by Yacov Ben Efrat
May 12, 2003
The war in Iraq has ended strangely. On the streets of the Arab world, there are those who regard the sudden evaporation of Saddam Hussein's regime as treason to the Arab cause. Others view it as yet another mystery in the convoluted story of this leader, whose motives have always been hard to fathom, as when he started a war against Khomeini's Iran in 1980, or when he invaded Kuwait in 1991.
The American administration does not care to reveal the whole truth, any more than did the Baath regime in Iraq, which camouflaged its plans in nationalistic and religious proclamations. Despite the obscurity, one thing is clear: what happened in Iraq reflects the total Arab situation as the third millennium begins. The Baghdad leadership, which collapsed at a puff from Big Bad Bush, is not very different from all the other Arab regimes. Nor does the impoverished condition of the Iraqis differ much from that of other Arab peoples.
There never was a chance, we now see, of mobilizing the Iraqis to fight a guerrilla war. From its inception, the regime of Saddam Hussein depended on the USA. After he fell out with his American patron in 1990, he strengthened his relations with France and Russia. But he never developed a relation of interdependence with the Iraqi people as such. It remained shunted to the sidelines. When the test came, therefore, it lacked all interest in fighting.
Like the other Arab rulers, Saddam Hussein had a single strategic aim: to stay in power. That was the purpose of his maneuvers after the entanglement in Kuwait (1990-91). It was also behind his submission to UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which sought to prevent a war through arms inspections. There are grounds to suspect, we shall see in what follows, that when at last the war was thrust upon him, he made a deal to ensure his survival, opening his land to the invaders – the national interest be damned. "The national interest": for even when the aggressor's military superiority is clear, it makes a crucial difference, in collective memory and for future action, whether a nation merely caves in or puts up a fight and surrenders honorably.
There are reasons to suspect a deal. The conduct of the war was odd, to say the least. If it had been a boxing match, all would have shouted "Fraud!" The attacker wanted to win by flexing his muscles, and the attacked put up just enough of a battle to make the attacker seek an easy way out. The US promised shock and awe but made do with fewer ground forces than it had used in 1991. The Iraqi leaders, in turn, promised a bloody defense that would bury the "invading vermin" in Baghdad, but abandoned the city without a fight. A serious defense of the capital would have meant cutting the invader's logistical connections, for example by destroying bridges and erecting barricades. Instead of leaving his best divisions outside the city, where they had no chance against American air and artillery, Saddam should have organized his forces inside, drawing the enemy into house-to-house fighting. None of this happened.
The Americans based their battle plan on the mistaken assumption that the Iraqi people would rise against the regime. To document this, they mobilized the media, "embedding" reporters with the attack troops. Against all the expectations, however, the people did not rebel. The Iraqis show little gratitude toward invaders that let them down twelve years ago and have kept them hungry and ill ever since.
On seeing that the people failed to rebel, and that the regime wasn't shocked and awed off the face of the earth, the Americans decided they would have to besiege Baghdad. The Iraqi regime understood that it was isolated, lacking political support either within the country or abroad. Here it may have prepared a surprising epilogue. We do not yet know, of course, whether its overnight disappearance and the uncontested American entry into Baghdad resulted from a deal. It is clear, however, that after the first two weeks of war, Saddam and his associates were busy packing up.
There were those who said that Saddam Hussein was not the type to surrender: he would fight till his last drop of blood. This assumption was unfounded. What determined the outcome was not the lack of military capability, but rather a balance of political forces that lined up against Saddam. Take, by contrast, the Vietnam War. The Americans were clearly superior in air power and artillery, yet the Vietnamese taught them a historical lesson. They could do so because of two factors: (1) the mobilization of the Vietnamese people, enough of whom believed in the rightness of the Communist cause, and (2) the solid political support of the Soviet Union.
On the eve of war, the Iraqi regime did manage, indeed, to isolate the US and Britain in the Security Council, by cooperating more or less with UN weapons inspectors. It coordinated its moves with France and Russia, which opposed the swaggering Americans (not that the good of the Iraqi people was first in their hearts, rather their own economic interests). By means of the trio – France, Russia and Germany – Iraq was able to divest the American invasion of international legitimacy. This diplomatic process formed, no doubt, an important historical precedent, but it did not suffice. As soon as war broke out, France began to wobble, and the Russians carefully avoided a head-on confrontation with Washington. The Iraqi regime found itself without international backing.
