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Vox populi and the Iraq invasion

india Updated: Jun 05, 2007 15:06 IST
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A few months before America and Britain invaded Iraq, my colleague Aditya Sinha had an idea. In those days, Aditya was editor of the Sunday HT — he has since moved up in the world and become Editor-in-chief of the New Indian Express — and he was keen to commission an opinion poll for the paper.

At that stage, nobody had polled the Indian people about our attitude to the US invasion of Iraq, and many journos — hard as this is to believe now — thought that there might be public support for military action.

The reasons seemed self-evident then. Memories of 9/11 were still fresh. The invasion of Afghanistan had been popular. There was a pro-American mood in India. The first Gulf War had evoked no sympathy for Saddam Hussein among most Indians. The NDA was in power and Hindutva sentiment was at a height. Which Hindu, many know-alls argued, would support a Muslim military dictator against America? Even the central government was humming and hawing about criticising the planned invasion and one view was that India might even send troops (under a UN mandate) to fight in Iraq. (Which we nearly did.)

When the results of Aditya’s poll came in, they revealed how wrong journos (and those in government) had been about the public mood. I forget the exact figures now but an overwhelming majority of Indians were bitterly opposed to any invasion of Iraq.

We talked about the results of the poll in our office and our broad conclusion was that Indians were more sensible than journos sometimes believed. It was not a Hindu-Muslim thing or a pro or anti America response. The US had simply failed to convince the world of the need for an invasion. Afghanistan was different — that operation had been directly linked to 9/11. So was the first Gulf War — it had been fought to liberate Kuwait.

But, this time around, the only reasons that Washington could offer were that a) Saddam was a military dictator and b) that he probably possessed weapons of mass destruction. Neither reason was enough to justify an invasion. America was friends with nasty dictators all over the world (let’s start with the Saudi royal family) and even if Saddam did possess chemical or biological weapons, so did many others. As I argued at the time: given this reasoning, the US should have invaded Pakistan where a nasty military dictator was not only in power but had also publicly admitted possessing nuclear weapons. (Plus his government had links with terrorists who had murdered many more people than Al Qaeda.)

As the months went on and the invasion seemed imminent, many distinguished Indian journos (with foreign affairs backgrounds that I lack), tried to persuade us that we should align with Washington and that the invasion made sense. Those of us who said it was about oil or establishing US power in the region were being intellectually lazy; we were told there were compelling reasons for taking out Saddam.

I thought back last week to Aditya’s poll and to the common sense of the Indian people. When Parliament passed a resolution opposing the invasion, many foreign policy experts sneered at our “Cold War mentality” and warned that there was no profit in antagonising the US. The central government made informal promises of support to Washington and we came perilously close to sending troops but for the good sense of AB Vajpayee who finally told his colleagues that the Indian people would never stand for it, and scuppered the proposal when it was already at a fairly advanced stage.

But the foreign policy experts and the well-connected journos were all wrong. It was the people of India who had the right instincts.

Just look at the devastation the war in Iraq has caused.

Not one person has emerged from that conflict with any credit. First of all, the weapons of mass destruction on which the war was predicated were never found. In his new book, George Tenet, who was director of CIA at the time, says that his agency had actually warned the White House that there was no authentic intelligence about such weapons. But George W Bush and Dick Cheney went ahead and lied to the
world anyway.

Secondly, the US administration was not just venal, it was stupid. There were no plans for administering Iraq after the conquest. Paul Bremmer, Bush’s viceroy, took the disastrous step of disbanding the police force and the army and plunged a whole country into lawlessness, chaos and anarchy. Even now, something like 50 people die every day on the streets of Iraq because of terrorist attacks.

Thirdly, none of the men who talked so convincingly about the need to invade Iraq now stands by those claims about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction or his links to terrorists. Tony Blair steps down in a few months, his reputation in tatters only because of his misjudgments about Iraq. Nearly every member of his cabinet now admits that the decision to invade was wrong.

Donald Rumsfeld, cheer leader for the invasion, has been sacked. Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con ideologue who provided the rationale that the White House needed for the invasion, has been kicked out of his next job, as head of the World Bank, for manipulating the system to give his mistress a raise.

Dick Cheney, who told most of the lies about weapons of mass destruction, is a reviled figure whose political career will end the moment he steps down as Vice President. George W Bush is struggling to regain the initiative as polls show that Americans, usually the most patriotic people in the world, especially when their country is at war, are turning against him.

Fourthly, far from spreading democracy and making the world a safer place, the invasion has actually put us all at risk. We saw what form democracy took in Iraq when a lynch mob hanged Saddam, under American sponsorship. And Washington is terrified that democracy might actually lead to the election of Shia extremists now so even those plans are on hold.

All over the world, otherwise peaceful Muslims who had been persuaded that the invasion of Afghanistan was a necessity warranted by the events of 9/11, now believe that the West is waging a war against Islam. What other justification, they ask, could there be for the invasion of Iraq?

Between them, George W Bush and Tony Blair have created millions of more Islamic extremists than Osama bin Laden could ever have managed on his own. That radicalisation makes young Muslims more susceptible to the preaching of militants and fanatics. Thus, terror will actually increase in the long run, and it is you and me who will pay the price for the stupidity of Bush and Blair.

So, how could Washington and London have got it so wrong? How could George W Bush have taken a historic opportunity — with American power at its height, American economic might all-pervasive and American popular culture the new idiom for the whole world — and destroyed it so completely? At no time in its history has America been so hated all over the world.

I’ve never been able to find an answer to those questions. Nor have I worked out how and why so many Indians in high places and in positions of influence believed that the invasion was worth supporting — or that it would succeed, even if it was unjustified.

It does, however, confirm my overwhelming faith in the good sense of the Indian people. At a time when the journos, the experts and the best and the brightest got it so wrong, the man on the street got it completely right.

And that, I guess, is why democracy works in our country.

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