Iraqnophobia Versus Reality
ncredibly, in less than eighteen months, the Bush Administration has turned worldwide support for the U.S. following the September 11 attacks into the biggest foreign policy debacle since the Vietnam era. This administration’s policies on Iraq have bitterly divided NATO, the UN Security Council, the American Congress, the European Union, and even the Arab League. It’s an old joke in Washington that a politician’s most embarrassing moment is when he (or she) inadvertently blurts out the truth. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell were caught in such moments recently.
In his State of the Union speech, President Bush inadvertently mouthed a line written either by Condolezza Rice or some obscure White House speechwriter: “Iraq has great potential wealth.” Exactly. That’s the whole point of the aggressive US posture. It would be hard to imagine the US amassing 180,000 troops for a preemptive strike on Rwanda. It therefore turns out, if one examines the UNMOVIC reports and looks more deeply into the situation, that the present conflict is not really about weapons of mass destruction after all, despite years of hype from the Western media. Neither is it about oil or even wealth per se, but about the vision Iraq has for the future of the Middle East, as opposed to the vision the US projects.
The conflict is therefore about ideas—specifically political ideas. Consequently, the deeper conflict with Iraq cannot really be fought and won by bombs and missiles. It will have to be fought on the airwaves, on television and the internet. It is more about winning hearts and minds than winning territory. If that is so, and despite whatever happens on the battlefield, or even if there is a change of regime in Baghdad, the real front lines of the planned 2003 war are to be found in the field of communications.
The chief correlate of that proposition is that this is a long-term battle. It will not be over in 2003. The widespread belief that the 1991 Gulf War was a real war, and that it would settle the issue of Iraq, turns out in retrospect to be mistaken. Long-term observers of the Middle East know that The Gulf War was not so much a war as the first battle of a long campaign or series of wars. For the most part, people in the Middle East understood it that way from the beginning.
In that region events are measured in generations and centuries, not in quarterly phases as insisted upon by American corporations, or in two or four-year cycles as US politicians tend to think. Often in the history of the Middle East it has taken three wars in succession to settle a question, and sometimes not even then. Europe is not so much different, for we have the examples of the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War. And in our lifetimes we have endured a decades-long Cold War that ended not in a quick military victory, but a drawn out economic triumph. As far as the Middle East is concerned, “If you are not prepared to stay, then don’t go,” would be the rule taught by experience.
What are the ideas that drive the conflict with Iraq?
The Ba’ath ideology is not known very well to Westerners, but the essence of its philosophy is expressed in the title: “Renaissance.” In short, the Ba’ath stands for an Arab Renaissance. On the surface there should be no objection to this idea from anybody. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights supports the concept that every group of people deserves to enjoy their own culture and celebrate their own history. On principle, a coalition of Arab States is just as legitimate as a European Union. But when it comes to history, there is a rub. To Arabs, the idea of renaissance evokes powerful political and territorial ambitions, ambitions that cannot but create fear and rejection from the West. The remembrance of an overarching Islamic threat to the West, present in some degree since the seventh century, may have faded during the latter half of the 20th Century, but still exists, and has been revived in large part at the beginning of the 21st Century by the methodology of terror exhibited by small bands of extremist Muslims.
A succession of Middle Eastern political leaders have created extraordinary fright in the West and have consequently been vilified as monsters, elevated to archenemy status, and then destroyed. Generally the reaction has greatly exceeded the reality. It’s true that their images, and especially their more prominent misdeeds, have been jarring to Western culture, making it easier for people in the West to hate them. For various reasons, beginning with Mossadegh in Iran in the period following WW II, there has existed a constant and bitter campaign of vilification waged against Arab and Muslim leaders in the Western press. Yet Mossadegh, a principled nationalist and democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, was deliberately destroyed with the backing of the CIA in favor of restoring the anti-democratic Shah.