Until April 6, the Russian ambassador remained in Baghdad as a last gesture of support for the doomed regime. His task may have been to work out the above-mentioned deal, which would spare mutual bloodshed while enabling the regime's personnel to save their skins. US National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, visited Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 7. Perhaps they discussed the deal. The fact is, the American forces entered Baghdad unopposed. The rest is speculation. Despite the many embedded reporters, we have yet to hear the story of the "battle that never was."
Jalal Ghazi of Pacific News Service (April 14) has pointed out other reasons to suspect a deal, among them the safe return of the POWs and the fact that "tens of thousands of Baath operatives managed to disappear without a sign of internal divisions. This strongly suggests that the departure of the Baath regime was ordered from the most senior levels and was highly organized. It also explains why most of the Iraqi forces, including the Republican Guards, were nowhere to be found when U.S. forces entered Baghdad."
Before the war, although Iraq's regime had European backing, as well as enormous popular sympathy worldwide, Arab support was conspicuously absent. The official Arab consensus took the form of pressures on Saddam Hussein to resign, as expressed, for example, by the Saudi foreign minister on March 31. The response of Iraqi Vice President Tahah Yassin Ramadan was blunt. Denouncing the Saudi position, he called on the Arab masses to revolt against their governments: "to struggle for increased mobilization against the regimes that collaborate with the aggression and the aggressors, regimes that have opened their lands and skies and given their oil to serve the enemy." The response took the form of a few minor demonstrations, mere lip service.
In the same public appearance, his last, Ramadan pointed out the UN's weakness, describing it as a rotting cadaver. He hinted that politically, Iraq had run out of options. The situation was reminiscent of Czech Sudetenland. When Britain handed it over to Hitler, the latter understood that the West would not impede his ambitions. In the case of Iraq, the Arab world and Europe let down the regime. America has ambitions of its own.
Among the pretexts used by the Bush Administration was a fancied connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. The White House failed to make its case. The two do have something in common, however: both were American protégés, fell out of grace and became enemies of their former patron. It is well to reflect on this bit of history. It will enable us to define more precisely the nature of the Iraqi regime and to illuminate the reasons for its rapid fall.
The year 1979 was packed with events of major importance for the Middle East. It saw the split in the Arab League (today breathing its last). Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed the Camp David Agreement with Israel, leading his country from the socialist camp to the American. Deep changes followed in the Arab world. Saddam Hussein ousted President Ahmed Hassan Albacher, who as a Soviet ally had invited the Iraqi Communist Party into his government.
In this same year, 1979, the US opened a front against the Iranian revolution under Khomeini. The task was given to Saddam, who received political backing from Egypt and financial support from Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the US opened a second front, against the Soviet Union itself. It assigned the task to the Afghan mujahidin, who were joined by Bin Laden. The Saudis financed this war too, which the Egyptians helped militarily. (See "Afghan Boomerang" in Challenge # 70: www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/70/afghan.html) After both wars ended, toward 1990, the US washed its hands of Saddam and Bin Laden. The Soviet Union fell, and Washington left Afghanistan to wallow in the tribal bloodbath that continues to this day.
Iraq, for its part, after eight years of war, was deep in debt. It attempted to raise the price of oil by lowering production. Kuwait, however, with American support, countered by raising production. Iraq's solution was to compensate itself by taking Kuwait.
There was never an inherent reason for enmity between Saddam and America. He only wanted Washington to recognize his regional status as the head of a developed oil state with prospects of leading the Arab world. As long as he served American interests, the US supported him, turning a blind eye to his cruelty. Yet the moment he lifted his head too high, demanding freedom of decision about the marketing of oil, America went to war on him, citing as grounds his oppressive dictatorship. The awkward fact, of course, is that dictators throughout the world have been on good terms with the USA: Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, the military juntas in Latin America, and the reactionary Arab monarchies. Such friendships are strictly logical. In a world containing underdeveloped countries, democracy and dictatorship live in symbiosis. Democratic leaders need to keep their constituents happy; in foreign policy toward poorer states, they prefer the leaders they can corrupt, who will disregard their peoples' interests and reliably deliver the goods – cheap oil, for instance. More about which in a moment.
The ramifications of the war are dangerous. They affect the Arab countries and US-European relations. Nor will they help America's economy, today the linchpin (25%) of the world's.
The Arab world. The Bush Administration intended the war as a means of correcting the decline of American influence during the Clinton years. (See "Sowing the Whirlwind" Challenge # 76, www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/76/sowing.html) The US showed that by means of its military superiority (and thanks, above all, to the inherent weakness of the Arab dictatorships, which lack the support of their peoples) it can topple any of them it wants, while avoiding casualties. From now on, every such regime will have to follow Washington's instructions – or suffer the fate of Saddam Hussein.
