01 July 2003

Eight theses on the war in Iraq

Seminar, July 2003

Eight theses on the war in Iraq


BOTH supporters and opponents of the US war on Iraq agree that ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ has irrevocably changed the dynamics of world politics, but there is little consensus on the precise contours of this change. Is the world now irrevocably unipolar, or will the war spur other powers to hasten the creation of a multipolar order? Will the US manage to pacify the Iraqi people and impose a stable – even democratic – regime there, or will it get bogged down militarily and politically? Has the rapid US victory over the Saddam Hussein regime made the probability of a similar invasion of other countries more likely? Or will it ensure that worldwide opposition to American policies is even more widespread and tenacious?

This essay will attempt to answer these and related questions by looking at eight sets of inter-related issues raised by the war in Iraq, all of which will be crucial in determining the future course of world politics.

Thesis number 1: The Iraq war has heightened the crisis of representative democracy in the West.

If the swift collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime and the popular response to the end of Ba’athist rule tell us a great deal about the undemocratic nature of the Iraqi system, the manner in which the Bush and Blair governments dragged their publics to war also reveals a lot about the manipulative, unrepresentative nature of the political system in the US and Britain. Once the decision was taken to attack Iraq, the military outcome of the war was never in doubt. But the problem for George W. Bush and Tony Blair – and indeed the entire political, bureaucratic and military establishment in their respective countries – is that the way in which they made their case for war has exposed the shadowy, undemocratic foundations on which political power sits even in the most outwardly democratic of societies.

This crisis is today outwardly manifested in the debate over how these two governments misled their people – and the world – by concocting evidence that Iraq not only possessed weapons of mass destruction but also was in a position to use them at short notice. The evidence of manipulation is too well-known by now to bear repetition in detail; two examples would suffice. It is now an accepted fact that President Bush used forged documents about alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger to mislead the US Congress and public into believing Saddam Hussein was close to building nuclear weapons. And in Britain, the Blairites turned an unsubstantiated claim by one individual Iraqi defector into an official assertion that Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction could be ready for deployment in as little as 45 minutes.

In Britain – and to a lesser extent, the US – the failure to find any of these weapons of mass destruction has revived a debate over the legitimacy of the war that had temporarily been stilled by the fighting itself. Bush has so far managed to ride the storm but Blair is on the ropes, and the public – a substantial majority of which was always against war – has no choice but to reflect on the ease with which the country’s democratic institutions can be subverted by a handful of individuals. After all, it is the existing Westminster system – of the ‘dictatorship of Cabinet’ and Prime Minister – which allowed Blair to almost rule by fiat, taking Britain to war despite overwhelming public opposition.

The democratic right of a citizen has been revealed to be a purely formal act of irrevocably delegating power to the elected. Once that right has been exercised, millions can take to the streets as they did in Britain without having any chance of affecting the official decision-making process. At election time, they can vote out a government but once again remain impotent to exercise any control over policies and decisions until elections come around again. In the US, the situation is no different.

In essence, what happened was this. The Bush administration, in line with the anti-Iraq policy of earlier US administrations, took a strategic decision soon after coming to power that the Saddam regime would be overthrown by force. Post-9/11, this goal became more realistic and soon after the war in Afghanistan was concluded, the administration took up the Iraq task in earnest. First, according to Clare Short, the British minister for overseas development who resigned after the war, Bush and Blair held a secret meeting sometime in June 2002 where they agreed to initiate a war against Iraq in the spring of 2003.

Having taken this decision, the two leaders set about the task of getting it endorsed by their publics. Elected representatives of Congress were convinced to delegate their right to declare war to the President on the basis of a plea built around manipulated – and even – fictional intelligence reports on Iraqi nuclear weapons. The same reports were then fed to an overeager mass media along with juicier leaks about Saddam’s alleged al-Qaeda links. The media in turn used this ‘information’ to build a popular consensus in the wider public around the idea that the threat to the US was so acute that there was no option to a full-scale invasion.

In Britain, much the same was attempted. We now know that there were also secret briefings and inner cabinet meetings to bring key opponents in the Conservative and Labour parties on board. All of this is now the subject of formal inquiries in both the British parliament and US houses of Congress. Whether the truth – and, more importantly, genuine corrective action – will emerge is by no means certain.