When the revolution against the monarchy took place in Egypt in 1952 it was the turn of the Arabs, with Nasser as the ideal bogeyman. Egypt was attacked in the so-called “Tripartite Aggression” of the 1956 Suez War jointly by Britain, France, and Israel; and again by Israel with US backing in 1967. Later figures like Khadafi, Arafat, Khoemeini, Saddam, and bin Laden have also inspired great fear, whether justified by reality or not. For Westerners, behind all of these figures has lurked the shadow of a greater nemesis, the fear of an incipient Muslim or, more narrowly, Arab renaissance.
The Persecution of Iraq
The U.S.-led policy of persecution against Iraq is related to these concerns. The American public has yet to face the appalling human cost of the catastrophic embargo against Iraq from 1991 to the present. The number of unnecessary and preventable deaths of children alone—credited by reputable and conservative public health specialists as in the hundreds of thousands—cannot tell the whole story. The economic, cultural, intellectual, and psychological damage to an entire society has been devastating as well. The closest analogy to Iraq in the 1990’s is Germany in the 1920’s, when as a means of punishment the allies choked with trade sanctions and literally starved the German people for three years until the peace settlement was reached. Everybody knows what happened next, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Yet Iraq has been similarly persecuted for nearly thirteen years. What kind of radical hatreds can we expect to arise from Iraq’s youth in the coming decades? We only need look at the deprivation of jobs, nutritious food, education, health care, psychological counseling, and most of all opportunity to get some idea of the desperation of Iraqi youth. Viewed in this way, the future may well become a reflection of the past.
Among the things people in the West must do is learn to pay closer attention to the semantics and rhetoric of war: what is the definition of “Terrorist”? Who are the “Terrorists?” Why does much of the Muslim world call the U.S. and Britain “Crusaders”? What are “Weapons of Mass Destruction” really? Does a 5,000 pound bomb, deliverable from 50,000 feet half a world away count as WMD, or only a third rate military power like Iraq’s (possibly non-existent, and certainly non-deliverable) stockpile of degraded chemicals or biologicals? Yet there has been a constant barrage of fear-mongering and war-mongering against Iraq in the Western press. At some point the question needs to be asked whether or not such extreme “Iraqnophobia” corresponds to reality.
The worldwide revulsion against American leadership evident in the February 15 protests was not because of any great love for the Iraqi regime, but because of the realization by millions of people that Iraq has been unjustly persecuted for over a decade, and is being unfairly targeted for a new and unnecessary war. Typical of the protesters, said to have totaled ten million persons in 603 cities around the world, was the reaction of a Canadian veteran of the allied army of occupation in Germany of WW II. He said, “The US has always been my favorite country—but I’ve changed my mind. Now it’s France. Your government is lying too much. Why do so many Americans not see the truth?”
The Political Struggle for Domination of the Middle East
One way to gain insight into the political ideology behind the present conflict with Iraq is to view the iconography of the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad. In Iraq, mosaic art, paintings, monuments, medals, and coins sometimes depict a map of the all the Arab nations with Iraq’s president as the leader. This is wishful thinking, of course, but it is a wish that does in fact seek transformation into reality. The map extends from the Atlantic shores of Morocco all the way across North Africa to the Zagros mountain frontier of Iran. This is the Arab empire that used to exist under the Umayyads and Abbasids, and which deep down every Arab heart still resonates to even today, even though it may seem far-fetched. History would seem to suggest that this construct is, and always will be, inimical to Western interests. Therefore it makes a certain amount of sense for the West to resist any such rebirth of Arabism or, to an even greater degree, a resurgence of the transnational phenomenon of Islamism.
Yet, to deal again with reality, the present universal political system of nationalism works against such visionary ideas. With Middle Eastern countries having developed to a greater or lesser degree their own national identities over the last century, it would seem that political unification of all the Arabs, still less of all the Muslims, is an impossibility. The interposition of modernity, secularism, and materialism, along with the ideals of the American and French revolutions (which percolated very slowly into the Middle East over more than a century) offer strong countervailing trends.
That said, the way the West has chosen to offset any gains in Arab unity, such as those made by Nasser in his heyday, may be criticized as faulty and certainly counter-productive of good inter-regional relations. The US and Britain, followed to a lesser extent by France and at times by Russia, have generally sought to (1) destroy or marginalize any charismatic leader who may arise in the Arab world; (2) lure both small and large Arab states into various kinds of alliances with Western powers; and (3) most importantly, to follow the Roman Empire’s maxim of divide et impera, which means, not “divide and conquer, as it is so often translated,” but more literally “divide and rule.”
