Mahmoud Darwish, arguably the Arab world’s leading contemporary poet, wrote in his recent poem, Nothing but Iraq, the following
Dead blacksmiths awaken from their graves to make our shackles
but we never dreamt of more than a life like life
and of dying our own way
One doesn’t have to be endowed with the eloquence of Darwish to identify with his quest. When a “life like life” becomes too much to dream of, humanity as such is essentially defied.
The tens of millions of war-protesters who blossomed on the world’s Main Streets like belated spring flowers, days before the war on Iraq, did not look alike, speak the same language, belong to the same culture or religion, read the same papers, watch the same TV news or hold the same political thought. But, they were all motivated by a far grander and more noble cause than mere opposition to yet another war on a battered nation of the South: they shared the ideal of resisting empire.
Perhaps the fervor and intensity of protest have relatively waned since the images of the “sweeping victory” over Iraq, carried by not-so-free western media, inundated us. But after the US war crimes in Falluja, the racist torture orgy at Abu Ghraib and the wedding massacre were revealed, the motivation for resisting empire is on the rise again, globally. This essay goes back and explores the formative stage of this resistance: the critical period before and right after the start of the war on Iraq, arguing that such a resistance is not just ethically laudable, but also practically winnable.
We are witnessing the ominous rise of the most powerful empire ever to exist. Judging from consistent media reports and opinion polls, the rest of the world seems to view it as a menacing rogue state that is arrogantly bullying other nations, east and west, north and south, into unqualified submission to its self-declared designs for world domination and incontestable economic supremacy.
Perceiving the United States under Bush as a “fearful giant throwing its weight around,” George Soros summarizes in the Financial Times [March 12, 2003] what has become common knowledge nowadays: “The [Bush] doctrine is built on two pillars: first, the US will do everything in its power to maintain unquestioned military supremacy; second, it arrogates the right to pre-emptive action.” The U.S., according to this argument, maintains two classes of sovereignty: “American sovereignty, which takes precedence over international treaties; and the sovereignty of all other states.”
That much is old news. It is lavishly published in respectable editorials, books and throughout the internet. What’s new is that there is opportunity in the midst of the bleakest of disasters, as capitalist entrepreneurs have always held, albeit a different type of opportunity than the profit-obsessed one they’ve often eyed. With the United States’ shocking and awful projection of the closest human approximation to absolute power to date, there is an equal but opposite global force of deep resentment, revulsion, dissidence and resistance that is fast developing.
And for the first time in decades, there is no simple dichotomy to conveniently divide the world into.
If the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the decisive beginning of the end of the East-West opposition, the illegal, immoral and criminal war on Iraq, waged by the new Rome of our time, might well announce the baptism of a new world community opposed to empire, any empire, and based on the precepts of evolving international law, human rights and the common principles of universal morality that are emerging.
Almost everyone with conscience fears and resents the megalomaniac cult sitting on the throne in Washington. It is the product of a strategic alliance between the omnipotent military-industrial complex (with a lion’s share for the oil industry), the fundamentalist-Christian and the Zionist ideologies. It is a cult that has amassed colossal financial, political and media power, enough to rekindle its deep-rooted disposition and ambition to become the master of the universe. A century and a half after officially abolishing slavery in the U.S., the new-old masters have a diabolic agenda to resurrect it, except this time on a worldwide scale.
Being able to detect this phenomenon, a great majority of nations, including an impressively increasing number of conscientious and mentally-liberated Americans, wish to see this cult of “neo-conservatives” and its agenda humbled, at the very least, if not altogether defeated.
Around the world, many feel threatened, and indeed enraged, by the new Washington talk of setting new norms in international relations, based on might, and on the sole interests–and whims–of the current emperors who wield that might. Far from apologizing for this raw proclivity to dominate, with all the lawlessness that is bound to result from it on the world stage, Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative ideologue, justifies it as the prerogative of the mightiest:
“The United States remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.” [“Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, No. 113, June 2002]
According to Kagan’s argument, only the weak whine and moan about the sanctity of international law. The powerful, on the contrary, have a “propensity to use [their] strength” to achieve their political objectives. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop them from so doing.
