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Are We Sure We Can Get Away With It This Time?

The Special Treatment of Iraq

by PERRY ANDERSON

The prospect of a second war on Iraq raises a large number of questions, analytic and political. What are the intentions behind the impending campaign? What are likely to be the consequences? What does the drive to war tell us about the long-term dynamics of American global power? These issues will remain on the table for some time to come, outliving any assault this spring. The front of the stage is currently occupied by a different set of arguments, over the legitimacy or wisdom of the military expedition now brewing. My purpose here will be to consider the current criticisms of the Bush Administration articulated within mainstream opinion, and the responses of the Administration to them: in effect, the structure of intellectual justification on each side of the argument, what divides them and what they have common. I will end with a few remarks on how this debate looks from a perspective with a different set of premises.

Taking an overview of the range–one might say torrent–of objections to a second war in the Gulf, we can distinguish six principal criticisms, expressed in many different registers, distributed across a wide span of opinion.

1. The projected attack on Iraq is a naked display of American unilateralism. The Bush Administration has openly declared its intention of attacking Baghdad, whether or not the UN sanctions an assault. This is not only a grave blow to the unity of the Western alliance, but must lead to an unprecedented and perilous weakening of the authority of the Security Council, as the highest embodiment of international law.

2. Massive intervention on this scale in the Middle East can only foster anti-Western terrorism. Rather than helping to crush al-Qaida, it is likely to multiply recruits for it. America will be more endangered after a war with Iraq than before it.

3. The blitz in preparation is a pre-emptive strike, openly declared to be such, that undermines respect for international law, and risks plunging the world into a maelstrom of violence, as other states follow suit, taking the law into their own hands in turn.

4. War should in any case always be a last resort in settling an international conflict. In the case of Iraq, sufficient tightening of sanctions and surveillance is capable of de-fanging the Baath regime, while sparing innocent lives and preserving the unity of the international community.

5. Concentration on Iraq is a distraction from the more acute danger posed by North Korea, which has greater nuclear potential, a more powerful army, and an even deadlier leadership. The US should give top priority to dealing with Kim Jong Il, not Saddam Hussein.

6. Even if an invasion of Iraq went smoothly, an occupation of the country is too hazardous and costly an undertaking for the United States to pull off successfully. Allied participation is necessary for it to have any chance of succeeding, but the Administration’s unilateralism compromises the chance of that. The Arab world is likely to view a foreign protectorate with resentment. Even with a Western coalition to run the country, Iraq is a deeply divided society, with no democratic tradition, which cannot easily be rebuilt along postwar German or Japanese lines. The potential costs of the whole venture outweigh any possible benefits the US could garner from it.

Such is more or less the spectrum of criticism that can be found in the mainstream media and in respectable political circles, both in the United States itself, and–still more strongly–in Europe and beyond. They can be summarised under the headings: the vices of unilateralism, the risks of encouraging terrorism, the dangers of pre-emption, the human costs of war, the threat from North Korea, and the liabilities of over-reach. As such, they divide into two categories: objections of principle–the evils of unilateralism, pre-emption, war; and objections of prudence: the hazards of terrorism, North Korea, over-reach.

What are the replies the Bush Administration can make to each of these?

1. Unilateralism. Historically, the United States has always reserved the right to act alone where necessary, while seeking allies wherever possible. In recent years it acted alone in Grenada, in Panama, in Nicaragua, and which of its allies now complains about current arrangements in any of these countries? As for the UN, Nato did not consult it when it launched its attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, in which every European ally that now talks of the need for authorisation from the Security Council fully participated, and which 90 per cent of the opinion that now complains about our plans for Iraq warmly supported. If it was right to remove Milosevic by force, who had no weapons of mass destruction and even tolerated an opposition that eventually beat him in an election, how can it be wrong to remove Saddam by force, a far more lethal tyrant, whose human rights record is worse, has invaded a neighbour, used chemical weapons and brooks no opposition of any kind? In any case, the UN has already passed a resolution, No. 1441, that in effect gives clear leeway to members of the Security Council to use force against Iraq, so the legality of an attack is not in question.

