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Freedom’s War

Matthew Ryan and Christopher Scanlon

When will the war end? In Arena Magazine No. 75, Ghassan Hage described ‘warring societies’ as those ‘permanently geared towards war’. Such a society ceases to be structured around the distribution of, or aspiration towards the ‘good life’: freedom, security, community. Instead, its economy and culture are pervaded by the reproduction of a ‘permanent state of war’. In such a society, war becomes central, normalised and continuous rather than an extreme and aberrant event. Rather than defending the good life, war impresses itself onto the society, becoming a mode of life itself.

With the public being continually prepared by governments for the prospect of a new war, whether it be with Iran or China against Taiwan, it is necessary to reflect on our inching towards a warring society. Two years into the war in Iraq, it is now time to review its effects in the Middle East, how it conditions future conflicts elsewhere in the world and the extent to which it sets us in train for continuous conflict.

Those who supported the invasion should now ask themselves how comfortable they feel about expansion of the war into Iran. The invasion of Afghanistan was easily justified by the September 11 attacks and provided a kind of slipstream impetus for the war in Iraq. Now, with the ‘success’ of the Iraqi elections, the US can surely call on those supporters again in the effort to spread freedom further still. Then there is the signal state of unfreedom in North Korea. Does the threat of global war deter the supporters of the present war from conflict in North Korea or Taiwan? And if Venezuela should threaten the supply of oil, on which the march of freedom depends, then a military excursion into Latin America would, of course, be justifiable for those who love freedom …

While the supporters of the war are considering the prospect of continuous conflict elsewhere, they might look to changes at home. The calm public discussion of the fine legal points regarding detention without trial, the occasions for torture and the extension of state powers of surveillance and coercion are signs of the inverted relation to the good life characteristic of a warring society. Pro-war liberals should consider the contradictions of exporting liberal democracy as domestic freedoms are dismantled. Rather than leaving freedom as a nebulous and all-purpose justification, it is time to examine the difficult relation between war and freedom.

A moment’s reflection was sufficient — or should have been sufficient — to see that the WMD threat, the September 11 connection and the threats posed by ‘failed states’ were always hopelessly feeble reasons for war. The only defensible reason for waging a war like that in Iraq was the liberation of Saddam Hussein’s victims, the Iraqi people. And, one ought to admit, there are conditions under which war could be justified. This is to distance oneself from the absolutist pacifist position, which holds that there are no conditions under which war is permissible. In a circumstance where a people is at risk of annihilation — as was the case of the Jews in the late 1930s or Cambodia’s killing fields — to do nothing would be morally indefensible. Granted the other reasons for war — access to oil and geo-strategic advantage — the question arises: can the war be justified on the grounds that it leads to the liberation of a people from a dictatorship?

On these grounds, Iraq doesn’t bear up under close scrutiny. The only group that came close to this situation in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were the Kurds, and, as has been pointed out by more than one commentator, the current ‘liberators’ of Iraq were content to abandon them when they were most at risk.

Freedom remains the single compelling justification for war. But what is freedom in Iraq? Certainly, for a country like the United States, which proclaims itself a republic, one might have expected republican notions of freedom to have some sway. Republicanism, after all, is founded on the idea of freedom as non-domination, which, according to republican thinkers, differs from liberal notions of freedom. Where liberals tend to see freedom as the absence of interference from others, republicans hold that intervention is permissible so long as it is not arbitrary and does not lead to a situation where the target of such intervention is deprived of acting otherwise or has no avenues of recourse.

While Saddam’s Iraq called itself a republic and comprehensively failed to come anywhere near republican standards of freedom, the freedom now being pushed out across Iraq is hardly an exemplary case either. As John Hinkson writes in this issue, this form of freedom is conceived within the logic of the postodern market, a freedom that admits of no legitimate constraints, even those that underpin communal life. Complementing this analysis, Andrew Lowenthal shows the role of Australian companies in this market. To have any credibility, proponents of the war need to put some daylight between their own espousal of freedom of the Iraqi people and the crass opportunism that is being perpetrated in their name.

Beyond Iraq, in the region, a ripple of freedom and democracy is represented as an effect of the war. The approach of a Lebanon free of Syrian control, a Palestine inching towards its state and peace with Israel, the promise of fair elections in Egypt, the beginnings of pro-women reforms in Saudi Arabia … all these desirable prospects are being sheeted home to the invasion of Iraq. Of course, these events had their own more local catalysts, particularly the deaths of Yassar Arafat and Rafik al-Hariri. But even if it is only true in part that the war in Iraq is the agent of freedom, then those of us who opposed the war need to clarify the basis of our opposition.

