With continued carnage in Iraq, and President Bush’s policy repudiated by both voters and legislature, it’s an odd time for anyone to suggest that the left should be ashamed of having opposed the war.

Yet that’s the position put by Julie Szego in today’s Age — supporting the argument of British journalist Nick Cohen, in his book What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way.

As a piece of context-dropping, this can hardly be surpassed. Because Saddam’s regime was evil — which no-one on the left disputes — therefore any means at all for removing it should be supported, including tearing up the international rule book and setting off a bloody civil war.

The pragmatic consequences of the invasion have been so disastrous that we risk forgetting that the case against it was not just pragmatic, but principled. Some opponents of the war thought Iraq would be better off without Saddam (I was one), others thought it would be worse. But all agreed that the open repudiation of international law would make the world a more dangerous place.

Szego worries that there were no mass demonstrations against Saddam’s atrocities, or against the Taliban. But people don’t demonstrate against what someone on the other side of the world is doing: they demonstrate because of something that affects them, such as decisions their own government is taking. The debate wasn’t about Iraq, it was about us.

Although it would be nice if western populations were more engaged with the rest of the world, the reality is that political debate is about our own politics, not someone else’s. Hence the worth of the US alliance “tends to be debated more furiously than the merits of US policy itself”. Yes, of course — what would you expect?

We’re told that “Whether post-Saddam Iraq might have evolved differently had liberals engaged with the cause, we will never know.” In reality, we do know: it would have made zero difference, because the Bush administration wasn’t interested in engaging with liberal opinion. It was on a crusade.

Szego has no account of just how the left could have “committed to saving Iraqis from the mess of America’s making.” Perhaps by raising their own armies and sending them in to fight both the Americans and the “resistance”? The US only wanted help on its own terms, and today’s Iraq is the unpleasant result.

As Szego says, “Cohen’s thesis has been attacked by some as simplistic and a stubborn denial about the Iraq misadventure.” I wonder why.

Peter Fray

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