The Arab countries, indeed the entire third world, have lived in a state of economic stagnation and political instability ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. This has also been the case with Iraq, and America, by defeating the latter, has bought directly into the headache. Bush and his group of visionary conservatives hope to establish the USA as an "axis of good" around which the world will turn. If they intend Iraq as their showcase, they may be in for a disappointment. We can foresee chaos, in which ethnic and religious wars will tear the country to shreds. From a secular nation state, Iraq is liable to break up into rival fundamentalisms, tribal at root, under a lid of American military rule. True democracy in third-world countries has always been dangerous for capitalism. The people might make its own decisions concerning its natural resources! Washington in 1990 squashed the attempt of Iraq's dictator to raise the price of oil: how then will it react should a free Iraqi parliament take, as its first criterion for determining that price, the benefit of the Iraqi people?
If Washington were serious about building democracy in Iraq, it would have to bring about a radical change in the social composition of the country. Where a tribal structure prevails, there can be no credible democracy: the (corruptible) tribal or clan heads cast the votes for their members. One cannot impose a democratic system on any old social fabric. If Washington were serious about democracy, it would have to give Iraq – and the other Arab countries – the technological means for industrial development, which would form the basis for the necessary social change. Such a "Marshall Plan" would be a far cry from America's present practice: to siphon off the natural resources of the Arab world and prop up willing dictators.
The international plane. Despite France's betrayal of Iraq, and despite the Russians' pointless counsels to the regime, the differences between the big powers remain in force. The US is openly seeking to impose on the world its unipolar regime at the expense of the other western states. It went to war unilaterally, without the slightest proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. At present it seeks to grab all the fat reconstruction contracts, to be funded by Iraqi oil.
In this latest venture, America has shown that rather than attempt to lead a free world, it wants to dictate its terms. The situation, however, is volatile. The world is in a prolonged economic decline, affecting not only countries such as Israel and Turkey, but even Japan, France and Germany. Rising unemployment is leading to popular discontent, which threatens the governments of those lands and undermines confidence in American leadership. And as for America itself...
The US economy. America's internal situation does not bode well. The Bush Administration hoped that the present war would release the economy from its two-year-old recession. The problem of stagnation, however, is not seasonal or cyclical. It is structural, and wars cannot solve it. A few telltale signs:
(1) The stock market has lost $8 trillion since the bursting of the high-tech bubble in March 2000.
(2) The American economy is presently shored up by another bubble: having lost confidence in the stock market, people invested in real estate, driving up housing prices. Given low interest rates, homeowners have borrowed heavily against their increased home equity, thus maintaining consumption. This has led some to think a recovery is underway. The housing values cannot be stretched much further, however. A dip would leave the borrowers with debts they cannot repay.
(3) The US as a whole has become a debtor nation, borrowing $1.5 billion daily from banks abroad. While other western countries swing between deficit and credit, America plunges ever more deeply into debt. In 2002 alone its trade deficit rose by $77 billion to a record $435 billion. It finances its deficit by the sale of bonds to foreigners, who now collect interest on 31% of its national debt. It stays afloat because its creditors know that if they press too hard, the whole card table will collapse.
(4) Unemployment stands officially today at 5.8% (8.4 million Americans), but another 4.7 million want full-time jobs and can only get part-time. Five million more have given up looking.
There is little chance the US can emerge from recession. The global market, split between saturation and poverty, cannot absorb more goods. American plants are functioning at only 74% capacity, and there is a glut of commercial structures; as a result, investment in fixed capital is down. The big investors, accustomed to the fat, quick profits offered by financial speculation, see no reason to put money in the slow and presently dubious channel of production.
By its war against Iraq, the US has led the world into an era of instability. The dangers posed by the Bush Administration must be met. The rise of a global anti-war movement has been important, indeed unprecedented, but the hope that mass demonstrations might prevent the war was vain. George W. Bush and Tony Blair gave no heed to the marching millions. Demonstrations on designated days are not enough. There is only one way to stop wars: form political parties, go to elections and replace the regimes that make them. Walking for peace on designated days is not enough. Required is the day-to-day work of political parties. It is up to the anti-war movement to emerge from its amorphousness and organize itself in every nation as an alternative to the present regime. If not, the Bushes and Blairs will continue to write the agenda.
Yacov Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge, a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context, where this article first appeared. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, Challenge features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Please visit their website: http://www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/index.html