Terrorisme, guerre, mondialisation, démocratie...
Un choix de textes
pour garder les idées claires

Après le 11 sept. 01


Norman Geras, WSJ OpinionJournal (4 August 2003)
A Moral Failure
Why did so many on the left march to save Saddam Hussein?

This article is adapted from a talk I gave to the Workers' Liberty summer school in London on June 21 under the title "After the Holocaust: Mutual Indifference and Moral Solidarity". To be fair to those who invited me, I should point out that although the views I expressed in this part of the talk met with a perfectly civil reception, they plainly weren't shared by most of the audience.

I want to say something about support for democratic values and basic human rights. We on the left just have it in our bloodstream, do we not, that we are committed to democratic values. And while, for reasons I can't go into here, there are some on the left a bit more reserved about using the language of basic human rights, nonetheless for many of us it was this moral reality, and more especially its negation, that played a part in drawing us in: to protest and work against a world in which people could just be used for the purposes of others, be exploited and superexploited, worked maybe to an early death, in any case across a life of hardship; or be brutalized for organizing to fight to change their situation, be "disappeared," or tortured, or massacred, by regimes upholding an order of inequality--sometimes desperate inequality--and privilege. In our bloodstream.

However, there is also a certain historical past of the left referred to loosely under the name "Stalinism", which forms a massive blot on this commitment and these values, on the great tradition we belong to. I am of the generation--roughly 1960s-vintage, post-Stalinist left--educated in the Trotskyist critique of that whole experience, and in the new expansion and flourishing of an open, multifaceted and pluralist Marxism; educated in the movement against the war in Vietnam, the protests against Augusto Pinochet's murderous coup in Chile, and against the role of the U.S. in both episodes and in more of the same kind. Of a generation that believed that, even though the Western left still bore some signs of continuity with the Stalinist past, this was a dying, an increasingly marginal strand, and that we had put its errors largely behind us. But I fear now it is not so. The same kinds of error--excuses and evasions and out-and-out apologia for political structures, practices or movements no socialist should have a word to say for--are still with us. They afflict many even without any trace of a Stalinist past or a Stalinist political formation.

I obviously don't have the time or space here to rehearse all of the relevant arguments. I will confine myself to sketching some important features of the broad picture as I see it.

On Sept. 11, 2001, there was, in the U.S., a massacre of innocents. There's no other acceptable way of putting this: some 3,000 people (and, as anyone can figure, it could have been many more) struck down by an act of mass murder without any possible justification, an act of gross moral criminality. What was the left's response? In fact, this goes well beyond the left if what is meant by that is people and organizations of socialist persuasion. It included a wide sector of liberal opinion as well. Still, I shall just speak here, for short, of the left. The response on the part of much of it was excuse and apologia.

At best you might get some lip service paid to the events of September 11 having been, well, you know, unfortunate--the preliminary "yes" before the soon-to-follow "but" (or, as Christopher Hitchens has called it, "throat clearing"). And then you'd get all the stuff about root causes, deep grievances, the role of U.S. foreign policy in creating these; and a subtext, or indeed text, whose meaning was America's comeuppance. This was not a discourse worthy of a democratically committed or principled left, and the would-be defense of it by its proponents, that they were merely trying to explain and not to excuse what happened, was itself a pathetic excuse. If any of the root-cause and grievance themes truly had been able to account for what happened on September 11, you'd have a hard time understanding why, say, the Chileans after that earlier September 11 (I mean of 1973), or other movements fighting against oppression and injustice, have not resorted to the random mass murder of civilians.

Why this miserable response? In a nutshell, it was a displacement of the left's most fundamental values by a misguided strategic choice, namely, opposition to the U.S., come what may. This dictated the apologetic mumbling about the mass murder of U.S. citizens, and it dictated that the U.S. must be opposed in what it was about to do in hitting back at al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

Something similar has now been repeated over the war in Iraq. I could just about have "got inside" the view--though it wasn't my view--that the war to remove Saddam Hussein's regime should not be supported. Neither Washington nor Baghdad--maybe. But opposition to the war--the marching, the petition-signing, the oh-so-knowing derision of George W. Bush, and so forth--meant one thing very clearly. Had this campaign succeeded in its goal and actually prevented the war it was opposed to, the life of the Baathist regime would have been prolonged, with all that that entailed: years more (how many years more?) of the rape rooms, the torture chambers, the children's jails and the mass graves recently uncovered.

This was the result that hundreds of thousands of people marched to secure. Well, speaking for myself, comrades, there I draw the line. Not one step.

Let me now focus on the question of humanitarian intervention. There is a long tradition in the literature of international law that although national sovereignty is an important consideration in world affairs, it is not sacrosanct. If a government treats its own people with terrible brutality, massacring them and such like, there is a right of humanitarian intervention by outside powers. The introduction of the offense of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trial after World War II implied a similar constraint on the sovereign authority of states. There are limits upon them. They cannot just brutalize their own nationals with impunity, violate their fundamental human rights.

