Religious Zeal Makes 'Short War' in Iraq Doubtful
by William O. Beeman
March 20, 2003
In the car lot of foreign relations, Americans have been sold a lemon -- a creampuff called "the war in Iraq."
Just as car dealers know that luxury features can be key to selling a vehicle, the promised "short war" feature appears to be the clincher in selling the war to many Americans.
However, the invasion of Iraq is not a conventional war. It is a war being cast in terms of crusade and mission, and it is seen from some corners as anti-Islam. And religious wars are never over quickly.
The short war theory is the latest in a long string of advertising messages used by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq conflict to the American public.
The bottom-line justification for the war has been based on the systematic demonization of Saddam Hussein. Like a persistent used-car sales team, the White House has tried many of these calumnies to convince the public to buy the war. "Trust me," says President Bush: Iraq will spread anthrax in the United States. Iraq will someday develop nuclear weapons and bomb us. Iraq will continue to kill babies in its own territory if merely contained. The list goes on.
Like articles of faith, all of these arguments are speculative, improbable and impossible to verify. Once any argument is questioned by anyone in the public sphere, White House spin doctors quickly vilify the questioner and then abandon the doubtful justification for another one.
The "short war" ploy plays to American utilitarianism. The White House has told Americans that even if they are skeptical about the reasons for war, they should accept it because it will be over very quickly. Moreover, because the war will be short, the administration's claims will be immediately verifiable -- like a 90-day guarantee.
This is an attractive argument. Anthropologist Margaret Mead noted at the end of World War II that Americans look upon organized violence with distaste. It can be supported, but only if there is a justifiable cause, and if it is conceptualized as a task that is self-terminating. In short, "We have a job to do, and we won't quit until it's done."
Americans should kick the tires. This is not going to be a short "do our job and come home" kind of war.
Savvy commentators from every corner of the political spectrum note that the chief advocates for the war have been planning it since the end of the first Gulf War.
The documentation is overwhelming, starting with statements by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in 1992, moving to the white paper supplied by Richard Perle, now chair of the Defense Science Board, to letters, documents and books prepared by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Vice-president Cheney and others as part of the efforts of the hawkish Project for the New American Century. At least a dozen other key Bush administration officials have been involved in this enterprise. The most complete documentation of the decade-long campaign was published by Pat Buchanan, hardly an extreme liberal.
A closer look shows the war planners' designs are not limited at all. Giddy with their success in selling the conflict to, by the latest polls, 70 percent (and climbing!) of the American public, they are speculating on which country to invade next: Syria? Iran? Libya? North Korea? William Kristol, editor of the right-wing magazine The Daily Standard and charter member of the policy group promulgating the war, sees the Iraq invasion as the opening move in a long effort to completely reshape the Middle East.
The limited surgical strike against Saddam Hussein then becomes a campaign -- "a crusade," to quote President Bush immediately after the tragedy of Sept. 11. The term "crusade" was widely seen as merely an ill-chosen word, reflective as it was of the Christian Crusades against Muslims in the late medieval period. But it resonated mightily with the Arab world.
The Arab world remembers well the words that British General Allenby, a descendent of the English Crusaders, uttered when he entered Jerusalem on December 9, 1917: "The Crusades have ended now!" French General Henri Gouraud, when he entered Damascus in July 1920, stood over Saladin's tomb next to the Grand Mosque, kicked it and said, "Awake Saladin, we have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent." Americans are seen as direct descendants of those latter day crusaders.
From the granddaddy of all wars fought for religious purposes -- the devastating Thirty Years War in the 17th century between Protestants and Catholics -- to the horrific Taliban campaign in Afghanistan, religious wars are never self-terminating. The perpetrators never give up, because they feel that they are doing the work of God, which justifies every sacrifice.
The parties in the war were not fighting for religion. They were fighting in the name of religion.
America is currently fighting a secular ruler in a secular state, but it is only a matter of time before the American religious campaign is matched in the Middle East by an equally fervent Islamic campaign, also fighting in the name of religion. Al Qaeda has already been widely reported to be using the war as a recruiting tool.
The "short war" then becomes a false selling point -- something that will, in the long run, make the machine of war tremendously costly for the whole world.
William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has lived and conducted research in the region for over 30 years. Email: William_beeman@brown.edu. This article may be freely distributed for any non-commercial purpose. For commercial use, please contact the writer or Pacific News Service.