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War - is that the Question?
A friend of mine asked me last weekend why I felt so frustrated let alone anxious about the inevitability of a massive military attack against Iraq. Did I support the current regime?

12 February   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Did I not want a change in the region that would introduce a fresh tincture of democratic values and human rights into Iraq - and perhaps by osmosis or fright into the whole region?

Quite the contrary! I would be happy for a regime change that rids the world of a ruthless ogre. President Saddam has terrorised Iraq since 1979 and has ensconced himself into power through bloodbaths as much as the duplicitous collusion of some countries whose own economic or political interests have often overtaken their concern for democracy in Iraq!

If I - not unlike large swathes of world public opinion - am against a war in Iraq now, it is because I am not too confident of the motivation behind it. Nor, for that matter, am I too clear on its consequences for the whole region.

To my mind, many people are opposed to a war against Iraq for reasons that are far less than refined! Some oppose it because of a visceral hatred, an historical neurosis or even an impotent envy against the hyper-power hegemony of the USA! Others believe that diplomacy and negotiation can resolve all differences! Whilst some others - including Sheikh Zaki El-Yamani, former secretary-general of OPEC - believe that this war is nothing more than an American-led petro-political corporate plot to seize the oilfields in Iraq in order to secure the US energy needs for many future decades!

These reasons are not to be dismissed casually, since they do prefigure in the overall calculations. Nevertheless, my own senses of anxiety, frustration and fear go beyond those parameters. It is my belief that this war is more of a right-wing strategy whose primary purpose is to ensure that the USA remains the sole superpower in the world and that there are no possible future contenders to that dominance. According to this trend, any country that threatens American military and political might, whether globally or regionally, must be taken on and defeated. Attached to this strategy is the belief that the USA has the right to act unilaterally and pre-emptively in order to ensure and secure such supremacy.

Indeed, not anyone who has followed the pronouncements of Messrs Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz can ignore this stratagem. After all, their right-wing and neo-conservative imprints, couched in post 11 September patriotic terms or Christian fundamentalist theology, run amok all over the US current political agenda! Simply put, the USA would take pre-emptive action against any state with political and military pretensions to become a major regional power that does not toe the line or is not supportive of the USA. Does this not perhaps explain why an Iraq that was well contained by low-level military force during two Clinton Administrations, and with no clear links to fundamentalist terror, has suddenly become the unprepossessing focus of US might? Iraq could well become the first of a series of offensives that are being bred into the culture of the Republican Party in the USA. Multilateralism, arms control and issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity or jurisdictional loci are being diluted further each week! It frightens me that the USA might well consider such strategic thinking. It frightens me doubly when other Western powers are allowing themselves to share this thinking too! Worse still, the United Nations - as a platform of sovereign nation-states - is also being delivered through cajolery, pressure or funds to provide a convenient albeit skimpy fig leaf for those designs! It is not sheer happenstance that UN secretary-general Kofi Annan delivered a polite encouragement to the USA not to act unilaterally in Iraq but to work closely with the will of nations through the legitimate international instruments of the UN.

As a believer, I feel that our Christian message - the Gospel - is about good news, particularly for the poor and for those who are nearest to that borderline between life and death. The scriptures are concerned with a just society, and ‘loving your neighbour’ actually implies understanding why that neighbour is suffering and being encouraged to do something about its root causes too. It is about a kingdom of justice and inclusion - of acting over the ills and injustices of the world. From William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King to Desmond Tutu, this imperative has pointed the way in Christian thinking.

This is perhaps one motivation that encourages me to go beyond facile and amorphous expressions such as ‘war on terrorism’ to explore the human-centred root causes of why some people are anxious and frustrated at what is happening today. I think that some aspects - though by no means all - of terrorism emanate from underlying conditions of poverty, injustice, bitterness and hatred. I have often defended this thesis in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have argued that what is good for the goose is surely good for the gander too - in that what applies to Iraq applies to other countries too! A war against terrorism does not only dictate unleashing military power selectively against other countries. It also dictates economic support that would help the grass roots of those countries with their development projects. For instance, the G 7rich countries could try to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and thereby contribute enormously toward poverty reduction. Would this not also help deal more directly with the inveterate roots of discontent?

