Contradictions of Empire

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

David Finkel

WHO WON THE diplomatic battle of Baghdad?  Did the resolute willingness to deploy military power enable the United States government to achieve major strategic objectives without having to actually use it?  Or did a weak President throw away an historic chance to impose U.S. will on adversaries and allies alike?

In fact, the deal between United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sparked an intriguing and revealing debate among U.S. “policy” elites and opinion makers.

On the surface, it’s an argument over whether the inspection of “presidential palaces” will truly eliminate the threat of Iraqi weapons.  It’s doubtful, however, that any serious analyst believes either that all such weapons facilities can be found, or that they represent much of a “threat.”  (In any case, a bombing campaign wouldn’t destroy those weapons, but it would end the inspections program.)

The real question under debate is how U.S. political-military muscle can most effectively be deployed to control a world in growing disorder.  It should be stressed at the outset that this is not a debate in which anti-war activists or socialists should “take sides.”  For us, the use or threat of force to impose the interests of U.S. or international capitalism is unacceptable.

The argument bears examining, rather, as a window on both the enormous military and technological power of United States imperialism and the surprisingly strong limitations on the effectiveness of that power.

The debate among the sophisticated U.S. policy makers and editorialists is essentially whether the removal of the regime sitting atop a shattered Iraqi society is either possible or desirable.  They can live, in either case, with or without Saddam.  The only prospect they could not tolerate would be for the people of Iraq, Saddam’s first and principal victims, to seize control of their own country.  But given the population’s reduction to near-starvation terror by the sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s police state, any such prospect is remote.

This regime may be a monstrous historic aberration, but it is not an accident.  It represents, on the one hand, the degenerate end product of a certain trend in Arab nationalist politics (Baathism), which was once ideologically powerful but now represents little more than a power apparatus in the hands of Saddam’s Tikriti clan. On the other hand, that apparatus is well-entrenched precisely because, with no little aid from the West, it has essentially eliminated politics inside Iraq through police and military terror.

In short, Iraq a crucially important country in the Arab world, because it has both a substantial population and oil is a political vacuum and a social catastrophe.  Absent a democratic revolutionary movement inside Iraq, its people are playthings for the U.S. elites.

The Clinton administration for its part cautiously welcomed the Annan-Saddam deal. Perhaps it did so only tactically, especially after the debacle of its intended war pep rally in Columbus (and similar protests in other cities where administration officials took their road show), because it simply couldn’t afford to bomb Iraq in the teeth of mounting domestic and international opposition.

On the other hand, this administration didn’t really need direct military confrontation especially since Iraq can be indefinitely crippled and its people starved by means of the sanctions, with no risk at all to the superpower.  The Clintonites may sincerely welcome the Baghdad agreement as an opportunity to declare victory and return to its low-cost attrition strategy.

Republican Senate leader Trent Lott, on the other hand, vigorously denounced the deal as “appeasement.”  Here again, motives are ambiguous.  Lott may really have favored “going all the way” against Iraq. Or, he may simply have been playing an opportunist game of dog-the-wag, intending to use Clinton’s inability or unwillingness to go to war in order to make him look weak in the face of domestic scandals.

In any case, the relaxation of the perceived war scare has further enhanced Clinton’s job approval ratings.  George Bush may have proclaimed, in 1991, that Desert Storm had cured this country’s “Vietnam Syndrome;” but events have now shown that “Gulf War Syndrome” is not only a medical disaster but a strong public resistance to sending U.S. troops into another such operation.

Politicians’ statements by nature are intended to be as difficult to interpret and to reveal as little as possible.  The opinions of prestigious editorial writers, on the other hand, are much more up-front.  The debate under examination here, for example, cuts right through the editorial and op-ed pages of the New York Times.

The Times‘ official editorial opinion is intimately attuned to mainstream strategic thinking of, by and for the American ruling class.  It not only favored Annan’s mission to Iraq, but one editorial even approvingly outlined in advance the deal he would bring back for the inspection of Saddam’s presidential palaces.  One could only get the impression that sources close to Annan or Madeline Albright, or both, had carefully briefed the paper on the deal in the making.

Two of the three Times columnists commenting on these events, William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal, took a sharply different tack. They were angered that any deal was even contemplated and once it was concluded, their response (see below) can only be described as hysterical.  Part of the explanation, of course, lies in these writers’ intimate connection to the nationalist right wing in Israel.

A.M.  Rosenthal in particular, the Times‘ former managing editor, is one of the leading moral relativists of our time. The technical political term for this attitude is “neoconservatism,” which became fashionable among social liberals who approved much of Ronald Reagan’s program, especially his foreign policies.  Rosenthal has essentially maintained this attitude in the `90s, after its peak of popularity had passed.

