01 October 2002

A 'regime change' in international affairs

Seminar, October 2002
URL: http://www.india-seminar.com/2002/518/518%20siddharth%20varadarajan.htm

A ‘regime change’ in international affairs


In the 1990s, it became fashionable to think and talk about ‘exit strategies’. There can be no exit strategy in the war against terrorism. It is a war that will persist. There is unlikely to be…a decisive battle in this war. An exit strategy, therefore, will do us no good. What we need is an endurance strategy.

Richard Haass,

Director, Policy Planning Staff,

US Department of State, 13 September 2002.1

SOMETIMES, the humblest of press releases can tell us more about the true nature of the world we live in than learned disquisitions on international politics. On 21 August 2002, some three weeks before the first anniversary of 9/11, the United States Embassy in New Delhi issued a ‘backgrounder’ titled ‘White House Criticizes Attack on Iraqi Embassy in Berlin’. An armed group of Iraqis in the German capital claiming to represent a hitherto unknown group, the Democratic Iraqi Opposition of Germany, had attempted to take control of the Iraqi embassy there. ‘Actions like this takeover are unacceptable,’ White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was quoted as saying. His concern was that ‘legitimate efforts’ to bring ‘regime change to Iraq’ were being ‘undermined’ by actions like these. ‘At all times the American position is to support the rule of law, the rule of international law… It is not acceptable to have takeovers of other nations’ embassies’ (emphasis added).

Unmindful of the irony, Fleischer was asserting one of the defining principles of global order the way Washington sees it: That in the post 9/11 world, the US intends to establish a monopoly over the use of force internationally and that all other violence perpetrated by states or individuals is illegitimate so long as it does not fit in with US interests. Hence, the attempted takeover of one Iraqi embassy is not acceptable but the take-over of the whole of Iraq (under the euphemism of ‘regime change’) by the Bush administration is considered consistent with the rule of international law.

The catastrophe that occurred on 9/11 has accentuated certain features of US policy already in evidence in the past decade and has also given rise to new and disturbing military doctrines which pose a great threat to international peace and security. However, the underlying thrust of US strategy remains that which was articulated in the early years of the first Clinton administration, namely to prevent the rise of global rivals.

The doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’, the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation under a new strategic concept envisaging ‘out of area’ operations, the idea of ‘full spectrum dominance’, including the development of new and more lethal weapons of mass destruction and missile defence, the aggressive promotion of US business interests abroad, the insertion of Washington as a ‘balancer’ in newer areas such as South Asia even as autonomous efforts at peacebuilding elsewhere (such as in the Koreas) are undermined by it – have all served to strengthen the projection of political, economic and military power by the US around the world.

With the collapse of the ‘borderless’ new economy bubble in the last years of the second Clinton administration bringing latent contradictions between the ‘old economy’ industries in the advanced capitalist countries to the fore, American big business – especially in the energy and weapons sector – put its money behind the ‘isolationist’ approach of George W. Bush. What 9/11 did was to resolve the tension between the ‘isolationism’ of the Bush administration and the economic and strategic need of the US to project power globally. The circle was squared by aggressive unilateralism on every front – from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention and Missile Defence, to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, steel tariffs and the International Criminal Court. 9/11 created the political space for Bush to declare that the US would do exactly as it pleased.

So overwhelming is the strength and influence of the US today that other big countries find their ability to exert countervailing power severely curtailed. Russia was forced to acquiesce to Nato’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999, Russia and China are helpless spectators of the expanding US presence in Central Asia, and the entire world is being corralled into supporting US aggression against Iraq despite knowing that the reasoning put forward by the Bush administration is fraudulent, mendacious and self-serving. Multilateral bodies like the United Nations are today at best able temporarily to stay the hand of the US, only to end up providing a ‘multilateral’ cover to the unilateral exercise of US power.

It is against this backdrop that President Bush and his advisors have unveiled their doctrine of ‘pre-emptive war’. It is instructive to see how the arguments in favour of the use of force have evolved since 9/11, with the standard claim of the right to individual and collective self-defence (invoked to justify the bombing of Afghanistan) giving way to a more expansive concept based on future threats arising from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In a speech delivered to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London on 13 September 2002, Richard Haass elaborated on this new doctrine:

‘9/11 and its aftermath accelerated new thinking that had already begun about the limits of sovereignty… Today we are on the cusp of a third adjustment to our thinking about sovereignty (after Rwanda and Kosovo). Classical notions of deterrence have little relevance for groups like Al Qaida, which have no constituencies to defend, no borders to protect, and no traditional national assets to preserve. We need to act against these threats.

