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How to get rid of dictators

July 5, 2007

Saddam Hussein was a monster. But the Anglo-American war to get rid of him has made things worse for Iraqis. Here’s my lesson in liberal interventionism to confused so-called social democratic states:

Like most wars, this one was not really about Saddam, or his dictatorship, or bringing democracy to Iraqis. I accept that there was probably an element of personal vendetta from Bush’s side.

It’s a war for political leverage in a volatile part of the world, and a war for increasingly valuable resources. The Iraqi people – who suffered so much under Saddam – have become human punchbags as rival gangs of thugs and cowboys duke it out in Baghdad’s dusty streets.

This is not a story about noble Allied soldiers bringing peace, democracy and Starbucks to the benighted savages of the Middle East. It is also not a story about a brave insurgency fighting a just war against Crusader aggression.

This is a Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy’s novel torches Cowboys and Indians mythology and paints an Old West where all sides have been so brutalised that blood is their currency and violence the only language they speak.

This is what we are seeing in Iraq, and this is what leads to abuses like Abu Ghraib and atrocities like Al Hamira.

This war was not really about bringing democracy to Iraq. If it were, there are established ways of doing it: support domestic opposition while isolating the offending regime, as happened in South Africa.

You can’t impose democracy by force. You can only support democratic forces and wait. It’s a long, slow and painful process, but it’s the only way to a just peace.

Here’s how you do it:

Grant political asylum to all dissidents. Assist them, financially and diplomatically, to set up bases in exile, with newspapers, radio stations and websites.

Assist all dissidents – not only the ones who promise to give you access to oil wells after they come to power. Encourage dissidents to communicate with each other, and set up a united front, a government in exile.

Give them a seat at the UN.

Support domestic opposition, practically and material. Give them the support they say they need, and don’t use it to manipulate them. Especially support trade unions, which are a democratising force powerful enough to shut down whole economies.

Support religious groups, women’s groups and students groups. Build international solidarity campaigns.

Next, isolate the offending regime. Cut off their credit and don’t allow members of the regime access to your country. Don’t buy their products, and especially don’t sell them arms.

Other than this, do not intervene. It is up to the people of the country to decide, and fight for, their liberation – with support and encouragement from outside.

Obviously, it’s never that simple: what do you do in the case of a massacre, or any other kind of belligerent behaviour on the part of the offending regime? You need to get in there and save lives, right?

Storming in with troops is generally a bad idea. Even citizens who are not fond of the regime find it offensive to see foreign boots on their soil.

The only time to go in with troops is when there is a strong, unambiguous call to do so from the citizens of the country, through established channels. In this instance, the response must be rapid, and principled: the aim is to save lives, and de-escalate the situation, not provoke an all out war.

This is simple, and policy makers know it. Four years down the line, supporters of the war need to stop pretending it had anything to do with peace and democracy and admit they were just after a quick buck.

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