The Manchester Debating Union gathered for their final debating event of the winter semester entitled ‘Ten years on, this house regrets the Iraq War of 2003’.
Dr Steven Hurst and Amir Barik of the Politics, Philosophy, and Public Services department at Manchester Metropolitan University sat as the proposition. Steven’s academic background is in the study of American politics, government, and foreign policy, while Amir researches Iranian social and political history, as well as the issues surrounding Islam in the West and the cultural aspects of the lives of Muslims in Britain. Furthermore, Amir ran MMU’s Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies from 2008 to 2010.
Against Steven and Amir were MMU’s Will and Emma, two younger speakers from the MDU’s governing committee. The MDU is a joint MMU and University of Manchester union, of which students from both universities can join.
Before the debates began, the speaker took a show of hands. Attendees were asked to choose between proposition, opposition, or abstention. The first vote showed a roughly equal split between regret over the Iraq war and indecision, with only a very small remainder of voters showing their support for the opposition.
Common themes emerged throughout the debate, and the key conflicts in the argument began to take shape. Only one of the four speakers, Amir, wanted to discuss the principles behind the war, and the opposition made it entirely clear that they did not wish to defend the actions of Blair or Bush, but instead take the Iraq war ‘as it is’ and weigh up its usefulness. Steven Hurst set the tone of the entire debate in his opening words as first speaker, promising to perform a ‘cost/benefits analysis’ which focused entirely on the effects of the Iraq war and put to one side its various alleged causes. ‘What was John Major’s famous quote,’ he remarked to me afterward, ‘”fine words butter no parsnips”?’
The four speakers each had something to say over the lasting products of the war, primarily focusing on the new Iraqi parliament. Steven Hurst outlined the proposition’s picture of post-war Iraqi politics, arguing that current prime minister Nouri Maliki has set the country back down the road to dictatorship by centralising state power, excluding opposition parties from government, and by continuing by degrees the persecution and torture that went on under Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Will countered by emphasising the existence of new political parameters and possibilities that could have never existed in Iraq prior to the deposal of Saddam. ‘Under Saddam, Iraq was a really bad place’ he insisted repeatedly, keeping his argument blunt and emotive.
Amir Barik took the argument in a new direction, drawing the floor’s attention to the alleged double standards behind the decision to go to war, and then connecting this to the US and UK’s apparent total disinterest in the welfare of the Iraqi people. If they cared, he argued, they would not have destroyed Iraq’s entire social infrastructure, and then left before helping to repair the damage. If they really cared, he followed through, and truly wanted to do justice, then they would have taken Saddam to the UN International Courts, and Blair and Bush would have gone with him. This won a murmur of approval from the crowd. Emma, the second opposition speaker, responded to Amir with gusto. Amping up the emotive drive of her partner, she rattled off a list of the many evils committed under the Saddam regime – focusing on death tolls in particular – and then measured the likely number of further deaths that may have gone on under Saddam post-2003 versus the estimated number of lives lost in the war. In the endnote rebuttals, Dr Hurst took her to task for this point, arguing that ‘in my book five hundred thousand real bodies get priority over hypotheticals’.
The final count of hands indicated a swing vote of abstainers to the side of the proposition, resulting in a massive win for the speakers from MMU. By contrast, every single core opposition vote (as far as the reporter could make out) remained unchanged. It seems that though Steven and Amir did not win over the hearts and minds of those most vehemently opposed to them, they did manage to persuade a great many to shuffle down off the fence and join their side.
After Will and Emma’s perhaps inevitable crushing defeat at the hands of the floor vote, Steven remarked that he felt impressed by the strength and vigour of his opponents’ arguments, given that both of the two speakers were last minute choices asked to defend the legacy of an extremely unpopular war.