joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth

by Chris Bertram on March 20, 2006

Johann Hari, Independent columnist and one-time contributor to the “decent left” blog “Harry’s Place”: , writes “eloquently in the Indie today”: about why he was wrong about the Iraq war and how he now regrets his pro-war stance.

(I note, btw, that there is “a dismissive post at HP”: referring to Hari as a “London-based journalist” but omitting to mention his former association with the site.)



des von bladet 03.20.06 at 5:55 am

I used to read the Indybladet before settling on the Intergalactic Scrapbook-Tribune, and I always used to wonder what the point of Johann Hari was supposed to be. Is/was there one? (I never quite managed to read any of his columns, despite my best efforts.)


Bill Posters 03.20.06 at 6:14 am

Man, that Decent Left is cold.


Kevin Donoghue 03.20.06 at 6:34 am

I’ve written to the poor guy to ask him to stop beating himself up. The notion that the war happened “because of the arguments of people like me” is sillier by far than supporting the war. The people who made the decisions weren’t especially concerned with the views of British leftists, decent or indecent.


abb1 03.20.06 at 7:02 am

It’s not sillier than supporting the war. Useful idiots serve a purpose.


Brendan 03.20.06 at 7:49 am

The comments section on that article are worth reading. They comments are quite funny: mostly on the theme of “I always knew that Hari was a wrong ‘un.”

The rest of the HP article, incidentally, consists of highly selected ‘highlights’ of an Iraqi opinion poll. Instead of reporting the key finding (that 70% of Iraqis want their govt. to set a timetable for withdrawal of coalition forces), they instead concentrate on the ‘fact’ that ‘a majority’ of Iraqis reject attacks on the coalition. Yes, a stonking majority of 53%, with a sampling error of plus OR MINUS 3%.


Daniel 03.20.06 at 8:30 am

I thought it was particularly nasty to give Hari the “London-based” tag because he has actually done a lot more than lots of his peers in the commenteriat to stay in touch with Iraqi opinion; in particular I very much doubt that the Harry’s Place crowd would have anything like the contacts at IFTU that they have if it had not been for Johann Hari.


harry b 03.20.06 at 8:38 am

Brendan — the comments section is classic sectarian leftism: as soon as someone deviates their whole history comes under scrutiny for signs of the the deviation-to-come. Reminds me of the least appealing Trotskyist groups I used to watch (and not, I hasten to add, of the much more appealing not-quite-Trotskyist group I was in). Nice to know that these folks retained not only the immunity to self doubt, but also the sectarian nastiness, when they went over into the “decent” left. I’d like to think that those of us who have remained “indecent” have improved a bit on those scores!


Benjamin 03.20.06 at 8:52 am

I mildly posited the notion that comparisons between the invasion of Iraq and WWII are a bit of a stretch – but that was not very popular either. It seems ever more bizarre that some cling on to such a desperate comparison. Three years on from the invasion John Reid is to make speech trying to persuade us that Iraq is not on the brink of civil war.

Meanwhile, the Decent Left may be now living in their own seperate parallel universe.


david 03.20.06 at 8:58 am

“The Americans say they told civilians to leave the city [Fallujah], so anybody left behind was a suspected jihadi – an evacuation procedure so successful they later used it in New Orleans.”

Don’t know why, but it had never occured to me to, nor that people were making the link.


Brendan 03.20.06 at 9:08 am

‘Three years on from the invasion John Reid is to make speech trying to persuade us that Iraq is not on the brink of civil war’.

Oh but John Reid is attempting to do a lot more than that.

‘He (i.e. Reid) claimed the critics of the conflict only helped the rebels pushing the country towards civil war.

Reid said: “You can support the Iraqi democrats and the overwhelming majority of ordinary Iraqis or you can support, in effect, the terrorists.”‘ (Sunday Mail).

‘Iraqi democrats’ and ‘majority of ordinary Iraqis’ are of course euphemisms for ‘the Labour Govt in London’ and ‘the Bush administration in the United States’.

