The War and the Rubble

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Christopher Phelps

MAY 10, 2003–TONIGHT this war appears to be all but finished, and the regime of Saddam Hussein to have collapsed. These are unequivocally good things. All here can and should rejoice in them.

This outcome on the face of it may seem to vindicate the administration and its rhetorical justification for the war: that this was about freedom. But I will maintain tonight that the result confirms the antiwar movement’s position that Iraq was a severely weakened regime that posed no threat to the security of the American people.

It is obvious after a mere 22 days that this war was not about stopping a formidable and menacing foe. The war must have been about something else. I think that Jay Leno was more or less right when he said there are three reasons for this war: regular, unleaded and premium. (More on that in a moment.)

Might does not make right, as we all learned on the playground of life. Still, it is a struggle at a time like this, a time of shared relief, to remember the reasons that this war was massively unpopular all around the globe, protested by millions, and criticized by moral leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Pope, and many Nobel Laureates, not to mention the AFL-CIO, Sean Penn, and the Dixie Chicks.

Victory ought not be confused with peace. Nor should the euphoria that comes with the end of any military campaign be permitted to reinforce the seductive notion that military solutions will resolve problems that are fundamentally political, cultural and social, such as the instability of the Middle East or the rise of reactionary Islamist movements in Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.

What was the point of this war? Let us begin with the administration’s justifications.

Was it to disarm Saddam?

Iraq, militarily contained, posed no immediate threat to the United States. It was reduced to the status of a flea by international sanctions. Its military prior to this war was about one-third of its size prior to the 1991 Gulf War.

This war was undertaken precisely because the regime was vulnerable and already largely disarmed. In 1998 United Nations inspectors judged that they had found or destroyed 90-95 percent of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, including its chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles. Recent inspections resulted in further destruction of Iraqi capacities.

The regime has collapsed without any use of weapons of mass destruction on U.S. forces, without long-range missiles being fired at Israel. That Iraq was so easily routed shows that it was invaded not to disarm Saddam, but because Iraq had been largely and successfully disarmed.

Was the war about ending terrorism?

Many Americans associate the two, perhaps because of administration attempts to link them, and because, naturally, this war follows fast upon the September 11 attacks, the declaration of a “war on terrorism,” and the war with Afghanistan.

However, no evidence exists of cooperation between Osama bin Laden and Iraq. Bin Laden–alive and well and at large, if you haven’t noticed, as is Mullah Omar, despite the earlier war overturning the Taliban regime–has a long history of antagonism toward secular Arab regimes such as Saddam’s Iraq.

Far from inhibiting terrorism, the war has increased the likelihood of further waves of terrorist attacks from legions of new al-Qaeda recruits and homegrown variants. Though there is little love for Saddam among Arabs, the Arab and Muslim worlds view this invasion with deep suspicion, as a conquest replete with ulterior motives.

Based upon Red Cross reports we can say that Iraqi civilian casualties from the war now number, most likely, in the thousands– perhaps tens of thousands according to this morning’s New York Times. Bloodied children and severed limbs were broadcast in gory detail on Arab television, unlike the sanitized war served up to the American viewer, and every civilian casualty counted to Arabs as emotional equivalents of the way the September 11 victims hit the American public.

Terrorism of the kind we now confront worldwide–targeting civilians through violence in order to achieve political and religious ends–is stimulated by a deep and abiding sense of grievance, combined with powerlessness. A vastly superior military adversary cannot be met on its own terms, leading to desperate measures, “asymmetric” means in war planner jargon. Simply put, box cutters and penknives can do a great deal of damage if you don’t have stealth bombers at your disposal.

As we enter a period of prolonged military occupation of Iraq, we should recall that it was the permanent basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War that first led bin Laden to declare open season on American lives.

The invasion of Iraq, carried out in the face of international opposition, with no real support, despite the use of the term “coalition” to impart credibility to a U.S.-British operation, has both increased the perception of the U.S. as superpower kingpin and aggravated, inflamed, and intensified Arab grievances and Muslim rage–from Indonesia to Chechnya to Kashmir. It is, I am afraid, only a matter of time before there are suicide bombers in the streets of Washington and New York.

Was the war about freedom?

Saddam Hussein was a brutal and ruthless dictator. He was so from the outset. Saddam’s worst human rights abuses, including his worst uses of weapons of mass destruction (on the Kurds in the North of Iraq), occurred during the Reagan administration of the 1980s, when Saddam was supplied militarily and supported politically and economically by the United States.

