Dead Men Left

Saturday, May 08, 2004

I was first made properly aware of Professor Mary Kaldor as a result of an anti-war meeting at LSE, some two months before the invasion of Iraq. The particular highlight of her contribution – a sort of extended hand-wringing, torn apart by both Jeremy Corbyn and Tariq Ali on the platform, and by the audience – was her pronouncement that US and UK troops massing outside of Iraq were putting “pressure on Saddam”, but the instant they crossed the arbitrary line of the Iraqi border, they would become illegal adventurers. Thus she supported the mobilisation of troops, but not their actual use. Logically, of course, they would apply even more pressure were they to actually invade, and all her supposedly anti-war arguments seemed to arrive with convenient get-out clauses. There was left little doubt in my mind – and I was far from alone in this – that, had the UN backed the invasion, so to would Kaldor. It was, then, with quite breathless anticipation I awaited her contribution to the “Global Politics after Iraq” meeting, organised courtesy of LSE Conferences and set to feature ex-Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Cook, a man for whom I have a certain and probably unwarranted degree of respect, failed to appear: the result, apparently, of a three-line whip in the House. Shame. It must be said that any platform on which Will Hutton makes the most radical contribution, calling for Blair’s resignation, is not one much troubled by subversion, and Kaldor’s quite shockingly poor efforts in justifying the colonial occupation of Iraq – this, by the way, in the weeks of the Fallujah siege – were unlikely to much trouble the Pope Urban of Downing Street. Both His Holiness and Saint Mary hold very closely to all sorts of grand schemes to re-order the world via cruise missiles, Kaldor choosing to label her brand of “humanitarian” imperialism “cosmopolitanism”, and so she has – as a rule – agreed on the necessity of bombing (for instance) Yugoslavia. But the “war on terror” has caused her a few troubles.

We might discern, via Kaldor and her ilk, a rapidly-emerging division in the previously happy alliance of the “tough liberals” with the US Air Force; the beautiful idea that democracy arrives with cluster bombs – Kosovo being the cited example, a humanitarian crisis turned catastrophe by the 82nd Airborne, said catastrophe then justifying further intervention – was severely challenged by Afghanistan. It was a little difficult to argue that, however unpleasant the Taliban were (and there is no doubting that they were and, such has been the success of the war, still are), turning over large chunks of the country to warlords previously best noted for establishing mass rape camps was really going to do much for women’s liberation; it was difficult to argue that the necessity of bringing justice to those behind September 11 really required both the direct civilian casualties of the campaign and the humanitarian crisis that has now unfolded in that unfortunate country. Current conservative estimates suggest that over 3,000 civilian deaths directly resulted from the intensive bombing campaign, whilst Osama bin Laden is still on the run, somewhere. Justice? Not exactly.

Perhaps what tipped the balance for the B52 liberals was the spectacle of systematic abuse being meted out to al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects at Guantanamo Bay. It is possible to pretend that, despite the rigorous application of the “Powell Doctrine” - high-level saturation bombing designed to minimise US casualties – the US government is in some way concerned to minimise civilian casualties when it “intervenes”. (The “Powell Doctrine”! Remember when Colin Powell was supposed to be, just like Blair, a “dove”, a moderating influence? How very distant it all seems now…) Smart bombs that could zoom round schools, hospitals, homes, and so on, to pick out bona fide evildoers and then doubtless sweep up their remains into a tidy pile; we know the stories: NATO told us all about their precision bombing campaign over Serbia and Kosovo, and then proceeded to damage or destroy40 industrial sites, 16 chemical refineries, 6 power plants, 190 schools, residential areas in all the principal towns, 16 hospitals and health-care centres, 1,400 civilians and one Chinese embassy. Oh, and 7 Serbian tanks. Almost forgot them. But still, we could kid ourselves that all this was an accidental by-product of an otherwise clean and efficient campaign. “Collateral damage,” as they say; certainly as Jamie Shea said as much, night after night, and for whose services to the cause of truth and accuracy we are now greatly indebted, although not as indebted as NATO.