2. Terrorism. Al-Qaida is a network bonded by religious fanaticism, in a faith that calls for holy war by the Muslim world against the United States. The belief that Allah assures victory to the jihadi is basic to it. There is therefore no surer way of demoralising and breaking it up than by demonstrating the vanity of hopes from heaven and the absolute impossibility of resistance to superior American military force. Nazi and Japanese imperial fanaticism were snuffed out by the simple fact of crushing defeat. Al-Qaida is nowhere near their level of strength. Why should it be different?

3. Pre-emption. Far from being a novel doctrine, this is a traditional right of states. What, after all, is the most admired military victory of the postwar era but a lightning pre-emptive strike? Israel’s Six-Day War of 1967, so far from being cause for condemnation, is actually the occasion of the modern doctrine of Just and Unjust Wars, as set out by a distinguished philosopher of the American Left, Michael Walzer, in a work glowingly evoked by the still more eminent liberal philosopher John Rawls, in his aptly entitled The Law of Peoples. Indeed in attacking Iraq, we will be doing no more than completing the vital preventive strike against the Osirak reactor of 1981. Who now complains about that?

4. The Human Costs of War. These are indeed tragic, and we will do everything in our power–now technically considerable–to minimise civilian casualties. But the reality is that a swift war will save lives, not lose them. Since 1991, sanctions against Iraq–which most objectors to war support–have caused 500,000 deaths from malnutrition and disease, according to Unicef. Let us accept a lower figure, say 300,000. It is very unlikely that the swift, surgical war of which we are capable will come anywhere near this destruction by peace. On the contrary, once Saddam is overthrown, oil will soon flow freely again, and Iraqi children will have enough to eat. You will see population growth rebound very quickly.

5. North Korea. This is a failed Communist state that certainly poses a great danger to North-East Asia. As we pointed out well before the current hue and cry, it forms the other extremity of an Axis of Evil. But it is a simple matter of good sense to concentrate our forces on the weaker, rather than stronger, link of the Axis first. It is not because Pyongyang may, or may not, have a few rudimentary nuclear weapons, which we could easily take out, but because it can shatter Seoul in a conventional attack that we have to proceed more cautiously in bringing it down. But do you seriously doubt that we intend to take care of the North Korean regime too in due course?

6. Over-reach. An occupation of Iraq does pose a challenge, which we don’t underestimate. But it is a reasonable wager. Arab hostility is overrated. After all, there hasn’t been a single demonstration of significance in the whole Middle East during the two years it has taken Israel to crush the second Intifada, in full view of television cameras, yet popular sympathy is far greater for the Palestinians than for Saddam. You also forget that we already have a very successful protectorate in the northern third of Iraq, where we have knocked Kurdish heads together pretty effectively. Do you ever hear dire talk about that? The Sunni centre of the country will certainly be trickier to manage, but the idea that stable regimes created or guided by foreign powers are impossible in the Middle East is absurd. Think of the long-term stability of the monarchy set up by the British in Jordan, or the very satisfactory little state they created in Kuwait. Indeed, think of our loyal friend Mubarak in Egypt, which has a much larger urban population than Iraq. Everyone said Afghanistan was a graveyard for foreigners–British, Russian and so on–but we liberated it quickly enough, and now the UN is doing excellent work bringing it back to life. Why not Iraq? If all goes well, we could reap great benefits–a strategic platform, an institutional model, and not inconsiderable oil supplies.

Now, if one looks dispassionately at the two sets of arguments, there is little doubt that on questions of principle, the Administration’s case against its critics is iron-clad. The reason for that is also fairly clear. The two sides share a set of common assumptions, whose logic makes an attack on Iraq an eminently defensible proposition. What are these assumptions? Roughly, they can be summed up like this.

1. The UN Security Council represents the supreme legal expression of the ‘international community’; except where otherwise specified, its resolutions have binding moral and juridical force.

2. Where necessary, however, humanitarian or other interventions by the West do not require permission of the UN, although it is always preferable to have it.

3. Iraq committed an outrage against international law in seeking to annex Kuwait, and has had to be punished for this crime, against which the UN rallied as one, ever since.

