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Iraq War as Danse Macabre


The great question that lingers in the aftermath of the war America waged against Iraq is: Where are the weapons of mass destruction over which the war was allegedly fought? This is clearly the topic of the moment. A recent Washington Post article (June 13th) is the latest of numerous articles and commentaries which suggest that hard evidence for the existence of WMDs was at best meager and at worst mostly speculative. In the end, the most that has been found are two tractor trailers that might have been mobile chemical laboratories (although a recent Guardian article says they were for inflating hydrogen balloons used for artillery deployments), and a scattering of rusty barrels that might have or may not have contained weaponizable substances. Such slim pickings do not a massive stockpile of WMDs make! Especially when none of the bulky and hard to conceal delivery systems needed to launch toxic or nuclear attacks have ever been found. If subsequent investigations fail to reveal anything more tangible than this–i.e., if it turns out that the UN inspectors whose judgements the Bush administration so cavalierly dismissed were in fact accurate, and that Saddam’s assertions that Iraq no longer possessed WMDs were true–then Mr. Bush and his neoconservative entourage will have much to answer for down the road.

The Bush administration clearly knows in private that their original rationale for waging preemptive war on such a massive scale was based upon enhanced intelligence data. So much so that revelations of its extent may yet bring down Tony Blair’s prime-ministership in England. This is attested by the fact that the White House spin-doctors, including Mr. Bush himself, are subtly–or not so subtly?–altering the premises of their original scenario. They are now flooding the airways and the printways with a torrent of claims that, after all, it doesn’t really matter if the smoking gun (or should we say, the noxious odors!) which was their original justification for undertaking a war adamantly opposed. by the international community has never been found. It is sufficient, they are asserting, that Saddam Hussain was a bad guy who constituted a “threat” to his neighbors and a menace to his own people.

This is a point with which some us can agree. One devoutly wishes that if preemptive war were going to be waged its primary motivation was to liberate an oppressed people rather than this being a retrospective byproduct of a war which its perpetrators themselves had little intention of waging for any sort of humane or compassionate reasons. Obviously, there is no country in today’s world, superpower or not, that will blanketly employ this criterion for determining who’s good and who’s bad, and who is deserving of a preemptive American strike and who is not. It could be after all just as well be applied to dozens of countries in every part of the globe! Why not North Korea? Why not Iran? Why not Venezuela? Why not even China, for that matter, considering their human rights record? The answer, of course, is self-evident. In international politics, idealism has precious little to do with who gets singled out for the moral retribution over their human rights record! The decision to wage war is rarely by shimmering morality; it is determined by naked self-interest and by what you think you can get away with. Certainly this was the case with Iraq.

Apart from the apparently wide gap between truth and wishful thinking which fueled the Iraq campaign, there is, however, a further, greater irony in all this. It is: Why Saddam, if indeed he no longer possessed the stores of WMDs which the Bushies said he did, was he willing to prevent this fact from becoming known to the satisfaction of Washington and the UN and thus avoid reaping the wild wind? Why, in short, was Saddam willing to risk the destruction of his regime and his country essentially in the name of a quixotic bluff?

The answer probably lies in a mixture of factors, and may contain some insights into other, similar crises that may come down the road.

One factor that might be taken into consideration is Saddam Hussein’s personal mind set. He was always a political gambler who had enjoyed a remarkable run of luck. “The strongest suggestion that Hussein had a substantial WMD program,” notes Richard Cohen (Washington Post, June 17th) was his refusal to come clean. But it is also possible that he wanted the world — particularly his neighbors (Iran) and his domestic opposition (Shiites, Kurds, etc.) [not to mention the United States] to think that he did.” He had survived the onslaught mounted against him in 1991 by President Bush’s father when nothing seemed more improbable. In the intervening decade, Saddam adroitly held UN inspectors at bay; endured a missile strike ordered by President Clinton in 1998 after he kicked the inspectors out of the country, successfully circumvented economic sanctions, and sustained his image on the Arab street as a revolutionary Islamic hero. In the face of the major divisions that emerged among the great powers over the American call for an Iraq crusade, it would not be surprising if Saddam believed that he could remain intransigent, dodge the bullet one more time, and retain his military-economic apparatus intact. Such are the instincts of dedicated gamblers, especially when driven by ideological certitudes!

Another related factor which addresses Saddam’s staying power was his apparent belief that history if not the gods were in his corner. He depicted himself as the modern incarnation of Saladin, the great medieval warrior whose military victories over the Christian world laid the foundations of an Arab imperium that eventually stretched from India to the Atlantic Ocean, from Central Asia to North Africa, and the Balkans. One must never dismiss the power of apocalyptic fantasies in the hands of charismatic political dreamers. History is littered with their exploits, and their tragedies, ranging from the Mahdi in the Sudan to Wovoka among the American Plains Indians. In Saddam’s case his imageries and his short-term successes won him a wide following in the Arab world and fed his illusions of omnipotence and invincibility. This illusion of political omnipotence undoubtedly contributed to what can only be characterized as a fool-hardy gamble that he could somehow survive even if he could not avoid a direct military confrontation with the world’s only superpower.

It is in this context that some observations which American CIA Director, George Tenet, made in a 2000 public briefing. He spoke of what he believed to be the driving force behind Saddam’s pursuit of chemical weapons. Iraq, he said, sought a bioweapons capacity “both for credibility and because every other strong regime in the region either has it or is pursuing it.”

If the WMDs are never found, then what has taken place must be understood as one of the more bizarre manifestations ever witnessed of mutual deceit being pursued on a truly international scale. On one side we have the Bush administration, determined to wage war upon Iraq and Saddam Hussein for a host of genuine and spurious reasons, willing to distort and embellish the intelligence data to whatever degree necessary to justify it, and prepared to take whatever sweat might follow once the dimensions of the deception become public in the aftermath.

On the other side we have the Saddam Hussein regime, willing to risk everything for the sole purpose of clinging to a mythologized political image of itself as the premier radical Arab power with the capacity and the guile to successfully defy the authority both of the American superpower and the United Nations.

If the facts as we currently know them hold up, the Iraq war will undoubtedly take its place as a classic case of a symbiotically intertwined danse macabre between two nation-states whose addiction to the trappings of political power and jingoistically driven self-importance outweighed all considerations of measured reflection on the costs and consequences of impulsive political behavior. Thousands of dead and wounded innocents and billions of dollars worth of ruined infrastructure are the price that has been paid for the free play of this dueling exercise in over-inflated national egos.

Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. Email:


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