At the very heart of this strategy is control over oil supplies. Robert E. Ebel, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank whose advisers include Kissinger and Brzezinski, among other dignitaries, explains: “Oil fuels military power, national treasuries, and international politics. It is no longer a commodity to be bought and sold within the confines of traditional energy supply and demand balances. Rather, it has been transformed into a determinant of well-being, of national security, and of international power.” [Robert Dreyfus, Oil: The Thirty-Year Itch, Mother Jones, March/April 2003]
Iraq has the second–perhaps the first, according to some experts–largest oil reserves in the world. More than 400 billion barrels of easily-accessible fossil fuel, to be exact.
“Controlling Iraq,” says Michael Klare, professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, “is about oil as power, rather than oil as fuel. Control over the Persian Gulf translates into control over Europe, Japan, and China. It’s having our hand on the spigot.” [Ibid]
If this concern figured prominently on the geo-political agenda during the cold war, it has evolved to a full-fledged obsession after it. Monopolizing control over the Gulf area has become far more realistic and daunting in a mono-polar world. The disintegration of the formidable Soviet deterrent has made the red lines surrounding the Gulf region far more porous, and rendered the previously off-limits area wide-open to American hegemonic ambitions. The reaction of the smaller world powers has varied from grudging acquiescence, represented by a much weakened Russia, to an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them attitude, exemplified by the United Kingdom, to composed protestation, best shown in the French position. Everyone knew that once Uncle Sam dips his eager toes in that magnificent pool of black gold, no force on Earth can make him retreat or share the spoils fairly.
But just like any other cult, this one too has a fatal weakness, which people from within cannot visualize. It is blinded by a single dimension, power, whereas the “game” is far more complex. Ultimately, it takes a willing slave to sustain a ruthless master. If a slave refuses to be, a master ceases to exist. Power is a beast that feeds on fear and submission and dies without them.
Hence, beyond fear and rage, the will to resist subjugation and the praxis (reflective action) towards a more just and peaceful world remain not only the strongest bonds that unite us, humans with conscience, but also the most potent weapons of resistance available to us. For such a unity to mature, nevertheless, international law must itself evolve beyond the constraints set by the former East-West divide. If peace and security–the current two pillars of the United Nations–were the indispensable principles that have bridged the gulf between East and West after World War II, they have essentially ignored the currently far more enormous gap between North and South. Justice, sustainable development and the environment are the necessary ingredients that can assure us all that no one nation, or a small band of nations, will ignore, circumvent, or otherwise abuse international legitimacy to establish a new master-slave relationship. Nurturing a universal community that respects justice and peace can, and indeed should, become our response to the challenge posed by empire.
This vision is not motivated by naive optimism, seeing the half-full part of the cup, but rather by a conviction that one has to shatter the damned cup altogether in order to see beyond the confining choices offered by the master holding that cup: you’re either with us or against us. We simply cannot accept being boxed in such confines. There is no monolithic “you” or “us” here; there are shades and gradations of every color of the human spectrum, coexisting and mutually influencing one another. It is not as deceivingly simplistic as “Anglo-Americans against Arabs,” or “Judeo-Christians against Muslims,” or even “whites against browns.” The spreading anti-war movement has become the Baghdad curse that is gradually shattering the Bush-bin Laden fundamentalist worldview of good-v-evil, bringing together Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, Europeans, Arabs, Latin Americans, North Americans, Asians, Africans, Australians, among others, all shocked and awed by the ability of a small gang of bigoted, fanatical, lawless but extremely powerful ideologues to drag the world to the rim of annihilation, as Fidel Castro has alarmingly warned. [Guardian, March 6, 2003]
Dissent in Empire
But more Americans are realizing what their government is up to. America was “late for the last two world wars. Now it seeks to be early for the next. It is not an easy sell,” argues Mathew Engel [The Guardian, February 25, 2003] Even some mainstream print media outlets in the U.S. were alarmed enough by the irrational militarism taking Washington by storm that they allowed a wider margin of dissent than usual.