So of you don’t support Tony and Dubya, you are a terrorist. And, presumably, given the new offence of ‘glorification of terrorism’, you are therefore liable to be arrested.

Harry b….oh I’ve always been proud to be “indecent”. But enough of my personal life…..


roger 03.20.06 at 9:41 am

The funniest thing about the Harry’s comments is the fetishism of the polls. That, for instance, the ORI poll predicted that Allawi would win the last election in a landslide tells you, pretty much, where the pollsters went — middle class areas where they would be safe from being wounded or kidnapped for polling, for one. But of course, they still cling to that, as to every other sponsored poll. If a gallup poll predicted that Kerry would win with 60 percent, I imagine that poll would be roundly laughed at — but in the bubble in Iraq — at least for the war supporters – where one report exists in perfect isolation from the next, we can cherrypick our news and even continue to support the Cheney line, that Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Atta were secret lovers.

The fun-ness of going to Harry’s has diminished over time. Even two years ago there was a certain amusement in it. But now it seems rather like the old 18th century sport of visiting Bedlam — after watching mad people knee and nail each other for a while, the whole thing gets tedious. As one of their fellow belligerant sites, the Poppinjays said of them a while back, they are still fightin’ like its 2003.


Matthew 03.20.06 at 10:02 am

“Yes, a stonking majority of 53%, with a sampling error of plus OR MINUS 3%.”

If you look at the detailed poll data it’s actually 52%, which 1% don’t know/undecided. I don’t quite know what the interest here though was in it being a ‘majority’, it’s not as if (one assumes) the insurgency/terrorists take a vote before they blow up troops.

It should be noted the poll did find a large majority who thought the ousting was worth it, despite everything.


abb1 03.20.06 at 10:09 am

…as soon as someone deviates their whole history comes under scrutiny for signs of the the deviation-to-come.

Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!


Luis Enrique 03.20.06 at 11:10 am

I find the pro-war side’s ‘obsession’ with polls understandable. If you were against the invasion of Iraq then presumably you were so for the sake of the Iraqis. So what the Iraqis themselves think of it is very important. If a sizable chunk of the Iraq population (50%, 70% what ever number you prefer) still think the invasion was a good thing, even after 3 years of continuing bloodshed and disorder, surely that ought to be an important consideration? I think it tells us something about how godawful things must have been under Saddam, for a start. [somebody has raised the point polls may be unrepresentative. I don’t know about that.]

And for what its worth, I think “immunity to self doubt” is prevalent on both sides of this debate. Why doesn’t possibility that a slender majority of Iraqis even now still think the invasion was a good thing (when you might have expected disillusionment and resentment at occupiers to have biased things the other way) cause anti-war types to wonder whether they might have been wrong?


BigMacAttack 03.20.06 at 11:32 am

Too bad he hasn’t learned his lesson.

Johann Hari, raise your right hand and repeat after me, I Johann Hari, having applied my knowledge of human nature to the circumstances, and concluded that an invasion of Iraq would be beneficial to the people of Iraq, and in hindsight having concluded that my judgement was spectacularly wrong, will now shut the F up, and not offer any more unquestionable opinions.

Still, I guess it is an improvement over most.


Amir 03.20.06 at 11:35 am

Luis’ point is well made and may also explain why the epithet “London-based” was used in the post – ie in contradistinction to the views of those “on the ground” rather than as suggested by Daniel because it was considered “nasty”.


roger 03.20.06 at 12:04 pm

Luis, how do you judge polls, then? Let’s go back to the ORI poll. Now, it is possible that the election just held in Iraq was so totally corrupt that we cannot trust it — in which case, I don’t really know what the pro-war position is. But let’s say it was honest. If it was, it is almost impossible to fit the election results with the ORI poll in November, 2006, which ranked Allawi as the most trustworthy politician, ahead of Jaafari and anybody else. As you know, Allawi actually did suprisingly poorly in the January election.