Donald Rumsfeld himself, as special envoy to Reagan, traveled to Iraq in 1983 and 1984 to meet with Saddam Hussein and renew U.S.-Iraqi relations fully. Twenty-four U.S. corporations and many U.S. government agencies assisted Iraqi development of weapons of mass destruction, providing Iraq with seed stock for biological weapons agents, including anthrax and e-coli.

Like Manuel Noriega and bin Laden, Saddam Hussein is a Frankenstein, a creation gone astray. Is the occupation of Iraq creating new Frankensteins?

In the past two days there have been scenes of jubilation and looting as the regime crumbled in Basra and Baghdad. Until that point there was no outpouring of love for American troops, and there are still considerable elements of sullenness, skepticism, and deep distrust intermixed with joyousness in Iraqi sentiment.

Iraqi memory extends to the long years when the Baathist regime was an instrument of American presence in the region. Saddam served U.S. purposes well when he was murdering tens and tens of thousands of Iraqi leftists during the Cold War and waging a bloody war on Iran in the days of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

One of the reasons why U.S. motives in the Persian Gulf region are held suspect by Arab populations is the long history of U.S. (following upon the British) support for corrupt, repressive regimes that, far from representing freedom, enrich and empower a tiny elite at the expense of the many.

Middle Eastern peoples remember the 1953 CIA-subsidized coup against a democratically elected administration in Iran that moved to nationalize Iranian oil, replaced by the ruthless U.S.-backed Shah. Arabs know the numerous undemocratic Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf region not slated for invasion by the United States– for example, Qatar, Kuwait and Egypt–precisely because they are conducive to U.S. corporate-military interests.

Take Saudi Arabia, long the closest U.S. Arab ally: Ruled by a feudal royal family, with state-supported Islamic fundamentalism in the form of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia is a state in which women’s roles are carefully subordinated and circumscribed, and human rights denied. Most of the 9/11 al-Qaeda cadre, including Osama bin Laden himself, hail from Saudi Arabia, puritanical militants bred of a repressive society.

Voices of modernity, toleration, rationality in Arab and Muslim worlds–the very forces that might actually bring about democracy, secularism, and freedom–argued strongly against this war and now describe themselves as beleaguered and marginalized within their societies because the war has inflamed and encouraged all fundamentalist and backward-looking tendencies in Islam.

In Iraq itself, we have yet to see what sort of regime will emerge. For the next year, possibly several, it is clear that Iraq will be ruled by a military state administered by the Pentagon, without control by the Iraqi people, the UN, or even the U.S. State Department.

It is already obvious that in order to placate Turkey the new Iraq will not grant administrative autonomy within Iraq–let alone self-determination–to the Kurds. The prospects for Iraqi democracy are exceedingly unlikely because of the lack of a unified or viable Iraqi leadership; longstanding antagonisms between Sunni and Shiite, Kurd and Arab, within Iraq; and lack of U.S. interest in permitting a Shiite majority to enact Sharia law, or in permitting Iraqi nationalist claims to be made on the oil fields.

Postwar Afghanistan, now abandoned (without a single penny of foreign aid requested in the current Bush budget), does not hold out much promise as an example, as it degenerates into the rule of warlords, Islamist remnants, and interethnic contestation.

Far more likely than democracy in Iraq is a period of internal instability under a military protectorate, eventuating in some form of Iraqi strong-arm state, a proxy of U.S. interests–with, naturally, Arabs taking the blame for the failure of democracy because of their putatively innate incapacity for self-rule.

Before finishing on this subject of freedom, let’s not neglect the serious but barely protested contraction of American political liberties since 9/11 under Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security director Tom Ridge.

There was racial profiling of Iraqi Americans across the board in recent FBI investigations. More forbiddingly to the mass of American citizens, the USA Patriot Act severely curtails civil and political liberties: permitting widened surveillance and wiretap powers for the government, including e-mail, voice mail, and web surfing; abrogation of attorney-client privilege; and indefinite detention without charge of “aliens,” including legal aliens.

As an aside, I might note that these authoritarian curtailments of democratic rights justified in the name of freedom, combined with a huge military budget and a likely $400 billion federal deficit, point to the shallowness of modern American conservatism’s claim to stand for small government and individual liberties. One can only imagine Rush Limbaugh’s biliousness had Al Gore signed the USA Patriot Act.

