The different notions of pre-empting war

I KNOW how to tell you to keep healthy: don’t smoke, exercise every day, but if you ignore my advice, I have no idea how to do surgery on your arteries. I think I knew how to avoid war in Iraq and how to keep Saddam Hussein boxed in and weak militarily without hurting the innocents too much. But now that George W. Bush and Tony Blair have turned Iraq upside down with their single-minded pursuit of the chimera of weapons of mass destruction, I have very few ideas on how to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Mon 2 Aug 2004, 10:02 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:53 AM

Does this make me a useless political voyeur? I refuse to apologise. It is Bush and Blair who have lost their credibility in the Middle East, and for the world’s next big crisis, not my side. When, like Matilda, they next shout ‘fire, fire’, many of us will say, “be quiet, you little liar”. And I am happy to stay in my old position - a supporter of pre-emption, long before Bush and Blair re-tooled the word.

I believe in getting into problems before they become unmanageable. Back in 1988, I was lambasted on the BBC by the Iraqi ambassador for writing in the .International Herald Tribune that Saddam Hussein was torturing the children of his political opponents and the West should stop providing him with arms. Many have argued convincingly that the West helped Saddam develop his ruthless, pugnacious character by supporting Iraq in its war with Iran and turning a blind eye when he gassed the Kurds.

So, why now should I be pushed by Bush-Blair and their supporters to choose between military intervention and inaction? I haven’t found any clips with critical remarks that Bush made on Iraq in the late 1980s. And today, I feel it’s more me than them who is fighting to preserve my country’s and my alliance’s (Yes, I support the idea of Nato) credibility for another day.

“If government decisions to intervene are motivated by the quest for justice, why do they allow situations to deteriorate to such unspeakable injustice?” Pierre SanŽ, the former head of Amnesty International, once asked. The Nato governments which bombed Belgrade are the same governments which were willing to deal with Slobodan Milosevic’s government during the break-up of the original Yugoslavia and who were unwilling to address repeated warnings about the growing human rights crisis in Kosovo. As long ago as 1993, Amnesty was arguing in public: “If action is not taken soon to break the cycle of unchecked abuses and escalating tensions in Kosovo, the world may find itself staring impotently at a new conflagration.”

A year before the genocide in Rwanda, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions warned of what was to come. The US, supported by Britain, squashed moves in the UN Security Council to pre-empt the situation by beefing up the small UN contingent there. Today, as parts of Sudan become engulfed once again by vicious mass terrorism of the worst kind, the big powers are contemptibly lethargic. Ingvar Carlsson, the former Swedish prime minister, who was commissioned by the UN to unravel what went wrong at the time of Rwanda told me his one-line conclusion: “Rwanda had no oil.” (Sudan does, but it is not in the big league.)

The problem is rarely lack of early warning. It is lack of early action compounded with tragic early mistakes. Israel/Palestine would not be the seething cauldron it is today if the British government of Lloyd George had not ‘twice promised’ the land to both Jew and Arab. Yugoslavia would never have exploded if the European Union had dangled before the country’s movers and shakers the opportunity for entry, as they belatedly do today with the country’s broken parts. Iran would not now be developing nuclear weapons if the US had not overdone it with the hostage crisis and had sought earnestly and systematically to heal the breach once a partial parliamentary democracy was introduced fifteen years ago. North Korea would not today be improving its nuclear weapons’ capability if the Republicans in Congress hadn’t undermined the Clinton/Carter deal on economic aid in return for a plutonium freeze.

Bush-Blair are now chiding Kofi Annan and the UN for moving into Iraq in a less than full-hearted way. I think we can see through this game. We so-called ‘Venuses’ will be left holding the howling, hungry baby whilst its Martian father makes off through the back door. The trouble is that we, the more ‘feminine’ part of the world of realpolitik, find it hard to say ‘no’ when a crisis is really upon us, even if it’s not of our making. Perhaps, we should do our bit to try some improvised surgery. We should force ourselves to come up with some ideas.

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