Now, of course, that is only one indicator, but it is a telling one that the ranking of trustworthiness among politicians would predict an election result that would have seen, for instance, the party supported by Muqtada al Sadr (who received 1.5% on the trustworthiness ranking) do as badly as Chalabi (who received 1.1 percent). Instead, the parties connected with Sadr, again, did really well in the elections, whereas Chalabi’s party, notoriously, didn’t even make the legislative cut.

The ORI poll, like almost all I’ve seen, simply divides up its responders into region and religion — not class or income. I think it is reasonable to assume that foreign polling companies skew far too much to those respondents that are the least dangerous to reach — and that, for instance, polling in the poorer parts of Baghdad and Basra, for example, is much lighter than in more secure and richer areas. Since Iraq has experienced an incredible economic collapse, among the poor, and an economic boom, among the middle class, and since the poor are much more numerous, I think it is pretty easy to account for the polls from that perspective — at least, it would be consonant with their consistent failure to predict electin results.


Luis Enrique 03.20.06 at 12:34 pm


I’m afraid I don’t know how to judge the polls. Polling most trustworthy politician is not the same as polling voting intention. Your supposition about people conducting the polls having steered clear of danger sounds reasonable, but perhaps the poor Shia and poor Kurds might have had it pretty rough under Saddam too. I would like to think that some of the polls made an effort to get a proper sample (that is their job after all) but as I say, it’s not something I can claim to know anything about.


roger 03.20.06 at 12:57 pm

Fair enough, Luis. But if we can’t even conclude, that trustworthy is equivalent to worthy of voting for on the eve of an election, than I have to say that the polls are pretty shaky as evidence. Especially when you get seemingly contradictory overlaps — for instance, the numbers for who thinks the invasion was a bad or a somewhat bad thing contrasting with the numbers for whether it was a good thing to overthrow Saddam. Polling a population under attack is a rather peculiar thing to do, but if it is done, you have to bring some critical sense to reading the polls from what you know about the composition of the population.


Barry 03.20.06 at 1:26 pm

Roger: “Since Iraq has experienced an incredible economic collapse, among the poor, and an economic boom, among the middle class, …”

That’s not necessarily so. Some people have made out like bandits, but the collapse of existing businesses, and the fequent inability to move around due to banditry and political fighting, has got to have trashed large chunks of the economy.


eugene koontz 03.20.06 at 2:42 pm

Roger, I’m surprised Iraq even still has a middle class – I’d thought they’d mostly fled to Jordan to escape the kidnappings and murders.


Backword Dave 03.20.06 at 3:18 pm

Roger in 19: “Polling a population under attack is a rather peculiar thing to do …” Is it? Was it wrong then to conduct polls in September 2001 in the US? A great many people believed they were in imminent danger of attack. Should polls have been conducted in Northern Ireland during the Troubles? I can’t stop the suspicion that you’re looking for grounds to undermine these polls.

Barry in 20: “has got to have trashed large chunks of the economy.” Well, maybe. But economies are often more about differentials than absolutes. If things are good now, but used to be much better, that’s a downturn. (There must be many developing countries which would envy what the Germans would call a recession.) And if the economy is bad now, but used to be even worse, that’s progress. There are a lot of obvious barriers to business now, such as the ones you name, but Saddam, like all despots, was a bandit himself. In other words, it would be nicer if we could argue from actual figures rather than from hasgottohavem as I think the Latin is. Thing is, last time someone tried to use figures, the entire pro-war crowd moved in and said, “But it can’t have been as bad as that!”

Speaking of polls, the one cited on Harry’s Place says that 64% of Iraqis were optimistic; only two months previously, 49% had been and six months before that, 67% had been. Are polling figures supposed to be this volatile? or is there something seriously wrong with the sampling?


soru 03.20.06 at 4:01 pm

Those figures generally moved in synch with political events, so I doubt it was just sample error.

One thing that is clear if you delve into the details of any poll is the degree to which Iraqis treat ‘the toppling of saddam’ and ‘the occupation’ as distinct, almost unrelated, issues. The mainstream position (consistently 70 to 90% over the whole post-invasion period) is that the first was good, and the second bad. When you merge the two issues as ‘the invasion’, you get a more finely balanced result, that swings either way based on the last month’s developments.

Considering those issues independantly is not the way the debate is usually framed in the west, but actually, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. There is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea of toppling saddam, arranging elections as soon as possible, and then sailing off.

By all accounts, that was the original plan. A specific decision was made, presumably by Bush personally, to override those plans in favour of a 5 year occupation that would restructure Iraqi society at a fairly fundamental level, using the post-WWII occupation of Japan as a model. Unlike the decision to wage war in the first place, that decision was made with virtually no public debate.


abb1 03.20.06 at 4:07 pm

…There is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea of toppling saddam, arranging elections as soon as possible, and then sailing off.

By all accounts, that was the original plan.

You’ve got to be joking. You probably believe in Santa Claus too.


roger 03.20.06 at 4:19 pm

B. Dave, if Americans were bombing americans on a daily basis, yeah, I’d say polling is peculiar — which doesn’t mean it is wrong. But if, after the 9/11 attack, the Taliban had hired a polling company to poll americans, would you find that a bit strange?

Barry, well, because there is a war on in Iraq doesn’t mean that the laws of economics are annulled. Just like Argentina or Mexico or Indonesia, when a neo-liberal regime moves in, two things happen: there’s an influx of credit that allows the middle class and upper middle to buy and take on the trappings of prosperity, and there are stories in the American papers about the success of the economy, based upon the fact that American reporters recognize middle and upper class people as fellow subjects, while considering the poor as objects upon which, at best, we can bestow a charitable and heartrending story or two. The World Bank shows an upturn in Iraq’s GDP, and to quote reporter Patrick Cockburn:

“Some Iraqis are living better than before 2003. Teachers and government officials are earning $200 a month where they used to earn $10.”

Much of the good news/bad news dichotomy in Iraq, if you bracket the war for a second, if you ask me, falls into the pattern of reports you get from any newly “globalized” economy.

But it is true, too, that the war is a factor that is definitely accelerating the second phase of the neo-liberal cycle — the collapse, with capital flight being, in Iraq’s case, doubled by real human flight. Since Iraq is a oil exporter, it should be able to avoid that phase — this is one of the richest periods for the Gulf economies since 79. There is a bit of a cause and effect quandry here — oil prices are good partly because the oil output from Iraq is so bad.


Robin Green 03.20.06 at 9:54 pm

No-one has yet pointed out that just because 50% of a population are said to like an outcome, does not mean that outcome was attained by just means.

Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, cluster bombs, white phosphorous, dropping bombs on people’s houses and on restaurants… these are things which, sadly, could have been predicted, and which contribute to making the war unjust.

To put in another way, one does not argue for torture, lashings and beheadings in Saudi Arabia, or torture and the destruction of Kurdish villages in Turkey, on the basis that people like it because it reduces (non-state) crime. Even if that were true, it would not make the argument any less disgusting. One argues against it, because it is inhuman, unjust, and it is the sort of reactionary barbarism that we are supposed to be against, whether it rears its head in the form of Al-Quaeda or in the form of a Crown Prince or a Prime Minister.


Donald Johnson 03.20.06 at 10:52 pm

My impression from reading an article in the New York Review of Books and one or two others by journalists that I semi-trusted back in early 2003 was that a great many Iraqis on the eve of the war probably did favor the invasion, but on the condition that the US just move in fast, not kill too many civilians, topple Saddam, and then leave. Of course these articles were based on what could be learned from Iraqi exiles in Jordan and other places, for the most part, but it sounded plausible.

Of course if that’s what a large number of Iraqis wanted, it still wouldn’t justify the war, especially since we in the West (and most probably most of the Iraqis) knew that there was no way we’d just walk in there, topple Saddam, and politely head out the door.