What looks like a triumph today may well prove ephemeral. The war with Iraq has made it more dangerous for Americans to travel widely in the world, has increased the likelihood of major terrorist attacks in North America, has brought disfavor to the image of America in the populations of most countries, has estranged even the United States’ loyal partners in Europe, such as Germany and France, and has fed and encouraged the most retrograde and dangerous tendencies in Arab and Muslim culture.

What was this war about, if not defense, freedom, or terrorism?

In the first instance, oil. Given the frequency with which President Bush has used the euphemism of “liberation” in this campaign, it’s a wonder Operation Iraqi Freedom was not called Operation Iraqi Liberation–until one realizes that the resulting acronym might have been a bit too revelatory. (Or as Leno remarked, the President says this war is not about oil, it’s about gasoline.)

Do not misunderstand my point. The war was not about access to oil for American public. Saddam would have happily sold to U.S. markets, had he been permitted. It was about control and profits: U.S.-based multinational corporations’ direct ownership and supervision of Iraqi oil resources and direct garnering of petroleum profits from Iraq.

Who reaps the profits as they fill up their tanks is of little concern to the average American worker, but of great concern to oil industry CEOs and major Wall Street investors. Control of the vast Iraqi oil reserves will give U.S.-centered companies the means to set the price of oil on the world market, providing an alternative to heavy reliance on OPEC.

The first U.S. military act was to seize Iraq’s oilfields. The first economic acts will be to grant contracts to renovating the oil infrastructure to U.S. companies and to redistribute oil contracts to US firms (away from Russia, China, France). U.S. plans include a fivefold increase in Iraqi crude oil production.

Oil production in Iraq, it was recently announced, will be overseen by a former chief executive of the Shell Oil Company. It is no accident that the Bush administration, straight out of Texas, is bursting with oil industry connections.

Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton Oil Services, which produces and installs oil extraction equipment and whose subsidiaries are sure to win gigantic contracts in the new Iraq. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice has a Chevron oil tanker named after her, believe it or not.

But oil is only one strategic component of a larger and more important consideration: empire.

War on Iraq is a testing ground for new American foreign policy doctrine shaped by group of neoconservative officials, policy wonks, and editors: Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Lewis Libbey and William Kristol.

Sometimes called the “chicken hawks” because a number of them evaded military service in the Vietnam era but are willing today to resort to war, this tight-knit group has used the rubric of “war on terrorism” to implement far reaching policy measures that it sought long in advance of 9/11. Wolfowitz, for example, openly sought “regime change” in Iraq for years before George W. Bush took office.

The centerpiece in neoconservative strategic doctrine is the turn to “preemptive” war as made explicit in White House national security documents. Not, mind you, self-defense prompted by immediate impending danger. What makes the policy of preemption unprecedented is its justification of strikes against perceived long-range threats.

The world is on effective notice that any nation’s attempt to match U.S. military might will result in attack by U.S. forces.

The corollary to this sweeping, one might say reckless, kind of pre-emption is unilateralism. It might be lovely to have other nations collaborate in desired military campaigns, but the United States, the administration now says, will not hesitate to go it alone.

Added to the mix is a new nuclear doctrine. In January 2002, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announced authorization of Pentagon use of tactical nuclear weapons in regional theaters of war. Nuclear weapons are no longer deterrents of last resort, but are available for offensive capacity as first strike weapons.

The problem with these doctrines–preemptive war, unilateralism, nuclear first strike–is that the package makes the United States seem a rogue state in the eyes of the world: ready to flout international opinion, disregard international law, abrogate international treaties, act at whim, exert its overwhelming military might, and do so with considerable swaggering.

There is a reason why these doctrines are beyond the pale in world politics. If adopted widely they would be catastrophic in result: Pakistan could nuke India, China could invade Taiwan, so on and so forth. It is no surprise that this winter and spring, in poll after poll, most worldwide publics judged the United States a far greater threat to world peace than Iraq.

One cannot help but be struck by the contrast with the outpouring of world sympathy after the World Trade Center’s destruction. Given the French fry controversy, perhaps no one now remembers the headline of Le Monde, the leading French daily, on the day after the September 11 attacks: “We Are All Americans.”

American empire, a dirty secret after Vietnam, is now back in splendid vogue in Washington circles as U.S. world dominance is trumpeted by neoconservatives as necessary and beneficial. But what to ordinary Americans is a forgivable conviction in their nation’s goodness and decency, when cast in the form of official policy as “it’s my way or the highway,” strikes the rest of the world as unspeakable arrogance.

