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MARCH 20 will, in all likelihood, mark a turning point in global history. What turn the war in Iraq will take is uncertain; few believe that the prognosis is positive.

The bombing of Kosovo was justified on ethical grounds, and no one expressed it better than Vaclav Havel. ‘If one can say of any war that it is ethical, or that it is being waged for ethical reasons, then it is true of this war. This is probably the first war that has not been waged in the name of "national interests", but rather in the name of principles and values.’ He went on to argue that Kosovo had no oil fields to be coveted, that Milosevic did not threaten the territorial integrity of any member of the alliance, nor did anyone have any territorial demands on Kosovo. ‘It is fighting out of a concern for the fate of others.’

The bombing of Afghanistan was defended employing the same ethical logic – the exercise of a responsibility that ‘no decent person could fail to support.’ Even more, we were asked to believe that the Afghan war was ‘not about the narrow pursuit of national interests’ but ‘demonstrating responsible global citizenship’ and, above all, ‘helping to protect the people of Afghanistan themselves.’

The effort by the US-British administration to take the same route a third time has proven less convincing. More than principles and values, what we are now witnessing in Iraq is hubris, false pride, a bluster. ‘We must demonstrate the courage to act on what we believe is right. Otherwise, no one in future will ever believe us.’

Of course, the war on Iraq is not about oil, much less the troubling fact that Saddam has shifted from the dollar to the euro as the currency for trade in oil. It is, so we are being asked to believe, about getting rid of a brutal dictator, one in possession of weapons of mass destruction that he has used on his own people and is capable of using on others. It is about bringing democracy to the Iraqi people, creating conditions so that they can, finally, truly be free.

Rarely has a side initiating war, one with potentially calamitous regional and international ramifications, come across as more suspect, Tony Blair’s ‘brilliant’ speech in the UK House of Commons notwithstanding. Shorn of its bluster and moral exhortations, all it finally boiled down to was appeal to a false sense of honour (we have to be true to our words), to patriotism (we must not demoralise our troops in the Gulf), and an assertion of the superiority of western values and way of life.

It has never been anyone’s case – not those unwilling to back the Anglo-American resolution in the Security Council, even less the millions across the world who marched for peace – that Saddam is a ‘decent’ ruler or that the Iraqi citizens may not be better off without him and his regime. Part of the global anxiety is about consequences – the unavoidable loss of civilian lives, destabilisation of the Middle East, a likely filip to Islamicist reaction and terrorism, and impact on the global economy. Equally, there is apprehension about the new justificatory principles for interventionism – pre-emptive war. What George W. Bush and Tony Blair may have achieved, with their moral righteousness, is a virtual dismantling of the international order as we have known and experienced in the last five decades.

In some small measure, the roots of the current conondrum can be traced to the politicisation of humanitariasm. In a troubling book, From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention, analyst David Chandler discusses how over the last decade, international institutions have extended the remits of international engagement and informal groups of major powers have committed military forces and international administrators to trouble spots, often for ‘peace keeping, democratisation and rights protection’. Invariably the claim is how the world’s excluded and oppressed will be empowered and protected through the enforcement of their individual human rights by international institutions.

This is an proposition fraught with danger, not just because it challenges extant notions of sovereign equality but because it treats all non-western states as ‘failed’, incapable of ensuring the human rights of their citizens. And since human rights and democracy are the favoured core non-negotiable values, we now have a rationale for humanist militarism. We need to remind ourselves that years after Milosevic was deposed, Kosovo is still not seen as ready for self-rule. Evidently, this decision too is best taken by outsiders.

Will post-Saddam Iraq be any different?

Harsh Sethi