Consequently, under this logic it becomes the task of the West, and particularly of its Middle Eastern colony, Israel, to follow a policy of breaking large states into smaller states, and small states into tribal and clan rivalries. This plan was implemented successfully and with utmost cruelty for more than fifteen years in Lebanon. Under conditions dominated by Israel following 1982, the Lebanese civil war was supported (largely passively), by the western alliance, and became a theatre of the Cold War due to inputs from Syria and its Soviet patron. The losers were the Lebanese themselves, the historically fractious ethnic and religious entities of the country. Eventually, following the end of the Cold War, Lebanon managed to re-constitute itself into an uneasy nation once more, but the rifts still exist and can easily reemerge.
Iraq is destined, if the U.S.-U.K.-Israeli alliance has its way, to be more or less permanently split into three parts. This despite the oft-stated position of the U.S. Department of State that Iraq should remain as a single entity. The lie is given to this policy line by the reality of the present “no-fly” zones under CENTCOM. In the event of an American occupation of Iraq, there is little doubt that these lines will become realities on the ground as well. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the U.S. truly wants Iraq to both stay united and to be democratic. A democratic election for all of Iraq would put an Ayatollah Khomeini clone in power in Baghdad (since the Shi’a are in the majority) and likely ignite a civil war as well, for the Sunnis would not accept such a government. The Kurdish zone would also probably rise up in a new revolution and declare statehood. Since a long U.S. occupation is unthinkable, and leaving a vacuum in the Gulf is unwise, the best course presently is for the US to stay out of Iraq’s internal affairs. One thing is certain: Iraqis will not accept a government imposed from outside.
Therefore the conflict with Iraq is not just about a single leader, or about specific armaments Iraq may or may not possess. It goes much deeper. It is an existential struggle for both the Arabs and Israel. The present gigantic world-encompassing political struggle (as seen in the mass February 15, 2003 protests all over the globe) must be understood as the Arab-Israeli conflict in macrocosm, the conflict having at last reached its climactic phase. Even so, this phase may—and likely will—be extended for many years to come before a final settlement is reached. The struggle for the domination of the Middle East, regardless of a potentially rapid U.S. victory in a second Gulf War, will not be over in 2003. It may in fact be just beginning.
Unfortunately for the coterie of swaggering hawks now in power in Washington, no one among them seems to have the prescience to see the issue in this way. For years it was steadfastly denied in Washington and by leading political pundits that there was any linkage at all between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the sanctions on Iraq. But in fact they are inextricably linked, exactly because of the collision of ideologies and Iraq’s “great potential wealth.”
A unique and spectacular opportunity for a way out of this morass has been deliberately ignored by the G. W. Bush administration. The most recent Arab League summit in Beirut produced the best offer for a comprehensive settlement Israel has, or is likely to, receive. Of course, the U.S. administration is not the only one that has acted arrogantly. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insultingly refused even to read the peace plan for Palestine proffered by Israel’s number one patron, the U.S., for a matter of a week, then curtly rejected it.
Comparing Rhetoric with Reality
The U.S.’s overall vision of democracy, women’s rights, and free secular education for everybody in the Middle East set forth recently in one of Secretary Powell’s major policy speeches is a noble one, capable of generating great enthusiasm from the western point of view, but is sure to run into incredibly high resistance in the region itself. In fact, it could be described as largely a pipe dream. The U.S. does not have a convincing record of providing a consistent supply of money and steady commitment to such schemes anywhere in the world, the Marshall plan excepted. Experienced observers of the scene believe that no such thing is likely to happen in the region short of two or three generations of strenuous efforts from progressive, pro-western elements within Arab society itself. At the moment, those elements are either not in control in the various Arab countries or hold power so tenuously that their survival is in doubt.
