Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Mr Bremer, I presume

The Vast Right Conspiracy is developing a new spin point in favour of the Iraq war. It appears in a column by ex-Wall Street Journal hack Amity Shlaes, who now has a forum for VRC spinning in the normally sensible Financial Times. The article, for which those clever FT types want money from us to read it, is summarised by its headline: Slavery's link to the war on terror (3 November). There is a bit of side-spin in the headline, which of course equates the war in Iraq with the war on terror -- and thus implicitly links Saddam and 9/11. But let's leave that aside and describe the main point, which equates the unilateral action of the US in Iraq as part of a broader agenda, with Britain's anti-slavery crusade of the early-to-mid 19th century, which led Britain to unilaterally intercept and (if necessary) battle slave ships. For Amity, this is unilateral action in pursuit of a just and moral cause, initially meeting the disapproval and outright hostility of Britain's allies. Just like Iraq!

Now the emergence of this spin point is a creative response to the collapse of the previous one, in which the VRC was trying to compare post-war Iraq to post-war Germany. Unfortunately, they had some of the minor details, like er... the year in which the Marshall Plan was implemented, wrong. Hence the more challenging 19th century analogy.

It's going to take better historians than we are to disentangle this comparison, but some points are already evident. Many will simply be offended by putting the Abolitionist veneer on the war in Iraq. Furthermore, it's going to be difficult to argue that the Britain's anti-slavery efforts reflected a new, more moral outlook on the world -- even as Britain battled slave traders in the 1830s, its past and current policies in Ireland were just a decade away from producing the catastrophe of the Famine. And its future scramble for Africa would create conditions of servitude for black Africans not a whole lot different than they would have faced as slaves in the New World. However, it is fair to note, as historian Niall Ferguson has discussed in Empire, that British foreign policy in the 19th century did indeed have an occasional pesky moral strain, represented both in the battle against slavery and the well-intentioned, if sometimes paternalistic, attempts of Christian missionaries to improve the lives of ordinary Africans. People like Dr. Livingston and William Wilberforce, the Abolitionist.

But where does that put the Iraq war? It requires a comparison of Quakers with neoconservatives, it treads into the question of whether the war in Iraq actually has supposed Christian motivations --and given all the bad things that happened even during this moral period of British foreign policy, is not much grounds for optimism about the future.

No comments: