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Asia-Pacific Network: 2 April 2003


The United States will win this conflict militarily. That much is certain. But what is also almost certain is that it will lose the battle politically. The United States talks eloquently about a democratic and egalitarian Middle East after Saddam. And nervous people in the Middle East ask, Iraq today, who is next for liberation? Iran? Syria? Libya?

By BRIJ V. LAL in Canberra

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Brij Lal
OUR daily evening television news is saturated with the conflict in Iraq. Images of ominous orange smoke rising on the distant horizon, of collapsed buildings spewing dust high in the air, of tanks and troops ploughing through blinding dust storms, of bloodied body bags and innocent, bandaged children crying for help in ill-equipped and makeshift hospital beds, of dishevelled, anguished mothers searching for their loved ones in the rubble, of an old man in dirty traditional garb sitting atop a mound of stones, weeping: these images haunt long after the lights have been turned off.

There is morbid fascination with the technology of war. A war fought in the glare of the television cameras can be more gripping than anything Hollywood could ever dream up. There is endless chatter about how the precision guided missiles are wreaking havoc, terrifying the opposition, with such pin-point accuracy. Except, of course, when they disobey instructions and land in a crowded marketplace, killing innocent civilians. We learn much about the genealogy of the (real) awesome weapons of mass destructions: the lethal B-52 and Stealth bombers, the Abram tanks, the Apachee helicopters.

And the language is so clinical, so neutral. Opposition troops have been ‘neutralised,’ the reports say, when the truth more likely is of bodies broken and destroyed beyond recognition. Saddam will be disarmed when they mean killed, his regime destroyed. We hear much about the tragic ‘friendly fire,’ an oxymoron if there ever was one, or about unerring ‘military intelligence,’ a contradiction in terms. We read about the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, when what is really meant is its dismemberment and domination by the Coalition forces. And so it goes, as Bob Ellis might say.

To be sure, Saddam Hussain is not a very nice man. His reign over Iraq is littered with the bodies of people who stood up to him. He is a tyrant, a megalomaniac and worse. All that granted. But is the West innocent in all of this? Was it not the United States which covertly helped Saddam during Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s which killed nearly a million people? The picture of a younger Donald H. Rumsfeld, now the chillingly ruthless US Secretary of Defence, shaking hands with Saddam remains in the mind How short our memories! Have we forgotten about the Iran-Contra affair? About the overthrow of Salvadore Allende in Chile? The invasion of Grenada? The United States has a habit of propping up dictators – Manuel Noriega in Panama, the Shah of Iran – and then turning against them when they refuse to do its bidding – or have outlived their usefulness.

The United States and its so-called Coalition of the Coerced (sorry, Willing!) justify the invasion of Iraq in the name of ridding the country of its weapons of mass destruction. The goal is laudable; rogue states can be so unpredictable and dangerous. But why now, at this very moment, when the UN inspectors, led by Hans Blix, were going about their job, making manifest progress and reporting cooperation from the Iraqis. Couldn’t the invasion have been postponed at least until the UN had completed its task in a few months? That was all that they asked for. Was the urgent timetable for battle with a hopelessly out-gunned opposition worth undermining the moral authority of the Security Council, or endangering relations between Europe and the United States?

The Coalition justifies its invasion in the name of regime change in Iraq. Get rid of Saddam and the problem will vanish. I am not sure it is as simple as that. The Coalition forces hoping for a warm welcome from Iraqis terrorised by Saddam’s forces have received a rude shock. For them this is invasion, not liberation, and that raises an important point. Americans are perpetually perplexed about why the world does not like them, does not see things through their benign lenses. They have great difficulty accepting that a large part of the world sees them as imperialist, driven not by grand ideas but by sheer greed, that colonialism lies at the very heart of the American historical experience, that they are a part of the global problem, not its solution.

In Iraq, already factional Shi’ite leaders have warned the United States of dire consequences if they become an occupying force. The image of a lone Stars and Stripes flying over a piece of conquered Iraqi territory last week did not go down well in the Arab world. A puppet regime post-Saddam will perish. The Ayotollahs have their eyes on power and the Kurds in the north are dreaming of an autonomous Kurdistan, much to the horror of Turkey with its own large Kurdish population. The prospects for stability look bleak. The United States will win this conflict militarily. That much is certain. But what is also almost certain is that it will lose the battle politically. The United States talks eloquently about a democratic and egalitarian Middle East after Saddam. But how will democratic principles play in such feudalistic states as Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait? And nervous people in the Middle East ask, Iraq today, who is next? Iran? Syria? Libya?

Another reason given for destroying the Iraqi regime is that it harbours and gives succour to the dreaded Al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is a terrorist and bloodthirsty organisation that threatens the underlying, fundamental tenets of the international order. Few in the west will mourn its passing. But no conclusive link has been established between Iraq and Al-Qaida, although Saddam has made no secret of his moral support for it. The truth is the Al-Qaida enjoys much quiet support throughout the Middle East, fuelled by the ongoing Israel-Palestine problem and the perception of the United States’ un-evenhandedness in dealing with it. Saddam is not its only supporter. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are among its backers. Are they next in the line for liberation?

A lot of American strategic thinking is understandably driven by the trauma caused by the attacks of September 11. Its doctrine of ‘preventive strike’ is a direct result of that shattering experience. In a world of non-conventional warfare new rules have to be devised. Iraq poses no direct threat to the United States, but it might, alone or in combination with other forces. And so it is better, the thinking goes, to take it out now before it develops the capability to launch a fatal strike. This unilateralist stance undermines the core of international diplomacy that the United States has done more than anyone else to establish from the time of President Woodrow Wilson onwards. Where does that leave the United Nations? What happens if China attacks Taiwan in the name of preventive strike, or India launches a strike against Pakistan because the latter supports militants in Kashmir?

War is such a tragic and wasteful way of resolving conflict and settling differences. That is one of the powerful lessons of the 20th century. We begin the new millennium on a failed note. Those who don’t learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

Brij V. Lal is a Professor of History at the Australian National University. These views are his own, not his employer’s.

Copyright © 2003 Brij Lal and Asia-Pacific Network. This document is for educational and research use. Please seek permission for publication.
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