4. Iraq has also sought to acquire nuclear weapons, whose proliferation is any case an urgent danger to the international community, not to speak of chemical or biological weapons.

5. Iraq is a dictatorship in a class of its own, or a very small set that includes North Korea, for violation of human rights.

6. In consequence, Iraq cannot be accorded the rights of a sovereign state, but must submit to blockade, bombing and loss of territorial integrity, until the international community decides otherwise.

Equipped with these premises, it is not difficult to show that Iraq cannot be permitted possession of nuclear or other weapons, that it has defied successive UN resolutions, that the Security Council has tacitly authorised a second attack on it (as it did not the attack on Yugoslavia), and that the removal of Saddam Hussein is now long overdue.

On the same premises, however, it is still open to critics of the Administration to take their stand, not on principle, but simply on grounds of prudence. Invading Iraq may well be morally acceptable, even desirable, but is it politically wise? Calculation of consequences is always more imponderable than deduction from principles, so the room for disagreement remains considerable. Anyone who believes that al-Qaida is a deadly bacillus waiting to become an epidemic, or that Kim Jong Il is a more demented despot even than Saddam Hussein, or that Iraq could become another Vietnam, is unlikely to be swayed by reminders of the letter of UN Resolution 1441, or Nato’s lofty mission in protecting human rights in the Balkans.

Structures of intellectual justification are one thing. Popular sentiment, although not unaffected by them, is another. The enormous demonstrations of 15 February in Western Europe, the United States and Australia, opposing an attack on Iraq, pose a different sort of question. It can be put simply like this. What explains this vast, passionate revolt against the prospect of a war whose principles differ little from preceding military interventions, that were accepted or even welcomed by so many of those now up in arms against this one? Why does war in the Middle East today arouse feelings that war in the Balkans did not, if logically there is little or nothing to choose between them? The disproportion in reactions is unlikely to have much to do with distinctions between Belgrade and Baghdad, and would in any case presumably speak for rather than against intervention. The explanation clearly lies elsewhere. Three factors appear to have been decisive.

First, hostility to the Republican regime in the White House. Cultural dislike of the Bush Presidency is widespread in Western Europe, where its rough affirmations of American primacy, and undiplomatic tendency to match word to deed, have become intensely resented by public opinion accustomed to a more decorous veil being drawn over the realities of relative power. To see how important this ingredient in European anti-war sentiment must be, one need only look at the complaisance with which Clinton’s successive aerial bombardments of Iraq were met. If a Gore or Lieberman Administration were preparing a second Gulf War, the resistance would be a moiety of what it is now. The current execration of Bush in wide swathes of West European media and public opinion bears no relation to the actual differences between the two parties in the United States. It is enough to note that both the leading practical exponent and the major intellectual theorist of a war on Iraq, Kenneth Pollack and Philip Bobbitt, are former ornaments of the Clinton regime. But as substantial policy contrasts tend to dwindle in Western political systems, symbolic differences of style and image can easily acquire, in compensation, a hysterical rigidity. The Kulturkampf between Democrats and Republicans within the United States is now being reproduced between the US and EU. Typically, in such disputes, the violence of partisan passions is in inverse proportion to the depth of real disagreements. But as in the conflicts between Blue and Green factions of the Byzantine hippodrome, minor affective preferences can have major political consequences. A Europe in mourning for Clinton–see any editorial in the Guardian, Le Monde, La Repubblica, El Pais–can unite in commination of Bush.

Second, there is the role of the spectacle. Public opinion was well prepared for the Balkan War by massive television and press coverage of ethnic savageries in the region, real and–after Rambouillet, to a considerable extent–mythical. The incomparably greater killings in Rwanda, where the United States, fearing distraction from media focus on Bosnia, blocked intervention in the same period, were by contrast ignored. In full view of the cameras, the siege of Sarajevo appalled millions. The obliteration of Grozny, safely off-screen, drew scarcely a shrug. Clinton called it liberation, and Blair sped to congratulate Putin for the election he won on the back of it. In Iraq, the plight of the Kurds was widely televised in the aftermath of the Gulf War, mobilising public opinion behind the creation of an Anglo-American protectorate, without any warrant from the UN. But today, however much Washington or London declaim the atrocities of Saddam Hussein, not to speak of his weapons of mass destruction, they are for all practical purposes invisible to the European spectator. Powell’s slide-shows in the Security Council are no substitute for Bernard-Henri Levy or Michael Ignatieff vibrating at the microphone. For lack of visual aids, the deliverance of Baghdad leaves European imagination cold.