Is there then, today, a right of humanitarian intervention under international law? The question is disputed. Some authorities argue that the U.N. Charter rules it out absolutely. War is permissible only in self-defense. However, others see a contradiction between this reading of the charter and the charter's underwriting of binding human-rights norms. Partly because the matter is disputed, I will not here base myself on a legal right of humanitarian intervention. I will simply say that irrespective of the state of international law, in extreme enough circumstances there is a moral right of humanitarian intervention. This is why what the Vietnamese did in Cambodia to remove Pol Pot should have been supported at the time, the state of international law notwithstanding, and ditto for the removal of Idi Amin by the Tanzanians. Likewise, with regard to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq: It was a case crying out for support for an intervention to bring the regime finally to an end.

Just think for a moment about the argument that this recent war was illegal. That something is illegal does not itself carry moral weight unless legality as such carries moral weight, and legality carries moral weight only conditionally. It depends on the particular law in question, on the system of law of which it is a part, and on the kind of social and ethical order it upholds. An international law--and an international system--according to which a government is free to go on raping, murdering and torturing its own nationals to the tune of tens upon tens, upon more tens, of thousands of deaths without anything being done to stop it, so much the worse for this as law. It is law that needs to be criticized, opposed and changed. It needs to be moved forward--which happens in this domain by precedent and custom as well as by transnational treaty and convention.

I am fully aware in saying this that the present U.S. administration has made itself an obstacle in various ways to the development of a more robust and comprehensive framework of international law. But the thing cuts both ways. The war to depose Saddam Hussein and his criminal regime was not of a piece with that. It didn't have to be opposed by all the forces that did in fact oppose it. It could, on the contrary, have been supported--by France and Germany and Russia and the U.N., and by a mass democratic movement of global civil society. Just think about that. Just think about the kind of precedent it would have set for other genocidal, or even just lavishly murderous, dictatorships--instead of all those processions of shame across the world's cities, and whose success would have meant the continued abandonment of the Iraqi people.

It is, in any event, such realities--the brutalizing and murder by the Baathist regime of tens upon tens of thousands of its own nationals--that the recent war has brought to an end. It should have been supported for this reason, irrespective of the reasons (concerning weapons of mass destruction) that George Bush and Tony Blair put up front themselves; though it is disingenuous of the war's critics to speak now as if the humanitarian case for war formed no part of the public rationale of the Coalition, since it was clearly articulated by both the president and the prime minister more than once.

Here is one approximate measure of the barbarities of the Baathist regime I have just referred to. It comes not from the Pentagon, or anyone in the Bush administration, or from Tony Blair or those around him. It comes from Human Rights Watch. According to Human Rights Watch, during 23 years of Saddam's rule some 290,000 Iraqis disappeared into the regime's deadly maw, the majority of these reckoned to be now dead. Rounding this number down by as much as 60,000 to compensate for the "reckoned to be," that is 230,000. It is 10,000 a year. It is 200 people every week. And I'll refrain from embellishing with details, which you should all know, as to exactly how a lot of these people died.

Had the opposition to the war succeeded, this is what it would have postponed--and postponed indefinitely--bringing to an end. This is how almost the whole international left expressed its moral solidarity with the Iraqi people. Worse still, some sections of the left seemed none too bothered about making common cause with, marching alongside, fundamentalist religious bigots and known racists; and there were also those who dismissed Iraqi voices in support of the war as coming from American stooges--a disgraceful lie.

Let's now model this abstractly. You have a course of action with mixed consequences, both good consequences and bad consequences. To decide sensibly you obviously have to weigh the good against the bad. Imagine someone advising, with respect to some decision you have to make, "Let's only think about the good consequences," or, "Let's merely concentrate on the bad consequences." What?! It's a no-brainer, as the expression now is. But from beginning to end something pretty much like this has been the approach of the war's opponents. I offer a few examples.

The crassest are the statements by supposedly mature people--one of these Clare Short, Britain's former international development secretary, another the novelist Julian Barnes--that this war was not worth the loss of a single life. Not one? So much for the victims of the rape rooms and the industrial shredders, for the children tortured and murdered in front of their parents, and for those parents. So much for those Human Rights Watch estimates and for the future flow of the regime's victims had it been left in place.

More generally, since the fall of Baghdad critics of the war have been pointing (many of them with relish) at everything that has gone, or remains, wrong in Iraq: the looting, the lack of civil order, the continuing violence and shootings, the patchy electricity supply, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Is this fair enough? Yes and no. Yes, because it has to be part of any balanced assessment. But also no if it isn't set against the fact, the massive fact, of the end of a regime of torture, oppression and murder, of everything that has stopped happening since the regime fell. And typically it isn't set against this massive fact. This fact is passed over or tucked away, because to acknowledge it fully and make a balanced assessment won't come out right for the war's critics. It just won't stack up--this, this and, yes, also this, but against the end of all that--in the way they'd like it to.