The ongoing crisis of credibility has also exposed the ‘state within the state’ that exists in ‘democratic’ societies, the inner core of executive power arrangements which allows the ruling class to rule, which builds consensus amongst the ruling party, opposition, bureaucracy and armed forces, as well as the intelligence community. In the wake of the WMD crisis, the Anglo-American institutions of representative democracy can only save themselves from being discredited by discrediting the institutions of intelligence gathering, and more generally, the institutions of ‘national security’.

Their backs to the wall, the political leadership’s standard response to the charge of misleading the public on Iraq’s WMD programmes is to claim that everything they said was on the basis of intelligence. Not surprisingly, the intelligence gatherers are unwilling to take this charge lying down. That is why the most damaging revelations about intelligence having been deliberately ‘sexed up’ by either the Bush administration or the Blairites have come from within the intelligence establishment itself on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain, Blair’s opponents within the Labour party and the opposition Liberal Democrats and even Conservatives are going to town over the intelligence manipulation issue. In the US, it remains to be seen how the Democrats will now exploit the failure to find WMD. Senator Bob Graham and Howard Dean, two presidential contenders, have begun asking questions but others like Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman are wary of rocking the boat too much.

Thesis number 2: There are other candidates for ‘regime change’ but the US will not find it so easy to take military action against them. In response to the American threat, however, more countries will be tempted to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Iran and North Korea have already been identified as part of the so-called axis of evil but military action against them would not be an easy matter. However, it is disturbing that an orchestrated campaign against the Iranian government is already underway on both the nuclear weapons issue and the question of democracy and human rights. The report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, released in the middle of June, merely stated that Iran had failed to disclose some information but that the matter was being resolved with official cooperation. This formulation has been turned into a serious indictment of Iran and the US has stepped up pressure on Teheran to sign on to an additional NPT protocol (known by the IAEA as Infcirc/540) permitting surprise, go-as-you please inspections of undeclared nuclear facilities. The irony, of course, is that Washington has so far refused to accept the same protocol: though the Clinton administration signed the protocol in 1998, the US has yet to formally ratify it.

As for North Korea, it has moved from a position of nuclear ambiguity to one of openly owning up to a nuclear weapons programme which it pledges it will never give up unless the US makes concessions such as signing a non-aggression treaty and withdrawing its forces from South Korea. Though North Korea has had a dormant nuclear weapons programme since signing the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US, there is evidence that this was resumed in the aftermath of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ reference to Pyongyang in his January 2002 State of the Union address. Post-Iraq, it is even more likely that the North Korean regime would seek its security in a nuclear deterrent.

As in the case of Iraq, most of the world remains firmly opposed to the idea of a ‘regime change’ imposed militarily on these two countries. Even South Korea, whose security Washington usually cites as the reason for acting tough on the North, favours a negotiated approach to Pyongyang’s nuclear question. There is also a feeling in the South that the Bush administration has deliberately sought to undermine the rapprochement briefly underway between the two Koreas, that Washington is opposed to the reunification of Korea under any circumstances.

Given the widespread feeling among the public in the US and UK about having been duped into war, as well as the unhealed divisions among the major powers, it is unlikely that the Bush administration will want to rush into another conflict. However, other forms of pressure – including espionage, sabotage and sanctions – could well be resorted to.

Hawks in the US are also keen to bring about regime change in Saudi Arabia and Syria. Pressure on Damascus is seen as a way of weakening the Palestinian resistance and strengthening the hands of Israel in the eventual ‘roadmap for peace’ the US envisages for the region. In Saudi Arabia, many see the US occupation of Iraq as a means for Washington to reduce its economic and military dependence on Riyadh, paving the way for efforts at imposing major changes on the kingdom. The controversial presentation to the Pentagon by RAND corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec calling for US military action against the House of Saud has led to a widespread fear in Saudi Arabia that America’s ‘war on terror’ will eventually set its sights on that country.

Thesis number 3: As US domination of Asia and the oil and gas resources of the world grows, opposition to it from Europe will increase.