Beyond the gloating of the supporters of the war, who think themselves vindicated, we need to consider the rapid dissipation of the anti-war groundswell. Is it only the implacable fact of the war — the US, British and Australian governments’ undaunted enthusiasm for it — that has foundered this peace movement? Or did the unaddressed questions of what justifies war, engulfed by our proper revulsion at the thought of war, weaken the movement? These questions need to be debated so that the open-ended state of war that stretches before us can be opposed.

Rather than attempting to expose the muddied motives of the US, a starting point in a clarification of the anti-war position would be a consideration of the arguments of the pro-war Left. Albert Langer has argued that the war in Iraq is justifiable as a genuine ‘revolutionary war of liberation’, an anti-medievalist fight that a real Left would get behind but the ‘pseudo-Left’ recoiled from.

If we can step past the cavalier rhetoric — ‘Bush knows that modernity grows out of the barrel of a gun’ — then we might consider this position. The pro-war Left welcomed Bush’s move away from the policy of containment, which saw stability in the Middle East as the key goal. Where stability is at best authoritarianism and at worst dictatorship, there is something to be said for not maintaining the status quo. Liberal democracy is desirable in place of dictatorship and, presumably for Left supporters of the war, a stepping-stone to a more radical liberation. If it takes a war initiated by a superpower in neo-conservative mode to get there, then so be it.

The move from ‘failed state’ to ‘client state’ is not a justification for war argued from the notion of freedom. It is a pragmatic geopolitical argument, which is a closer fit with the aspirations of a neo-liberal empire. The ‘failed state’ argument should be answered with a truly international intervention, rather than with an occupying power. If the UN has failed in this role in the past, then the project should be to enable that flawed organisation rather than side with an expansionist adventure. For the US, it seems that a functioning state, rather than a free one, is enough, as the list of those it includes amongst its friends — Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia — shows.

The problem with the analysis offered by the pro-war Left — aside from the whiff of ‘the worse it gets, the better it is’ — is that it places its hopes in the establishment of liberal democratic forms, which have proven fairly impervious to radical transformation. Why would a US-installed electoral system, functioning in an oil-rich country administered by a re-established and extensive middle class, go on to produce a socialist democracy? Why would the US allow this to happen after expending so much of itself? It is more likely that the invasion of Iraq was carried out to ensure a post-Saddam Iraq was directed away from the type of society that would reject both its local travesty of republicanism and the neo-liberal version of freedom.

For examples of more radical democratic experiments, set into action without the assistance of a modernising invader, the pro-war Left might look to Latin America. No marines helped Paraguay to depose Stroessner. In Brazil and Argentina, Lula and Kirschner are attempting to roll back the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 90s. Venezuela is now an apt counter-image to Iraq, where Chavez is using oil wealth to achieve some autonomy in the global arena and to dismantle internal racial and class divisions. Condaleeza Rice has called Chavez a ‘negative force’ in Latin America. This ominous comment should draw the attention of the pro-war Left to the broad spectrum of those the US considers the enemies of freedom.

Some supporters of the war still cling to the possibility of WMDs, or the machinery for producing them, being hidden in Iraq or having been recently removed. Others have already distanced themselves from the WMD argument with the rationale of fragmentary or faulty intelligence. The rest of us accept that soldiers and Iraqi civilians were put in harm’s way in the cause of lies. Aside from the affront to the basic liberal value of the individual freely choosing their fate on the basis of clear information, such mendacity causes wider damage in the democracies of the nations who profess to be exporting a purer form of the idea. Those liberals who argued for the war, like Pamela Bone, should be troubled by this betrayal. It has normalised war and diminished the value of freedom. The warring society takes us further still from imagining alternative ways of living that would have co-operation as the primary principle rather than the market. The war in Iraq is the deadly meeting point of ‘freedom’ as market primacy and ‘freedom’ as a pure abstraction, only invoked when it needs defending.

Neither liberal nor republican freedoms can be developed in a democracy that is geared towards war. To dismantle the warring society, the anti-war movement must widen its scope and be ready to restore freedom and truth by setting out when it is right to kill or die for them. To put war in its place, so that no-one will be condemned to live in its state.