashed. Some opponents of the war may want to say here that it was just blindingly obvious, not only that the war was bound not to issue in a viable democracy, never mind a flourishing one, but that it was bound to issue in something much worse than the state and the situation it replaced. I do not believe them. I mean, I don't believe they either had, or could have had, a secure basis for making that judgement. They therefore do not have a basis now for remonstrating - remonstrating in a moral sense - with those of us who backed the liberation of Iraq for the kind of reasons I've outlined. However this may be, and speaking only for myself, I have often given expression to the kind of hope I've just defined, writing more than once on this blog of the project of liberation and democratization, and thereby coupling together the act of freeing Iraq from Baathist brutality and oppression with the more uncertain attempt to build something worthwhile in the aftermath. But to repeat and conclude on this point: the central issue in my support for the war was the humanitarian-remedial one.
It was because this was so that my fundamental quarrel with opponents of the war has never been that they declined actually to support the war. From the very first time I publicly expressed myself on this issue (see The war in Iraq, July 29, old site), I endeavoured to make this clear. Between supporting and opposing the war there was another, altogether feasible and, in many different contexts, common option: in effect, simply butting out. Those making up the anti-war movement could have withheld support from a war about which they had misgivings, but without marching, and agitating in other ways, actually to try to prevent it. By deciding to do the latter they dedicated themselves to a course which would have left a political monstrosity in place. Some of these people had, and have, their own uncertainties, and to them I'm happy to give this account of myself (and, I believe also, of not a few others, as to why and how they supported the war). To the rest, those who just knew, who just know, there could only have been one choice in this matter: you have some explaining of your own to do.