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JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: THE LIKELY HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WAR IN IRAQ   Leave a comment

THE LIKELY HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WAR IN IRAQ

John Chuckman

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.

JOHN CHUCKMAN ESSAY: IT’S NOT ABOUT OIL   Leave a comment

IT’S NOT ABOUT OIL

John Chuckman

I do get tired of reading claims that oil is the reason why Mr. Bush wants to attack Iraq. Perhaps, commentators pick oil because it seems to give clarity where there is so little, evoking the slightly romantic image of 19th century troops in pith helmets scrambling for colonial resources.

I don’t want to be guilty of discouraging Americans from giving up on their horribly wasteful and polluting SUVs, for there are many important reasons to encourage them to do so, but at least for now, oil supply is not one of them.

Yes, of course, Bush’s light-truck constituency cares about oil, and Iraq’s reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s. But the notion that a great power needs physically to control sources of a plentiful raw material is simply outdated. The nationalization of oil reserves, a world-wide phenomenon of a few generations ago, is something not likely to be undone, and, besides, a very comfortable modus vivendi has grown up between producing and consuming governments.

Anything resembling American expropriation of Middle East oil fields would produce tidal waves, not just in the Arab world, but in places like Mexico and Venezuela. I cannot think of a better way of causing al Qaeda recruits to line up in a dozen countries much the way alarmed, idealistic young Britains lined up in 1914 to fight “the damned Bosch.” Even with the hillbilly-crowd running the White House, I think it safe to say this approach is not on.

Iraq’s reserves are of no value to Iraq unless their production is for sale. No matter who runs Iraq, it is a sure bet that its oil will flow for as long as the reserves hold out, at prices worked out under those cozy arrangements of producing and consuming countries. In recent years, it has only been America’s harsh economic restrictions on Iraq that prevented a possible glutting of the oil market.

Iraq’s reserves represent a gigantic future revenue stream, many hundreds of billions of dollars. Bush’s crowd definitely wants this future revenue stream put into hands that are friendlier to American policy.

The uncertainty that Saddam Hussein represents for American policy-makers is not uncertainty over the availability of oil, it is uncertainty over what Hussein may choose to do with the revenue stream over the decade or so possibly left to his rule, and it is the uncertainty of what Israel may do in response.

Hussein’s army is not a serious threat to Israel. Its leadership and equipment make it inferior in almost every respect to the IDF, and it certainly doesn’t have the United States supplying round-the-clock military intelligence, new technical capabilities, a bottomless supply of spare parts, and diplomatic pouches full of cash.

But Hussein with a small nuclear arsenal is quite another matter. Israel is a small country, and just two or three nuclear devices could devastate its highly-urbanized population. And you wouldn’t need missiles to achieve this. School buses, delivery trucks, aircraft, or fishing boats are all more accurate delivery systems than Iraqi Scuds.

That is the reason why Israel not only has nuclear weapons but has more of them than it would at first appear to need as a deterrent. The concept at work here is having a deterrent that compensates for Israel’s small size vis-à-vis a threat from a much larger country or a group of countries.

The United States, it seems almost childishly unnecessary to say, does not care about how wicked or unpleasant Hussein may be. Nor does it care about his record on human rights. The truth is that he is no worse than the many cut-throats the U.S. cozily does business with.

The problem with Hussein is that he won’t play the game under rules the U.S. has laid down. Oh, he has cooperated in the past, and for considerable periods of time he was treated as one of America’s useful clients, receiving many special favors. He was especially useful when he went to war against revolutionary Iran and ground down that nation’s ardor and resources and young people with years of bloody conflict.

America’s role in that conflict was the same utterly amoral one it has so often taken where it saw that the shedding of someone else’s blood might achieve some desired dirty work.

But when it became clear that Hussein was working to arm himself with nuclear weapons, an excuse to flatten him and remove his capacity had to be found. Ergo, America’s secret diplomatic wink at his intention to invade Kuwait, setting him up for Desert Storm. This was a conflict that also had little to do with oil, except that possession of Kuwait’s reserves would swell Hussein’s revenue stream and speed the day when the U.S. would be required always to address him as “sir.”

After killing perhaps a hundred thousand innocent people with its bombing, destroying much of Iraq’s water and sanitation systems (something not widely known in the U.S.), its electricity grid, and much other infrastructure, the U.S. never expected Hussein to survive in power. How much better to let internal pressures do the work rather than U.S. troops, it being certain that the coalition would have collapsed over an invasion of Iraq itself. All the arguments militating against an invasion today were the same then. No-fly zones, intended to irritate and embarrass him, CIA plottings, and, most of all, a murderous embargo were supposed to quicken events.

The policy has miserably failed. Hussein remains firmly in control, and no opposition worth mentioning exists. And talk about evil, more than a million Iraqis have died prematurely since Desert Storm as a result of America’s embargo combined with the devastating effects of bombed water and sewer facilities. The U.S. unquestionably bears a terrible moral responsibility for all that death.

So despite clear evidence that Hussein had nothing to do with al Qaeda, had no nuclear weapons, had no ready prospect of having any, and ignoring the many valid arguments against invasion, the Bush crowd seized the opportunity offered by the angry haze around 9/11 to topple him.

Bush displays classic American impatience and petulance about having a problem cleared away as quickly as possible, even if it is done at the cost of other people’s lives. What Bush is really telling the world is that instead of allowing a patient U.N. regime of inspections continue until the day Hussein departs the scene, he would rather start a war that will kill tens of thousands more innocent Iraqis, infuriate millions of people in other countries, and be done with the matter.

Bush has no reasonable successor to put in Hussein’s place, and, as with almost all the U.S.’s inglorious postwar interventions, the poor people of Iraq will certainly be left afterwards in their smoking, rat-infested ruins to cope. The U.S. has no more patience for long-term assistance and planning than it does for the long-term efforts at diplomacy and international cooperation that could readily maintain the status quo.

Of course, Mr. Bush has a very noisy cheering section in Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu and their American supporters. It really is not possible for America to damage and cripple Iraq enough to satisfy them.

Were the policy summed up in concise and accurate terms, “Do you favor killing maybe another hundred thousand people (mostly civilians as is always the case in modern war) in order to get Iraq quickly off our diplomatic plate?” I wonder just how many Americans would continue supporting Bush? Of course, Mr. Bush’s teams of hacks and propagandists do not use such terms when addressing Americans, and all Mr. Bush’s words to them are charged with cheap emotions rather than facts.

But many of the world’s leaders have conspired to blunt Mr. Bush’s drive to war. We now hear from Mr. Bush an entirely different argument from what we heard not many months ago. The issue now is clearly weapons, not garbage about terror or evil or the need for democracy in the Middle East. But, of course, if the issue is truly weapons, an efficient inspection regime is all that is required, not a major war. In effect, Mr. Bush’s pathetic arguments have been turned diplomatically on their heads.

This change is thanks to the brave efforts of some genuine statesman. Perhaps, it is most of all is owing to the heroic efforts of Mr. Blix and his team of U.N. inspectors. If Mr. Blix succeeds in stopping Bush’s rush to war, he will be one of the most deserving candidates for the Nobel peace prize on record.
The inspectors work against tremendous odds. Bush has pulled out all the stops in trying to browbeat, coax, or bribe others nations to support his goal. He has forgiven loans, dropped strictures, hinted at reprisals, and thrown around tons of money, and Mr. Blix has worked against a nasty White House campaign to harass and vilify him.

Of course, Bush’s attitudes are inextricably linked to the experience of his father. If you don’t think that such highly personal attitudes often play a role in history, you haven’t studied enough of it.