by Gabriel Ash
October 21, 2002
I'll merely state the obvious: The White House wants war badly, and none of the excuses it came up with makes much sense.
Saddam Hussein is the kind of ruler that comes straight from fairy tales: power crazed, narcissistic, ruthless, and viciously mean. His people live in fear. But Hussein is hardly alone in terrorizing his people. The new American lackeys, Karimov in Uzbekistan and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, come to mind. Hussein would love to have nuclear weapons. But fundamentalist nutcakes are much more likely to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan, which already has them. Hussein attacked his neighbors and ignored many Security Council resolutions. So did Israel, many times over.
The reasons for the war fever in Washington lie elsewhere, in a complex combination of factors.
Geopolitical strategies play an important role: Control of Iraqi oil is an obvious goal, and so is the consolidation of military access to the Caspian sea. Also crucial is the wish to restore U.S. "credibility" (as a ruthless bully) in the Middle East in response to September 11.
Electoral considerations are maybe even more important. First, there is the short term need to deflect attention from the worsening economy and the corporate scandals, including the shady corporate past of Bush, Cheney, White, and others in top positions. Second, there is the long term shadow cast by the bankruptcy of the Republican Party's domestic platform.
No doubt, an important contributing factor is the extreme right wing Zionist persuasion of a number of key Pentagon officers and advisors, including Wolfowitz and Perle. They want to destabilize the Middle East in order to undermine any potential pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.
Add to these factors the legitimate welfare needs of U.S. defense contractors, along with the problem of providing some fast Keynesian anti-recession deficit spending, and you get a fair picture of the level of war desperation in the White House.
However, a number of liberal commentators have sought, and found, a silver lining in the war to remove Hussein from office, a war the U.S. has continued since 1991 with Iraqi civilians the almost exclusive victims so far. These arguments deserve close look.
But first, it is worth pointing out that one doesn't need to be against war to oppose the imperial manners with which war is approached by this White House. Before we export democracy to Iraq, shouldn't we keep enough of it here for local consumption? Wouldn't it be appropriate for the White House to show respect for the public by providing some best-case and worst-case scenarios of the war, including projected costs and casualties? After all, it's not that Hussein's storm troopers have already beached in Long Island. We still have some time for discussion!
One part of me finds it disturbing that none of the chicken-hawks came out against the undemocratic marketing campaign intended to discourage intelligent deliberations about such a crucial public issue as going to war. The other part of me chuckles, "what did you expect; didn't you know that love of war is almost always wedded to contempt for democracy?"
The last point illuminates the self-deception of those who hope for the spread of democracy on the wings of war. But some are more modest. Their argument is simple: Saddam Hussein is evil. The U.S. may have ulterior motives in deposing him, but who cares? Assuming it can be done with a limited cost in human life (a big assumption already), the net result will be positive: any regime will be less brutal than what Iraqis endure today. And there is even a possibility of real democracy taking root.
Sometimes, this argument degenerates into accusing anti-war voices of "realpolitk," namely, of favoring the stability of tyrannical regimes over the human rights of their victims.
I state for the record that I would love to see the tyrants of Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan fall together with Saddam Hussein. It is quite possible that a U.S. attack will set in motion processes of democratization in the Arab world that could be described as positive in the long run, after tens, maybe hundreds of thousand are buried. That is most likely to happen in a scenario in which the U.S. is kicked out of the Middle East by popular opposition a few years after having defeated Hussein, the way it was kicked out of Vietnam.
Such a scenario, not totally implausible, could justify supporting Bush's war only under Lenin's revolutionary maxim of "the worse, the better."
I assume that the liberal proponents of "regime change" have something else in mind. They hope that a U.S. attack will bring democracy to Iraqis through a successful "regime change." This hope is based on two interconnected conceptual mistakes: first, seeing Middle Eastern tyranny as an historical misfortune, as if Saddam Hussein was a terrible thing that magically "happened" to Iraqis. Second, trying to measure the outcome of an American intervention with a one-off utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits.
A U.S. intervention in Iraq will not be a one-off affair. It will be one moment in a continuous history with a past and a future. It is impossible to guess the future shape of this intervention without examining its history.
This history reveals U.S. complicity in creating and strengthening tyrannical regimes in the region. The U.S. helped the Iraqi Baat party coup in 1963 - the reason: the current Qasim regime threatened to nationalize the Iraqi oil industry and even dared to favor land reform, the ultimate sin.