The courageous Maureen Dowd of the New York Times — yes, even the Times allowed for dissent at some stage– for example, analyzed the failure of American diplomacy to sell the war to the UN differently from most other less-daring American journalists. In an opinion column tellingly titled, Mashing Our Monster, she wrote: “Everyone thinks the Bush diplomacy on Iraq is a wreck. It isn’t. It’s a success because it was never meant to succeed.” She further argued that the neo-conservatives (or neo-cons, as Americans call them) “never intended to give peace a chance. They intended to give pre-emption a chance. The hawks despise the U.N. and if they’d gotten its support, they never would have been able to establish the principle that the U.S. can act wherever and whenever it wants to.” [New York Times, March 16, 2003] Instead of garnering multilateral support, Dowd argues, “Bush officials believe that making the world more scared of us is the best way to make us safer and less scared.” [New York Times, March 9, 2003]
The New York Times also carried excerpts from the public resignation letter of John Brady Kiesling (a career diplomat who was the first to leave the Foreign Service in protest against Bush’s policy), where he wrote: “Why does our president condone the swaggering and contemptuous approach to our friends and allies this administration is fostering, including among its most senior officials? Has ‘oderint dum metuant’ (‘let them hate as long as they fear’) really become our motto?” [March 7, 2003]
Another New York Times columnist evoked the lessons of Troy, warning against “the intoxicating pride and overweening arrogance that sometimes clouds the minds of the strong.” [March 18, 2003]
In the same paper, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who has prominently attacked the war on Iraq as unjust, brought into the debate another dimension saying: “The heartfelt sympathy and friendship offered to America after the 9/11 attacks, even from formerly antagonistic regimes, has been largely dissipated; increasingly unilateral and domineering policies have brought international trust in our country to its lowest level in memory.” [New York Times, March 9, 2003]
Being accustomed to reading the New York Times almost every day for many years now, I can attest that this trend of tolerating such eloquent and sharp dissent was never in style in the paper, especially when covering a conflict related to the Middle East.
Keeping in mind the hyper-influence this paper has on decision makers in Washington and beyond, one cannot but consider the above trend another sign of this pregnant new era.
Even an unrelenting right-wing conservative, who is a Nixon and Reagan White House aide and three-time presidential candidate, like Patrick Buchanan rebuked the Bush Administration saying: “Not in our lifetimes has America been so isolated from old friends.” In a fervent attack against the neo-cons, whom Buchanan holds responsible for pursuing a “new crusade,” he describes them as a “cabal of polemicists and public officials seek[ing] to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests,” charging them with deliberately alienating “friends and allies all over the Islamic and Western world through their arrogance, hubris, and bellicosity.” [American Conservative, March 24, 2003]
Europe: The Revolt of the Former Masters
A new environment of international solidarity is already in its formative stage. And, of all the peoples on Earth, Europeans, most of whom are citizens of former empires themselves, were notably the first to usher in this new era, weeks before the war was launched. Clearly, the US cannot but take this crucial dimension into consideration. Some, as Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, go as far as predicting that the escalating conflict between Europe and the United States among is one of several important factors that will cause the “End of the American Empire.” [New York Times, March 23, 2003]
Europeans were undeniably the most resolute in voicing their utter opposition to the empire’s new designs. Granted, they were not just actively opposing the planned war, but also shouting out loud that they were no longer content with “doing the dishes” while America cooks the dinner and eats it too. But, they were also defending the primacy of international law in dealing with conflicts. In fact, by burying the malicious theories of clash of civilizations, the millions of anti-war protesters who flooded the streets of Western capitals announced the initiation of a virtual global community upholding resisting empire, or any rogue nation, for that matter.