It was not a coincidence that the strongest opposition to the US war against Iraq within the UN Security Council came from Germany and France, the two countries at the heart of the common European political and economic enterprise. When US defence secretary spoke about the Old Europe of Germany and France versus the New Europe of the former Warsaw Pact countries, he was taking more than just a cheap ‘civilization’ shot at Berlin and Paris. Indeed, one of the most interesting dynamics at play in the continent today is the rivalry between the US and the Franco-German axis over the economic and political absorption of East Europe.

Their eventual membership of the European Union will strengthen the economic clout of Europe but their role in the US-led military alliance NATO means these countries will also be firmly tied to Washington. If Europe and the US fail to reconcile their differences on various fronts, countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic would be forced to choose one or the other. If by then their incorporation into the Euro zone is complete, it would be extremely difficult for them to abandon Europe.

At the same time, it is important not to overstate the case of a Europe-US rift. If France and Germany remained implacably opposed to the war, it was also evident that they did not wish to go down to the wire. They did not push for a debate in the Security Council condemning the US aggression and in fact helped pass Resolution 1483 granting the US occupation of Iraq de jure recognition. If France (and Germany) had decided to veto that resolution, it would have led to an irreconcilable rift with the US, something that would be out of sync with the economic and political ‘facts on the ground’ between the two sides.

However, as the US control over oil and gas resources grows, contradictions between the two sides of the Atlantic are likely to sharpen. There will be other sources of rivalry too, not least the rising strength and credibility of the euro, and the rise perhaps of a ‘petroeuro’ (as opposed to petrodollar) phenomenon caused by oil producing countries losing confidence in the US as a secure destination for oil revenue investments. Europe may be able to take a US attack on North Korea in its stride but any precipitate US action against Iran would likely be the trigger for the EU, and in particular France and Germany, to draw a line in the sand.

Thesis number 4: Asia will continue to be divided in the face of growing US assertiveness, with major players like India and Japan under pressure to side with the US in its twin aims of controlling the oil resources of West and Central Asia and containing China.

One of the most paradoxical and disturbing aspects of the Iraq war has been the ambiguity with which the Indian government has reacted to the US aggression. Initially determined to stick to a ‘middle path’ of not agreeing with but not condemning the US, the Vajpayee government was forced by public opinion and a united opposition into backing the unanimous passage of a Parliament resolution condemning Washington and demanding that it withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Today, however, it is clear that as far as the government was concerned, those were mere words. The very fact that India is considering sending its army to help the US enforce its occupation of Iraq is a fair indication of where the actual sentiments of the ruling establishment lie. Driven by a myopic, Pakistan-centric policy into making a Faustian bargain with the US, the BJP takes great pride in being ‘recognised’ by Washington as a regional power. In the process it is willing to set aside the anti-war resolution passed by Parliament, mirroring in its own way the same contempt for democracy that the Bush and Blair regimes have displayed.

However, the Indian government will find it harder to go along with the broader Bush administration aim of helping the US ‘contain’ China. Though Indian industry sees China as a threat and believes close relations with the US best serve its interests, there is a section which also sees China as a potential market, source of capital and ally on the world corporate stage. The BJP has certainly learnt a lot about managing these two contradictory impulses since the early days of 1998 when Prime Minister Vajpayee explicitly identified the Chinese threat as the main reason India went nuclear in his letter to President Bill Clinton.

In Japan, the Koizumi government also bucked its domestic public opinion by extending support to the US war on Iraq. Given the structural weakness of the Japanese economy – driven in equal measure by the rise of China, its inability to supplement its ageing workforce with large-scale immigration, and its failure to withstand US pressure on trade and market access – Tokyo is the one Asian and indeed world power (barring Britain) most likely to fully go along with US military plans.

Thesis number 5: The armaments gap between the US and the rest of the world is so enormous – and growing ever wider – that it is impossible for any country or alliance to pose a military challenge to the US in the next five decades.

In terms of both the quantity and quality of weapons it currently possesses – for army, air force and navy and strategic purposes – the US is so far ahead of the rest of the world that it is virtually impossible for any big power to even think of acting as a military balancer. If one considers the amount of money being invested in weapons acquisitions and research in the US, and the degree to which the US arms industry has consolidated itself, the gulf between America and the rest of the world is wider still. The US programmes for space-based weapons is at an advanced stage, missile defence projects are nearing completion, new low-yield nuclear weapons are being developed, conventional weaponry is being made ever more precise and lethal – all with the stated aim of establishing what the Pentagon calls ‘full spectrum dominance’.