But no sooner the Baat party took power, it too turned against U.S. oil interests. Saddam Hussein enraged Washington by nationalizing the Iraqi oil industry in 1972. He was able to get away with it because of the rise of OPEC and the resulting oil crisis. But it certainly helped smooth the relations that Hussein used Iraq's new wealth to buy a huge quantity of arms from the U.S. military industry. Later on, Hussein received U.S. military support, including biological war agents, to counteract the Iranian revolution, which toppled another U.S. tyrannical regime in 1979. That other tyrant, the Shah of Iran, was that country's punishment for toying with the same sacrilegious idea of owning its own natural resources.
Examining this history of U.S. interventions reveals a strong bias in favor of undemocratic regimes and a longstanding effort to undermine movements favoring national independence. The reason is simple. Only tyrants can be counted upon to allow the natural wealth of their country, primarily oil, to be siphoned off to the U.S. Democratic, or even merely popular, governments have proven far too sensitive to the interests of their citizens and therefore less subservient to U.S. corporate interests.
That was then, when Iraqis did not understand America very well. What about now? Now, the whole Middle East considers the U.S. its public enemy number one. Iraqis share that outlook, having been on the receiving end of ten years of callous and lethal "sanctions" (better called "siege warfare").
Every single regime that came to power in Iraq as a result of Western meddling since the First World War was either overturned or became progressively anti-Western. Iraq has been the historical center of Arab anti-Imperialism long before Saddam Hussein came to power. What is therefore the likelihood that a new U.S. puppet regime less brutal than Hussein's will toe Washington's line for long?
Nil. Iraq's subservience to U.S. corporate interests would continue to depend on repression. The fall of Saddam might give Iraqis a short breathing break. But sooner or later - and given the current level of rage against American foreign policy, sooner - any pro U.S. government in Iraq will have to choose between becoming more repressive and becoming hostile.
Hence, the current war to depose Hussein will not lay the ground for democracy. It will lay the ground for the next war.
The idea of forcing democracy on Iraq finds support in the "Clash of Civilization" thesis. The argument goes something like: American imperialism is bad. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is the product of misguided U.S. policies. But all that doesn't matter now because Islamic fundamentalism is a severe danger to the world. We ought therefore to close ranks and defend the values of the West, if necessary, imposing them on the Middle East by force. U.S. occupied Iraq, as Thomas Friedman suggests, could serve the whole Middle East as a badly needed example of a working Arab democracy.
The defeat of fundamentalism is indeed essential, but everything else in this argument is wrong.
First, Iraq is one of the most secular societies in the Middle East and the most hostile to fundamentalists. Second, as argued above, a Western occupation is simply unlikely to foster democracy in Iraq.
More importantly, the lack of democracy is not the result of a distinct Arab-Muslim "civilization." This claim is a new form of racism. It is the latest incarnation of the "white man's burden" - bringing democracy and Western "values" to the natives as an excuse for their enslavement and exploitation.
The Arab-Muslim world indeed failed to import Western ideas, in particular the ideas of national self-determination, socialist universalism, and citizenship. But it wasn't for lack of trying. On the contrary, it tried hard and often. While there were many local roots that contributed to that failure, it is obvious that the most important obstacle to the importation of Western ideas to the Middle East was the West itself.
Western governments have fought hard to defeat and undermine attempts to establish independent Middle Eastern regimes based on Western ideologies. Qasim in Iraq, Nasser in Egypt and Mossadeq in Iran are the most visible examples in a century of constant behind the scenes meddling: first by the British Empire, and, after 1945, increasingly by the American one.
Islamic fundamentalism has grown out of the failure of the West to wean itself of colonial exploitation. To say that the remedy is a new large-scale colonial conquest of the Middle East makes as much sense as curing alcoholism with a bottle of gin.
Islamic fundamentalism is not due to the absence of Western values. On the contrary, it is the result of the triumph of Western values. In particular, it is the result of the triumph of the Western value of putting profits above people. The popularity of fundamentalism is a response to the deep humiliation of the Islamic world and the failure of all other strategies to escape the iron fist of Western exploitation.
Instead of faulting Arabs for not getting rid of their dictators, Westerners should start "regime change" at home. As long as Western governments, and especially the U.S. government, are ruled by institutionalized greed and the rapaciousness of military-industrial complexes, the world will have no peace.
Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "opssimist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. This article first appeared at Yellow Times.org. Gabriel encourages your comments: gash@YellowTimes.org