The right to fight


It once felt quite lonely, seeming to be one of the few left alive who believed that the invasion of Iraq was justified. As far as commentators, bloggers, and apparently everybody else are concerned, it is so clear that the war was somewhere between a disastrous mistake and a war crime (inclusive) that it is only the brave or foolish who dare to disagree.

The absence of weapons of mass destruction (at least thus far) is presented as proof that the war was fought “on a lie”. The contrary view that governments should protect their citizens not only when danger is certain, but that sensible leaders (like all sensible people) have to estimate risk and make judgements on the basis of likelihood is ridiculed.

Bush, Blair and Howard are blamed for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi Muslims in the years following the fall of Saddam, even though it was Shi’ite and Sunni terrorists who were the killers as they chose to engulf Iraq in civil war.

The allies stand accused of violating the sacred creed of the modern world of nation-states – non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. Although Saddam had already refused to comply with previous UN resolutions which explicitly mandated action in that event, any reference to the war is automatically prefaced with “illegal”.

Above all, Bush and Blair are alleged to have secretly planned to commit the ultimate sin – regime change. It may be that the world is a better place without Iraqis and Kurds being routinely tortured, gassed or murdered on Saddam’s whim, but is not considered a defence against this charge.

But maybe we who dare to think that although war is always terrible, in this case the alternative was worse, are not so lonely after all. It turns out that the leaders of Britain, France and even America think so too.

As we watch the scenes from Tripoli and share the joy at the birth of what we hope will be a new democracy, little attention is paid to those Western powers’ contribution to bringing about the rebels’ victory. One has to dig deep to learn that Gadhafi’s forces faced over 20,000 bombing sorties from NATO planes. We don’t even know the number of civilian casualties from these raids, because no-one thinks it important enough to count.

As in Iraq, a UN resolution provided cover for this outside involvement. But, as in Iraq, that resolution fell short of permitting what eventuated; it limited involvement to air strikes, yet NATO special forces were on the Libyan ground. But unlike Iraq, no-one seems to mind.

It’s considered impolite to point out that the intention of the UN mandate on Libya was to explicitly to “protect civilians”, even when Cameron and Obama (who each used the disenchantment with the Iraq war to assist their ascent to office) boast that their military campaign was designed to remove Gadhafi. It turns out that regime change wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

After the West’s appalling failure to intervene in Ruanda, it re-discovered some integrity by protecting the Muslims of Kosovo (also with neither UN backing nor public criticism). But the backlash against the Iraq war led to fears that the abdication of morality that is a belief in non-intervention would become, once again, the norm. As millions took to the streets demanding that Saddam remain in power, as Blair was forced to resign and Bush and Howard consigned to ignominy, brutal dictators around the world felt that they were once again safe. But now, without fanfare, intervention is back. Thankfully, NATO’s decisive role in Libya will make tyrants sleep a little less soundly.

This new model will be intervening in a less pronounced way than the that of the Iraq (or perhaps any military action that is not led by Bush is less pronounced by definition). But it will be intervention nonetheless.

There will still be inconsistencies. The contrast between the bombs that Britain and France supplied to support the Libyan rebels, and the lukewarm words for those in Syria is obvious. We can ask why the tyrants of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are safe (does anyone remember the protests in Bahrain?), or even why protection of civilians does not extend to Turkmenistan, North Korea or the dozens of other tyrannies that remain. And the answer is that we do not yet live in a perfect world. Until we do, we have to live with the reality that Assad and others continue to slaughter their people until a new political and diplomatic mood might allow the West to intervene there. But meanwhile, thanks to foreign intervention, Gadhafi’s slaughtering has ceased, and the world is a better place.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.