Third, and perhaps most important, there is fear. Aerial retribution could be wreaked on Yugoslavia in 1996, and continuously on Iraq since 1991, without risk of reprisal. What could Milosevic or Saddam do? They were sitting ducks. The attentats of 11 September have altered this self-assurance. Here indeed was an unforgettable spectacle, designed to mesmerise the West. The target of the attacks was the US, not Europe. If the European states, Britain and France in the lead, joined in the counter-attack on Afghanistan, for their populations this was still a remote theatre of war, on which the curtain came down swiftly. The prospect of an invasion and occupation of Iraq, far larger and closer, in the heart of the Middle East, where European public opinion is uneasily aware–without stirring itself to do anything about it–that all is not well in the Land of Israel, is another matter. The spectre of retaliation by al-Qaida or kindred groups for a rerun of the Balkan War has frozen many an ardent combatant of the new ‘military humanism’ of the late 1990s. The Serbs were a bagatelle: fewer than eight million. The Arabs are 280 million, and they are much closer to Europe than to America–not a few of them indeed within it. Contemplating the expedition to Baghdad, even New Labour loyalists ask, as readers of this journal will have noticed: are we sure we can get away with it this time?

Great mass movements are not to be judged by tight logical standards. Whatever their reasons, the multitudes who have protested against a war on Iraq are a whiplash to the governments bent on it. They include, in any case, many too young to have been compromised by its precedents. But if the movement is to have staying power, it will have to develop beyond the fixations of the fan club, the politics of the spectacle, the ethics of fright. For war, if it comes, will not be like Vietnam. It will be short and sharp; and there is no guarantee that poetic justice will follow. A merely prudential opposition to the war will not survive a triumph, any more than handwringing about its legality a UN figleaf. Assorted justices and lawyers who now cavil at the upcoming campaign, will make their peace with its commanders soon enough, once allied armies are ensconced on the Tigris, and Kofi Annan has pronounced an eirenic speech or two, courtesy of ghostwriters seconded from the Financial Times, on postwar relief. Resistance to the ruling dispensation that can last has to find another, principled basis. Since current debates so interminably invoke the ‘international community’ and the United Nations, as if these were a salve against the Bush Administration, it is as well to start from these. An alternative perspective can be suggested in a few telegraphic propositions.

1. No international community exists. The term is a euphemism for American hegemony. It is to the credit of the Administration that some of its officials have abandoned it.

2. The United Nations is not a seat of impartial authority. Its structure, giving overwhelming formal power to five victor nations of a war fought fifty years ago, is politically indefensible: comparable historically to the Holy Alliance of the early 19th century, which also proclaimed its mission to be the preservation of ‘international peace’ for the ‘benefit of humanity’. So long as these powers were divided by the Cold War, they neutralised each other in the Security Council, and the organisation could do little harm. But since the Cold War came to an end, the UN has become essentially a screen for American will. Supposedly dedicated to the cause of international peace, the organisation has waged two major wars since 1945 and prevented none. Its resolutions are mostly exercises in ideological manipulation. Some of its secondary affiliates–Unesco, Unctad and the like–do good work, and the General Assembly does little harm. But there is no prospect of reforming the Security Council. The world would be better off–a more honest and equal arena of states–without it.

3. The nuclear oligopoly of the five victor powers of 1945 is equally indefensible. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is a mockery of any principles of equality or justice–those who possess weapons of mass destruction insisting that everyone except themselves give them up, in the interests of humanity. If any states had a claim to such weapons, it would be small not large ones, since that would counterbalance the overweening power of the latter. In practice, as one would expect, such weapons have already spread, and so long as the big powers refuse to abandon theirs, there is no principled reason to oppose their possession by others. Kenneth Waltz, doyen of American international relations theory, an impeccably respectable source, long ago published a calm and detailed essay, which has never been refuted, entitled ‘The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better’. It can be recommended. The idea that Iraq or North Korea should not be permitted such weapons, while those of Israel or white South Africa could be condoned, has no logical basis.