Marc Mulholland 03.21.06 at 4:40 am

Ha! My mea culpa was after only circa 98,000 were estimated dead. I am therefore an entire 50% ‘less fingers-in-ears, la-la-la, I can’t hear you’ than Johann Hari.

Harry’s Place are right after a fashion. Hari’s ‘apostasy’ was always predictable because his arguments were consistently balanced and observant of proportionality and reality. Compare this to Oliver Kamm’s recent defence in the Guardian, which crammed in every scrap from GIs rebuilding schools to the pressing historical need to defeat the wiles of the Socialist Workers’ Party Central Committee. There was no sense sense of strtategy at all.

I expect that Christopher Hitchens will be left as the the last man standing, though even he is beginning to show hypersensitivity about being bitten twice, as evidenced by his espousal of Kissingerite realism, of all things, regarding Iran.


Chris b 03.21.06 at 8:44 am

Marc, so if anyone doesn’t support, say, an immediate attack on North Korea it’s ‘Kissingerite realism’? doesn’t wash with me, Iran’s a bigger country, and more importantly one with a real chance of making it to democracy with much less, if any, external intervention. I hope they don’t get nuclear weapons, but are you suggesting that because I think this the only option to support is an immediate strike?


Marc Mulholland 03.21.06 at 9:55 am

Hi ChrisB,

Nope: I was alluding to Hitchens’ own ‘Nixon to China’ parallel as his self-conscious, even rather embarrassed pre-emptive strike against those who would chuckle at his loss of neo-con nerve. (See ).

He does love to ‘suprise’ us with his straight-talking, etc. Ho-hum!


TonyD 03.21.06 at 2:13 pm

“Hari’s ‘apostasy’ was always predictable because his arguments were consistently balanced and observant of proportionality and reality”

I don’t agree. Hari continually maintained that his support for the war remained contingent upon the views of the Iraqi people. He seems to have abandoned this principle.

February’s Globescan poll revealed that 74% of Iraqis thought the invasion was the “right decision”

Poll results released a month earlier showed that 77% of Iraqis, despite the hardships they had suffered, still felt the invasion was right.

The interesting part of this survey was that Iraqis were divided into religious groups. 91% of Kurds approved of the war. 98% of Shiites agreed. The Sunnis (understandably, considering their status under Saddam) held the opposite view, thus affecting the overall figure.

What is clear is that the anti-war crowd, whatever the merits of their arguments, simply cannot claim to be representing the views of Iraqis. This charge, unfortunately, can now be levelled at Mr Hari.


abb1 03.22.06 at 4:21 am

February’s Globescan poll revealed that 74% of Iraqis thought the invasion was the “right decision”

Could you provide a link, please. Is it this poll of 41,856 residents of 35 countries? How many Iraqis participated?



Grandma Lausch 03.22.06 at 9:35 am

Journalists – and others – do worse things for money


TonyD 03.22.06 at 3:02 pm

abb1 –

Yes, I was quoting the same poll you are referring to. It undoubtedly contained a lot of worrying statistics, not least the fact that many countries felt the threat of terrorism had increased as a result. However, for supporters of the war such as myself, it was heartening to see that the people most affected by the invasion still remained positive.

2200 Iraqis were polled for this survey and 74% of Iraqis said it was the right decision when the following question was asked:

“As you know, the US, Great Britain and their allies removed the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. Do you think this was the right decision or a mistake”

And apologies in advance for sounding like Bill O’Reilly but I was astounded to see how the liberal media reported this poll. The Guardian did not even mention the fact that the majority of Iraqis supported the intervention, choosing instead to lead on the terrorist threat element. This of course is understandable but later in the article, when dealing with the “removal of Saddam” question, all they could muster was:

“The removal of Saddam Hussein was branded a mistake by a majority in 21 of the countries. On average, 45% of those questioned agreed that removing him was a mistake, with 36% supporting the action. In Britain, 40% of those polled said it was a mistake, while 49% backed it.”

The full article can be found at:,,1719453,00.html

The BBC wasn’t much better, only mentioning the 74% figure in the penultimate paragraph of their report:

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