When it comes to weapons issues, one can ask why Iraq’s nuclear file has been pronounced satisfactory by the IAEA (and incidentally also by the CIA, which says Iraq might have a bomb within eight years if an improbable series of contingent events occur), while a huge hue and cry continues to be made over chemicals and biologicals that have not been found? When do people take leave of reality and allow mass paranoia to set in? Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Cohen has stated that twenty five nations have these prohibited weapons. So far Iraq is the only nation on earth that has been inspected so intensively, and for years at that. A reality check is badly needed.
Chief UNMOVIC inspector Hans Blix quietly and neatly used a few verbal pins to burst the balloon of Powell’s celebrated February UN speech, by revealing just how much of it is factually untenable. This on the heels of Tony Blair’s own debacle, when a supposedly definitive British intelligence dossier was publicly debunked as being in fact a crib sheet from a California graduate student’s outdated paper. After showing that the vaunted U.S. intelligence establishment was indeed putting the worst possible interpretation on its aerial photographs of the Ibn al-Haithem site, which could simply be normal activity, Blix intoned, “We have found no weapons of mass destruction.” As quiet as his delivery was, it was nevertheless a dramatic moment—exactly the reverse of Adlai Stevenson’s famous “gotcha” confrontation with the Soviets at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Frustrated, Powell threw away his prepared remarks and shot from the hip. He said, “Nobody likes war…but sometimes war is necessary to maintain world order.” He might have said, “The world order,” for that is precisely the implication of his remark. The “New World Order” seeks to impose political, economic, and military order wherever there is resistance or perceived disorder, all under U.S. hegemony, of course.
We need to ask, “What is that order?” And who exactly is threatening the peace and stability of the region? We need to be sure we are asking the right questions. The first of those questions should be the most basic one: “Have we in fact addressed the real problem in going after Iraq’s presumed stocks of prohibited weapons? Or is it a dodge for a more fundamental objective, U.S. control of Iraq’s “great potential wealth,” and the preservation and extension of U.S. “order” throughout what is admittedly a tumultuous region? This order now includes the placement of U.S. military forces in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, not to mention Columbia and all the forgotten places where U.S. troops are stationed as leftovers from WW II, the Korean War, and the Cold War.
Since the Bush Administration’s agenda is being driven by the ideological right, it makes sense to listen to what they are saying. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, appearing at an American Enterprise Institute forum in November, 2002 along with Kaspar Weinberger and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, urged the clash of civilizations mantra: in his mind, the “green threat” of Islam has replaced the “red threat” of communism. Of course. How else could these people hope to maintain their power, except by scaring people with a bogeyman image of Islam which doesn’t exist? It is true that radical Islamism presents a problem, no less to the Muslim countries that to the West, but this is a clash of political ideologies, and cannot truthfully be described as a “Clash of Civilizations.”
When this approach was first bruited about in the wake of the Cold War, it was ridiculed as improbable, if not impossible. Events have proved otherwise, not so much because of a unified Islamic threat from Muslim states, which in fact doesn’t exist, but because of small radical terrorist cells and the shock of their disastrous attacks on September 11, coupled with a swaggering response to the trauma by American policymakers. “Rather like using a sledge hammer to kill a fly,” one lady remarked at the onset of the U.S.-Afghan war.
Soon after September 11, Pentagon planners began organizing for an attack on Iraq. Secretary Powell tried unsuccessfully to demonstrate linkage between Iraq and Islamist terrorism. Most European intelligence agencies remain unconvinced. Iraq is not al-Qaeda, nor is al-Qaeda Iraq. But the Administration’s spokespersons keep insisting that the two are somehow connected in the face of the evidence. At least half of Americans accept the administration’s logic, ill-informed and convoluted as it is.
Islam is multi-faceted, diverse, disarticulate, richly textured, highly internally conflicted, appears to be increasingly losing its grip on the young, and perceives itself correctly as weak. Only by concerted and repetitive blows from the outside can it be made to coalesce, and that with incredible difficulty. Yet that is what the policies of the G. W. Bush administration have already begun to effect. It hardly needs to be said that a different approach is needed.
Have we addressed the real problem?
