Tuesday, 5 March 2013

March, 2003

I've been reading through the comments under this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates describing his feelings about the anti-Iraq-war movement back in 2003:

"Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that I what I thought did not matter much. I was a writer in the sense that there were things that were published with my name on them. I didn't have a blog. I didn't have status. I didn't have a pager.

But I did have a grinding cynicism. I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, "You fools believe that you matter? You think what you're saying means anything?"  
In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, "No. Not in my name." It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism."
Personally I didn't agree much with the anti-war protesters back in 2003, and I'm not sure even now if they really knew what they were talking about. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't back the war knowing what I know now - the war was a gamble with the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people - but I don't think that means that those who opposes the war should be allowed to retro-spectively claim they knew what was going to happen all along.

Back in 2003, the anti-war protests seemed to be made up of exactly the same people who had opposed the Gulf War in 1991 on the grounds that it would become a 'New Vietnam', the same people who said that the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York had been orchestrated by the US government, the same people who believed the war was motivated entirely by oil wealth, the same people who, in short, had spent the previous ten years being wrong repeatedly. It seemed that they would oppose the war whatever the fact of the matter, and this made their opinions seem irrelevant.

I do, however, recognise the cynicism Coates describes, I got the feeling that it really didn't matter what anyone thought about the war.

For me the progress to war seemed unreal - especially since I followed it mostly from Taiwan and China - because we had by then seen more than ten years of empty threats directed at Saddam's government. When I watched George W. Bush's ultimatum giving Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq, neither I nor the people I was watching with could resist laughing out loud - the idea of a dictator giving up power in this fashion was simply too ridiculous, the speech itself very hard to take seriously. The statements about WMD also seemed over-blown - it was not possible to see this as a credible casus belli given the number of WMD-holding countries in the world, and I simply didn't believe that Iraq had a nuclear bomb yet.

I saw WMD as not much more than a pretext to remove Saddam Hussein, a brutal and vile dictator, and didn't believe that anything could be worse for the Iraqi people than his rule. This was my mistake - I didn't see the civil strife coming. Sure, there had been warnings about the post-war situation, but I couldn't believe that the US wouldn't be able to solve that by simply opening their financial coffers. The examples of Germany and Japan after the second world war loomed large in my mind. In a bar conversation in the summer of 2002 with one of the guys who ran the Taipei Baboons (who later suffered a tragedy of their own ) I remember holding forth about the possibility of a final battle in Baghdad, and dismissing the possibility of a guerilla war out of hand. Few people, I thought, would want to die for Saddam - that was about the limit of what I could see.