The Morality of a Gulf War (Nov. 1990)

The Morality of a Gulf War

By Gwydion M. Williams

The war with Iraq was imminent at the time this article was written.

The Argentinians invaded the Falklands because they had good reason to think that they would get away with it. There may indeed have been a faction within the Foreign Office that would have been happy to see them get away with it. They would have been allowed to profit from their aggression – get clean away with seizing British territory and imposing their rule on British citizens – had they only been wise enough to make peace on the terms that were on offer before the fighting started.

The Iraqis invaded Kuwait in the belief that the rest of the world would not mind too much, and certainly would not do anything effective. There may indeed have been a faction in the American State Department that would have been happy to let them get away with it. There was certainly no great anger among, neighbouring countries at the ousting of the ruling al-Sabah family of Kuwait, the J. R. Ewings of the Arab world. There was a widespread feeling that something should be done to get the Iraqis out again. But what then happened constituted a sudden and arbitrary change in the way such matters are handled.

In the case of the Falklands, there was swift agreement in Britain that something must be done, if the Argentines would not withdraw on reasonable terms. In fact a quite generous offer was made to the Argentines, one that could have been accepted with no loss of national prestige. There is some argument about whether or not all diplomatic options had been exhausted at the time armed conflict began. But certainly, the Argentines had been given an acceptable way out, and had chosen to refuse it.

The Iraqis have been offered nothing. Bush and Thatcher insist that there can be no negotiations until Iraq pulls out of Kuwait. A negotiated withdrawal might well be possible, with Iraq having its war-debts written off and being given a couple of islands that Kuwait holds but does not need, and which may very well be rightfully Iraqi anyway. Were such an offer to be made to Iraq, and were it then refused, then it would at least be clear that all reasonable alternatives to war had been tried and had failed. But Bush and Thatcher have ruled out any such reasonable offer. First Iraq must give up all that it has. Then it will be told if it is to be given some compensation; or to have fresh demands imposed upon it.

It is totally impossible for Saddam Hussein to accept the Bush-Thatcher offer. To accept it would leave him worse off than when he started, since in the interim he has made peace with Iran on rather poor terms. Were he to do it, the population of Iraq and of the whole Arab world would condemn him as a coward and a traitor. His regime would certainly be overthrown. Given the nature of Iraqi politics, that would mean him being shot, at the very least.

Whatever his other faults, Saddam Hussein is neither a fool nor a coward. He might accept a negotiated withdrawal from Kuwait. He will never allow himself to be ordered out by the majestic presence of America and Britain and their allies. To go down fighting would be much more dignified. To defy Bush and Thatcher gives him at least a sporting chance of survival.

Moreover, while nothing but humiliating retreat is on offer, it is very unlikely that Saddam Hussein will be overthrown. Who wants to take the enormous risks of overthrowing a ruthless strong and well-entrenched dictator, just for the privilege of withdrawing unilaterally from land that most Iraqis sincerely believe to be part of Iraq, with no better future prospects than additional demands for compensation, debt repayment and a reduction of Iraq’s armed forces to whatever level America may choose to deem safe?

Kinnock and the Labour Party should be protesting at British troops being asked to fight in a war that is entirely avoidable. They should say something like ‘yes, by all means reward Iraq for its aggression, if this saves the lives of tens of thousands on both sides, if it ends the economic disruption being caused by the threat of war, if it allows the vast numbers of very poor people who came to the Gulf as migrant labourers to get on with their lives again’.

It is also worth mentioning that Thatcher was happy to reward China with the whole of Hong Kong, with all of its enterprising and hard-working people, most of whom had fled from the very regime they are being handed back to, sometimes at very great personal risk. China’s claim to Hong Kong was really no better than Iraq’s claim to · Kuwait – the lease on the bulk of the territory was from Imperial China, which vanished even before the Turkish Ottoman Empire that once ruled Kuwait. There was no legal obligation to turn the place over to the corrupt repressive ex-Leninist regime in Peking – other arrangements were possible, including independence. But there was and still is a very strong practical reason for giving Peking what it asked for – Peking has the power to take it anyway. In the case of Hong Kong, aggression was rewarded and is still being rewarded, simply because no one feels like taking on the enormous power of the Peking regime for the sake of the rights of the Hong Kong people.

Kuwait was not a very deserving case. It simply happened to be sitting on some valuable oil fields, and its people used this wealth to import foreign workers do all the work they either could not do or did not care to do. Some of the poor Third-World workers were treated more or less as slaves. None of them were treated very well, unless they had strong governments backing them. Kuwaitis were wealth-consumers, whereas the people of Hong Kong were genuine examples of the sort of hard-working entrepreneurial wealth-creators that Thatcher claims to love. Thatcher’s moral position is actually very weak, and could easily be destroyed given a sustained assault from Labour in the House of Commons.

I fear however that this will not happen. Kinnock seeks to back both horses – rake a share of the credit if the operation succeeds, or dump all the blame on Thatcher if it goes wrong. But people know that this is what he’s up to. Labour has lacked a creditable alternative view of the matter. The Bevin Society has tried to provide one, but we have been listened to by only a few people. Protests against the Western build-up in the Gulf have almost all come from people who would be expected in any case to protest about almost anything the British or American armed forces did. In Britain, only Ted Heath has proved an exception.