Utterly unashamed of ignoring any human rights atrocity that advances the higher goal of advancing civilization as he sees it notably those committed by the United States or Israel in the Middle East Rosenthal relentlessly crusades against others, e.g. China’s brutal suppression of Tibetans and Christians, when this might broaden the constituency for the U.S.-Israeli partnership.

A lifelong Democrat, Rosenthal announced his new-found fondness for George Bush as the latter launched the 1991 war. Rosenthal is also an overt spoksperson for the right-wing and currently governing Israeli party, the Likud, with particular fondness for Ariel Sharon.

William Safire, a far less one-dimensional writer, is also a Likudnik but in addition a one-time speechwriter for Richard Nixon during his presidency.  Undeterred by Nixon’s gutter anti-semitism, Safire has never made a secret of his longtime ambition to do to some Democratic president, sooner or later, what they did to his.

In Safire and Rosenthal’s view, the real objective of a U.S. war must be the elimination of the Saddam Hussein regime.  Nothing less, they insisted, would remove the threat of his “weapons of mass destruction.”  This, at least, was the stated motivation, but not the one to be taken seriously.  The underlying real thrust of the argument was unmistakable:

The Gulf crisis provides an opportunity to impose a defeat on an Arab country, and a humiliation on the entire Arab world, so massive that it would accomplish what the Israeli victory in 1967 had done. The United States would have the power to reorganize the entire eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia according to its interests.  For the next generation Palestinians and Arabs in general would see no alternative to accepting American dictates.

This proposal represents a kind of high-risk adventurism that is driven more by ideology than by hard-headed material state interests.  Gambling the stability of an entire region for an all-out drive to topple the Iraqi regime is highly unlikely to become mainstream thinking among imperial strategists.  It can be likened to the all-too-apt football term “throwing the long bomb” (a high-risk play also known as “hail Mary”), which makes little sense when the game itself seems well under control.

Still, the argument has some seductive power, precisely because it offers the possibility of defining a war objective that the public might accept something the Clintonites have found themselves so woefully unable to produce.  It also suggests the chance to score a big victory in a region where, perhaps, U.S. political control is somewhat weaker than it seems on the surface.

In the weeks preceding the apparently inevitable bombing of Iraq, Safire and Rosenthal offered a right-wing version of what leftists sometimes call “critical support.”  Simply bombing Iraq, they knew, was pointless except, they calculated, that it might open the door for escalation.

They would endorse a bombing campaign against Iraq, even if its initial aims were limited, and temporarily hold their fire against the scandal-ridden Clinton presidency.  (Rosenthal purports to be outraged by Clinton’s indecencies toward women; Safire generally considers this to be a secondary issue compared to bigger crimes of Chinese and Indonesian illegal foreign campaign contributions.)

When this lovely prospect was aborted by the deal in Baghdad, Safire and Rosenthal, to appropriate another fitting phrase, “went ballistic.”  Rosenthal wrote that the agreement “frees Saddam from responsibility for the continued suffering of Iraqis.  It equates their suffering.  It undercuts the argument for opposing him: the world’s need to strip away his weapons of mass destruction.”  (“Annan’s Bad Gamble,” 2/27/98, A21)

A week later, Rosenthal had created an “Iraq-Palestine Axis:”

The critical consequence of the Baghdad-Palestine axis is that whatever the borders or status of the new Palestine turn out to be, Israel will have at its frontiers the most fervent ally of the dictator who has made Israel his particular target .  .  .

And every Israeli general staff will have to prepare for the likelihood that if Arab armies do mount another attack on Israel, Iraq would move in troops and armor through Palestinian territory, or a Palestinian airport or seaport.” (2/3/98, A21; emphasis added)

Longtime readers of Rosenthal’s column may suspect that he is just possibly crazy enough to believe this (though no Israeli military strategist would take it seriously for a moment).  Certainly, however, William Safire does not really believe what he wrote in his column “Saddam’s Winning Strategy: `Guerilla Peace’:

Our next President, confronted with Saddam’s tanks rolling through Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, will prepare to counterattack.  Saddam will credibly threaten, if we do, to take out a major U.S. city in a germ attack.  We counter-threaten nuclear holocaust.  He laughs just for Saudi oil, are we really ready for an exchange of wholesale death?

At that point, Clinton’s gamble with our security may come in for some criticism.  (2/2/98, A19)

More seriously, Safire argues that (i) the presence of Russian diplomats in the accompaniment of UN weapons inspectors will give the KGB, and then Saddam, access to internal UNSCOM secrets and inspection plans; and (ii) that the “presidential palaces” can be sanitized for inspection and converted to weapons storage sites afterward.

This is probably true, but begs the question of how much it really matters.  The very fact that Safire must resort to the lunatic scenario of Iraq invading Saudi Arabia suggests the probable true answer: not much.

A somewhat different approach is taken by another Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, who served as the paper’s Middle East correspondent in the 1980s and won high journalistic awards for reporting that largely entailed skillfully rewriting Israeli Press Office handouts.