“Europeans think America does more harm than good,” roared a headline in the Guardian, reflecting the results of a recent European Commission poll conducted in 15 European states gauging attitudes towards the United States in various areas, especially in the promotion of world peace. Just two days before the Anglo-American military aggression against Iraq started, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that, “Since last year the proportion with a favourable view of the US has dropped from 75% to 48% in Britain, 76% to 34% in Italy, 50% to 14% in Spain, and 86% to 50% in Poland. In countries with governments opposed to the war the drop is steeper – from 63% to 31% in France, 61% to 25% in Germany, 61% to 28% in Russia .” [Guardian, March 19, 2003]
Neal Ascherson of the Observer describes the intra-European brawl concerning the war on Iraq as a debate “about uncontrolled [U.S.] military might flinging itself at a frightened and embittered world.” [March 16, 2003]
Capturing this new spirit (expediently and erroneously branded as “anti-Americanism,” although it really should be accurately termed: anti-imperialism) that has swept Europe, José Saramago, the Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate, told hundreds of thousands of anti-war demonstrators in Madrid: “We are marching against the law of the jungle that the United States and its acolytes old and new want to impose on the world.” [New York Times, March 16, 2003]
If that was the case before the war, polls conducted after gory footage of the invading forces’ atrocities had been aired to millions around the world showed an even steeper decline in support for U.S. policies. Soon after the war had started, a solid majority of Europeans (more than 80%, actually) viewed the US as the most serious threat to world peace, when compared to Iraq and North Korea. In Spain, where more than 90% of the people opposed the Anglo-American war (enthusiastically endorsed by their pathetically isolated government then), a typical editorial in the El Pais daily declared, “At the moment, American politics is dominated by a messianic clan that wishes to govern by itself, and through extremism.” [March 29, 2003, quoted in The Guardian, April 3, 2003]
A representative German columnist further protested, “Every day conservative US ideologues deepen the rift by accusing Europeans alternatively of being arrogant, incompetent or simply stupid. In this situation there remains nothing for the Europeans to do than to free themselves once and for all from the US. Politically and morally it will not be a problem – but militarily, things are much more difficult.” [Die Tageszeitung, Germany, April 2, 2003]
This seething antipathy has already engendered across Europe an effective “Boycott Brand America” campaign. “If people all around the world boycott American products it might influence their policies,” explained one restaurateur in Germany. Another was more blunt: “We want to hit America where it hurts — in their wallets.” [Reuters, March 25, 2003]
Former Slaves — Will Take no More
The obvious question that comes to mind is: if this is what Europeans think of the U.S., can you imagine what most Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans and most Asians have on their minds?
To give but a hint, this is what a Nigerian journalist wrote: “Iraq was already the cradle of the first civilisation on earth at a time when Americans were living in caves,” adding, “Iraqis need no lesson in democracy and freedom from the bloody mobs… of their age.” [The Nigerian Guardian, cited in The Guardian, April 3, 2003]
The compelling Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, expressively revealed, “In most parts of the world, the invasion of Iraq is being seen as a racist war. The real danger of a racist war unleashed by racist regimes is that it engenders racism in everybody – perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets the parameters for the debate, it lays out a grid for a particular way of thinking. There is a tidal wave of hatred for the US rising from the ancient heart of the world.” [The Guardian, April 2003]
Summing up what seems to be close to a consensus among developing nations, a Kenyan journalist quite unambiguously insisted, “The new age of global dictatorship that America is unravelling must be condemned.” [Sunday Standard, quoted in The Guardian, April 3, 2003]
Empire v. Heaven: Demise of the Idea of America
While the vast majority of humans around the world bear witness in anger, grief and disbelief to America’s thrashing of international law in its feverish execution of its so-called “pre-emptive war” (which Chomsky properly terms, “preventive”) against Iraq and its atrocious ascension to uncontested world domination, one cannot but ironically wonder whether this “crusade”–to borrow Bush’s diction–might go down in history as the war that unraveled the new empire.
