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  War on Iraq - Worse than a crime - 2  

  Vol III : issue 5&6

  Godfrey Hodgson
  Achin Vanaik
  Sanjoy Hazarika
  Lucy Nusseibeh
N.S. Madhavan
  Ashok Vajpeyi
  Asghar Wajahat
  M.A. Hashhash
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Godfrey Hodgson

Mixed media on paper by VINAYAK BHATTACHARYA

To put it bluntly, the motives of the Bush administration’s aggressiveness towards Iraq are suspect. There is a suspicion that there are key policy makers in the administration, men like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and others, whose motivation for a showdown with Iraq derived largely from a desire to take the pressure off Israel. They see this as seizing an opportunity to create a new, peaceful and democratic Middle East in which the threat to Israel’s existence is removed. They are undoubtedly serious about this. They talk of rebuilding democracy in the Middle East, as General MacArthur did in Japan after 1945, or as the Allies did in West Germany. We are entitled to question whether the United States would really be willing to commit itself to the long-term economic effort to rebuild the Middle East, just as we may ask by what right it should do so. And in any case, the actual consequence of American policy, the policy of the American friends of Likud, it seems to me and to many Israelis, is at least as likely to be to increase as to diminish the threat to Israel. A few short years ago, there was a real possibility that the Arab nations, for good and valuable consideration, would accept the legitimacy of Israel. That foundation stone for peace is now being undermined, as much by the Pentagon’s inflated rhetoric as by Israeli heavy-handedness.

Second, it is hard to avoid a suspicion that, in spite of denials, what Washington really wants is simply revenge for September 11, some dramatic evidence that its people cannot be killed, its monuments brought down and its dignity flouted without a terrible penalty being paid by someone. The operation in Afghanistan, the first effort to ‘do something’, was a brilliant military success, but also a political failure. Osama bin Laden was neither captured nor killed. Al-Qaeda survives. Afghanistan seems to be slipping back into chaos and even into something like the state of affairs under the Taliban. A triumphal entry into Baghdad, the death or capture of Saddam, would be some compensation, in terms of the Bush administration’s standing with American public opinion, for frustration in Afghanistan.

At the same time, a war against Iraq would be a welcome diversion for a Republican administration whose political position, superficially impressive, is in fact precarious. Washington commentators are now saying that the President is stronger than any of his predecessors since Lyndon Johnson. That is nonsense. Johnson, who was forced to abdicate a second term and in the end could hardly leave the White House for fear of demonstrations, was not that strong. And the George W. Bush administration, of dubious legitimacy because of the circumstances in which the 2000 election was decided by the Supreme Court, is vulnerable because of the weakness of the economy and the discrediting of its supporters in its favourite corporate boardrooms. There is some evidence that the American electorate, far from accepting the conservative Republican ideology, is drifting back towards Democratic liberalism2, and has only been prevented from doing so in an unmistakable way by a series of exceptional political environments. First came Monica Lewinsky. From a political perspective, the significant point about a year of ‘all Monica, all of the time’ on US media was not the President’s conduct, but the Republicans’ failure, in spite of a massive and prolonged media campaign, to persuade the American people that it mattered. Then came September 11, and a predictable and understandable rallying of Americans, political and apolitical, to the banner of their President. (An American President is head of State as well as of government, national symbol as well as political mortal.) Then, just as the glamour of national ‘resolve’ was becoming tarnished by repeated evidence of corporate malpractice in precisely the world this administration represents, the prospect of war in Iraq has revived its patriotic claims to support.

