Supporters of both sides in the war in Iraq, and particularly those who are or were associated with the left, have described it as a “war of liberation”. Here, for example, is John Pilger and here is Norman Geras. Presumably Geras and Pilger each think the other is wrong.
The obvious position for an opponent of the war is that both are wrong. On reflection though, I think that Geras and Pilger are both right.
If you look at the many wars that have been justified as wars of liberation, it’s clear enough that the overthrow of a brutal dictator and the struggle against authoritarian Islamism in all its forms fit the general picture. Equally, so does the expulsion of a foreign invader responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and a wide range of other criminal and oppressive actions.
The problem, rather, is with the whole idea of a “war of liberation”. Just as with the Christian doctrine of “just war”, the doctrine is so loose that it can easily be claimed by both sides in the same war. Most wars of liberation, like most wars of all kinds, have done more harm than good.
This is obviously true of the failures, which have been many. But even the (usually temporary) successes have rarely been worth the cost. Are the people of Indochina better off, for example, than they would have been if the French had ruled there for another thirty years? For that matter, did the wars of liberation extended throughout Europe by the French after 1793 achieve anything to justify the hundreds of thousands of deaths they entailed?
Another important observation, particularly relevant in the case of Iraq, is that, even if you conceive of a war as one of liberation, it is almost always necessary to ally yourself with people who have less noble aspirations. Nationalist Iraqis, seeking only the withdrawal of the occupying forces, have inevitably co-operated to some extent (how much is not clear) with terrorist jihadis, who want to use Iraq as a base for their own global operations. Supporters of the American war effort find themselves in coalition with all sorts of unsavory parties, from thugs like Allawi and (until a few months ago) crooks like Chalabhi, to anti-Muslim crusaders in the West. As a rule, the least scrupulous members of a coalition are the most successful in pursuing their goals.
I’m not advocating a dogmatic position of nonviolence, or of opposition to revolution. The classic pattern of revolution is one in which a rotten regime collapses in the face of a relatively modest show of popular force, and we have seen plenty of examples of this in our own time. But the decision to embark on a the path of war is one that can only be justified by the most dire of necessities, and, preferably by the assurance of a rapid and relatively bloodless victory. This is particularly true of wars of liberation, which are inevitably fought without any of the constraints that (at least some of the time) mitigate the worst effects of wars between states.