Given the evangelical quality of phrases like “crusade” and “Axis of Evil,” it has not escaped the notice of world observers that there is a religious and moralistic gloss to the new imperialism, that the President sketches the world in Manichean terms of good and evil.

Viewed from Ohio, it may seem benign to call America good, but viewed from Africa or Asia or Europe, the Bush impulse to cast himself and his country as the embodiment of perfection and others as evil seems simplistic, juvenile and dangerous–a mirror image of Islamist puritanism.

Just as the concept of jihad has been transformed from an ongoing internal struggle for morality into a holy war against infidels, so too do those who speak of evil as something inherent in other nations forget the injunction, “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

What we face is less a clash of civilizations than of barbarisms: the most retrograde and reactionary components of rival social formations feeding upon one another, with violence inviting retribution.

The primary factors driving American empire, of course, are economic, rather than religious, political, or ideological. Besides oil, another piece of the puzzle is what President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the World War II general, on leaving office warned of as a “military-industrial” complex–now full-fledged, with generals entering revolving doors and coming out as executives at Boeing, Lockheed, Honeywell, and Textron.

The United States now spends more than $1 billion per day on the military, more than the military budgets of the next fifteen powers combined. The new Iraq, like other U.S. client states (taking Saudi Arabia as a model) will undoubtedly be a major source of U.S. arms sales.

But military spending is ultimately connected to a wider web of economic interests. The United States maintains bases in more than one hundred countries worldwide, and this military globalism is intimately connected to economic globalization, that euphemism for the capitalism that has brought Coca Cola and Disney to every corner of the earth.

Americans need to open up a serious nationwide discussion about whether the neoconservative agenda of unilateralism, preemptive war, nuclear first strike, and imperial ambition is in the public interest. There are many reasons to think it is not.

First, there is a direct economic tradeoff between maintaining a worldwide military presence and other priorities such as schools, higher education, health care, and social programs. Since President Bush took office, the U.S. economy has lost two million jobs.

The year 2001 was the first since 1993 to have an increase in the number of Americans below the poverty line. The overall economic outlook is bleak. Even veterans’ programs are being cut.

Empire also has dire consequences for American democracy. To a historian it is ominous how the United States of today looks so much like Rome in its period of imperial declension, with an enormous consolidation of power in the executive, a prostrate and gutless Senate, generals as political seers, and a public preoccupied with bread and circuses, more excited by reality TV than informed about reality itself.

The wisdom of a go-it-alone attitude is also to be doubted. The administration’s replacement of negotiation with ultimata, its fostering of a shallow nationalism badgering all things French, seem but harbingers of diplomatic failures yet to come.

Want to stop terrorism? Try doing it without the cooperation of other governments and populaces to halt financial money laundering and detect and deter terrorist cells.

Want to stop weapons of mass destruction? It will be difficult when showing contempt for multilateral institutions and international law such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which this administration refuses to ratify), the Chemical Weapons Convention (which the United States has weakened with a clause allowing the U.S. President to refuse inspection), and Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (which the U.S. has stymied by preventing compliance).

It is time to start imagining a redirection of American foreign policy away from war as the first resort, away from empire, away from the bottom line of corporate profit, away from cultural arrogance–and toward genuine liberation.

What would this entail?

First, a reorientation of policy in the Middle East. The starting point must be ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the central issue for peace in the Middle East. Israeli policy, especially its hardline turn under Ariel Sharon (sure to be emboldened by the outcome in Iraq) is the number one Arab grievance, driving so much of fanatical Islamism and Arab terrorism.

Uncritical U.S. support for Israel, now totaling $4 billion annually in military and economic aid, is seen as rank hypocrisy by Arab and Muslim peoples. Israel of course possesses weapons of mass destruction, in particular an obvious, if unacknowledged, nuclear arsenal.

Israel has violated more than 60 UN resolutions–contrast that with 17 for Saddam’s Iraq–because of its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and the Golan Heights in Syria. Palestinian Arabs now face the worst conditions since occupation began in 1967. Severe military repression has resulted in twice the number of Palestinian dead in the past two years as Israeli fatalities, despite U.S. media concentration on Israeli casualties.

It’s time for an end to this U.S. double standard, time for evenhandedness, for an end to the settlements, an end to talk of “transfer,” and for securing of Palestinian statehood. These are issues of fundamental human rights.