Having thus earned status as an authority, Friedman now serves as the paper’s apostle of economic globalization which, he repeatedly lectures, will bring the virtues of responsible democracy (mainly, obedience to the dictates of the world market) to Beijing, Jakarta, Santiago and Toledo (Ohio).  From this lofty vantage, Friedman views Saddam Hussein not as a world menace, but rather a somewhat nasty fly in the global ointment.

What basically follows, for Friedman, coincides more or less with Clinton’s policy that Iraq should be threatened, and perhaps every few years pulverized.  That wouldn’t kill Saddam, unless we happened to get lucky, but it would “deter Saddam temporarily (even though) alienating the rest of the world.  As a policy, it’s not pretty .  .  .  But maybe it was the sheer bull-headed craziness of it that intimidated Saddam.  After all, in his neighborhood, crazy buys you a lot.”  (“Craziness Pays,” 2/24/98, A25)

The idea was elaborated in a follow-up column, worth quoting at length if only for its amazing arrogance, in which Friedman seeks to explore “why the U.S. has virtually no allies against Iraq:”

There are a number of reasons, but surely a critical one is that America today stands astride the world with so much superior economic, technological and military power that it breeds two important reactions: resentment and complacency .  .  .  France, Russia, China and the Arabs aren’t going to war with America because of its dominance; they just want to make sure we don’t get to enjoy it.

.  .  .  ( T)he main threat to America today is not another hostile superpower.  There is none, for now. The main threat to U.S. and global stability is the super-empowered individual the superempowered angry man (or woman).

That’s also why the proper analogy for the Iraq crisis is not Vietnam or Munich.  It’s the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, the quintessential superempowered angry man (with) no political program, or ideology, other than hating America and Israel.

Saddam is Ramzi Yousef with part of a country … more than the leader of a terrorist band, but something less than the leader of a unified state.  That’s why confronting and disempowering him is both difficult and vitally necessary.”  (“Iraq of Ages,” 2/28/98, A25)

My guess is that this view comes about as close as possible to capturing the consensus sentiment of the American ruling class, to the extent such consensus exists.  It is also simultaneously sophisticated and intellectually bankrupt especially in its amalgamation of Saddam and Yousef.

Saddam Hussein has no ideology, except the identification of the Iraqi state and the Arab nation with himself, but Ramzi Yousef does. In fact, his particular brand of religious fanaticism was exactly what made him and his comrades so attractive to the CIA in the 1980s when he received training to support the American side of the war in Afghanistan.  And these were, of course, the same years that Saddam Hussein received plenty of U.S. and western assistance to perpetuate the hideous war between Iraq and Iran.

That’s the real, and only, connection between Saddam and Yousef.  Their respective transformation from “moderate” and “freedom fighter” to “world menace” and “mindless terrorist” says much about how the United States chooses its friends.  Friedman’s omission of it says plenty about the morals of his “global” vision.


The debate about whether “to war or not to war” has not been resolved.  It may be, in fact, impossible to resolve unless, against most expectations, Saddam Hussein’s regime implodes.

Meanwhile there are other messy cases of refractory regimes and even worse, peoples entering into revolt against the established order, refusing Tom Friedman’s advice to accept the discipline of globalization.

The popular riots in Indonesia against the Suharto dictatorship, and the inability of the United States and International Monetary Fund to stop the long-time U.S. client Suharto from treating his country as his family business, are one example.  Another is the explosive new stage in the breakup of former Yugoslavia: The United States cannot impose “discipline” either on Serbian president Milosevic, or on the growing movement for an independent Kosovo (an outcome which, in this writer’s opinion, is progressive and inevitable).

Of most direct relevance to the Gulf crisis, in Palestine/Israel the post-Oslo “peace process” is defunct except for the CIA-coordinated cooperation of Israeli and Palestinian police forces.  Given the imperial power of the United States and the compliant media, the corpse can always be dressed up in a business suit and paraded around as if it might be “revived.”

But no U.S. administration has the motivation, the political courage or even the competence to extract from Israel the deal for a powerless Palestinian Bantustan-pseudostate that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority desperately want to accept.  This is why no Arab government can afford to appear to be supporting a U.S. assault on Iraq.

“Throwing the long bomb” against Iraq would be one way to paper over the growing cracks in U.S. imperial hegemony.  For reasons we’ve discussed, it’s probably not going to become the preferred option for the U.S. ruling class, or for Bill Clinton in the post-Paula Jones era. That is not to say that such madness is impossible not from a government that was prepared to incinerate half the world over the October, 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

In any case, the daily crime against humanity represented by the sanctions against Iraq, and the ever-present threat of a holocaust, is inherent in the U.S. drive to police the world indeed, built into the very structures of global capitalism.  That threat will haunt the world until its peoples rise up against that system.

David Finkel is on the editorial board of Against the Current

ATC 74, May-June 1998