It is exceptionally difficult to kid yourself, however, that when a government rounds up prisoners of war, declares them to be “unlawful combatants”, persistently denies and restricts their access to legal counsel; manacles their hands and feet and forcibly shaves them; blindfolds them and leaves them kneeling, hour after hour, in the baking Carribean sun; and then gleefully releases the pictures of all this to a horrified world, all the while claiming the moral high ground in the manner of a vengeful playground bully (“he hit me first,” and so on; without a trial, however, we have very few grounds to know whether anyone hit anyone else) – it is extraordinarily difficult to pretend that this government truly shares your own deep-held beliefs in human rights and international law.

Kaldor admits as much, apparently distancing herself from those even she calls the “liberal imperialists”. Cosmopolitans like her, you see, are far more morally reputable: they want armies to be more like “policemen”, because “police will lay down their lives to help others”. That stunning argument is reproduced verbatim. Now, it strikes me that in the absolute contempt the US/UK soldiers have shown for Muslims in particular and Arabs more generally, they are already acting very much like our police force, busily rounding up and incarcerating “terrorist suspects” on spurious grounds the length of the country: approximately one in ten of those detained under the new anti-terror laws are charged; fewer than one in ten of those are convicted, and then overwhelmingly for such terrifying offences as visa irregularities. Her fellow panellist, a replacement for Robin Cook from the inestimable International Relations department, managed – in a point unchallenged by anyone on stage – to at least sieve out the realpolitik in Kaldor’s vacuous pappy liberal mash, stating that as “good Europeans” we had a duty to these poor benighted Arabs of running their country. It is the traditional racist claim of imperialists the world over – the natives are just incapable, dear boy - and its imperial logic was brought out quite sharply in his opposing of “good” European military strength to “bad” US. Kaldor, on the other hand, blithely announced the UN to be all right, really, and absolutely ideal for the onerous task of shouldering the White Man’s Burden.

She was explicitly challenged as best as the somewhat elitist fashion official LSE events allow – via means of the cunningly-worded one-sentence question – on quite why Iraqis would find occupation by the organisation that killed 500,000 of their children through sanctions any more acceptable than occupation by the US/UK. Kaldor metaphorically shrugged her shoulders. The UN, she pronounced, was the best we could do. It can, on occasion and rather unfortunately, be the case that LSE audiences are to the Right of their platforms. Not this time. Kaldor in particular but essentially all the panellists received a grilling, and the response to leafleting outside, promoting a march against the occupation, was extremely good. “It’s the best we can do,” is never a great argument, especially when a more convincing one – that the Iraqis could do better than “we” ever could – is staring you in the face.

Even so, I was still slightly horrified to discover that Kaldor was now to appear on a platform with Paul Bremer’s chief censor, Stuart Haselock. Haselock is Head of Media Development and Regulation (a fine euphemism) for the Coalition Provisional Authority. He is one of the first of the new wave of colonial administrators, having ensured the natives expressed proper opinions in both Bosnia and Kosovo. He has, naturally, been sharply criticised for his heavy-handed approach. For all Kaldor’s talk of opposing the war, and supporting a multinational UN force, she seems terribly keen to provide Iraq’s half-farcical, half-brutal colonial administration with a pleasant gloss; for if we do oppose the US/UK occupation, there can be precious little worthwhile dialogue with it. Additionally, not a single Iraqi opposing the occupation, for example, is to sit alongside these two paragons of Western virtue; then again, why allow them privileges here they wouldn’t receive in their own country?

Kaldor persistently portrays herself as terribly radical. Compared to the general run of LSE academics, perhaps; but by slightly more exacting standards – such as public opinion polls, showing rising UK opposition to the occupation – this sort of thing simply does not do. If she is to retain any credibility, she should turn down the seat. Either that, or face the embarrassment of the “radical” professor forced to shout over protesting students.