Even if China or Europe were to start spending on weapons programmes the kind of sums the US is currently spending, it would take them several decades to catch up to where the US is today, and would probably bankrupt their economies in the bargain. The broad strategic goal outlined by the US at the end of George Bush Sr. presidency – of preventing any rivals from emerging in the world which could challenge US supremacy – can already be considered fulfilled. However, this does not mean the US will not periodically continue to threaten and actually use its military might against others. In the past decade, the US has bombed Sudan and launched full-scale military attacks against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the next decade, there could well be other targets.

Thesis number 6: The United Nations and the international legal architecture built since World War II is unable to prevent the violation of international law by the US.

This is a claim that is non controversial and hardly needs explanation. One could argue that the UN system has never been equipped to deal with violations of international law by the powerful, especially permanent members of the Security Council. While the UN saved its honour by refusing to sanction the US attack on Iraq, its failure to pin the US and UK down on the illegality of the attack – especially now that it is clear Iraqi WMD do not exist – has not done the organisation much credit.

Even new legal institutions like the International Criminal Court will be useless as a platform to check the crime of aggression, war crimes, and violations of international humanitarian law by a country like the US. The failure of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to indict NATO commanders for the deliberate killing of civilians in Yugoslavia in 1999 shows that these courts are essentially political bodies that cannot operate in a vacuum unrelated to existing structures of international power.

However, the failure of the US and international legal institutions in general does not mean that issues of legality should be considered irrelevant. Indeed, it is essential that political and social movements around the world opposed to hegemony and aggression continue to use the discourse of international law and put pressure in their domestic spheres for governments to adhere to legality in their actions.

Thesis number 7: People in the developing countries must come up with nation-building projects which give a concrete, rights-based meaning to national sovereignty. This is the only possible defence against outside interference and intervention.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of what is fashionably called ‘humanitarian intervention’, the experience of the past decade teaches us that the defence of national sovereignty is next to impossible in situations where citizens are denied their economic, social and political rights. The outside intervention in the former Yugoslavia leading up to the illegal NATO attack on the remnants of the federation in 1999 was illegal and unjustified but who can deny that the chauvinist policies of Slobodan Milosevic created fertile ground for this intervention to take place? Similarly in Iraq, Saddam Hussein spoke a rhetorical language of Iraqi nationalism devoid of actual content and was thus unable to inspire the Iraqi masses to defend the Ba’athist regime against US aggression.

Regimes which are built on a democratic, participatory foundation based on recognising the rights of their citizens are the only ones which will be able to defend their national sovereignty against outside intervention, even by a military behemoth like the US. Nuclear weapons and other sophisticated or lethal arms can provide no guarantee.

Thesis number 8: The ‘war on terror’ will eventually turn inward. People in the US and other advanced industrial countries must struggle for meaningful democracy, for the renewal of their democratic institutions, so that they are representative not just in form but content as well.

The war has highlighted the fact that ordinary citizens in the West are actually disempowered and unable to affect the course of events. As the ‘war on terrorism’ continues – this is, after all, a war the US says will be endless – the very institutions whose lapses and ineptitude led to a disaster like 9/11 are getting their hands further and further strengthened. In legal terms, the US executive has arrogated to itself rights to detain and try foreign citizens that would do most authoritarian countries proud.

The ‘fear of terrorism’ is leading to the erosion of the taboo against torture of suspects. And the US Congress is considering a nasty new law, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSEA) that goes way beyond the already draconian USA PATRIOT law in terms of the power it grants the executive branch to detain and prosecute citizens and even strip them of their citizenship should they be considered supporters of foreign terrorist organisations. The Pentagon is working on a super-secret programme known as TIA, or Total Information Awareness, aimed at gathering as much information about every US resident in order to develop profiles of potential terrorists.

In other words, sooner rather than later, the tools and techniques being developed to wage the so-called ‘war on terror’ abroad will be visited upon ordinary Americans themselves. Any society which militarises itself to the extent the US has, and which encourages a siege mentality of the sort that has been engendered since 9/11, will eventually turn against its own people. It will then be up to the people of the US to join a struggle that the rest of the world would already be engaged in.

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