All of this explains why I was interested to read the new Report ‘Building Democracy in Iraq’ authored by Yash Ghai, Mark Lattimer and Yahia Said for the London-based Minority Rights Group International. The report states, ‘For decades, the people of Iraq have lived with the very opposite to democracy. Gross violations of human rights have been targeted at specific ethnic and religious groups, and the combined effects of economic sanctions and two wars have left the population impoverished and highly dependent on the state for their basic needs.’ It ‘presents the first detailed analysis of the options for a constitutional process and the establishment of inclusive democracy in a post-totalitarian Iraq. It considers the need to entrench those features that are essential to a genuinely democratic society, including fair representation, co-operation between the communities and the rule of law and respect for human rights. In particular it analyses the risk posed by inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflict and the action necessary to try and avoid it.’

MRG Executive Director Mark Lattimer posits in his Preface [and appropriately so in my view] that ’Human rights are always a matter of universal concern, but the international community has a particular responsibility towards Iraq.’ He adds, ‘Support for the belligerents in the terrible Iran-Iraq War, the failure to respond effectively to egregious human rights violations in the late1980 s and since, and the maintenance of economic sanctions at a crippling human cost, all place an obligation on the international community of states to refocus its efforts in Iraq now towards the protection of human rights and the promotion of human development.’ Lattimer concludes, rather wryly if not portentously, ‘Iraq’s people deserve better from their government, and from the world.’

As someone who comes from the Middle East and who was also deeply involved through the Middle East Council of Churches with those church-based humanitarian and refugee programmes following the 1991 Gulf war, I applaud the goals espoused in the MRG Report. I would equally endorse the MRG statement in its Press Release of 12 February 2003that ‘current US / UK plans for a post-war transition to democracy in Iraq could prove unworkable and fuel ethnic and religious division.’ MRG is also justified to request the deployment of human rights monitors across Iraq during the transitional phase, as much as the need for external peacekeeping forces that have a clear UN mandate. (Mind you, those proactive recommendations pre-suppose that a war has already taken place, and would be equally welcome in other conflict situations such as Israel / Palestine!). However, and with some questions regarding the Report [particularly in relation to the Christian numerical and confessional minorities in Iraq], I would go beyond those abstract and edited goals that might well be compatible and sympathetic with the MRG platform. Instead, I would tend to focus more broadly on the modalities and prerogatives underscoring the way in which democracy is being coercively pasted onto Iraq.

In saying that, I go back to my premise of addressing the root causes of conflicts in order to apply practicable and just solutions! Papering over them with a war that wreaks havoc, supplanting one regime for another, and then walking away, will help neither Iraq nor the Middle Eastern and Gulf regions. With the Arab League having stated its firm opposition to any war, the consequences for the whole region could be grave and spin easily out of control if the aftermath to the war is not thought out carefully. They could include a further dramatic rise in fundamentalism, an increase in terror attacks, a further destabilisation of the ruling elite that by and large support America and an enhancement of the bitterness against Western leaders who are seen as dictating their terms to the indigenous inhabitants. As Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Affairs, stated this week, it would take an extraordinary ‘leap of faith’ to believe that a US-led war could make the Middle East more democratic. Bombing Iraq, added Patten, would not ensure more democracy, prosperity or moderation in the region. I agree with Chris Patten! Indeed, the whole Middle East - including Iraq - was carved out of a defunct and ailing Ottoman Empire and parcelled out by the West after WWI. Is this what the US Republican think tanks and lobbies are recommending to the Chief Executive today? Are we moving forward by walking backward?

In my opinion, it is therefore unethical [and certainly not Christian, whether one uses orthodox, fundamentalist or neo-conservative benchmarks] to visit upon the region a set of cataclysmic changes that are antithetical in their international normative sense and possibly also serious for their misconstruction of International law and the rule of law! On 5 February 2003, a nine-point Statement from European church leaders in Berlin (convened by the World Council of Churches and hosted by the Evangelical Church in Germany in association and consultation with the Conference of European Churches, the National Council of Churches of Christ USA and the Middle East Council of Churches) re-iterated this Christian viewpoint when it expressed a strong and principled ecumenical stand against war.

In the final analysis, though, a war could well fulfil its aims with ‘remarkable’ ease! Then, many of its supporters would possibly describe all those detractors of war as having been lily-livered wimps! Yet, and even if this outcome were achievable, has anybody thought seriously about the post-war scenario? Will we have unleashed another genie that is far too powerful to be drawn tamely back into its bottle again? I truly hope not - although I do suspect the worst!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   12 February


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