Don't call us appeasers for hesitating at war with Iraq
By Rowan Williams
[The Telegraph, UK, Opinion - 5/11/2002]:
The new word for those who have expressed misgivings about military action against Iraq seems to be "appeasers". The ghosts of the 1930s are raised: we have been here before, and we are rightly ashamed about what happened in 1938.
We faced an aggressive foreign power, apparently indifferent to international agreements, pursuing horrific domestic policies, making open threats against neighbours and building up a massive arsenal. Belatedly, we found our collective soul and acted (and suffered) for justice.
It is, prima facie, a strong point, which ought to give some pause to critics of the military option. However, it reveals a twofold problem. One part is straightforwardly political and strategic, the other also involves a deeper moral matter.
On the first aspect: the conflict that we undertook (rightly, I believe) in 1939 belonged to a world in which wars were still fought between clearly defined sovereign states struggling over the control of territory. Both sides could (and did) inflict the tactics of terror on the other by aerial bombardment; but whether in France or Russia or the Western Desert, the heart of the conflict was about promoting or resisting territorial advance.
The fact that the war was finally won in the East by tactics that had nothing to do with this (the atomic bomb) doesn't alter the circumstances in which the war began. It might, though, make us think about why things since 1945 have been so different.
Hiroshima was the start of a process leading to the development of weaponry that made territorial struggles irrelevant. The long-distance delivery of weapons of mass destruction altered the character of war itself. Strategy reorganised itself around a balance of terror, Mutually Assured Destruction.
The post-Cold War period may have seen the dissolution of this strategic assumption; but it has not taken us back to the age when nation states fought territorial campaigns.
Thus initiating military action against Iraq is not a simple matter of honouring clear treaty obligations (as in 1939; the case can be made, though with some awkwardness, for the first Gulf conflict), nor of rebutting direct aggression, territorial or economic or whatever, against ourselves.
It is a pre-emptive containment of a regime that is manifestly brutal and violent, at home and with its neighbours, and that is the enemy of some of our friends and the friend of some of our enemies (though the al-Qa'eda link obstinately eludes intelligence gathering).
Apart from the potential destabilising effect of pre-emptive action on the whole ethos of the society of states - a serious enough matter, if you think of some other localised conflicts, from Jerusalem to Kashmir - the exact calculation of what weaponry might be employed by a cornered Saddam Hussein is uncertain; and so is the retaliation that might then be provoked in the region from its sole nuclear power, Israel.
Hesitation about this scenario is manifestly different from nervous collusion with a threatening local power. The military option sends a destabilising message in a seriously unclear international situation; it invites a cavalier attitude to some of the principles of international law in respect of the justification of armed force.
In 1939, we risked our own lives and safety in resisting a tyranny. In this instance we are more likely to risk the lives of hundreds of thousands in a region that could rapidly spiral down into chaos. We also jeopardise any authority we might have to appeal for restraint in other situations on the basis of international law.
To register concern for the stable future of neighbouring countries with Islamist groups poised to move into any power vacuums, or for the survival of the state of Israel as a real participant in the region's political maturation, or for the possibility of retaining some moral and diplomatic leverage in global security is something that can only be described as appeasement by ignoring the history of the past 55 years.
Some of the moral ground for hesitation already appears in the question of whose lives we risk. And this turns our attention to another difference from 1939. It is true that the Iraqi people are hideously oppressed and that the regime's domestic methods are as abhorrent as those of the Third Reich in the 1930s.
But we went to war to honour the needs of those with whom we were bound by treaty. What is not clear at the present is how far the Iraqi people are clamouring for our intervention.
Far clearer is the regional fear - panic would not be too strong a word - at the prospect of war. Our ally Jordan has suffered intensely from the pressures built up over the years since the first Gulf war; Syria and Egypt have cause to be anxious about radical threat from within in an East-West collision; even in Israel, hawkishness about the immediate situation does not translate into anything like unanimity about attacking Iraq.
The moral issue is whether we can properly say that our account of what the region needs takes precedence over what its inhabitants overall seem to say. If the answer is that it does, there is the classic moral challenge to colonialism of various kinds: we are not the best arbiters of the interests of others when we have interests of our own at stake (we are keenly aware of the matter of oil).
This is not academic; I have had several conversations in recent months with friends from minorities, especially Christian minorities, in the Middle East. None has expressed any tolerance for Saddam Hussein nor any visceral anti-Americanism; all have expressed, with differing degrees of fatalism, their expectation of being recipients of yet more violence from extremists in the wake of any military action.
In 1939, we acted for the sake of those helpless before a military colossus, for the sake of Germany's neighbours. To suggest that we should approach military action with hesitation in the present context is to try to honour those who would be most helpless in a regional conflagration in the Middle East - minorities, refugees, ultimately the ordinary citizens of many states.
We need, God knows, ways of pressurising Iraq towards justice for its own citizens, but the military option could be appallingly costly for them too. Talk of "appeasement" is facile point-scoring.
# Dr Williams is Archbishop of Wales