Magazine article The Spectator

We Are Only Obeying Orders

Magazine article The Spectator

We Are Only Obeying Orders

Article excerpt

IF you had been in Trafalgar Square on Monday at noon, you would have seen a puzzling sight. A lot of people wearing black staged a `die-in' to protest against the war with Iraq. Iraq? Surely the war with Iraq took place ages ago, the last time a Bush was president. In fact, unbeknown to the majority of the British public, a lowlevel war has continued almost unabated for the past ten years.

In the last 20 months, ever since the United States and Britain launched a blitzkrieg on Iraqi targets following the collapse of the arms inspection mission, a total of 21,600 US and British planes have flown into Iraqi airspace, dropping bombs or firing missiles on average once every three days. The British have dropped 81 tons of bombs (150 weapons), a mere fraction of the overall amount. The total number of sorties flown in the decade since the end of the Gulf War is some 280,000. Between December 1998 and June 2000 the death toll from these attacks reached 294: one Iraqi killed every other day, with almost 1,000 wounded, the most notorious occasion being last year when 140 sheep and a family of shepherds were blown to kingdom come by one of our smart missiles.

When you ask the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office to explain what is going on, the usual bromides are served up: the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, insists that the bombing campaign in Iraq is `essentially based on the overwhelming humanitarian necessity of protecting people on the ground', i.e., Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. One might have thought that the notion of a humanitarian bomb had taken something of a knock last spring. How do you `protect' people by bombing them? How can you prevent a policeman committing a `human-rights abuse' from a height of 20,000 feet? If the reason for patrolling the southern no-fly zone is really to protect Shiites, what about the three million Shiites in Baghdad itself, over which our planes do not fly? What about the 50 per cent of the Iraqi population which is Shia in the unpatrolled middle of the country? Why are we leaving them to Saddam's tender mercies and `protecting' only the ones in the south?

The real reason why we are bombing Iraq, of course, is that the Americans tell us to. The French having withdrawn from the anti-Iraq coalition in December 1998, leaving only the British and the Americans in the previously multinational allied coalition of 1991, Iraq now epitomises the unwritten but dominant axiom upon which British foreign policy has rested for the last decade: whatever the Americans do, we do. This constant has remained in place - indeed, it may even have grown stronger - since the old imperatives of the Cold War for an Atlantic Schulterschluss disappeared. Iraq is only one in a string of British interventions in the last decade which are the military equivalent of asking `How high?' in answer to the Americans' `Jump!' Whether it is over the latest plan for a US National Missile Defence system (a dime to a dollar Britain ends up supporting this), the Balkans, or bombing bedouins, Britain's national vocation now seems to be Distinguished Purveyor of Fine Fig-Leaves for Washington's military escapades. We who habitually snigger at the French for being poodles to the Germans look not entirely unlike lapdogs ourselves. Remember that both the government and opposition applauded Bill Clinton when he bombed a pill factory in Sudan to distract attention from his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky.

At first sight, it seems surprising that the Left should have continued a policy usually associated with the Right. But if the key political phenomenon of the last eight years has been the enthusiasm with which the previously anti-American Left has embraced the United States, this change is not the result of any conversions by our own left-liberals but, instead, an indication of the seismic shift in America's own approach to the world.

This change in American policy can be named in a single word: globalism. …

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