Empires, history tells us, start to disintegrate when are they are perceived as such by their victims, and resisted accordingly. Although the left around the world has always viewed the United States as the embodiment of modern imperialism, the quintessential attribute most associated with the nascent–by Arab and “old” Europe’s standards, any how–American nation was not raw power, military superiority, or colonialism, but rather its almost miraculous ability to win over the hearts and minds of diverse nations across the globe. The United States has until recently managed to convince Indians, Mexicans, Arabs, Brazilians, Russians, Philippinos and Nigerians alike of the vigor of its culture, of its freedoms they so desire, of its recipe for economic progress they wish to emulate, and its respect for the individual and citizens’ rights they wish their governments would adopt.
Regardless how many of these attributes are mere illusions or myths, as leftists would argue, they seem to have captured the imagination of world populations, especially the young. Youths everywhere, from Beijing to Caracas, and from Stockholm to Durban fell under the spell of a glittering idea called America.
Of course the socialists had good reasons for their skepticism: the U.S., after all, is a nation that was established by means of genocide of the native Indians. And let’s not forget the immoral slavery era, which was responsible for generating a substantial chunk of the nation’s wealth. Even in the last century alone, successive U.S. governments have committed numerous crimes against the peoples of Japan, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, East Timor, El-Salvador, Panama, Colombia, Angola, South Africa, Somalia and, of course, Palestine. Needless to say, this list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, if the Wolfowitz-Cheney-Perle-Rumsfeld cult is not stopped, this list might in the foreseeable future overlap with the UN roster of member states, give or take a few.
But, those wicked deeds have been effectively outweighed in the collective memory of most nations by the prevalent image of America as an almost benevolent superpower that spreads McDonald’s, Starbucks, Microsoft, Nike and Madonna, when compared with the death and destruction wrought by European colonial regimes in their former colonies for centuries. It was a popular dream for youths the world over to immigrate to America: the Earthly paradise. The power of America was most formidably embodied in the exquisitely marketed idea of America.
Not any longer!
The bewitching ideal behind the image of America is virtually dead. With the current hurricane of fundamentalism, neo-McCarthyism, hyper-nationalism (which is slightly reminiscent of the rise of European fascism less than a century ago), brute force, unabashed bullying, contempt for most other nations, unprecedented imperial arrogance and patent militarism, the leaders of America have assassinated the idea of America.
“Under the present situation, I cannot think of defending the United States,” said Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, a leading establishment intellectual in Egypt, adding, “To most people in this area, the United States is the source of evil on planet earth. And whether we like it or not, it is the Bush administration that is to blame.” [The New York Times, April 8, 2003]
Shedding further light on this phenomenon, the Washington Post reported, “A generation of Arabs wooed by the United States and persuaded by its principles has become among the most vociferous critics of America’s world view,” [February 26, 2003]. And the Arabs are no exception in this regard.
Americans: Subjects of Empire or Citizens of the World
Perhaps absolute power does corrupt absolutely, after all.
We’re seeing it before our own eyes. But it does not only corrupt those who possess it, but everyone else around them as well. How else could a nation that has largely abandoned its old ways of genocide and slavery and has prided itself of its unique freedoms and civil rights suddenly turn into a third world-like plutocracy, governed by a rabid–though sort of elected–junta that shamelessly, even proudly, represents the interests of the oil and military industries above everything and anyone else? How could such an enlightened nation fall into such an abyss of religious fanaticism, suppression of rights, and herd-like faith in the Great Leader? How could a significant majority of Americans suddenly suspend their collective faculty of reason and kneel before the new Caesar so sheepishly?
