THE LIKELY HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WAR IN IRAQ
Names like Haditha, Fallujah, Samarra, and Abu Ghraib are likely destined to become, at least in the Muslim world, iconic symbols for America’s bloody adventure in Iraq. This will not so much represent the deliberate selecting of horrors to remember and feature, for America’s entire crusade has been a horror, but the impulse to have tough summary images of complex events.
America invaded Iraq for two main reasons. First, it wished to sweep what it regarded as a chronic problem, Hussein’s Iraq, off its foreign-affairs plate. Second, it wanted to remove Israel’s most implacable opponent.
I would add the personal element, without emphasizing it too much, yet aware that it is important in the backrooms of history, of a man obsessed by a fairly extreme love-hate relationship with his more distinguished father, although some readers may be unaware of the times George Bush had to be stopped from going to fisticuffs with his father or of the flip way he introduced himself years ago to Queen Elizabeth as the family’s black sheep. Iraq did seem to offer the magical opportunity to do what his father had avoided doing and for once in his life achieving something big on his own, a psychological force not to be completely discounted.
The invasion was not about oil. It related to oil in that continued future oil revenues promised to keep Hussein going a long time. It also related to oil in that Bush’s people aimed to place those resources into hands friendlier to American policy, a straightforward extension of America’s general approach to imperial rule: use locals but only the locals friendly to American purposes.
The neo-cons, a narrow group that has enjoyed great influence over Bush, expected, or so they claimed, other desirable side-effects. One was striking fear into the heart of an autocratically-ruled Middle East where resources flowed in opposition to the American policy fixation with Israel. This came to be reflected literally in the rather Hitler-like concept of Shock and Awe.
The neo-cons also proposed that an invasion could spark enthusiasm, in some undefined manner, for democratic government through the region. The desirability of this, at least for neo-cons, is predicated upon the belief that democratic government would in future be more friendly to American policy, a very naïve belief indeed.
One has to believe, for some of the neo-cons are bright people who merely lack judgment and humanity, that the democracy business was a pleasant fairy story because there is no historical record of the United States, and especially its right wing, being a genuine promoter or defender of democracy. Neither is there an historical record anywhere of bombing and strafing people into democracy. The only vaguely realistic interpretation of this notion I can imagine is that democracies can on average be more easily bribed and manipulated, activities in which the CIA engages regularly.
Insincere defenders of democracy behaving as they have in Iraq only succeed in calling into question over much of the developing world, the human-rights values of countries embracing that form of government. When the United States makes its depressingly pompous statements about democracy in the world, it is playing on the near-universal belief that democratic government is associated with positive, humanistic values. But history tells us that that is not necessarily true, and America has only once again demonstrated the fact.
It is now clear, to all but an ever-diminishing circle of Bush devotees and former drinking buddies, that the crusade has been a total failure. Yes, Hussein is gone, but America has achieved the bizarre result of having ordinary Iraqis telling reporters they would be better off were he back.
And they are right. A once prosperous and advancing country, one certain to have become a democracy in not too many more years along the natural path by which all growing countries eventually become democracies, has been torn apart and set back a very long time.
Only a new strongman is likely to hold Iraq together, a conclusion, I’m willing to bet, Bush’s people have already reached in secret. But where is that strongman and how do you gracefully insert and support him with all the blubbering about democracy? Otherwise, Iraq is likely to split into three smaller states, full of resentments and eager to compete for foreign military assistance and power. In other words, America has achieved instability over the foreseeable future, something that is hardly in anyone’s interest, and certainly not Israel’s.
The failure is far greater and more pitiless than most Americans even suspect. A colossal fortune has been spent by Bush and his spineless Congress, and yet much of Iraq still has no dependable water, electricity, or jobs. You simply cannot build any kind of society whatever on that basis.
And the United States cannot continue to spend funds at the level it has spent them for four years, much of the shrink-wrapped pallets of freshly-printed hundred-dollar bills secretly flown-in having gone to corruption, bribery, insane private armies, and subsidizing the fortunes of American firms like Halliburton. This grotesque spending came on top of a balance of payments and general government-deficit spending that seem out of control. The excesses of the American economy have put great strain on the dollar, even raising the serious issue of its future as the world’s reserve currency.
Iran’s position in the region has been strengthened by the invasion, a matter presumably of considerable concern to Washington, and Shia Muslims, who dominate great swathes of the region and who also are not particularly friendly towards Washington, have been invigorated and strengthened by America’s massive strategic blunder.
Terrorism – that pliable word used to describe those with whom you disagree, whose views and interests you utterly ignore, and who are driven to desperate measures because they are at the mercy of superior military power – has never had a better recruiting impetus than America’s well-publicized brutality and insensitivity in the occupation. Nor has it ever had a better, more realistic and effective training ground than America’s Iraq.
Those learning by doing in Iraq and Afghanistan are gaining priceless experience to share with others, experience one could never have imagined coming from bin Laden’s small, isolated cluster of tents in the mountains.
Israel, its bullying hubris rising to new heights under the influence of Bush and his phantom conquests, came to think as perhaps never before that it was free to do whatever it liked. Then, in its pre-planned invasion of Lebanon, feebly excused by the kidnapping of two soldiers who were themselves likely on a questionable mission inside Lebanon, Israel ran into Hezbollah, a Hezbollah strengthened by the example and experience of those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The long-held view of Israel as an unstoppable military force evaporated. Not that Hezbollah came anywhere near to matching Israel’s sophisticated weapons or its American intelligence assistance or its capacity to inflict horrific damage quickly, but Hezbollah demonstrated the kind of resistance we associate with Russia’s armies stopping the Wehrmacht.
Israel has always wanted part of Southern Lebanon as part of its national territory, and its leaders are on record to that effect, always exploiting the idea of Katysha rockets hitting Northern Israel, most people being unaware that these small rockets are primitive and ineffective unless fired in the huge barrages for which they were designed and that Hezbollah only fires them when Israel violates the Lebanese border, something it has done regularly and secretly for years.
Israel’s savage attack on Lebanon – leaving behind 1,500 dead, thousands of homeless and mangled, and a blanket of hideous cluster-bomblets for Lebanon’s children and farmers to discover in future – proved as complete a failure as America’s crusade in Iraq when viewed on Israel’s own terms. I like to think the revulsion of the world’s people and especially the stunned reaction within Israel have brought something of a psychological and political turnaround to the region, at least the beginnings of a turnaround.
The world is weary of Israel’s relentless refusal to spend anything but words on peace. A sequence of bloody regional failures – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Southern Lebanon – just might set the stage for new a new ordering of priorities and policies. Bush’s ignorant pride has been damaged, as has been Israel’s, and everyone must look to something new.
And in the United States, the not-to-spoken truth that Israel’s grinding injustices and America’s tireless efforts to defend them had a great deal to do with 9/11 and many violent events after it may just be sinking in. Important and fair-minded people have written published on the excessive, corrupting influence of Israel on American policy.
The U.S., for the first time in years, has shown interest in talking to Syria and Iran, countries with vital interests in the area, long ignored. Perhaps, it finally means the beginning of the end for the destructive idea of Greater Israel, the beginning of some degree of justice and hope for a people, the Palestinians, long without either. Perhaps it means genuine effort towards peace, rather than the tiresome, ongoing fraud of a “peace process.”
I’m hopeful, but not too optimistic. Ignorance, prejudice, the great industry of war, and jingoism are mighty powerful foes.