The mounting threat of an impending unilateral American crusade against Iraq has understandably and rightly generated a torrent of discussion, speculation and analysis about whether there is really any justification for such a radical undertaking at this point in time.
It is well known where the Bush administration stands. The hawk faction in the White House and the Pentagon are gung ho for going ahead with an attack, and purportedly have only been deterred from putting the American military machine in motion by the magnitude of dissent that has arisen both within the United States and in the international community. President Bush and his peripatetic revisionist cold warriors have so far been unable to drum up enough support for their enterprise to confer legitimacy upon it, especially in any of the quarters which a decade ago the father was able to summons.
The principle question persistently being raised by the critics of waging war with Iraq is whether that country’s military capabilities (both in terms of conventional weaponry and WMDs) really constitute a dire enough threat to US security either at home or abroad. to warrant resort to such extreme measures.
And there is an additional (perhaps the primary) concern. Based upon past performance, there is a paucity of evidence to show that United States diplomacy can be counted on to get things right once the fighting is over. This certainly has not been the case in the aftermath of previous sorties into the affairs of Islamic West Asia..
There are five instances over the past three decades where the United States responded politically on a major scale to perceived threats to American interests in Islamic West Asia. All yielded dubious results. These are: (1) Pakistan, both during the Cold War and in the post-Cold War era that followed, (2) the Iran-Iraq war during the 1970s/80s, (3) Afghanistan #1 , i.e., the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, (4) the Gulf War at the beginning of the 1990s, and (5) Afghanistan #2, i.e., the rise and fall of the Taliban/Al Qaeda. We will turn to these matters presently. With regard to the immediate issue of waging war on Iraq, it has been widely suggested that serious doubts exist as to whether its cost would be worth the investment in terms of treasure and human life. Experts contend that it would require the commitment of a quarter million American soldiers. It would undoubtedly produce hundreds of American casualties, and thousands of civilian deaths– so-called “collateral damage.”. It would disrupt the economies and the political stability of Islamic West Asia. It would spike global petroleum prices at a time when the economies of most industrial states around the world (including the American) are already weakened by recession. It would further exacerbate the pervasive resentment toward the United States that already prevails throughout Islamic West Asia.
And all this without a guarantee that much of anything would be gained that could not be accomplished on a far less lethal scale by a UN inspection regimen.
Apart from this, however, let us now consider how previous excursions into Islamic West Asian affairs have fared for the United States. Going all the way back to the origins of the Cold War, there is the case of the recruitment of Pakistan into the alliance systems (CENTO and SEATO) that were supposed to contain Communism and contribute to political stability both in Islamic West Asia and South Asia. This led to the opposite result because of a failure to recognize the incendiary implications of Pakistan’s communal antipathies toward India, and the anti-democratic forces that were in play in post-Independence Pakistani politics. Building up the Pakistani military machine in the name of “containment” consequently ignited an arms race in the Subcontinent, which by strengthening the Pakistani officer corp’s political hand, helped to facilitate a succession of four military dictatorships in Pakistan. This resulted in three major intra-regional wars (1948,1965, 1971), to a pattern of perpetual saber-rattling between India and Pakistan, a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent, and since 1990, to state-sponsored terrorism against the people of Kashmir which continues as we speak. At the same time, Pakistan’s intraregional obsessions rendered her virtually useless to the strategic purposes for which she was recruited into the CENTO and SEATO security structures.
In the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, the Reagan administration, in its panicky reaction to the Iranian revolution, rendered significant assistance to Saddam Husain’s aggression against his radical Islamic neighbor and in this sense helped lay the foundations for the Frankensteinian monster which the Iraqi dictator subsequently became.
The US and the West’s role generally in building up Saddam has been extensively documented by a number of authors — e.g., Kenneth R. Timmerman, “The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq.” Kurt Nimmo, writing in Counterpunch, points out that the Reagan administration was far from negatively disposed toward Saddam as long as he was deemed useful to US interests. “George Bush [Sr.]… put [his] hatred [of Saddam] aside in the name of statecraft…War and death make for good business.” Former Reagan official, Howard Teicher, testified before the US Congress in 1995 that the US “actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying billions of dollars of credits, by providing US military advice to the Iraqis, and closely monitoring third country arms sales,” to make sure their “ally’ got the wherewithal needed to stay the course with Iran.
The US role in Afghanistan #1 is virtually a legendary example of how strategic blunders can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In the process of checkmating the Soviet invasion, American political naivete, and sloth, paved the way for the rise of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. By walking away from the hard tasks of economic reconstruction and nation re-building that should have followed military victory, American remiss played a decisive role in creating the power vacuum into which the deadly votaries of radical Islamism ineluctably flowed. September 11 was the ultimate price to be paid for this.
The Gulf War failure is as legendary as is Afghanistan #1. At the moment the Coalition had pushed Saddam Husain to the brink of political oblivion, they let him off the hook, primarily (despite official protestations to the contrary) because the Bush Sr. administration remained obsessed with the mistaken, belief that the “stability” provided by a military dictatorship (even under Saddam) was more in America’s interest than coping with the “messy” complications associated with promoting pluralism and democratic institutions.
Afghanistan #2 has all the earmarks of a repeat of Afghanistan #!. The Bush Jr. administration has essentially lallygagged on all the assurances given to Hamid Karzai that the rehabilitation and revitalization of post-Taliban Afghanistan would be Priority Number One, for the expressed reason that the mistakes made vis-a-vis Afghanistan #1 must not be repeated. Yet virtually nothing has been or is being done beyond sporadic military actions against increasingly dispersed, elusive and irrelevant formations of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Meanwhile, strategic vision has fallen by the wayside. Afghanistan is gradually sliding back toward the patterns of political miasma and economic stagnation which invited political disaster in the first place.
While this is happening, Mr. Bush and his coterie of hawks have already diverted themselves toward still another quixotic adventure in Islamic West Asia: the Iraq attack!
Faced with the outcomes achieved by the previous five, one is obliged to ask what hope there is for a favorable outcome of this one. Three of them (the Pakistan alliance, support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war, and the Gulf War) vitalized military dictatorships which have for years threatened the peace and stability of the region. Two (Afghanistan #1 and Afghanistan #2) produced anarchic breeding grounds for Islamist-driven terrorism and human rights disasters,
In the face of such a shoddy record, it would seem appropriate for the Bush administration and indeed the American foreign policy establishment generally to comprehensively reexamine the premises of their strategic orientation to Islamic West Asia. Before the currently authorized adventure is launched, Washington should consider the most salient lessons to be learned from its five predecessors. First, the policy of cynically propping up and manipulating military dictators in this region in the name of realpolitik rather than following the harder road of sedulously promoting the evolution of democratic institutions has consistently been ruinous, as the experience with Saddam Husain and the Pakistani generals painfully attest. Second, if military interventions are initiated, they must not be allowed to leave social and political vacuums in their wake, as was the case with Afghanistan #1 and is the case with Afghanistan #2. Finally, integrity and cultural sensitivity still have a significant part to play in winning hearts and minds in Islamic West Asia, as the current public alienation with the United States throughout the region over its record of duplicity and historical ignorance demonstrates.
Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org