4. Annexations of territory–conquests, in more traditional language–whose punishment provides the nominal justification of the UN blockade of Iraq, have never resulted in UN retribution when the conquerors were allies of the United States, only when they were its adversaries. Israel’s borders, in defiance of the UN resolutions of 1947, not to speak of 1967, are the product of conquest. Turkey seized two-fifths of Cyprus, Indonesia East Timor, and Morocco Western Sahara, without a tremor in the Security Council. Legal niceties matter only when the interests of enemies are at stake. So far as Iraq is concerned, the exceptional aggressions of the Baath regime are a myth, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt–hardly two incendiary radicals–have recently shown in some detail in their recent essay in Foreign Policy.

5. Terrorism, of the sort practised by al-Qaida, is not a serious threat to the status quo anywhere. The success of the spectacular attack of 11 September depended on surprise–even by the fourth plane, it was impossible to repeat. Had al-Qaida ever been a strong organisation, it would have aimed its blows at client states of America in the Middle East, where the overthrow of a regime would make a political difference, rather than at America itself, where it could not leave so much as a strategic pinprick. As Olivier Roy and Gilles Keppel, the two best authorities in the field of contemporary Islamism have argued, al-Qaida is the isolated remnant of a mass movement of Muslim fundamentalism, whose turn to terror is the symptom of a larger weakness and defeat–an Islamic equivalent of the Red Army Faction or Red Brigades that emerged in Germany and Italy after the great student uprisings of the late 1960s faded away, and were easily quelled by the state. The complete inability of al-Qaida to stage even a single attentat, while its base was being pounded to shreds and its leadership killed off in Afghanistan, speaks volumes about its weakness. In different ways, it suits both the Administration and the Democratic opposition to conjure up the spectre of a vast and deadly conspiracy, capable of striking at any moment, but this is a figment with little bearing one way or another on Iraq, which is neither connected to al-Qaida today, nor likely to give it much of a boost, if it falls tomorrow.

6. Domestic tyrannies, or the abuse of human rights, which are now held to justify military interventions–overriding national sovereignty in the name of humanitarian values–are treated no less selectively by the UN. The Iraqi regime is a brutal dictatorship, but until it attacked an American pawn in the Gulf, it was armed and funded by the West. Its record is less bloody than that of the Indonesian regime that for three decades was the West’s main pillar in South-East Asia. Torture was legal in Israel till yesterday, openly sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and is unlikely to have disappeared today without an eyelash being batted by the assembled Western Governments that have befriended it. Turkey, freshly off the mark for entry into the EU, does not, unlike Iraq, even tolerate the language of its Kurds–and, as a member of Nato in good standing, likewise jails and tortures without hindrance. As for ‘international justice’, the farce of the Hague Tribunal on Yugoslavia, where Nato is prosecutor and judge, will be amplified in the International Criminal Court, in which the Security Council can forbid or suspend any actions it dislikes (i.e. which might ruffle its permanent members), and private firms or millionaires–Walmart or Dow Chemicals, Hinduja or Fayed, as the case might be–are cordially invited to fund investigations (Articles 16 and 116). Saddam, if captured, will certainly be arraigned before this august body. Who imagines that Sharon or Putin or Mubarak would ever be, any more than was once Tudjman before its predecessor?

What conclusions follow? Simply this. Mewling about Blair’s folly or Bush’s crudity, is merely saving the furniture. Arguments about the impending war would do better to focus on the entire prior structure of the special treatment accorded to Iraq by the United Nations, rather than wrangle over the secondary issue of whether to continue strangling the country slowly or to put it out of its misery quickly.

PERRY ANDERSON teaches history at UCLA. He is the author of Extra Time: Global Politics Since 1989 and Lineages of the Absolutist State.

This article originally appeared in the London Review of Books.