The United States is in deep trouble. The President of the United States has taken an enormous gamble, and done it from a fundamentally weak position. He decided a year ago or so that the U.S. would make war on Iraq. He did this in order to demonstrate the overwhelming military superiority of the United States and to accomplish two primary objectives: 1) intimidate all potential nuclear proliferators into abandoning their projects; 2) squash all European ideas of an autonomous political role in the world-system.
Thus far, Bush has been magnificently unsuccessful. North Korea and Iran (and perhaps others as yet unobserved) have actually speeded up their proliferation projects. France and Germany have shown what it means to be autonomous. And the United States is not able to get any of the six Third World countries on the Security Council to vote a second resolution on Iraq. So, like a reckless gambler, Bush is about to go for broke. He will launch a war in a very short time, and bet that he can achieve an overwhelming and rapid victory. The bet is very simple. Bush believes that if the U.S. does achieve this kind of military result, both the proliferators and the Europeans will repent of their ways and accept U.S. decisions in the future.
There are two possible military outcomes: the one Bush wants (and expects), and a different one. How likely is it that Bush achieves the rapid capitulation of the Iraqis? The Pentagon says they have the weaponry and will do it rapidly. A long list of retired generals, both American and British, have voiced their skepticism. My guess (and for me that is all it is) is that the outcome of rapid, total victory is not very likely. I think that a combination of the desperate determination of the Iraqi leadership plus an upsurge of Iraqi nationalism plus the announced unwillingness of the Kurds to fight Saddam (not because they don’t hate him but because they distrust profoundly U.S. intentions with regard to them) will make it extremely difficult for the U.S. to end the war in a matter of weeks. It will probably take many months, and once it takes many months, who can predict where the winds will blow, first of all in British and then U.S. public opinion?
Nevertheless, suppose the U.S. wins quickly. I would say that, at that point, Bush comes out merely even – not a winner, but not a loser. Why do I say that? Because a victory will leave the geopolitical situation more or less where it is today. First of all, there is the question of what happens in Iraq the day after victory? The least one can say is that no one knows, and it is not at all clear that the U.S. itself has a clear vision of what it wants to do. What we do know is that the interests at play are multiple, diverse, and totally uncoordinated. That is a scenario for anarchic confusion. For the U.S. to play a significant role in the postwar decision-making will require a long-term commitment of troops and a lot of money (really a lot of money). Anyone who looks at the U.S. economic situation and the internal politics of the U.S. knows that the Bush administration would have a very hard job leaving troops there very long and an even harder job obtaining the money it would need to play the political game.
In addition, all the other problems facing the world would remain intact. First of all, there would be even less likelihood than now that there could be any progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state. The Israeli government would take a U.S. victory as vindication for its tough line, and simply make it tougher. The Arab world would get even angrier, if that’s possible. Iran certainly will not stop its drive for nuclear proliferation. Iran will probably, on the contrary, be feeling its oats in the region with Saddam Hussein out of the way. North Korea would step up its provocations, and South Korea would get even more uncomfortable with its U.S. ally and the latter’s penchant for military action. And France is likely to dig in for the long haul. So, as I say, a rapid U.S. military victory in Iraq would leave us with the geopolitical status quo – which is certainly not what the U.S. hawks intend.
But suppose the military victory is not rapid. What then? In that case, the whole operation is a geopolitical disaster for the U.S. Pandemonium will break out, and the U.S. will have as little influence on its future outcome as say Italy, which is to say not very much at all. Why do I say that? Think of what will happen, first of all in Iraq itself. Iraqi resistance will turn Saddam Hussein into a hero, and he will certainly know how to exploit that sentiment. The Iranians and the Turks will both send their troops into the Kurdish north, and probably end up fighting each other. The Kurds may side for the moment with the Iranians. If that happens, the Shiite groups in the south of Iraq will keep their distance from the U.S. military efforts. The Saudis may offer themselves as unwelcome mediators, and will probably be rejected by both sides.
Elsewhere in the region, the Hezbollah will probably attack the Israelis, who will riposte and probably try to occupy southern Lebanon. Will the Syrians then enter that war, to try to save the Hezbollah and, more generally, their role in Lebanon? Quite possible, but if so, the Israelis will bomb Damascus (maybe with nuclear weapons). Will the Egyptians then sit still? And oh yes, there is that fellow, Osama bin Laden, who will no doubt be doing the usual thing he likes to do.
And Europe? There will probably be a major revolt in the Labor Party in the U.K., which might end up with a split in the party. Blair might take his rump out and form a national emergency coalition with the Tories. He would still be Prime Minister, but there would be great pressure for new elections, and Blair would probably lose, and lose badly. And then there is the little matter of the warning Blair received from legal advisors that, if the British went into Iraq without U.N. explicit endorsement, he could be brought up on charges before the International Criminal Court. Aznar’s electoral prospects in Spain have become similarly doubtful, given extensive opposition within his own party to Spain‘s position. Berlusconi and the East/Central Europeans will start to get very cold feet.
Meanwhile, in Latin America, one will say goodbye to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or in Spanish ALCA). Instead, Lula will press for the reinvigoration of Mercosur as a trade and currency structure, and might even get Chile to come into it. Fox will be in deep trouble in Mexico. In Southeast Asia, the two largest Muslim nations (Indonesia and Malaysia), both of which presently have governments essentially friendly to the U.S., may try to emulate Europe in creating a zone of autonomous action. There will be great pressure on the Philippine government to send the U.S. military home. And China is likely to tell Japan that it had better loosen its political ties with the U.S. if it expects to continue to have an economic future in the region.
In early 2004, where will all this leave the Bush regime? It will leave it facing a rapidly growing antiwar movement in the United States, which might actually swing the Democratic Party into a real opposition to Bush’s global policies. Not easy, but quite possible. If so, the Democrats could probably win the elections.
If all this happens, Bush will indeed have achieved regime change – in Great Britain, Spain, and the United States. And the United States will no longer be regarded as an invincible military superpower. So, to resume, if Bush wins, he faces a geopolitical status quo, which is far less than he wants. And if he loses, he really loses. I would say the odds are not very promising. The historians will record that there was no need for the U.S. after September 11 to put itself in this impossible position.