Since Israel to some extent remains a taboo topic, it is important that I underscore that this is a political and moral question not determined by ethnic-religious identity. Some of most ardent American backers of hardline Israeli policies are not Jews but fundamentalist Christians, while at the same time, the Israeli left and many progressive American Jews desire an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, an end to settlements, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Second, we must redirect U.S. energy policy, decreasing dependence on oil in favor of wind, solar, and other alternatives. This is difficult, since all energy sources involve tradeoffs, but fossil fuels are the worst environmentally, and much could be done to encourage alternative fuel use.

In addition, we must strive and experiment to reduce consumption. This country, with four percent of the world’s people, consumes 26 percent of the world’s oil, 19.5 million barrels a day. To stop global warming and cut our oil dependence will require tougher emissions controls, against the auto industry’s current push for greater laxity.

Finally, we must build popular movements of international solidarity and democracy. Prior to the outset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an enormous antiwar movement the world over registered its moral claims. The scope of that movement is a strength that can still be drawn upon in the postwar period.

Democratic transformation of the Arab world, though it will be long in coming, is possible. Societies long controlled by strong repressive regimes can be overthrown. We have as historical examples the American Revolution and the French Revolution, as well as, more recently, the Eastern European “velvet revolutions,” the overthrow of South African apartheid, and “people power” in the Philippines.

All of these examples illustrate that genuine and lasting freedom comes from below, not conquest without. All the same, democratic transformation can be encouraged by political solidarity, material aid, intellectual and cultural exchange. Think of the way that the antinuclear left in the West aided dissidents in Communist states of the Eastern bloc, or The way anti-Apartheid activists in America helped organize on behalf of the Black liberation movement in South Africa.

Liberation is not dropped by smart bombs. It comes from smart organizing by ordinary citizens ready to live lives of moral courage in standing up to coercive conformity in the name of genuine common interest.

Islamist fundamentalism and the desperate resort to self-defeatist strategies of terror will not be halted militarily. They will be stopped by the creation of governments of genuine self-determination, with at least a modicum of social justice and hope, respectful of human rights.

International solidarity can help to foster those conditions, in part by calling on our own government to reverse its hypocritical military aid to repressive regimes in the Middle East and South Asia, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, so as to end patterns of oppression and exploitation that create grudges and resentments, fueling the hatred of our country so incomprehensible to Americans who are forced to ask, time and again, “Why do they hate us?”

That cycle is far from over. Iran, North Korea, Syria and other nations are now in the administration’s crosshairs, and given the rage and sorrow throughout the Muslim world brought about by the recent Iraq campaign, we are far from reaching closure.

My final comments are directed at the students here tonight. The events of the past two years are just the beginning of the defining experience of your generation.

Change begins with you. Live lives of learning and commitment.

Fight ignorance. Go beyond the superficial news of the moment. Remember that the proportion of American public that supported the war is about exactly equal to the proportion of the public unable to locate Iraq on a map. Draw the proper conclusion.

Work to educate yourself and others: read deeply and widely. Avoid warmongering masquerading as journalism. Friends don’t let friends watch Fox TV.

Stand for social justice, at home and abroad. Work to upend an economic order that has astronomically enriched the wealthy while working Americans tread water to avoid drowning. Work to reverse the gulf between the global North and the global South.

At the same time, hold no illusions that theocratic, retrograde, and reactionary forces that deny basic democratic, human, women’s, and civil rights will lift up the underdeveloped world.

Act on the principle that there is one race: the human race.

Draw the connection between a corporate-driven foreign policy and the domestic policies that starve programs for students and the poor, make it harder for trade unions to organize and easier for capital to flee across borders, and provide billions in tax cuts to the rich.

Resist any further encroachments on your civil liberties.

Do not permit slanderers to equate dissent with treason. Understand that improving your country may well require stopping its misdeeds; that love of the people does not require a mindless agreement with their every passion or the country’s present rulers.

Live freely. Think freely. And act: Speak out. Write letters to the editor. Form study circles and action groups on the Middle East. Exercise your Constitutional right to protest. Remember, freedom and liberation are won, not granted. Go out and win some.

Christopher Phelps is assistant professor of history at the Ohio State University, and has served on the editorial board of this magazine. This is the keynote address from a forum on the subject of “The War and Our World” held at the Ohio State University at Mansfield, 10 May 2003.

ATC 104, May-June 2003