Similarly, deterrence and containment may well prove inadequate for dealing with Saddam Hussein, someone who has repeatedly violated his international obligations and who is doing everything in his power to develop and conceal weapons of mass destruction. In this new international environment where terrorism and WMD are intersecting, we cannot allow a regime like Saddam’s to flout the demands of the international community… (T)he dangers of inaction outweigh the costs of action. In these extreme circumstances, a strong case can be made for preventive military action.’2

Another senior State Department official, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., told a conference on the ‘War on Terrorism’ in Paris on 11 September 2002, that European military institutions had to join the US in being ‘more focused on a new kind of role, further from home and more expeditionary in nature. We could call this concept ‘projecting security’, since the key to reducing the threat of terror attacks on our homeland is to suppress the sources of the threat in the places far from home where terrorists plan and train.’3

This doctrine is sought to be legitimised by references to the danger posed by terrorists acquiring or using WMD, but the main targets are those states outside the US sphere of influence which have – or are alleged to have – weapons capabilities in excess of what Washington believes they should possess. President Bush identified these countries in his State of the Union speech in January 2002 when he referred to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the ‘axis of evil’.

Since Iraq presents the easiest target of the three – both in political and military terms – the Bush administration and his apologists have begun a carefully orchestrated campaign to go to war against Baghdad. Though the international community remains firmly opposed to any attack on Iraq, the US is likely eventually to have its way, with, of course, disastrous consequences for Asia and the world.

The one region where US policy is in deep crisis is West Asia. The determination of the Palestinians to build a genuinely independent state has held firm despite all attempts by Israel and the US to force a dishonourable compromise. And in the Persian Gulf, the policy of ‘dual containment’ – which the US hoped would undermine Iran and Iraq and help it to reassert full control over the oil resources of the region – has been a signal failure. In a remarkably frank and incisive assessment of ‘dual containment’, Stephen C. Pelletiere of the US Army War College has argued that the policy failed because ‘it does not respect the principle of power balancing.’ The idea of balance was intrinsic to George Kennan’s notion of containment.

Pelletiere writes: ‘Kennan argued that the Soviet Union and the United States, inasmuch as both were superpowers, had everything to lose and nothing to gain by going to war with each other… What Kennan was expressing was the concept of balancing – the idea that, in the world of international politics, a proper balance could be struck between potential adversaries and this would produce a stable situation which could be prolonged for an indefinite period.’ In the case of the Gulf, however, the US ‘confronted hostile states Iran and Iraq with what amounted to a diktat – the two either give in completely to America’s desires, remaking themselves as the United States required, or Washington would simply keep up the sanctions until they did.’4

Despite ensuring the continuance of crippling economic sanctions on Iraq for more than a decade and trying its best to weaken Iran’s oil industry, the US has not managed to have its way with either country. Instead of abandoning the failed policy of containment, the US administration is using the opportunity provided to it by 9/11 to up the ante. Where Bush Sr. cavilled at marching on to Baghdad, ‘regime change’ is now part of the explicit military goal of his son’s presidency.

It is clear that the Persian Gulf will soon be home to an enormous, permanent garrison and there is even talk of shifting the US military’s Central Command (Centcom) from Florida to its ‘natural home’ on the Arabian peninsula. If Washington has its way in Iraq, Iran will be the next target for ‘regime change’. Other countries which either seek to develop better weapons to defend themselves or are accused by the US of trying to do so could come into firing range. In the event of political instability in Saudi Arabia, that country too could become a frontline state in the shifting ‘war on terror’.

At the same time, the doctrine of preventive war need not be applicable only to situations created by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Anything, anywhere in the world which has a potential to impact negatively on US national security, can see diktats and ultimatums being issued. ‘In the wake of 9/11,’ says Haass, ‘Americans recognise that what happens "out there" can have a major effect on their lives. A failed state in Central Asia, the curriculum in religious schools in Pakistan, lawlessness in the Andes, drug trafficking in Central Asia, instability in Africa – all have the potential to affect US national security. We now understand that even if we choose not to engage with the world, it will engage with us, and not always in welcome ways. As a result, there is much greater American willingness to commit resources to national security and to use them.’

Armed with a greater ‘willingness to commit resources to national security’ and ‘full spectrum dominance’ in military technology, the US is now giving itself a full spectrum of potential situations in which it can use its enormous power. This is, after all, going to be a war that Haass assures us will persist forever, and from which the US intends to have no exit strategy. Unless, of course, the American people succeed in bringing about regime change.


1. Richard N. Haass, ‘Reflections a Year After September 11’. Reproduced in ‘State’s Haass says none should be complacent about terrorist threat’, U.S. Embassy press release, New Delhi, 16 September 2002.

2. Ibid.

3. Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., ‘Challenges in the Post-9/11 World’. Reproduced in ‘State’s Bloomfield says terror attacks changed security focus’, U.S. Embassy press release, New Delhi, 16 September 2002.

4. Stephen C. Pelletiere, ‘Landpower and Dual Containment: Rethinking America’s Policy in the Gulf’. U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, November 1999.

No comments: