Deborah Orr: How can we intervene anywhere after Iraq?

It's hard to be grateful when young men die for a bunch of lies and a surfeit of macho posturing

The Independent

Published: 27 September 2006

The title of Linda Polman's devastating 2003 critique of UN peacekeeping interventions, mainly in Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti, is We Did Nothing. Miserably, it would be comforting if one could claim a similarly minimal impact from the coalition and Nato interventions in Afghanistan, or the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Instead, intervention - except as far as the establishment of democracies feeble enough to be merely abstract is concerned - has only led to the intensification of the dire problems already in existence. Afghanistan is still a rogue state, more roguish than ever in its renewed ardour for the nihilistic fundamentalism of the Taliban, and its monstrous subjugation of women. This latter, particularly, was a reason why Labour women declared themselves in favour of invasion. Now, even for the government of Afghanistan, women's rights are "not a priority". Nice.

Afghanistan is more roguish too, in its dependence on the production of heroin, when the dreaded big pharma could have been in there for years now, dispensing morphine around the pain-killer hungry West, and cash to the subsistence-hungry farmers. Experts say that the US and British policy of burning heroin crops has done more to turn ordinary people away from Western intervention and towards the Taliban than any other factor.

War on Terror? War on Drugs? What about War on Counter-Intuitive Thinking? Like the strange idea that destroying things makes them better. Could the promises of liberation and renewal in Afghanistan, under a broad and sympathetic coalition, have come closer to fruition had the attention of the West not shifted so quickly and so vaingloriously to Iraq? Very possibly. But it's academic now.

And bloody, bloody Iraq. Agreed by 16 American intelligence agencies to have given a fantastic shot in the arm to the cause of radical Islamic terror, it is now the rogue state extraordinaire, the destination of jihadists worldwide, as if the ethnic mix in this strange state wasn't incendiary enough.

And it's our war, of course, as well as Bush's war, whether we wanted it or not. Illegal, illegitimate and utterly disastrous, it was prosecuted by Britain, primarily - as far as the massaging of Blair's personal credo was concerned anyway - for the humanitarian removal of Saddam Hussein. For those who were swayed by this argument - the most idealistic of dodgy sideswipes at the UN charter - confirmation that torture is now more widespread that it was under Saddam is a hard lesson in the folly of making free with the concept of national sovereignty.

Glib sloganeering still reigns. The refuge of certainty may be comforting. But how can so many people - from Blair to George Clooney, from Emma Thompson to the UN itself - find such certain comfort in calling on "UN peacekeepers" whenever there's trouble in the world? It's not as if the agency's appalling track record in dithering and bumbling is not well documented.

At the moment it is Darfur that is the focus of cries for the world to "do something". Do what? Keep what peace? There's no peace there, just war. Intervention would indeed be "Just War". There is plenty of room in the UN conventions to legitimatise an invasion of Darfur. It just never really happens, and isn't really happening now. The truth is that despite all the cries for intervention, not many countries really have the stomach to "intervene". Or "fight", as such exercises might more usefully be named.

No great mystery why that might be the case. I'm not going, my children aren't going, and neither are Tony Blair's. Judging from the military recruitment crisis in Britain, plenty of people feel just the same way as I do. Afghanistan and Iraq haven't just stretched the British and American appetite for intervention to its limit. It's helped to make the rest of the world more than chary of "getting involved".

Obviously, one is not against military intervention per se. Pacifism is another glib and comforting certainty, lovely for its owner in its irreducible simplicity, but a kind of glorious, moral, high-minded indifference that one can only afford when one is vastly removed from the physical theatre and the intellectual reality of attack and defence.

It's important to be profoundly grateful when people are fighting for your life and its values, or for the lives of others in the name of humanity. Which is one reason why it's so appalling that these two fights, especially Iraq, were picked with such a cavalier disregard for truth, proportionality and expert opinion. It's hard to be grateful when young men die for a bunch of lies and a surfeit of macho posturing. That's why so many people, especially such a number of the parents, are filled with grief and fury instead of the traditionally sought-after dignified acceptance and pride. No wonder Blair doesn't fancy meeting up with them.

Despite years of complex philosophical discussion worldwide, the UN or any other agency has been unable to come up with a set of guidelines that make hard and fast rules about when military intervention is the right thing, and when not. A lot of the problem is with consensus, as is always the problem with attempts to figure out overarching international law.

But the most devastating motivation for the wars in Afghanistan and In Iraq was sheer vengeance. There were some legitimate grounds for the invasion of Afghanistan - one of them was the straightforwardly protean fact that most countries put their hand up for the "yes" vote, and at least a little of their monies where their mouths were (just as the opposite is the tragic case in Darfur). In Iraq, even those grounds that sounded mildly plausible at the time turned out to be exaggerated or fabricated.

But it would be a simple lesson from both of these disasters if civilised people could at least grasp the fundamental idea that when vengeance colours a decision, then the decision is always tainted. I don't believe in God. But if I did, I'd assume that in the horror in Iraq and Afghanistan, He was making a point about who owns vengeance.

Yet the most bumptiously gong-ho of modern monotheists have become rather fond of the catchphrase "Guns and Moses". In Jerusalem - of all places - you can buy it on a T-shirt. I dare say George Bush finds it amusing. But it is a stupendous perversion of religious belief - and of human good sense as well. Iraq and Afghanistan are object lessons in the pitfalls of acting out of such a wild and terrible desire.

As for all those promises about infrastructure and investment, they would have done a lot more to solve things in both countries than war managed to. In Afghanistan, there was a window of opportunity for such action, but it was squandered. In Iraq, there was never even a window.

d.orr@independent.co.uk