America's dilemma

After the Iraq invasion, Americans are faced with an impossible choice on how to judge their government’s “pre-emptive” war doctrine, argues George Blecher.

Underneath the self-righteous rhetoric and saber-rattling, the US has offered two basic reasons for its invasion of Iraq: to rid Iraq of a tyrannical regime and introduce Western-style democracy, and to confiscate weapons of mass destruction. (This isn’t to say that there aren’t unstated motives, like the wish to control Iraqi oil, to outflank Syria and Lebanon, etc. but let’s set these aside for the moment.) If we want a picture not of the morality of the invasion but of its possible consequences, I think it’s worthwhile examining the credibility of these goals, rather than mouthing them uncritically (on the Right) or rejecting them as blatant imperialism (on the Left).

As for the first goal: nobody questions that Saddam Hussein’s regime was cruel and oppressive, though it also has to be said that it maintained an uneasy cohesiveness in a region prone to religious and tribal conflict. (Tito did it much better in ex-Yugoslavia.) Whether any country has a right to invade another because it disapproves of the other’s government is of course another question, and the US’s past record in supporting democratic movements over tyrants and dictators has been poor. Perhaps most important, one has to question the US’s ability to introduce democracy to other countries when its own has been compromised in a myriad of ways over the last 50 years.

Be that as it may, the deed is done, and the more immediate question is whether the US’s presence will bring political improvement in Iraq.

In the case of Japan and South Korea, both of whose governments were shaped by direct US control in the past century, I think that one would have to say yes, the introduction of democratic institutions in these countries did represent a step toward ideals that most of us believe in-equality, political representation, increase of personal liberties. In the Philippines the experiment was less successful. In Afghanistan it may be too early to judge, but so far the results haven’t been impressive. In Iraq the prognosis doesn’t seem to me particularly promising. Just today, Shiite leaders boycotted the first US-arranged meeting of political factions– one tiny suggestion of how powerful past resentments are in Iraq. Given the lack of any dynamic unifying figure or political party, one senses that the vacuum in Iraq may not be filled by democracy but by religious fundamentalists and virulent anti-Western voices, which will have the effect of keeping the occupying forces there for a long, long time– in the vain hope that things will eventually quiet down and start to look like the West.

The US’s second goal-to get rid of weapons of mass destruction-is directly related to two political events: Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and September 11, 2001.

Perhaps to gain time and build up armaments after his Kuwait fiasco, but more likely to impress his own people, Saddam played David to the US’s Goliath for the last 12 years with a good deal of verve and imagination. He resisted full disclosure, limited the number of weapons inspectors, and successfully stalled for time. Norman Mailer described his behavior in a recent article in The New York Review of Books:

[Saddam] understood that the longer one could delay powerful statesmen, the more they might weary of the soul-deadening boredom of dealing with a consummate liar who was artfully free of all the bonds of obligation and cooperation.

And it worked as long as the superpower felt invincible; though annoying (and politically damaging, because of the effects of economic boycotts on the Iraqi people), Saddam’s antics weren’t truly threatening to the US. September 11 changed all that. Suddenly the Empire found itself vulnerable, and realized that everyone else knew it, too.

Given this new vulnerability, the future looks distressingly dark. Like any empire sensing its mortality, the US will most likely grow more and more paranoid, angrier and angrier, and also more and more beset not by one David, but by several. The term “pre-emptive war” will become more and more familiar. Perhaps it will turn out that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, but in the case of biological or chemical weapons it takes no great amount of money or scientific skills to produce them, and sooner or later they will be used as a threat against the US. Since Vietnam, the US has found itself acting out a script in which there are no acceptable alternatives: if it acts macho, it, like Rome, Great Britain and France to name just a few fallen empires, will have troops occupying 2/3’s of the world; if it resists flexing its muscles, as it did after the Gulf War, it will find itself being snipped at by factions expressing resentment in a hundred different ways. This appears to be the destiny of all Big Powers, the awareness of which one senses behind both the bravado of Donald Rumsfeld and the reserve of Colin Powell.

In a sense, the real tragedy lies not with America but with Americans, who will eventually face an impossible personal dilemma: whether to defend, either physically or rhetorically, a political/military stance that they don’t quite approve of, or watch passively as the Empire declines.

Published 23 April 2003
Original in English

Contributed by Varlik © Varlik Eurozine


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