Hard News by Russell Brown

Standing back

I'm taking a break from war-blogging for a few days: securing my supply-lines and all that. It is perhaps also time to stand back and consider what's happening in this war.

"Tell me, who do you want to win the war?" Gordon King from NZPundit asked me yesterday in an email.

Fair question. Er, the United Nations, I replied.

This war has been ill-advised, poorly planned and dishonestly sold. It should never have happened. But it has come so far that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime is the only viable result. To leave Saddam and his henchmen in place would surely provoke a bloody purge and (especially assuming sanctions stayed in place) even worse suffering for the people of Iraq.

Unfortunately, the road to Saddam leads through thousands of civilians and unwitting military conscripts - who, like the coalition troops, are all somebody's sons and fathers, daughters and mothers. It is possible that terms will emerge for a ceasefire that saves the face of both sides, but I can't presently conceive of what that would look like.

A moral dilemma looms here: ideally, having decided on an inevitable outcome, we should wish for the collapse of the regime and a quick and straightforward conclusion to the war. But, even now, a rapid conclusion would be hailed as a victory and an endorsement by the White House extremists who procured the war in the first place. The Plan would be back on again, the intellectual inbreds behind it would feel vindicated.

John Roughan in the Herald said this on Saturday:

"I just hope Iraq puts up sufficient resistance to work this bad blood out of the American system."

A letter in the Herald today condemns his wish as "obscene":

"He is basically saying that he wants more coalition soldiers in body bags, not to mention the many more dead Iraqis a longer war would produce."

Yet Roughan is hardly alone in such thoughts, or in noting that the fighting and killing is as much - or even more - about the survival of elements of the American leadership as it is about the survival of Saddam (which is unlikely).

It depends on where you perceive the greater threat, I guess. Since September 11, 2001, we have heard a great deal from some quarters about the threat posed to our values by millennial Islamism. But, leaving aside the question of exactly how invading Iraq served to defeat radical Islam, I have always believed that our values of plurality, democracy and tolerance, in the West at any rate, were far too strong to be bombed away by extremists.

Those values have, however, proved far more vulnerable to attrition under the "War on Terror". The stunning rollback of privacy authorised under the USA Patriot Act (only a scoundrel would give a law such a name), the internment of thousands of people without charge, the snatching back of official information from the public domain, the failure of the US political system to perform as advertised.

More so, the howling-down of dissent, the cowing of the mass media, the apparent psychosis gripping a fair chunk of the American population. The bonfires into which radio stations have urged their listeners to throw Dixie Chicks CDs after their lead singer uttered a single criticism of the American president: why don't they just cut to the chase and start burning books?

It was staggering to believe that, as war approached, two US Representatives could actually devote their taxpayer-funded time to forcing the House cafeteria to rename French fries and French toast as "freedom fries" and "freedom toast". (The moron responsible, Rep. Bob Ney claimed only "a couple of people with accents" had complained. I liked the French embassy response: "We are at a very serious moment, dealing with very serious issues and we are not focusing on the name you give to potatoes.")

I depend on a stable and prosperous America; a distracted, angry, fearful and intolerant power is not what any of us need. I have friends in America who are distraught at what their country is becoming.

Even more, we depend on stable international institutions. As I have previously noted, the United Nations, the European Union, Nato, Nafta, the Arab League and, probably, the World Trade Organisation, have all been damaged in White House bullrush to war. A number of key governments have been destabilised. World public opinion of America has plummeted, even in countries that have been its allies for decades. In that sense, Saddam - or perhaps al-Qaeda - had taken victories before a missile was fired.

The various lies that have been, and continue to be, told by "our" governments about war are especially corrosive to democracy, especially if the media is disinclined to play its role in holding governments to account.

I got a couple of emails about yesterday's post ('We're being lied to'); one claimed I was "biased", and implied that as a journalist I was a liar myself. The other said that "it is so clear for any lie the yanks give there are 100 from the other side". Yes, but they're the bad guys. I have maintained some respect for Tony Blair through this (at the least, he was able and willing to stand up before a hostile audience and make a case, which is more than Bush ever did), not to mention an emotional investment in the Westminster System. But what his officials have said in the past week is beyond mere spin, it is cynical.

And anyway, if you strip out the obvious battle fantasies, the Iraqis appear to be giving a more straightforward account of casualties than the coalition. There's no point in blaming al-Jazeera either. As a fine story in the International Herald Tribune pointed out this week, al-Jazeera is an incredibly important force in the Middle East:

"In August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, precipitating the first Gulf war, state-run media in the Arab world suppressed the news for three days. Today, word of such an attack would be out within minutes because of a television station called Al Jazeera."

And America's response to this agent of democracy is? To attack its website, ban its reporters, condemn it from the pulpit of government. It's depressing and it's wrong.

In the end, what any of us wants to happen will have little or no bearing on what happens in this war. Clearly, most Iraqis appear to both despise Saddam and distrust their would-be liberators. It's hard not to admire soldiers who stand in the face of overwhelming technical and air superiority. But as people die, neighbouring governments teeter and self-styled mujahadeen begin to pour in to carry on a fight that has already transformed into something far more dangerous than it was a week ago, the philosophy that brought this war needs to be rooted out like the bad weed that it is.

PS: The writing (including Sy Hersch's Rumsfeld investigation) in The New Yorker this week is simply tremendous. I can't believe we get this stuff for free.