By and large, the protests have come from the same people who were objecting to Britain being in NATO. But given that the original objectives of NATO were unexpectedly achieved in 1989, the credibility of this whole political school is rather low. The Left could and should have distinguished between legitimate self-defence, as expressed through NATO, and more questionable overseas ventures to places where Western troops probably had no business to be.

The worst and least realistic are the Trotskyists. I saw the Socialists Workers Party spoil what was meant to be a broad-front protest, by dishing out vast numbers of placards with their name at the top, so that the event was made to seem their work. Several people who realised what was happening left in disgust.

Trotskyists and the like look for some alternative to the actual options. Calling for ‘Arab revolution’ is a waste of time – that possibility no longer exists. There was a successful Marxist and anti-colonial revolt in South Yemen, and a highly serious Marxist guerrilla movement in Muscat and Oman. The latter was defeated back in the 1970s, with covert British intervention playing a large role. There were a few protest marches in this country, which the Trotskyists noticeably failed to join. The guerrillas were after all pro-Chinese, from a ‘Stalinist’ tradition – perhaps the number of successful ‘Stalinist’ guerrillas was getting embarrassing, given the total lack of anything similar from the Trotskyist side. The Trots didn’t want yet another Stalinist success. Anyway, in the long run the guerrillas of Muscat and Oman failed, and even South Yemen has dropped Marxism in favour of a union with North Yemen.

Iraqi secular nationalism is the best way forward for Iraq, and a good model for other Arab states to follow. Given that the left has failed or been crushed, it offers the best means for Arabs to become part of the modem world. Destroying the Iraqi Ba’ath party will not in the long run save the corrupt oil states of the Gulf, any more than destroying secular nationalism in Iran back in the 1950s saved the Shah’s corrupt rule. What is much more likely is precisely another Iran, a development of those societies through Islamic extremism. What is totally impossible is that Arabs should remain apolitical under traditional rulers, while the world is rapidly developing around them. Traditional Islamic and Arab culture was tolerant of foreign ways, only in so far as they thought they didn’t matter once direct colonial rule had ended. The Islamic extremists understand much better that these things do matter, and are fighting a rearguard action to stop the Islamic way of life being adjusted to the developing world norm.

In so far as Bush and Thatcher have a coherent aim, it does seem , to be precisely that Arabs should remain apolitical under traditional rulers, while the world is rapidly developing around them. It is certainly the aim of Saudi Arabia. The very name is an anachronism – it means approximately ‘that part of the Arabian Peninsula that belongs to the House of Saud’. (It’s as if the UK were officially known as ‘the Saxe-Coburg dominions in the British Isles’.) Such a set-up might last if kept in strict isolation – but despite all the restrictions the Saudi government imposes, there is continuous and growing contact with the rest of the world, and people see that the traditional way of life is not the only possibility.

Given that this aim is impossible, destroying the Iraqi Ba’aths doesn’t even make sense from a right-wing capitalist point of view. If Bush and Thatcher do succeed in their war aims, they will have sown the wind. If this happens, then over the next decade or so all of us will be reaping the whirlwind.

If it comes to war, it seems very likely that there will be massive world-wide terrorism, and especially terrorist attacks on highly vulnerable oil installations. It would in fact be an error on Saddam Hussein’s part to encourage or even permit such terrorism, but on the basis of his past record it is an error that he is very likely to make.

The general rule of terrorism, which the Arabs never seem to have grasped, is that terrorism directed against a society that you have no intention of trying to conquer or rule is usually counter-productive. Hanoi seems to have understood this rule very well during the Vietnam War – terror was used within South Vietnam, and used very effectively, but was never exported to the United States. They undoubtedly had the capacity for such action, including many American sympathizers, some of whom later went in for terrorism on their own account. But Hanoi’s whole strategy was to persuade America to dump its Vietnamese allies and go home, which is what it eventually did. If the war had been extended to America itself, then this might have mobilised the whole society to stand together and win. It was after all the attack on Pearl Harbour, highly profitable for the Japanese in the short run, that got Americans united to fight and win a war that many of them hadn’t wanted to get involved in. And it was German U-boats sinking America ships that helped to bring them into World War One.

A similar thing happened in Britain after the Birmingham pub bombings – the terrorist attack on ordinary Britons for which the ‘Birmingham Six’ were jailed, probably wrongly. There was a remarkable wave of anti-IRA feeling at that time, which threatened to spill over into generalised anti-Irish feeling. The subsequent strategy of the IRA suggests that they know Just how dangerous it would be to attack the British public, whose enthusiasm for war actually grew in the face of the earlier and much more drastic terror-bombing by the German airforce during World War Two. And it has been argued that the subsequent British and American terror-bombing against German cities had a lot to do with the determined resistance that the Germans put up even after the war had clearly been lost.

As I write, a Gulf War is expected to begin some time in mid-December. If this happens, and if the Iraqis prove that they can not be dislodged without a very high cost in British and American lives, then the present peace movements are likely to grow, leading to some sort of peace and withdrawal. But if the war is accompanied by world-wide terrorism, then public opinion is much more likely to move the other way – towards a fight to the finish, no matter what the cost.


[The war actually went well in the short term.  I discuss this in an article in Issue 22.]


This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at