The real problem in the Arab Middle East at the moment is twofold: one crucial issue concerns Arab identity, which involves the evolution of a viable and coherent ideology for the Arab peoples generally and in particular for the states of the Arab world. The other concerns regional security, and, potentially at least, international security as well. The first problem is internal, and can only be solved by the Arabs themselves. The 20th century saw wild fluctuations in political ideology, political systems, and the structure of political institutions throughout the Middle East.
For countries to move from monarchy to Fascism to radical dictatorships to abortive attempts at democracy to socialism to Communism to theocracy all in one century is quite a dizzying set of changes. While not every country went through such stages, all these ideologies were present in the region at one time or another during the 1900’s. One of the underlying problems—perhaps the chief problem—of the region’s governments is their lack of legitimacy. This in part explains the typical instability of many of the governments in the region, including that of Turkey and Iran. Turkey endured a severe wave of terrorism in the 1980’s and an armed Kurdish revolt during the 1990’s. The search for legitimacy became especially evident in the regional rise in Islamism following Iran’s turn toward religious extremism under the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The fact that student riots, regional rebellions, and protests continue in Iran is a sign that even under the religious regime, true legitimacy is lacking.
What can the U.S. do about this issue? The answer: first, wish those countries well in their efforts to find suitable identities, establish workable political systems, and build sustainable institutions compatible with their own cultures. Secondly, stay engaged in ways many of USAID’s most admirable programs have attempted to do over the last half-century. Third, encourage more and more NGO’s to get involved in people-to-people programs (rather than mere “sustainable development,” the current buzz phrase in international aid), which sometimes throws obscene amounts of money into schemes imposed from the outside, most destined to fail.
To his credit, President Bush said some of these very kinds of things in his speech to Congress and the nation shortly after September 11. Perhaps he counter-intuitively engaged a humane and knowledgeable speechwriter for that enterprise. Unfortunately, we have heard nothing more of this approach since that time, with the administration’s preferred short cut, “brag loudly and carry a huge arsenal of bombs” taking precedence. The ongoing military drumbeat obliterates any thought of diplomacy or of an approach like that of the Peace Corps, which could lead the way to a more peaceful tomorrow.
Afghanistan is a case in point. Despite much high-flown rhetoric about wanting to help Afghans rebuild their nation, the U.S. continues to spend $2 billion per month in Afghanistan for military purposes, but has only come up with three-quarters of a billion dollars for aid projects in the last seventeen months. That comes out to less than 2.5 percent of U.S. military expenditures for each month. Once again, as the Indians used to say about the Great White Father in Washington, “White man speak with forked tongue.” At the international conference in Tokyo devoted to Afghan aid, the nations of the world pledged only $5 billion of the $15 billion needed to reconstruct Afghanistan. So far only about 20 percent of the amount pledged has been coughed up, and who knows if it will eventually be paid, or conveniently forgotten about? And, without much attention by the press, hostile attacks have gradually increased in Afghanistan until U.S. troops are presently receiving an average of one missile attack every day. Did someone say “quagmire?”
At the dramatic “Valentine’s day” Security Council meeting of February 14, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell was pushed to the wall diplomatically by the smooth eloquence and strong moral posture of the French Foreign Minister. Dominique de Villepin’s statesmanlike speech instantly catapulted France into the position of leader of European, and world, resistance to U.S. hegemonism. Despite the fact that the French are constantly reviled in Washington as having no principles when it comes to Iraq, but only economic interests, de Villepin succeeded admirably in blocking the U.S. rush to war.
Refusing to be realistic or face facts about Iraq’s supposed threat is itself a threat to the American body politic. Continuing to deal with political differences by the use of hackneyed and demeaning slogans cheapens discourse and leads to the easy recourse to violent “solutions.” The American public eagerly swallows the line that the French are ungrateful, cowardly, and sleazy money-grubbers, the Arabs are liars and terrorists, but the Americans are noble and altruistic. Objectifying people in this misleading way led to the horrors of World Wars I and II. Diplomacy, if we will use it, can provide a way out. The United Nations system, flawed as it is, has helped protect the world from the nightmarish barbarities of the 1914-1945 period for more than half a century. It should be strengthened and encouraged, not ignored and overridden.