BY the end of this week the world will have a better idea of how soon hostilities are likely to erupt on the Iraqi front. Hans Blix’s statement to the UN Security Council on Saturday is widely construed as crucial. Even the mildest hint of Iraqi procrastination amid a welter of evidence of Baghdad’s compliance with UN demands will probably suffice as a trigger for the US and Britain.
But what if the Swedish diplomat is not obliging enough to offer such a hint? Would that interfere with Anglo-American war plans? No. The Bush and Blair administrations have made it amply clear that their minds are already made up. And they are disinclined to put their brave soldiers through the inconvenience and discomfort of summertime turkey-shoots. They’d much rather make sure that most of the killing is done well before the Gulf gets too hot.
There are two reasons why they haven’t blundered in thus far, and neither of them has anything to do with the weapons inspections. The first is that the US and Britain would prefer their aggression to bear the UN stamp of approval. Secondly, they are concerned about the surge in pre-emptive popular protests against the war. George W. Bush probably recalls that Daddy was humiliated in 1992 by an upstart from Arkansas despite unprecedentedly high approval ratings (whereas Dubya’s have lately been spiralling downwards) during the first Gulf War. And Tony Blair knows that the Labour Party could subject him to the treatment that the Tories meted out to Margaret Thatcher once it became painfully obvious that she had “lost touch with reality”.
Both these reasons lay behind US secretary of state Colin Powell’s multimedia presentation to the Security Council a week ago. Powell has in recent weeks been thrust into the role of chief US spokesman on behalf of the war effort precisely because he was previously perceived as something of a dove in an unprecedentedly hawkish White House. It was presumed that his pronouncements would carry considerably more weight than any banalities uttered by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld or vice-president Dick Cheney, both of whom display greater psychopathic tendencies than any of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen.
Unfortunately for Powell, he comes across not as a dove driven to hawkishness but as a hawk who has cast off his erstwhile disguise. As such, his performance last Wednesday did not unduly impress any sceptics. There was at least one Straw that Powell did not have to clutch at – Jack, the British foreign secretary, was obsequiously eager to endorse every utterance of his American counterpart. But other permanent members of the Security Council proved to be a lot less gullible, and the BBC’s correspondent noted that Powell visibly squirmed in his seat when the Russian foreign minister noted that American allegations would have to be studied by experts in Moscow. China was at least equally non-committal, while the French foreign minister commented, sensibly, that a reasonable case had been made for tripling the number of inspectors in Iraq.
The council’s non-permanent members were almost united in their support for continued inspections. This was clearly not the reaction that the US had anticipated, and there have lately been indications that the “coalition of the willing” – the US, Britain and Australia, plus a swag of Nato membership aspirants in Eastern Europe – will revert to Plan A by claiming that another Security Resolution isn’t required as a pretext for war.
Given that a war is more or less inevitable, from the UN’s point of view it would be better for it to be waged without Security Council sanction. The US and Britain claim that failure by the UN to give its imprimatur to the hostilities would render the world body irrelevant. The truth is that the UN, which was set up to preserve peace rather than endorse aggression, would become the object of universal ridicule were it to go along with Anglo-American designs. It must be hoped that China, Russia and France will keep this in mind if a second resolution ever comes to a vote in the council.
The cumulative impact of Powell’s compendium of information and allegations old and new, most of them unsourced, was to betray the US administration’s degree of desperation. At best, he succeeded in reinforcing the impression that Saddam is not to be trusted. But we knew that already. If anything, it would be surprising if Iraqi apparatchiks were being completely forthright with the inspectors. It would be even more surprising were it to turn out that Baghdad is not concealing any stocks whatsoever of what are classified by the US as weapons of mass destruction. In order to make even a semi-successful case for war, it would be necessary to prove that Iraq poses an imminent threat to the US. That proved to be beyond Powell’s capacity.
Even US and British intelligence agencies have been appalled by the White House and Downing Street’s attempts to establish that some sort of a nexus exists between Iraq and Al Qaeda, on the basis of evidence so vague and circumstantial that even a biased jury would be inclined to dismiss it as wishful thinking. Neither the Abu Musab Al Zarqawi nor the Ansar Al Islam strand of investigation appears to have yielded anything particularly fruitful from the American point of view. And as far as the Ansar camp – which exists purportedly in an area where Saddam’s writ does not operate – is concerned, the question inevitably arises: If it is indeed a proxy Al Qaeda training site, why has the US made no effort to dismantle it?
It is highly unlikely that anything Powell said – or for that matter subsequent pronouncements by Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld and Straw – will cut any ice with the millions of people who intend to participate next weekend in mass anti-war rallies. Organisers in key Western cities expect the mobilizations to be the largest show of force thus far by peace campaigners. In contrast, it is worth noting that there have been no demonstrations in support of war.
“There’s never been a time that I can think of,” Noam Chomsky points out, “when there’s been such massive opposition to a war before it was even started.” It is equally significant that the anti-war coalitions in various countries straddle the ideological spectrum, ranging from from religious and conservative organizations to Trotskyites. It is probably true that many of the Islamic groups involved in the movement would have displayed scant interest in the proceedings had the intended target of aggression not been a Muslim nation. Nonetheless, their willingness to share a platform with atheists, Christians and Jews is a positive sign and could translate into a mind-broadening experience.
A few decades ago, it was customary in the West for anti-nuclear activists to be derided as “Moscow’s dupes”, and a parallel effort to dismiss anti-war protesters as Baghdad’s dupes has been under way for the past year or so. Unfortunately for the British and US governments, the propaganda has singularly failed to arrest the momentum for peace. After all, the vast majority of those opposed to a military strike against Iraq have no illusions about Saddam. They do not condone his tyranny, and most of them would have little objection to regime change in Baghdad. They are utterly unconvinced, however, that the use of massive force by the world’s sole superpower is the ideal means of achieving such an outcome.
They are motivated by the recognition that tens – perhaps even hundreds – of thousands of Iraqi civilians will perish in a military onslaught. They are aware that upward of a million deaths, more than half of them those of infants and children, have already been caused by 12 years of evidently meaningless sanctions. They do not wish another monumental crime against humanity weighing upon their consciences. What’s more, they are able to see through the falsehoods, hypocrisy and hubris emanating from Washington, London and Canberra. (In Australia the US ambassador has had the gall to interfere in the domestic political debate over the deployment of troops to the Gulf by advising the opposition Labour Party to desist from ridiculing Bush and condemning prime minister John Howard’s efforts to outdo Blair in kowtowing to Dubya and the demons that surround the US president. This approach won’t surprise Pakistanis, for we have grown accustomed over the decades to US envoys behaving like imperial proconsuls.)
Bush, Blair and Howard, all of them church-going Christians, must be disconcerted by the fact that, barring fanatics of Jerry Falwell’s ilk, virtually all factions of Christianity are united in their opposition to the coming war. But they are driven apparently by an irresistible urge to commit mass murder, believing that even God can’t stand in their way.
The war may have begun by the time Worldview returns after a two-week break, and the only hope one can cling to is that blinkered patriotism will not supplant the longing for peace in the Western popular imagination.
The clouds of war are invariably bereft of a silver lining, but it is at least possible that an unintended consequence of the Bush clique’s empire-building ambitions may ultimately be a gentler, kinder future – a world in which children will no longer ask “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” but will be rather more inclined to raise questions along the lines of: “What did you do for peace, Mummy?”