To destabilise the Muslim world is a reckless thing in itself. But behind it lurks an even more dangerous proposition: that a Republican Washington feels free to embark on military punitive expeditions whenever the interests of the United States, or the political interest of the administration of the day, or the aroused emotions of the American people, recommend such adventures

Those three factors, it seems to me, rather than any objective change in the threat presented by Saddam Hussein, answer the question, ‘Why now?’ For the fundamental question is surely this: Why is it necessary to invade Iraq in order to destroy Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction when one can live with them by making it absolutely plain that his life is worth only as much as the option of using them. The United States coexisted for forty years with a Soviet Union armed with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and with formidable means of delivery. Even today, the ‘lone superpower’, so continuously evoked in Washington rhetoric, is happy to coexist with great and growing Chinese nuclear capabilities, not to mention with British, French, Israeli, Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals, and even apparently with one in North Korea. Is the drive to end nuclear proliferation the real motive for the administration’s policy? I don’t think anyone believes that, given that the Bush administration has given up on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

What really worries me about Washington’s policy is its consequences for international relations generally. For one thing, it threatens to make Samuel Huntington’s nightmare, the ‘clash of civilisations’, come true3. When Huntington’s article, subsequently expanded into a book, was published in 1996, I thought it was absurd, a sub-Spenglerian fantasy whose purport, if not purpose, was to justify American arms expenditure. ‘Who can challenge us so as to justify our thousands of warheads and delivery systems, our carrier battle groups and army divisions; well, if the Chinese got together with Islam, that would be a war of worlds all right.’ The Huntington thesis, at the time, seemed not much more serious than that. But now, provoked of course by the September 11 attacks, a Republican administration that often seems openly contemptuous of what Thomas Jefferson called "a decent respect for the opinion of mankind", seems willing to lash out at an ‘axis of evil’ that is scarcely seriously defined, let alone understood.

Specifically, what I fear is that a US attack on Iraq (in which, incidentally, the government of my own country would be involved in the worst possible way, exposed to all of the risks and none of the rewards) would destabilise relations between the West as a whole and the Islamic world. It would almost certainly lead to the fall of a significant number of governments with which the rest of the world has hitherto, more or less successfully, been able to work. From Morocco to Indonesia, by way of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, not least, Pakistan, there are powerful states with predominantly Muslim populations whose governments, while not all ‘moderate’ as the word is used in Washington, have been at least biddable, in the sense of being willing to abide by rules and conventions, essentially American-defined, of an acceptably peaceful world. Who would bet the farm, in the event of an attack on Iraq, that at least three such governments will not fall in the next five years? In 1991, George Bush Sr. was able to put together a genuine coalition that included Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey to vindicate international law. In 2003, the United States is willing to see whether its actions are supported by the UN, but makes it quite plain that if they are not, it will not make the slightest difference. Whatever Washington thinks it is vindicating in 2003, it is not international law.

To destabilise the Muslim world is a reckless thing in itself. But behind it lurks an even more dangerous proposition: that a Republican Washington feels free to embark on military punitive expeditions whenever the interests of the United States, or the political interest of the administration of the day, or the aroused emotions of the American people, recommend such adventures. We have already seen a number of occasions on which war was launched at least in large part because Western governments responded to the emotive reaction of their television audiences to harrowing pictures: that was what happened in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and it could happen again, although Washington does not seem so keen to react in the same way when human rights are abused by powerful countries such as Russia in Chechnya or China in Tibet.

The danger is that a war against Iraq would be part of a wider process, that of establishing a Pax Americana that will be indistinguishable from an American imperium. American foreign policy is justified in the name of democracy. But the billion voters in the Indian democracy, like the 350 million Europeans and billions elsewhere, have no democratic authority over the use of American power. The United Nations may be consulted, so long as their decisions accord with American intentions. In the last analysis, the United States, as the Republicans see it, is free to shape the world as it wants. If that becomes American policy, it will indeed be worse than a crime.


1. The Duc d’Enghien was kidnapped on Napoleon’s orders from Germany, where he was living in exile, because a monarchist rebel hinted under interrogation that a prince of the French royal house was involved in his insurrection. D’Enghien was a grandson of the Prince de Condé, a soldier and a descendant of kings of France.
2. See John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, 2002.
3. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

p. 1 p. 2

Godfrey Hodgson is a distinguished print and television journalist, political commentator
and historian of the United States. Until recently Director of the Reuters Foundation Programme, Oxford University, he lives in Oxfordshire