Or else your antiwar interlocutor will freely concede that of course we all agree it is a good that that monster and his henchmen no longer govern Iraq; but it is too stupid a point to dwell upon, for it doesn't touch on the issue dividing us, support or not for the war (on grounds of weapons of mass destruction, international law, U.S. foreign policy, the kitchen sink). Er, yes it does. No one is entitled simply to help himself to the "of course, we all agree" neutralization of what was and remains an absolutely crucial consideration in favor of the war. One has properly to integrate it into an overall, and conscientiously weighted, balance sheet of both good and bad consequences.

The same ploy from a different angle: Since the fall of Baghdad there have been voices--both Iraqi voices and those of Western critics of the war--calling for the immediate departure from Iraq of American and British forces. One can certainly discuss this as a proposition. Would it be better for Iraq and its people or worse, such an immediate or early withdrawal? Personally, I doubt that it would be better. Indeed, it would likely spell disaster of one kind or another. From more than one survey of Iraqi opinion I've seen, it is the view also of many Iraqis that there should be no withdrawal for the time being, until the consolidation of an Iraqi administration. But note, anyway, that the call for a prompt withdrawal is not a call to restore the Baathist regime to power. No, it just starts from where things are now, with the regime gone. That is to say, it starts from a better starting point than would otherwise have been in place. And this is a good (but not properly acknowledged) achieved by American and British arms.

If war opponents can't eliminate the inconvenient side of the balance, they denature it. The liberation of Iraq from Saddam's tyranny can't have been a good, because of those who effected it and of their obviously bad foreign-policy record: Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua and the rest. It can't therefore have been a liberation. Even allowing the premise to go unchallenged--which in point of fact I don't, since recent U.S. and British foreign policy also has achievements to its credit: evicting the Iraqis from Kuwait, intervening in Kosovo, intervening in Sierra Leone, getting rid of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan--it is a plain fallacy. A person with a bad record is capable of doing good. There were some anti-Semitic rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. This argumentative move just fixes the nature of the act via a presumption about those who are responsible for it, sparing one the necessity of examining the act for what it actually brings about and of assessing this in its own right. It's a bit like saying that because the guy who returned me the expensive book he'd borrowed has previously stolen things from others--you can fill in the rest yourself, and yes, it's silly.

Last and worst here. If the balance doesn't come out how you want it to, you hope for things to change so that the balance will adjust in your favor. In the case under consideration, this is a perilous moral and political impulse. When the war began, a division of opinion was soon evident among its opponents, between those who wanted a speedy outcome--in other words, a victory for the coalition forces, for that is all a speedy outcome could realistically have meant--and those who did not. These latter preferred that the coalition forces should suffer reverses, get bogged down, and you know the story: stalemate, quagmire, Stalingrad scenario in Baghdad and so forth, leading to a U.S. and British withdrawal. But what these critics of the war thereby wished for was a spectacular triumph for the regime in Baghdad, since that is what a withdrawal would have been. So much for solidarity with the victims of oppression, for commitment to democratic values and basic human rights.

Similarly today, with all those who seem so to relish every new difficulty, every setback for U.S. forces: What they align themselves with is a future of prolonged hardship and suffering for the Iraqi people, whether via an actual rather than imagined quagmire, a ruinous civil war, or the return (out of either) of some new and ghastly political tyranny; rather than a rapid stabilization and democratization of the country, promising its inhabitants an early prospect of national normalization. That is caring more to have been right than for a decent outcome for the people of this long-unfortunate country.

Such impulses have displayed themselves very widely across left and liberal opinion in recent months. Why? For some, because what the U.S. government and its allies do, whatever they do, has to be opposed--and opposed however thuggish and benighted the forces which this threatens to put your antiwar critic into close company with. For some, because of an uncontrollable animus towards George W. Bush and his administration. For some, because of a one-eyed perspective on international legality and its relation to issues of international justice and morality.

Whatever the case or the combination, it has produced a calamitous compromise of the core values of socialism, or liberalism or both, on the part of thousands of people who claim attachment to them. You have to go back to the apologias for, and fellow-traveling with, the crimes of Stalinism to find as shameful a moral failure of liberal and left opinion as in the wrongheaded--and too often, in the circumstances, sickeningly smug--opposition to the freeing of the Iraqi people from one of the foulest regimes on the planet.

Mr. Geras is a professor of government at the University of Manchester. His books include "The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust" (1998) and "Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty" (1995), both published by Verso. He writes at



Merci de me signaler les fôtes et les liens rompus!
Dernière mise à jour: 05.08.2003

François Brutsch - Genève (Suisse) & London (UK)