Send Page To a Friend

The Acid Test

Defeat in Iraq? The essential problem was the victory of irrationality over logical behaviour and we are still living with the consequences

By Claire Spencer

25/01/08 "The Guardian" -- - The kind of irrationality and belief-led approaches that Jonathan Steele's painstaking account depicts have much in common with a book by another contributor to the Guardian, Francis Wheen. In How Mumbo-Jumbo conquered the world: A Short History of Modern Delusions, published in 2004, Wheen charts the widespread retreat in modern politics and culture from the hard-won achievements of the Age of Enlightenment. In a series of amusing, yet chilling accounts, Wheen describes how superstition and an appeal to the occult have dominated the decision-making processes of trans-Atlantic policy-makers since the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

Tarot cards and personal soothsayers have since been replaced by the more mainstream, and publicly acceptable, religious convictions of the authors of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Yet the essential problem - of irrationality driving their behaviour - remains. Misconstrued ventures such as Iraq were almost entirely devoid of a hard-nosed assessment of the facts as a necessary precursor to the formulation of realistic and feasible action linked to achievable goals. Perhaps worse, in the years since 2003, level headed logic has continued to play a secondary role in the all-too-limited attempts to challenge and correct the past and continuing delusions that Wheen and Steele describe. We are still cajoled by the language of fanaticism and barbarism pervading the planet, as though none of these forces is rooted in any kind of locally-determined reality.

Until the day he left office, Tony Blair could see no inconsistency in reaffirming his personal belief that he had done, and had continued to do the "right thing" in Iraq whilst studiously avoiding any casual link with the very real and human consequences of having chosen to act on that belief. Interviewers probing him about Iraq have dwelled far more on his motivations than on tackling the much more critical question of his public duty to accept and assume responsibility for his actions, however well-intentioned. If good intentions have a habit of paving the path to hell, then in Iraq, the very fact that the onset and conduct of the war continue to be debated in ideological and motivational terms should tell us everything we need to know about likely future successes.

Local opinion polls, snippets of information about localised security situations and opinion-based debates about the effects of the "surge" tell us little about what we really need to have at our finger-tips to assess the long-term structural challenges facing the Iraqi state and people. The reality is that the situation is so patchy and falsified by the US presence, we probably just don't know. Yet our leaders should and could have paused to reflect in advance of pulling the genie out of the bottle and the lid off the pressure cooker. Those, like Britain, with a wealth of colonial experiences to draw on know that there are basic psychological and practical consequences to occupying rather than "liberating and leaving" a subject people. As a sub-set of US priorities, British strategy has been so confused, and abstractly presented, that neither the occupation, nor the current "leaving" has been undertaken with anything like the conviction and resources of the colonial era.

For the sake of argument, I am prepared to accept - and indeed, to use their own language, believe - that Tony Blair, George W Bush and the much-derided neocons all did and do believe what they tell us they believe and that their intentions were, and are, entirely honourable. To accept alternative explanations, such as US schemes to control both the Middle East's oil and its future political direction through the much-vaunted 14 residual military bases in Iraq, would, to be credible, require significantly more evidence of realising these goals than is currently available.

The point is, why should the rest of us debate Iraq in terms of intentions, convictions and abstract notions of promoting freedom and democracy? The acid test of international affairs, perhaps especially in the Middle East, is in the tangible outcomes of policy, and so far - surge or no surge - the evidence is not promising. Democracy and freedom are only as good as their sustainability beyond elections and the context within which democratic culture and practice can grow. While the main distorting factor of US forces remains in place, it is too soon to tell whether either of these trends is taking root or whether, crucially, the economy can function within an enforceable and accepted system of laws, rather than outside as currently.

Over the longer term, the larger questions raised by Iraq remain. As we face yet more ideologically-driven debate about Iran, the central question is how far and entrenched is this retreat from logic in the pursuit and practice of US and UK foreign policy? Are we all going to stand by while another set of Manechean visions is paraded before us in the form of the struggles between freedom and despotism, moderates and radicals, global jihadi-terrorist networks and pro-Western freedom fighters?

The forces of good and evil may well be out there somewhere, but, as abstract motivating forces they are irrelevant to the real nitty-gritty of what makes one set of individuals behave in certain ways under certain conditions, and another react and counter-react to the risks and opportunities that surround them. It is time, in other words, to mount a reasoned defence of how the Middle East became what it is today. If, like Jonathan Steele, we dissect the history, it is clear that much of what goes on is not as irrational and divorced from local realities as our leaders' belief-systems have all but hoodwinked us into believing too.

To read the three extracts from the book click here, here and here.

Click on "comments" below to read or post comments

  Comment (0)

Comment Guidelines
Be succinct, constructive and relevant to the story. We encourage engaging, diverse and meaningful commentary. Do not include personal information such as names, addresses, phone numbers and emails. Comments falling outside our guidelines – those including personal attacks and profanity – are not permitted.
See our complete Comment Policy and use this link to notify us if you have concerns about a comment. We’ll promptly review and remove any inappropriate postings.

Send Page To a Friend

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information ClearingHouse endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)


Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon

 Sign up for our Daily Email Newsletter

  Amazon Honor System