Surely, the ruling cult could not have dreamt of such an achievement without September 11th. But those criminal attacks, as shocking, immoral and traumatic as they were, and still are, cannot alone explain the current state of the Union. The credit goes to decades of complacent American media, apathy and detachment from the world, as many liberal and progressive American intellectuals have always warned.
It is no coincidence that in the eyes of most American political elites Germany and France are considered pariah states that might face sanctions or worse if they fail to comply; that Arab oil is considered rightfully belonging to Americans, albeit lying under the sands of Arabia by mere coincidence, that even the United Nations is viewed as just another mischievous third world country that needs a whipping every once in a while to properly toe the line.
Going beyond any former American government in disdain and aversion towards the international organization, the current US Administration had the audacity to declare that since the UN “failed to” endorse or legitimize its campaign of pre-meditated pillage and carnage against Iraq, it–that is the UN–has lost its “relevance.” Boutros Ghali, the former UN Secretary General, addresses this dimension of empire saying, “Multilateralism and unilateralism are just methods for the United States: they use them a la carte, as it suits them. The United Nations is just an instrument at the service of American policy.” [The Guardian, March 1, 2003]
So, the American rulers, “whose ignorance is matched only by their greed,” as a former World Bank official describes them, get to indulge for a moment in sheer power and all the profits that come with it. But, their short-sightedness may prove to be their fatal undoing. Even in the likely event of a decisive American military victory in Iraq, whatever that really means, David Von Drehle of the Washington Post warns, “a successful result contains risks in the eyes of those who have pondered the recurring cycle in human history in which power leads to hubris, hubris leads to overreaching, and overreaching leads to collapse. Victory could tempt the United States to overreach.” [March 16, 2003]
Putting it more gloomily, a veteran French diplomat, Regis de Bray, writes: “Provoking chaos in the name of order, and resentment instead of gratitude, is something to which all empires are accustomed. And thus it is that they coast, from military victory to victory, to their final decline.” [New York Times, February 23, 2003]
Stunned and angered to a boiling point by footage of the latest Anglo-American remote-control massacres in Iraq, my 72-year-old father shouted from his revolted guts: “The worst catastrophe that has ever hit the human race was Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America.” And my father, I should remind you, is not a native American.
While I can fully understand my father’s anger, as I am sure many would, I am more inclined to concern myself with what to do and where to go from here. In that light, it seems each one of us will have to choose between empire and freedom. Even Americans will see these paths as mutually exclusive, for while empire will further aggrandize the wealth and power of the plutocracy and its cohorts, most Americans will lose their precious–exemplary, I would venture–civil rights, and, perhaps more importantly, their claim to morality. Recent polls of American public opinion reflect that a considerable and very committed minority is perturbed by the government’s crimes around the world. Many are doing something about it.
Indeed, Americans with conscience opposing their government’s bloody war are at the forefront of this international struggle. As Arundhati Roy writes:
“Most courageous of all, are the hundreds of thousands of American people on the streets of America’s great cities – Washington, New York, Chicago, San Francisco. The fact is that the only institution in the world today that is more powerful than the American government, is American civil society. How can we not salute and support those who not only acknowledge but act upon that responsibility? They are our allies, our friends.” [The Guardian, April 2, 2003]
They are also our hope. The rest of the world truly hopes that Americans may themselves rise up to the occasion and renounce the empire from within; that they may opt for the status of relatively less privileged citizens of a more just and peaceful world, rather than the loathed masters of a bludgeoned, bullied, and oppressed world; that they may shed their role as uncritical, even submissive, subjects of a reviled, racist and morally bankrupt empire. With conscientious Americans on board, the world has a chance to defeat the mad beast with nuclear fangs, before it takes us all under. With concerted mobilization and global activism, we may well celebrate one day the withering away of empire.
OMAR BARGHOUTI is an independent Palestinian political analyst. His article “9.11 Putting the Moment on Human Terms” was chosen among the “Best of 2002” by the Guardian. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org