Coalition Pains

From the beginning, with the exception of the sizeable contingent of British troops, the “coalition” in Iraq has been nothing less than an international black joke, though no one in the mainstream American media seemed to think so. The Kazakhs (27), Estonians (46), Filipinos (96), Mongols (130), Azerbaijanis (150), Thais, (451), Spaniards (1,300), Poles (2,500), and Italians (2,950), among others, have added up to a strange imperial legion of occupation. Almost all of these forces, ranging from the symbolic to the microscopic, represented interests that had absolutely nothing to do with Iraq itself or even a commitment to any sort of new Middle East. Some of these forces were there based solely on imperial arm-twisting and bribery; some on the urge of lesser leaders of “lesser” states to please the American hyperpower, and some, of course, on pathetic hopes that, as moneys flooded back to the imperial yachts of Halliburton, Bechtel, and their ilk, in the distinctly trickle-down economy of Iraqi reconstruction (and future oil contracts), a few rowboats might be lifted off the sandbars as well.


Perhaps the most distinctive thing about this “coalition,” other than the casualties it has taken, is the fact that in almost none of its countries –- if you were to believe the various prewar polls -– did anything close to a majority of citizens back the American war and occupation. Remember those millions who took to the streets in the prewar moment? Among them none were more vehement or more unified than the Spanish. Polls showed up to 91% of them to be against the war. Think about that for a moment. Nine percent of Spaniards supported the war (and perhaps that figure even included the “don’t knows”).


This week, under the most horrific possible circumstances, the Spanish people voted to repudiate their government’s support for the war and occupation. In the days before the vote that threw out the conservative government of Prime Minister and close Bush ally Jose Maria Aznar, protestors reportedly cried out, “Our dead, your war!” and that simplest of all words, one that should someday be heard in the streets of American cities as well, “Lies!” (Sunday Herald [Glasgow], 3/14/04)


To some extent, this is now, being presented here as the first al Qaeda regime change. But to back up a moment and consider what’s just happened realistically, the first “regime change” in Spain was, of course, the decision of Aznar’s democratically elected government to defy and betray, rather than represent the will of 90% of its own people –- and then, in a moment of crisis, to lie to them about the worst terrorist act to strike Europe in our lifetime.


This is undoubtedly a crucial moment, possibly even a “tipping point.” The peoples of the world returned to their homes last April by the multimillions without stopping the Iraqi war, and so their massive demonstrations were seen as failures, but at least in one country it turned out that the demonstrators did not, in fact, demobilize. When their moment came, they acted consistently and with honor. Don’t believe for a second that it can’t happen elsewhere. (Even in Texas, the polling figures are slowly changing and, according to the latest Scripps Howard Texas Poll [Fort Worth Star Telegram, 3/14/04] almost 60% of those questioned “registered disapproval with the way things are going” in Iraq.)


Spain‘s act is bound to shake other European nations –- Berlusconi’s Italy (he, too, betrayed his peoples’ wishes on the war), as did Blair in England, as, by a whisker, did the Polish government. Spain’s vote has even shaken our own administration, confronted as they are by a people who refused at the polls to accept the lies and manipulations of their own government at a moment when they could easily have voted -– and were expected to vote — in an opposite way. (It seems that, even in this situation, the Bush administration couldn’t be bothered to tell the truth. According to the reliable Neil MacKay of the Glasgow Sunday Herald (3/14/04), “American intelligence agencies believed all along that al-Qaeda was behind the Madrid bombings but deferred to the Spanish government’s claims that ETA was responsible, pending the general election.”) As William Rivers Pitt wrote at the Alternet website:


“Two days. That was all it took for the people of Spain to become impatient, to pressure their government for the truth. When they did not get it, they threw that government out on its ear. For America, a nation approaching the 1,000th day in which their government has not provided the truth of September 11th, this is a lesson to be taken deeply to heart.”


It should also shake certain governments far from Europe -– South Korea’s certainly and Japan’s, both of which are sending troops Iraq-wards for reasons totally unconnected to the Middle East and against the popular will. Remarkably little attention has been paid to the process by which the Iraqi “coalition” was formed and continues to be fed. The Australian scholar Gavan McCormack has offered a vivid, rare, and exceedingly valuable description of the factors, global and local, that played a role in the Japanese government’s Iraq decision (available on ZNet). In the process, he has also delved into the tight but shaky U.S.-Japanese alliance in which, increasingly, our government wants the Japanese to become (in the fabulous tradition of Tony Blair’s England) “the Great Britain of the Far East”; and especially into the crucial role the Japanese now play in shoring up our overstretched empire’s increasingly shaky finances.


By the way, just the other day I wrote a speculative essay about a Bush second term in office. If such a second term were to become a reality I think we could expect that one great foreign policy crisis of those four years would be what the administration would do with the regime of Kim Jong Il, the “dear leader” of that benighted nation, and with his nuclear program. We should all brush up on the crisis-to-come in the Koreas -– its resolution, bloody or peaceful, will affect the structure of the new Asia and so of our world for decades to come (even if Senator Kerry wins the White House). There is no better place to start than with Gavan McCormack’s new book Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe. It’s not only short -– always an advantage when keeping track of the world these days -– but deeply sane and thoughtful. It’s everything you need to know, clear and yet complex, including the historical background, in less than 250 pages. Don’t miss it.


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]


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