Received an email from the editor, Martin Leet, with the link to my article.


I opposed the war in Iraq because I was lied to about the reasons for waging it. Bush, Blair and Howard peddled the tale that Saddam Hussein was a danger to the people of their respective countries. This was palpable nonsense. On the contrary, I consider the war-mongering Bush to be a far greater danger to the world than the late Saddam, whose scope to extend his murderous actions beyond Iraq’s borders had been severely curtailed by the no-fly zone maintained by the US and Britain since the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Having opposed the war, I had to accept the fact that I was willing to consign the people of Iraq to their fate at the hands of the planet’s most monstrous tyrant and that did not sit well with me.

Early in the 21st century and after many decades of growth of mature liberal democracy, the world has no mechanism for getting rid of tyrants, other than relying on their victims to rise up and overthrow them. This is much easier said than done and occurs infrequently. The most recent instance which comes to mind is the overthrow of  Ceausescu in 1989. By tyrant I mean an individual or a tyrannical regime. During the Cold War, the USSR crushed popular movements for liberalisation in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. There was no uprising to stop Idi Amin, Pol Pot, the killers in Rwanda, or in Srebrenica and to date no uprising has toppled the generals in Burma, Mugabe in Zimbabwe or the Janjaweed in Dafur. NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo to halt Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians was a one-off event.

It is unrealistic to expect the UN to take the lead on this issue even though the ‘duty to protect’ doctrine, which states that national sovereignty can be over-ridden to stop crimes against humanity is official UN policy. The UN has an abysmal record of failure in preventing atrocities from occurring because it is a deeply flawed organisation. For a start, the unfortunate countries governed by dictators and tyrants are members of the UN. Next, the competing self-interest of all the nations of the world is hardly likely to produce a reliable policy on freeing people from tyranny. As well, the UN’s structure and laborious decision-making procedures do not lend themselves to taking swift action to prevent an imminent tragedy. The ‘duty to protect’ doctrine is wasted on the UN. The 1999 Australian led intervention in East Timor against the pro-Indonesia militias only happened after the militias had killed many civilians, but thank god it happened.

Between them, European colonial rule and the Cold War prevented any chance of the liberal democracies adopting a united policy after the Second World War to support peoples’ cries for freedom. I suggest that such a policy, tried and tested, could have served as an essential precursor to devising an internationally accepted means of dealing with tyrants. That is, standing up to those who could not be removed by force and removing those who could.

The authoritarian Chinese regime cannot be removed by force any more than could the Soviet Union. Admittedly, China does not appear to pose the kind of threat to the world which the Soviet Union did. But there is no need for the demeaning spectacle of keeping human rights protesters out of sight of visiting Chinese leaders which happened in London and Sydney or for prevarication by political leaders in liberal democracies over whether to meet the Dalai Lama when faced with words of strong disapproval from Beijing.

Until the world accepts the need for a mechanism for getting rid of tyrants, its long, damning record of inaction will continue. Whole peoples will be punished by sadistic, capricious rulers. Many more defenceless men, women and children will be needlessly slain. Tyrannies define themselves. So it is morally reprehensible to adhere to a doctrine of non-intervention which allows tyrants free reign. To begin to right this wrong the liberal democracies, acting in concert, need to move towards adopting the ‘duty to protect’ doctrine as part of their foreign policy and invite the emerging democracies to join them. In all other instances the doctrine of non-intervention must still apply.

The opportunity for a genuine ‘new world order’ – a united policy in support of cries for freedom anywhere in the world – at last presented itself to the liberal democracies with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tragically in my view, they failed to take it. Rather, they continued to operate in a piecemeal fashion and the world is a poorer place for it. In the end, this crucial lost opportunity may simply reflect a failure of leaders and people to sufficiently value their own freedoms.

But the neo-con policy of exporting western democracy and pluralism to countries governed by an authoritarian regime in order to enhance America’s global standing, is not what I have in mind. Rather, the  policy I envisage would have taken cultural differences into account. It would not have arrogantly sought to impose western ways on people who might regard them as alien and in certain instances abhorrent. The point is to uphold principles, such as freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, accountability through the ballot box and judicial independence, and not impose ready-made content, such as the Westminster system, the Code Napoleon or sexual permissiveness.

Some parts of the world have fared better than others. The EU and NATO naturally supported the democratic aspirations of the former Soviet nations in Eastern Europe. They regarded them as a legitimate extension of the West’s backyard and their democratisation as fulfilment of the historical dream of a continent of free nations living in peace and prosperity. The resultant new Europe is a mighty achievement. Contrast it with the emerging democracies in Asia, Central and South America and Africa. I believe they would be on a more sure footing had they been the beneficiaries of all the liberal democracies acting together in the way I have described.  Their existence is a plus for the planet and, confounding as their actions and ways can often be, they deserve the tolerance and encouragement of people living in the developed world.

I can further attempt to illustrate my thinking by citing an alternative scenario on Iraq.

Iraq was invaded on the orders of political leaders acting selfishly, concerned about the security of their own people thousands of miles away because of Saddam’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction. Other than in the US, a majority of people did not share their leaders’ concern, regardless of whether or not the weapons existed. They opposed the invasion and exposed the reason for it as a lie.

Had Saddam’s abominable treatment of his people been the declared causus belli those leaders would have been acting altruistically. It is just possible that inspired by an altruistic rather than a selfish motive, the invaders might have been better received and the aftermath of the invasion less tragic. With regime change to help the Iraqis as its purpose, the lead-up to the invasion would have been very different, most notably in the language used by the coalition leaders. They would still have had to attempt the difficult task of carrying their people with them on the issue.

A policy of applying external force to remove a tyrant is inherently risky, but not wrong. And if it is seen to be the result of a long-established policy supporting cries for freedom and propagating democracy, it may be more likely to receive popular support and to succeed. It seems safe to say that an ‘altruistic’ invasion would not have been contemplated without the most meticulous planning for the post-invasion circumstances. France and Germany might have agreed to participate, which would have greatly strengthened the project.

But of course all this is wishful thinking, a speculation on a world with the political will to consistently and resolutely stand up to tyrants and, whenever possible, get rid of them.

The earth is a beautiful planet made up of fantastically diverse nations with distinctive identities, languages and customs, with characteristic landscapes, biodiversity, architecture, art, dress and food. Alas, too many of them remain under authoritarian rule.

Peter Kuttner

October 2008